Alan Hovhaness interviewed by
Charles Amirkhanian, October 1975

First broadcast on 28 January 1976 as “The World of Alan Hovhaness", this interview (together with musical examples) was a program in the Ode to Gravity series presented by KPFA Radio, Berkeley, California, of which Charles Armirkhanian was Music Director 1969–1992.

The 51-minute broadcast, complete with musical extracts, can be heard at Other Minds' web radio station RadiOM

Charles Amirkhanian
(photo by Esther Kutnick)

Charles Amirkhanian

Audio kindly transcribed for by David Badagnani

Introduction: One of the most strikingly original American composers of the 20th century, Alan Hovhaness was born in Somerville, Massachusetts on March 8, 1911. His father was Armenian, his mother Scottish, but his childhood upbringing was typically American. Taking an early interest in music, he first composed conservatively in Classical style, then pursued the aesthetic of Sibelius's post-Romanticism. But it was not until October 1943 that Alan Hovhaness returned to his Armenian heritage to begin forging his own personal musical language, which took inspiration from Middle Eastern, Oriental, and Indian music, and combined them with European classical structures and procedures.

As you will hear in this interview, Hovhaness is a thoughtful, charming, and deeply empathetic man. If you are delighted by his music, I think you will be just as delighted by his way of talking about it.

Recording in background of Hovhaness’s 'Mihr'

One of my earliest musical memories was, at the age of six, receiving an album of 78 rpm records from my father, who thought he was giving me some Armenian folk music, when in fact it was the album of music by Alan Hovhaness and John Cage, which was one of the early disc records, I believe. And it made a great impression on me – a terrific impression – because, from that time on, I assumed that what was on that album – that is, the music of Cage for prepared piano, and the music of Alan Hovhaness, incorporating Eastern rhythmic procedures, and gongs, with piano, and so forth, were absolutely normal. And to this day I've been very excited about meeting you, Alan Hovhaness, and I'm terrifically excited that we're getting together.

Well, thank you. I'm interested that you knew that record. That was the very first record that was ever put out of my music. I played the two-piano piece Mihr on that, which right now I'm trying to find out from the publisher where it exists, and so on, because it went out of print, and other publishers want it. So... they won't tell me, but I'm going to try to get it out again.

Also on that record was two marvelous excerpts from the Invocations to Vahakan? And I wondered about those pieces, how it was that you came about deriving a music that sounded Oriental, but was Western, really, in its basis. Maybe you could talk about your early experiments, and what things failed, and what things worked for you?

Well, I was talking to an artist friend of mine; painters were most interested in Oriental music, and in my music, too, in the old days in Boston, back in the early '40s. And they used to come to my studio every night, and I'd play them various things. And I said "I can't write for piano anything very exciting, as far as I'm concerned; I'm a natural orchestral composer, but..." And he said, "Well, why don't you think about the kanoon?", the Armenian/Turkish kanoon, which is like a zither, and you play directly on the strings – like the inside of a piano, in other words. Which was a splendid idea; I did ... and then I started improvising in kanoon style. And these Invocations to Vahaken were improvisations ... with percussion instruments, which I just composed the piano part and used to play that by itself, in a single line...melodic lines with lots of ornamentation, in the kanoon style. And then, I added percussion lines which would be against that, rhythmically, to make a kind of rhythm counterpoint. So it's a kind of Oriental style music. But ... really monophonic music. And so, we did a couple of those on that first record. John Cage played the percussion then, and I played the piano part.

Recording: extract from Hovhaness's 'Invocations to Vahaken' (piano and percussion)

That particular set of pieces of yours is tremendously exciting. And it comes from almost the earliest days of the pieces that you still publish. And I wonder...have you done chamber pieces somewhat akin to those pieces? Or was that a passing phase in your work?

No, I continued this, and, as a matter of fact, also the piano concerto Lousadzak for piano and strings uses the piano in a similar style: no chords anywhere in it, and always single notes, repeated notes and ornamentations, and that sort of thing. But I also have pieces for percussion, such as Nagooran, which was originally written for Indian instruments when I was in South India, and then I transcribed it for cello and percussion instruments – Western percussion instruments – later, because nobody could play those Indian instruments. I [also] like writing directly for Eastern instruments, and I play some of them myself, and made tapes of some of them. But actually it's hard to do these things here. But I've kept the style, I've kept all my different experiments and styles going, and I try to improve them from time to time.

In Nagooran, what were the Indian instruments that you used, and where was it first performed?

This was performed in All India Radio Madras back in, I think it was the beginning of February 1960 when I was there. I gave several concerts there, and that's when I was invited to do something like this. I used several vinas – South Indian vinas, some tamburas for the drones, various percussion instruments, and a sort of South Indian harp; I don't remember whether I had any sitar in that; I don't think so; that's North Indian. But I had also a wind instrument which was very funny when we played it. I was introducing free rhythm, which was also new to them, and they were very excited about it in one spot. And then, at the climax of the free rhythm – this is to depict a storm – in comes this, it's sort of like a nagaswaram, which is a very powerful-sounding instrument in South India. But it isn't that; it was another kind of oboe-like instrument which he had to put together, and he didn't get it put together in time, so we all broke down laughing. [Chuckles.] And then we finally did it again, and everything worked out fine.

I'd like to ask you about growing up in Massachusetts, and what kind of family life you had, and something about how you got interested in music in the first place.

Well, music started very early with me; I made one attempt when I was four years old to compose. All I had in the house was a little harmonium organ, which my mother had picked up somehow. And it was a very puritanical family life, and very dull. In fact, I didn't think much of music, because all I heard was Baptist hymns. Somehow I found it very boring, but then my father came in one time and said there was a blind musician, his name was Beethoven. And my mother said, no, he wasn't blind; he was deaf. So they had a fight about it, and so...I said, "Well, what did he do?" And they said, "He wrote music." So I started writing music. But it didn't work, somehow, and so I thought, "Oh, well, that's no good." And then I didn't do anything more until I was about seven. Then I started again. And that time suddenly I realized that I really found myself composing all the time. And I was very bad in schoolwork, but I had to hide my composing, because my family wanted me to be good in mathematics, and in other things, which I was very poor in.

Well, let me ask you about some of your early pieces. What were they like?

Well, there was an opera we did in junior high school; that was called Daniel, it was Daniel in the lion's den, based on that. And then, later, sort of Oriental subjects, since Daniel in the Lion's Den was quite Oriental. Then I had a kind of a Mozart period – a neo-Mozart period, you might say. And that was represented by an opera where the librettist, who was also in the school, made a libretto thinking I'd write an Oriental opera, called Lotus Blossom, and it turned out to be a Mozart opera, in a sort of neo-Mozart style. So we performed that in high school. I can't remember much else; I was composing many things, but those were the two major productions we did.

Now an early interest of yours, as I understand it, was the music of Sibelius.

Yes, I always loved Sibelius, and I know that this came up recently, because there've been some misstatements about it that I threw away my early work because it was like Sibelius. I don't think any of it was like Sibelius, or if it was, then all my music is like Sibelius in this sense: that the Armenians feel that Sibelius sounds very Armenian. And they used to...especially certain of the symphonies of Sibelius sounded Armenian; they sound somewhat Oriental. And En Saga and Swan of Tuonela, for instance. Swan of Tuonela could be played on the hichiriki – it would make an excellent gagaku piece – and I studied and played gagaku in Japan. So I think he was probably a reincarnation of an Oriental musician who was...sort of on the outside of Europe,... and had some European influences in [a] classical way. But...I've always loved his music very much: Tapiola and the Fourth Symphony; the Third Symphony... I've always admired him. So I'm either always like Sibelius or not like him at all. I don't think I'm really like him, but perhaps we have this in common, that there's an Oriental feeling in Sibelius's music.

I understand you went to visit him once. When was that?

That was about 1934, and we corresponded ever since then. And I was going to say that they said I'd thrown my early music away because it was supposed to be like Sibelius. I threw it away because it wasn't very good ... or I wasn't satisfied with it, and I also lived in such small places I didn't have any place to put it. Actually the whole hallway where you went upstairs [and] where everybody could come, was filled with manuscripts. So ... I gradually threw them away or cleaned them out. And I'm sorry I threw some of them away. I threw away the whole neo-Mozart period, which I would've liked to have kept, because there were some nice violin sonatas, and a sonata for two violins and piano, and all kinds of works of that sort. And I was planning, later, if I could find them, to put them out under another name, which could've worked very nicely … somebody “da Luzerna”, or something of that sort. [Laughter.]

What year was this that you were throwing away your music? What period did you stop doing that?

Well, I started in various periods. The first thing was, I was staying in a place where there was a tremendous fireplace, so I burned an enormous amount of early music back in … 1934, I think it was about that time. And then, around 1940, and forty...especially around '43 and '44 – around that time I threw away a great deal. And then I threw away the rest of it when I was in Switzerland in 1960, I threw away an awful lot there. I just couldn't carry around all these things. And I had a lot of things there in an attic in a blacksmith's shop – a former blacksmith's shop, that was made over into a little place that I could live and have a piano. And in the attic was all this old music of mine, and so two cats used to fight over that attic – whichever one it belonged to – and finally I decided to give them a little more room and clean out the old music. [Chuckles.]

Speaking of blacksmiths, I understand that your last name was originally Chakmakjian, which would be a gun-maker or flintsmith. Why did you change your name, and when did you do it?

About 1931 or '32 I think I changed it, because, in the first place, I didn't like the meaning of the word; it's a nice sounding name; I'm sorry I did change it, in a way, because Hovhaness is an Armenian name, but most people don't realize it's Armenian. I just took my first and middle name, and left out the last one. But in a way I regret that I did, because, as I say, it was a Turkish title, of course, for some great-great grandfather of mine who was very skillful at making guns and doing special designs on them, making works of art of them. But I've always hated anything to do with the military, and so somehow that name always bothered me.

Hmm. That's very interesting. Could you talk a bit about the symphony that's being performed by the San Josι Symphony this week of October 1975. This is the Symphony No. 26.

Well, this symphony would be more or less in the style, perhaps, of certain early symphonies which I did throw away... but the style which is best known probably in Mysterious Mountain, which is played so much. This is a very accessible style, with long, flowing melodies, and it has one fugue in the second movement. It's sort of an ecstatic love symphony, actually; I couldn't really talk much about it until I've been rehearsing it, and then I've gotten into what it's all about, perhaps, or you might say I can interpret it in words a little bit better than I could when I wrote the first program notes, because the symphony has everything in it somehow, and it's very hard when I first write – I think in musical terms, and not anything else. Actually, all the titles I put on are put on afterwards – after the piece is finished. I never can write a piece to a title.

So I would say it's a love symphony from tragedy to perhaps highest ecstasy... of a love which might be also a cosmic love ... not just personal; from the personal to the cosmic.

Could you talk about your philosophy and how it relates to your music, because I notice a lot of your titles have relationships to nature, to philosophical thought of other cultures.

Well, nature is my great inspiration; I feel nature is, one might say, the outer clothing of God, if one can call the force of nature "God." And I always regretted so much when they began cutting down trees in a place where I lived when I was very little. We moved outside of Somerville in Boston out to Arlington, and there were a whole lot of beautiful pine trees right in the back of the house where my parents lived, and they began cutting them down ruthlessly, and just leaving them there. And this impression of cities taking over the beauty of nature and destroying it, was very strong, and has always been. I used to spend all my time climbing trees, and in the forest, or climbing mountains whenever I could get near mountains. And that, to me, was the most important thing.

Later I found an echo of my feelings so much in Oriental philosophy. And with my painter friends, who were also interested in that, we used to read the Tibetan Book of the Dead, and many of the Indian philosophical sutras, and so on, the early Sanskrit works which were translated. These things were very satisfying to me. And I guess I found many things in the Armenian Church – the old Armenian Church, when I began to attend and play for the Armenian Church – I found many things there that related to Eastern religions, even more than just the usual interpretation of Christianity. So that I found that was very satisfying to me. There were many beautiful things that happened in the Armenian mass, which are a kind of ancient theater, with symbolic meanings – metaphysical meanings.

Recording is played of Hovhaness's 'Anahid'

"That was Anahid: fantasy for flute, english horn, trumpet, timpani, cymbals, chimes, and string orchestra. Carlos Surinach conducted the MGM Chamber Orchestra on an out-of-print MGM record."

You've written in just about every medium that I can imagine – as Western European instrumental medium. And I wonder if there are other media that you would like to try that you haven't yet accomplished.

Yes, I would like to actually even invent some instruments. But I've never had time to do that, or the opportunity. I need somebody who knows things I don't know ... about science, to do so. But I'd like to invent instruments that could play microtones ... and make them sound real, not just as little accidental things in between other notes. This, to me, would be the only... I did this with electronic music back in the Fifties. But I don't like the sound of it; it sounds like a glorified Hammond organ. Of course, naturally some people have a lot of money to put into this, and I think John Cage was given a thousand dollars for a minute of music. But that is, you know, to... that he could spend that on...with electronic instruments. But that's an awful lot of money, and I find myself not liking the sound of electronic things. I don't like the kind of thing that can kill people if you turn it up too loud. I don't like dangerous weapons of any kind.

Did you actually do some electronic music yourself?

Yes, I did a little with electric generators. And that didn't cost me anything. And just had it recorded. Sort of improvised using microtones, and so on. But I'd like something where I could just make it in the ordinary way, like an ordinary instrument, but be able to get different divisions of sound – like [Juliαn] Carrillo did in Mexico. I think he's a remarkable musician, although I only know one piece of his. But he interests me very much.

Where is your music available? I know that Peters Edition publishes much of it. But currently, what is going on with your music?

Well, currently... I was with Peters for many years, but now I write too much music for any one publisher. I've gone back partly to AMP – that's Associated Music Publishers. Also to Peer International: Ronald Freed has been such an encouragement, and he's published my 25th Symphony – Odysseus Symphony, and my Cello Sonata, for cello and piano. Also, he's going to publish several other works. And Alexander Broude, Mr. Tarpinian who's there at Alexander Broude, I'm giving him quite a few works, too. So these new publishers, for me, some of them old, because I had Southern Music a long time ago--Peer-Southern. But then ... now I'm going back to them, and there'll be other publishers; I'm not sure now just exactly...there are some other publishers for smaller works. But these are the ones I'm giving my main works to now.

I've always thought it a shame that many of the MGM records that featured your music have gone out of print. I wondered if you could talk a bit about Ed Cole, who worked with them, and apparently was quite a genius.

Yes, Ed Cole did so much for not only my music, but many other composers. I think that the when he was working for MGM was one of the most productive times of bringing out my music. He did so many things; he'd keep getting new ideas, and recording new pieces of mine, and pieces which had been neglected. I owe a great deal to Ed Cole. He was one of the greatest helpers. And I think that much of my...the fact that my music was known was due to him.

What's become of him?

I don't know, now. I believe he's connected with some place near Chicago; there's a place where they do a lot of contemporary music, I know that it's just outside of Chicago. Is it... Urbana? I think that he was working with them last I heard. I hope he's well, and able to do things, because he had the most wonderful way of bringing out composers, and really sponsoring them with his recording, these recordings that did more for us than anything else.

There really isn't a commercial company that does that, does the equivalent of what MGM was doing then, for us now. And fortunately Poseidon Society has issued many of your compositions on their records. And I wondered if you could talk a bit about your experiences conducting the Royal Philharmonic in some of your works. That must be very exciting.

It is very exciting. Of course, we have to do that on a very small budget, and I can't afford to waste one minute when I'm doing it, it's dangerous – very dangerous – and sometimes things go wrong, such as a subway strike or something, and my main, my concertmeister can't get there, and things like that; all kinds of disasters. But somehow we've come through. We just start recording immediately. They have to sight read. And so, perhaps we go through a little bit of it, but then the engineer starts recording, so that we'll get something that we can use, perhaps, in case of necessity.

Actually, I've managed to get through without much trouble. That's the only thing I'm good for as a conductor. I'm not good for refined things; I can't do things beautifully. I'm very good at cues, sometimes, if I'm...on the beam, and I'm good at helping people sight read things, and give a good performance that just gives an idea of the music, and is exciting. But I've been trained because of this terrible problem, financially – financial limitations – so that actually we have to do it on the smallest possible budget.

Well, Poseidon Society records are available at most local record stores, and I suggest that you look into them, because they are magnificent recordings of Hovhaness's music.

Mr. Hovhaness, could you talk about any forthcoming recordings that are in the works?

One that Crystal Records has made, and should come out soon, that will include Armenian Rhapsody No. 1, Avak the Healer, Tzaikerk, which means "evening song," it can be roughly translated as that; it's actually "evening going into night," and I think that's one of the best of my early pieces, for the Armenian ... special Armenian period piece, of 1945. And they did the most beautiful performance of it. And also Prayer of St. Gregory. Ernest Gold is the conductor; and he did a wonderful job, and I feel this will be one of my best records.

Another one is coming out. I believe there's one on Heritage that includes Hercules, a very good performance; I think it's Heritage. And another one which will come out with Firdausi. Firdausi is a special work which is played by Larry Sobol and the Long Island Chamber Ensemble. And that work is also being published by Alexander Broude.

What's the scoring?

And the scoring is actually clarinet – it's around the clarinet – and harp, and various percussion instruments. Actually it's related to a film I did, for the Metropolitan Museum in New York, on Persian miniatures – the Persian miniature paintings. And telling the history, the story of creation as told by Firdausi. So I call this Firdausi, the poet – the Persian poet.

Is this related to the new Islamic collection that's there?

I think it is. Well, this particular ... it was a particular book, I believe, called Shah-Nameh, or the King's Book of Kings, which they have a copy of, and fact, they have the original, actually, I guess. It's one of their prized things. And so they made a film of it. And it was shown several times every day, I think. It was about a half-hour film, and every hour they would show it over again. For about seven or eight months it was going there, in the south wing of the New York Metropolitan Museum. And so I took some of the things from that and made the Firdausi piece out of it – what I could do with one clarinet and this ensemble.

Well, I don't know if you're taking suggestions for recordings, but I would certainly like to see a recording of the Symphony No. 3, and maybe the string quartets – or at least some of them. There are four, as I understand it, and none of these have been recorded. And also the music for non-Western instruments would make a wonderful record, and I certainly hope that something will be forthcoming.

Thank you very much. Most of the non-Western instruments were played by myself, and I'll have to practice them again if I'm going to make a new record of them. I recorded them when I was still at the height of my ability to play those instruments. And so that's a sort of problem. If I can find some people who can play them in the Orient then we could do it that way. The Third Symphony I'd love to do; this again is the full orchestra, and is a big expense. So, we're dependent there on financial backing for that.

Wasn't that one that Stokowski premiered?

Yes. I wrote that for Stokowski in 1956. And I'm very fond of that symphony; it's a real Classical symphony – it's in sonata form.

I'd like to thank you for visiting with us.

Well, thank you very much; it's been a most interesting conversation, and I enjoyed it.

Our guest has been American composer Alan Hovhaness, whose music is available on Poseidon Society Records, and is published widely, and who has been in the Bay Area for the world premiere of his Symphony No. 26, with the San Josι Symphony Orchestra, given in October of 1975.

This is Charles Amirkhanian, your host and producer of our program, "The World of Alan Hovhaness," from Pacifica Radio in Berkeley, KPFA.

Recording: End of Hovhaness's 'Khaldis'.

Transcribed from the audio by DAVID BADAGNANI

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