Alan Hovhaness at the
Cabrillo Festival, 28th August 1981
with Charles Amirkhanian and Dennis Russell Davies

Following Hovhaness' death in 2000, this interview with introduction was published as Archaic and Avant-garde: A Tribute to Alan Hovhaness, in the Spring 2001 edition of MindReader the quarterly newsletter of Other Minds

Charles Amirkhanian
(photo by Esther Kutnick)

Charles Amirkhanian

Alan Hovhaness wrote music that was both unusual and communicative—one of our working definitions of an “other mind.” In his work, the archaic and the avant-garde are merged, always with melody as the primary focus. His farflung borowings of medieval melody, baroque harmonizations, traditional Armenian liturgical monody and modes, the musics of Asia, and his flare for unconventional but richly inspiring instrumental combinations, have given enormous pleasure to generations of concert-goers. By the mid-forties, he was one of the first Western composers to return to a kind of deliberate tonality that was later embraced by the Minimalists. Virgil Thomson described his work in 1947: “Each piece is like a long roll of hand-made wall paper. Its motionless quality is a little hypnotic. There is a resemblance here to the early ceremonial pieces of Erik Satie…Its expressive function is predominantly religious, ceremonial, incantatory, its spiritual content of the purest.” When he died in Seattle on June 21, 2000, at the age of 89, his catalogue of works exceeded 500, including over 60 symphonies. His survivors include his wife, soprano Hinako Fujihara, and his daughter Jean Nandi, of Berkeley.

On what would have been his 90th birthday, March 8, 2001, the Other Minds Festival will feature a memorial tribute to Alan Hovhaness. One of his most dazzling chamber works, the Khaldis Concerto, for Piano, Four Trumpets, and Percussion (1951), will be performed by the brilliant Canadian soloist Eve Egoyan (whose brother happens to be filmmaker Atom Egoyan) and the Other Minds Ensemble conducted by Canadian composer Linda Bouchard, now a resident of San Francisco and herself a past composer guest at Other Minds Festival 5 in 1999.

In 1981, Mr. Hovhaness was a featured resident composer at the Cabrillo Music Festival in Aptos, California. On August 28th of that year, he appeared onstage in a panel discussion I moderated along with Dennis Russell Davies, the Festival’s music director at that time. The interview was transcribed by Jennifer Lay Shyu which I then edited for this edition of MindReader. — Charles Amirkhanian

CA: Mr. Hovhaness, you have said that the function and the purpose of your music is quite different from that of other composers. In addition to the fact that your music has an origin in some deeply felt spiritual beliefs, you have said that in regard to science, especially, that society is going in a dangerous direction. Could you talk to us about these matters?

Well, this is difficult because of course I don’t directly write with any known purpose to me; I write because I have to write; because ideas persecute me if I don’t write and I have ideas every day of my life. So I have notebooks of thousands of pages of material, and I know I write too much for most people, especially for publishers. I sympathize with them.

But I’ll print some music of my own as I get a little money and help out because I really don’t care; I’m very happy when a thing is performed and performed well. And I don’t know, I live very simply; I have certain very strong feelings which I think many people have about what we’re doing and what we’re doing wrong.

I’m very much against atomic energy in any form because I think we’re poisoning the world and a composer naturally has a selfish interest in his future; if he likes his work, he feels that if people don’t like it now, they will later. But if there are no people, then what’s he writing for? And so I’m very much against some of the scientific things. I’m all for space travel, for space exploration and that sort of thing, but I’m very much against our wasting things. I was just thinking when we were in Lou Harrison’s house, “This is important to me, what they’ve done with solar energy is amazing.” And I was just thinking of all of the deserts. If we converted this into electricity, we’d have energy to do everything we need, and we wouldn’t be borrowing from the earth.

It’s hard to talk about music because music is something that’s personal and it’s religious. John Cage and I were friends at the beginning. He came all the way to Boston when I gave a concert there. He was at my first concert in New York, he and Lou Harrison.We made good friends then because they both came backstage, or rather Lou Harrison didn’t come backstage because he was a critic and he gave me the best—the first good criticism I’d ever had. I have always kept it. It was beautifully written and a great encouragement.

So I met him the next day, but John Cage came back stage, so we worked together with dancers and things like that in New York and we knew each other. But later, some things that John Cage said that he felt may have meant something to him then—that music should not communicate—I feel that music could and must communicate. I feel just that, as much as I respect John Cage for his originality and for many of his works. Actually, I invented much of the so-called aleatory technique which John Cage took up after he heard my music in New York and saw it, and I did that in 1944. [Hovhaness composed textures in which instrumentalists played specified notes in random fast patterns, with each instrumentalist out of phase with the other. –C.A.]

I think that one trouble is that perhaps we’ve tried to imitate science so much that we’ve tried to only communicate with some professional colleagues—some other composers that feel the same—and I don’t write for composers, I write for people everywhere. And that’s perhaps the difference between some contemporary composers and myself.

CA: What about the time that we’re living in now? Are you particularly concerned that your music is developing some new areas at all or do you see it as being in a sort of a timeless state. I mean, do you want it to be appreciated as much 200 years from now?

I feel that I think in terms of thousands of years rather than five and 10 years and that sort of thing. I’m interested in modern music of the last thousand years. And if I can find more, go back a little further, for instance, yes I do go back further—Gagaku, which is one of the finest orchestral musics in the world, better than many of our European ancestors, was perfect before 600.

CA: Was that the first orchestral music?

No, I believe Egyptians had great music which Plato praised very highly, and we don’t know a thing about it. There’ve been some fake attempts, but obviously, we don’t know a thing about it. Because we can’t read it. We’ve lost the language. And actually, that’s one of the problems in the world. Of course, civilizations don’t last very long, and as Francis Bacon said, “Perhaps there were much greater civiliza-tions before Greece and even before Egypt.” And perhaps there was much greater music before then—we don’t know. But we should keep an open mind and try to discover, and I’m very much interested in music of the Orient because music of the Orient was misunderstood and nobody paid much attention to it.

When I started, I know they thought I was crazy, so I didn’t associate with musicians. I found painters who were much more open-minded. So I used to play for painters almost every night in my little room . . . But I remember one of the big criticisms of [an] intellectual friend was— he was not intellectual in the snobbish way that some people are—he said, “This is city music. I don’t like city music.” So I tried to create—at least always to keep in mind—a universal language and I like to write what I like anyway, and I’m very happy if somebody else likes it, but I don’t mind if anybody doesn’t like it, and I don’t have any respect for critics.

Dennis Russell Davies: I have a question. What music do you like to listen to?

Gagaku, ancient Armenian music, troubadour music, I like the music of, well let’s see, for our European composers, I love Handel very much, Mozart, Schubert, and Sibelius and many others, of course. I’m not snobbish; I have bad taste in many respects. I like what I like, and in spite of the fact that everybody complains about people who say, “I like what I like,” I like people to say that. If my cat likes something, I’m very honored. And I think that a cat’s opinion is often times better than a person’s. I don’t have a cat at the moment, but I’ve had some very good ones.

CA: I think you told me once that Stokowski, when he asked for Mysterious Mountain, wanted an opus number attached to it, and you just subjectively picked one out of the air. Is that true?

Well actually, he picked it out of the air, of course, this was—he was wonderful to me anyway, I remember he, out of the blue, he suddenly did my Exile Symphony and nobody knew my music then. Stokowski was the first conductor to do my music in this country seriously. I didn’t meet him then —I didn’t meet him for 10 years afterwards. But when I did meet him, he invited me immediately . . . of course, he called me up many times and talked to me about various things he wanted me to write and he said, “Does it have an opus number? People like opus numbers. You know how dumb they are.” So I said, “No, it doesn’t have an opus number. I haven’t catalogued my work.” “Well how would 132”—or something like that, I think—”how would that be, do you think that gives you enough room for the things you’ve written?” And I said, “Sure, that’s okay. I’ll start making a catalogue.” And he said, “I like your titles, give it a title.” And so I gave it the title, Mysterious Mountain. Which I felt was mysterious enough.

DRD: Was that after the piece was . . .

. . . after it was finished. I always give titles after they’re finished anyway.

DRD: Good idea.

CA: So the titles are not especially related to your process in writing the music.

Not at all, no, the music may suggest something to me, but if it can suggest something to somebody else which is quite different, then I’m very happy if it does.

DRD: The only problem is that after you give the title, then you tend to lead people to go in the direction that . . .

That’s a difficulty, I know. Many of my symphonies, I just call symphony "Number 43" or "Number 49" or something like that. The thing is, that that bores some people, and I know that publishers complain about it. But I just don’t have that many titles; I have much more music than I have titles.

CA: Now when I talked with you in 1975, you had written your 26th symphony for the San Jose Symphony, and you said that that would be your last symphony. What happened?

I don’t know what happened, but something – I got crazy, and I’ve been writing symphonies every year, and I’ve had some commissions too. Well, I’ve needed them. We have to add to the house, we have so much music, no place to put it, so I finished my 48th symphony for a commission, which is very nice, and that will be played in June in Miami, Florida, and I think they call it the New World Festival. So I’ve given that a title because I was thinking of the tremendous galaxy Andromeda which is bigger than our galaxy and so beautiful and has some galaxies around it that rotate around it. And, so I call it something about Andromeda ... I think Vision of Andromeda, and it has some ... it could suggest that, possibly seeing it from a tremendous distance because I use the percussion in Oriental manners, lot of bell sounds and star-like sounds.

CA: What was the early evolution of your wanting to compose?

It’s hard for me to remember. I threw away so much that I can’t really recall too much about, I started composing without any help from anybody because I had ideas going through my head and I thought everybody did, but then when I was 7 years old, I heard a classical piece of music for the first time in school, and I thought, “That’s written by Schubert apparently”, and so I started writing down my ideas. I never can understand when people tell me they don’t know how to write music. It’s much easier than writing a letter as far as I’m concerned. And I don’t see any difficulty. If you love music, you can write it. If you can read it, you can write it.

DRD: Virgil Thomson says that composing should be like writing a letter.

Yeah, well, it is, but I enjoy composing more.

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