Alan Hovhaness
interviewed by Jackie Abramian

In 1987, journalist and PR consultant Jackie Abramian interviewed the composer in Cambridge, Massachusetts for her book Conversations with Contemporary Armenian Artists, published by Amana Books in 1991. The interview, with preface, is reproduced below as it appears in the book.


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The idea of interviewing Alan Hovhaness came quite suddenly. [Conductor] Aram Gharabekian had invited Hovhaness for a tribute Sinfo Nova concert of his works for the composer's seventy-fifth birthday. I did not know the composerís music well and the few pieces I had heard failed to touch me. But the idea of Somerville-born composer returning to his ancestral home after decades of being away interested the Somerville Journal editor.

Known as the most prolific composer of our time, and one of the most performed composers living, Hovhaness has composed sixty-two symphonic and 400 works for orchestra, chorus and opera. He also has a reputation of being a mystic, and has traveled the world, researching the eastern mysticism of Japan, Korea and India. On the occasion of hi seventy-fifth birthday, the Boston Conservatory recognized Hovhaness for his contributions to the world of music by granting him an honorary doctorate degree.

When I called Hovhaness to schedule an interview, his wife Hinako scheduled me for one hour before the couple were to leave Boston which left me little choice. I met Hovhaness in his Cambridge hotel room and sat beside him with a window between us. He is of towering height; his eyes, weighed down by heavy bags, greeted me coolly with little expression. Our interview was interrupted periodically by his wife, who was packing. There was little eye contact because he kept his gaze away, usually towards the window. When there was eye contact, it was brief and vague as though a curtain were hung over his eyes.

Hovhanessí creativity comes through what he calls a ďhigher beingĒ. Perhaps this is what makes it difficult for him to form or express his inner thoughts freely. What did impress me about Hovhaness was his mysticism; his acceptance of his destiny Ė that a greater power was at work within him Ė was intriguing. It is as though he were admitting to the source of his talent. I was also fascinated by his philosophy on death and dying and his fearless consideration of death.

It is hard trying to sum up this man, for the time we spent together was very short, and Hovhaness revealed nothing more than what the questions required. But as I have listened to more of his works, especially his latest one, Gardens of Shalimar, I have felt something of that higher power at work within the composer.


You were born in Somerville in 1911. Do you remember the Somerville of those days?

Yes, I remember our Somerville attic apartment at 37 Endicott Avenue. I remember big fires; I loved the sound of the bells from the fire engines. I used to stand on our porch and watch the fires and point out stars.

What happened at age four?

I heard my parents arguing over whether Beethoven was deaf or blind. I decided that if the deaf Beethoven could write such masterpieces, so could I. I was healthy and four years old.

You composed at age four?

Yes, an eleven-line organ piece. My mother, who by the way was Dutch-English, played the organ. But she refused to play my piece because she only played traditional hymns.

So at age four you were introduced to Beethoven. How did this musical awakening continue?

At age seven I heard Schubert. He was instrumental in introducing melody to me. It was after this that I began composing seriously. I thought that I must write these melodies I heard in my head. I thought everyone heard melodies in their heads.

Do you remember your first serious composition?

Yes, it was Arshalouise. {Coming of Light}. I wrote it to please my father. My parents were harsh disciplinarians, but I managed to compose. I invented a system of writing music in the dark, I did the music sheets under the bathtub so I could compose instead of doing my homework.

Did you parents ever hear your compositions?

Yes. One of my compositions finally impressed my mother, and it was then that I began studying piano with Adelaide Proctor, in Arlington. She had a tremendous influence on me. At age fourteen I won a music scholarship to Tufts Music School where I studied under Leo Rich Lewis.

What was studying under Lewis like?

He was my first composition teacher. I remember how he told me that he was going to knock every bit of originality out of my damn foolish head.

From disciplinarian parents to a harsh composition teacher?

Yes, but I didnít mind the discipline. In fact, I composed English-style pieces to please Lewis. But he never heard my own real compositions. By sixteen I had already composed an awful lot of music for violin and piano.

Which composers would you say you were most influenced by?

Handel and Bach. Their cantatas present a quality of cosmic complexity which is beyond this world.

Do you like your own music?

No. Iím a very hard person to please. I attempt to be perfectionist. I always come up with a new idea. I think one can never have too many ideas. Composing for me is a challenge which I like and enjoy.

How many hours a day do you work on your music?

Hinako Hovhaness interjects: Any time he gets.

I donít waste time. Even while Hinako shops I sit in coffee shops to compose something.

Have you ever played any other instrument besides the piano?

No. My fantasy was always to play the violin, but itís my handicap. I think that Lewis implanted the musical discipline within me which I still carry to this days. When I left him, I went on to the New England Conservatory because I had promised my mother that I would go to college.

Where did you go after the Conservatory?

I got a scholarship to Tanglewood. My untraditional compositions were criticized by Bernstein and Copland, so I quit Tanglewood. And then I met my spiritual teacher Ö Hermon DiGiovanno, through a painter friend of mine, Hyman Bloom. Hermon was a Greek mystic painter and a psychic; I called him Bostonís Socrates. He told me: Youíre going in the wrong direction, you have powerful enemies in the symphony halls, you must arch around them.

Did you arch around them?

Yes. Through Hermonís suggestions I began researching my Armenian heritage and ancient folk tunes. I studied with priests and played organ at St. James Armenian Church in Watertown. Hyman Bloom introduced me to the music of Gomidas. I immediately learned the six dances of Gomidas and played them in public. This was the beginning of my interest in ancient folk tunes.

You have traveled the world researching folk tunes of all cultures.

Yes. Iíve been to Japan, Armenia, Korea, and India researching Eastern mysticism. Iím fascinated by the spiritual and ancient tunes of Soviet Georgia. I would attend church services regularly only if they had good music.

What did your parents think of their young composer son?

They never praised me. They were, I suppose, fearful that I might grow conceited.

Would you become conceited? I mean what about now? You are internationally known and recognized as one of the most prolific composers in the world.

No. Because Iím still dissatisfied with my works. I could never be conceited.

With more than four hundred works under your name you say that you are still dissatisfied with your works?

I still have to write the piece I will be fully satisfied with. I fell that a higher intelligence and power are guiding me. I believe in mysticism. Once in a while I do have visions. I try to make the most of them.

Did your higher powers guide you through the writing of Mysterious Mountains?

Yes. I remember hearing celestial ballet in my head as I lay down to rest from writing the work. Later I transcribed what I heard in my sleep. After I wrote it, then heard it again in my sleep, certain versions were wrong. So I corrected it. Now I cannot bear to hear it.

Why not? Is it because you fell that it is not really writing?

No, itís just certain parts move me. I go out of the hall whenever the piece is performed.

Are you afraid to die?

No. I have never been afraid of death. I remember once when I was still a student at the Boston Conservatory, I was held up in a dark alley in Boston. The man put a gun in my back and said, ďYour money or your lifeĒ. I told him, take my life, youíre not getting my money.

What did he do?

He got scared. He thought I was some kind of a nut, so he ran away.

You never stop composing. Are you composing any new works?

Yes, but Iím not going to talk about them. Music is really all I know how to do, and will continue to do. I wish I could express myself in words Ö but music is really all that I can do.


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