An Interview with Alan Hovhaness
Ararat: A Quarterly 45, v.12, no. 1 (Winter 1971), pp. 19-31
Around 1971 JULIA MICHAELYAN interviewed Alan Hovhaness for the magazine Ararat, an international quarterly of Armenian literature, popular culture and the arts published by the AGBU (Armenian General Benevolent Union of America, Inc.), 55 East 59th Street, New York, NY 10022-1112.
Photo: John Goldsmith / Unicorn Records
In 1964 Miles Kastendieck wrote about Alan Hovhaness, "In the present world of musical sophistication with its ivory-towered aloofness, its serial techniques, and its exploitation of atonality, Hovhaness has ventured alone and dared to be himself. His music is markedly different, reflecting primarily an innate love of beauty, spiritual sensitivity, and personal integrity. Untouched by the currents of his time, he has pursued a single-minded course."
Born March 8, 1911 in Somerville, Massachusetts, the young Hovhaness moved with his family to Arlington at the age of five, where his father was a chemistry professor at Tufts College. Astronomy and the music of the Armenian composer-priest, Gomidas Vartabed, were his earliest influences. Long walks along the hills of New Hampshire brought about meditative moods accompanied by the strange sensation that he was living in a single moment in both a New England countryside and some Oriental country, such as China or India, while the mountains he watched transformed themselves into giant melodies.
From 1940 to 1947 Hovhaness lived in a tiny room in Boston, where he composed, worked as an accompanist and taught, on an income of around $40.00 a month. It was during this period that he became the organist at St. James Church in Watertown, Massachusetts, and where he studied the ancient Armenian church music with priests, bishops and deacons, who sang the ancient modes with pure intonation. His original style of improvising in ancient modes during services attracted music lovers from distant cities. While living in Worcester, Hovhaness studied the old Armenian notations collected by Father Hagop Mekjian. Because of the discipline and inspiration of this study he composed many books of new melodies, in both slow and fast tempi.
Reviewing a Hovhaness Carnegie Hall concert in the New York Herald Tribune in 1947, Virgil Thomson wrote, "Its expressive function is predominantly religious, ceremonial, incantory... The high quality of this music, the purity of its inspiration, is evidenced in the extreme beauty of the melodic material, which is original material, not collected folklore ... For all its auditory complexity--for ornateness is of the essence--it is utterly simple in feeling, pure in spirit and high-minded."
In a Town Hall concert two years later, another critic for the same paper described the composer as "This tall, timid man whose Lincolnesque stoop gives the impression of wisdom and gentleness, gets exactly what he wants from his players ... All the fire in his nature, and there is much, seems to be withdrawn from his person and given forth in a message of great repose and purity, with a kind of passion of the mind.
He was a member of the Boston Conservatory of Music faculty from 1948 to 1951. These years mark the "Armenian Period" which culminated in the SAINT VARTAN SYMPHONY. Typical of these compositions is ANAHID, an exotic invocation of the festivals in honor of the most popular goddess of pre-Christian Armenia.
In 1951 Hovhaness received an award from the National Institute of Arts and Letters, and in 1953 and 1955, two composition fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation. In 1958 he received an honorary degree of Doctor of Music from the University of Rochester, and a like degree was conferred on the composer by Bates College the following year.
In 1959-60 Hovhaness was awarded a Fulbright Research Scholar grant to India. The first Western composer to be invited by the musicians of South India to participate in the annual Music Festival of the Academy of Music in Madras, he performed his Madras Sonata, which was commissioned for the occasion.
Although he has grown travel-weary in recent years, Hovhaness finds travel both essential and stimulating. "The nomadic life is a necessity," he once said. "I want to be where I can see and hear." Wherever he goes he carries a note pad with him, so that he can jot down musical ideas while traveling in trains, listening to speeches, or sitting in cafes. He feels it is more important to listen to music and yield to its direct effect than to read what has been written about it. As Oliver Daniel observed in the SATURDAY REVIEW (February 22, 1958) concerning Hovhaness' music: "It is not so much religious as holy; it generates moments of tranquility in a chaotic world." It is no wonder that in India Hovhaness was looked upon as a "priest of music" by the Hindus.
Hovhaness was unprepared for the lionizing he received when he traveled to Japan in 1960. His music was not only better known in Japan than in the United States, but his native country is said to have "discovered" him because of the fuss the Japanese stirred up. They recognized immediately a kinship with his feeling for beauty, nature and art. The ASAHI EVENING NEWS commented on Hovhaness' THIRD SYMPHONY, "There is no element of brutality in the Hovhaness symphony. Even in its fast brilliant moments, he manages to get a feeling of exaltation without resorting to ugliness or sarcasm. In this respect he is virtually alone among his colleagues." Another Japanese critic compared his music to the unrolling of a Japanese scroll in contrast to Western music as the literal presentation of a photographic print.
According to Miles Kastendiek [sic], "His 'Oriental' style may be the product of painstaking research, but his music reflects sympathetic understanding rather than intellectual projections. Having made himself a part of all that he has met in study and on location, he has been able to work out a means by which Western instruments can play Eastern music while his own ability to play Eastern instruments has further enhanced his blending of both musical styles. The fusion of Armenian modal melodies and Hindu rhythms set in Renaissance polyphony may still sound bewildering to Western ears, but Hovhaness has created a tonal fabric to lure the listener. However complex the ingredients, audiences usually find his music easy to grasp."
In 1962 he was awarded a Rockefeller Grant for musical research in Japan and Korea. While in Japan he studied and practised the music and instruments of Gagaku, the ancient court music of Japan, and Ah-ak, the ancient court music of Korea. He also transcribed into Western notation some of the very ancient and complex contrapuntal pieces of Gagaku.
Hovhaness' ideal music is the giant melody of the Himalayan Mountains, seventh century Armenian religious music, classical music of South India, orchestral music of the Tang Dynasty of China, Ah-ak of Korea, Gagaku of Japan and the opera-oratorios of Handel. He has continually stressed the importance of intervals, the sun and satellites, the form of the solar system.
Hovhaness reads widely in the literature of mysticism and is interested in painting, especially the work of the Boston painters, Herman Di Giovanno and Hyman Bloom. His friends say that in Hovhaness' personality as well as in his music there is a blend of saintly mysticism, Oriental resignation and Western dynamism.
Let's begin with your childhood. What can you tell me about your parents and your family life?
I was born in Somerville, but I don't remember very much about it because we moved from there to Arlington when I was five years old, and it was in Arlington that I spent most of my childhood. All I remember about Somerville are some grapevines, which were sort of Near Eastern looking. In back of the house where I was born there was an attic and from there you could see a poorhouse. I remember that very clearly. There was an open space of land across the street with a great hole, a sort of dump, and I remember writing a poem about it one time--that I lived across the street from a dump, across the field from a poorhouse.
You had an Armenian father and a Scottish mother, is that right?
Yes, that's right. My mother's background was Scottish. She came from an old family, some of whom lived in upper New York State and some of whom had come over from Scotland.
Was Hovhaness the form of the name that your father also used?
No, his name was Chakmakjian. Hovhaness was his middle name, and his father's first name. And so I just left off the last name. My father and mother had a fight about it and they chose Alan because Elam was the neighboring country to Armenia in ancient times, and because Alan is Scotch also, so they made a compromise on that. They shortened Hovhaness to Vaness, but I only used that for a short time, discarding it because I really have nothing to do with the Scotch people, as great as they are. I feel myself almost exclusively Armenian.
Then your father's Armenian nationality formed the dominant cultural background for the family?
Yes, I think so. Although it wasn't cultural so much as it was the strongest influence, and the most colorful one. And then, too, it happened that I had a greater affinity in that direction. This is not to say that the Scots are not fine people, but they were all sort of . . . well, my grandfather was a minister and sort of Protestant, and this was rather depressing to me. They, themselves, weren't depressing but the whole background and that kind of culture were very depressing to me. I found a greater identity with my own emotions in the Armenian culture as I grew older, as well as from the beginning, although I didn't know anything about it. However, I did hear a little Gomidas Vartabed occasionally, and then later, of course, I developed in that direction much more.
Were there any Armenians in Arlington as you were growing up, or were you a "foreign boy?"
Yes, I guess you would say I was a "foreign boy." I didn't know any of the Armenians. There were perhaps one or two in the town, but they didn't live particularly near us and I never really knew them. My father and I used to take long, long walks. He was quite a walker and we used to walk to certain farms outside of Arlington. I don't remember exactly where, but it was a few miles out, where there were some Armenian families. We used to walk to Watertown, also, and Belmont, and I think he had friends in these places.
Your father was a chemist, wasn't he?
Yes, he taught chemistry at Tufts College.
Are there any lasting impressions from your childhood that still hold value for you?
Well, I do remember something about making an attempt to compose while I was still in Somerville, which was when I was under five years old, because my mother had an organ that I played. It was a little pump organ, a harmonium, we would call it. I know one composer said, "Well, that's why you have an affinity for writing for orchestra, because you are used to sustained sounds rather than the percussive sounds of the piano." It's true. I improvised on it and that did have an influence, but I had no intention of becoming a musician until I was older because I was interested in astronomy, and things of that sort. Somehow, I didn't take music seriously until I heard my first good piece of music. It was a song of Schubert's while I was going to school in Arlington, when I was about seven or eight years old. Then I suddenly realized that the music I had been hearing in my head should be written down, and so I thought I might as well be a composer. I really didn't have the necessary makeup to be anything else.
Had you been studying piano at that point?
No, not yet. I had been composing but I didn't know I was. When I realized that this was what I had been doing, I began to take it seriously.
When did you start studying piano?
Well, it would have been after that, because I remember my parents got an upright piano and I started improvising. And then they sent me to the neighbor who played a little piano. But we had disagreements about music right from the start. She sent me to the supervisor of music and I was then sent to Miss Adelaid [sic] Proctor, who was a very fine musician and a very fine person and the assistant of Heinrich Gebhard, the leading pianist and teacher around Greater Boston. So from that time on I really began to have a musical education, and she saw to it that I got what I needed. She also saw to it that I had tickets to attend part of the Boston Symphony concerts, and also to . . . well, if I had a good piano lesson for instance, she'd let me play four hands because four hands was the basic medium, not the phonograph record. You did it yourself. You played the classics for four hands at home. This was done all through Europe, and actually the better musicians in America did the same thing. That was before the First World War and it hung on long enough for me to get the benefit of it. I was much more interested in the orchestra than the piano, but I did become fairly proficient as a pianist and my teachers felt I had talent and wanted me to become a good concert pianist and earn my living that way. This would have been fine except that the depression hit just about the time I went out to earn my living. So I had to make a shift and I began to earn my living, not as a concert pianist, but jumping in where I could, because I was a good sight-reader. I would play one or two solos, but for the most part I accompanied singers or violinists, or played chamber music--or all sorts of odd jobs, and I played in hotels.
This would have been all to the good because a diversified musical background is very essential to good musicianship.
Well it is, and at that time the managers didn't want to take on any new pianists, anyhow. But I didn't really care myself if I became a pianist. I did all kinds of things in order to earn a living.
You went to the New England Conservatory soon after the depression when things let up a little, is that right?
Well, as a matter of fact, it was about the middle of it.
You studied with Converse?
Yes, I was given a scholarship there and I was studying with Converse: composition, orchestration, and so on, and going on with Heinrich Gebhard, who was my piano teacher. You see, Miss Proctor prepared pupils for him and she was one of his assistants and he had been a pupil of Letchitiski, so I got a very fine training in piano.
And then in 1942 you got a scholarship to go to Tanglewood to work with Martinu?
Yes, this was much later on and it didn't work out so well because I found a very great antagonism with the ideas of most of the composers there. Not with Martinu personally, but somehow I had a very antagonistic relationship there with the Copland School and it didn't seem to work out very well. I left it, really, before I was through.
But you had had symphonies performed by this time.
Yes, that's true. I had performances in England, mainly with the BBC under Leslie Heward, who died shortly after that period. He was a very find conductor and is still very much respected in England. He was the first one to do my music after Joseph Wagner, who was a good composer and conductor in Boston with a sort of amateur orchestra called the Civic Symphony. He did some of my things, but aside from that, and the New England Conservatory Orchestra, I can't remember any other performances, except for two Pops performances of one of my pieces.
But the music you were having performed by Heward and so forth, that was when you were being called the American Sibelius.
Well, they called me that because I was very interested in Sibelius and I joined the Sibelius Society and I lectured about his music. Actually, however, I was not the American Sibelius. This was a mistake. I was far too Armenian to be compared to Sibelius.
Even then! That was one of the mistakes that was made. True, I turned against the chromaticism of my earlier work, which occasionally reappears now, but it was not really like Sibelius. It was much more Oriental in background, although of course I have always been a great admirer of Sibelius, especially the spiritual quality of his music; its strength and independence from fashion. He created his own world.
Did you know Gomidas Vartabed?
No, no, I didn't know him. He lost his mind around 1917 because of the tragedy of the Armenians. The piano pieces I recorded recently are all his piano music. They are these wonderful six dances. They were written, I believe, just before he lost his mind. When they found him after the war he didn't know who he was and they had to take him to an asylum in Paris. He stayed there until his death in 1935, but there was a long period there when he was unable to work or do anything. He didn't even know who he was. So naturally, I did not know him. I had known some of his choral pieces and some of his songs when I was young. And it was after that period that someone brought some of his piano pieces to me and I studied them for a long period of time and played them occasionally. I admired him very much and he certainly had a great influence on me.
Did you go to the Armenian Church when you were a boy? Were you exposed to the music?
No. Very little, really. It was through some singers that I first became exposed. After 1942 I became closely connected with Yenovk Der Hagopian, who was a fine singer of folk music, a fine troubadour type of singer. A singer of Sayat Nova. A singer in pure style. This proved to be a great influence. I think, however, that it was the music of India which influenced me the most. I had heard the Uday Shankar musicians with Ravi Shankar when he was just a young boy. He was in the orchestra of Indian instruments. This was in 1936, and it had a very profound influence on me. Of course later on I studied all of this music much more elaborately, but it certainly was a great influence.
You also became acquainted with Armenian music when you were the organist at St. James Church in Watertown.
Yes, yes; that, of course, came about sometime a little after 1940. I had been playing in other churches. I would try to introduce better music than they had been having in some of these other churches: classical music, choruses of Bach and Handel which I tried to introduce because they hadn't done much of that before. They'd usually done the kind of watered-down, English style church music, and wherever I was organist I tried to get away from that. Finally, I began playing at St. James. When they asked me, I thought it would be important and more inspiring than playing in other churches. But, anyway, in the Armenian Church, I felt I was where I belonged, and I was certainly very glad to be there.
However, in early childhood, I had been influenced by the Armenian style because in my first opera, which was given when I was in junior high school in 1925, I think it was, I had a whole program of it.
This is something your biographers and reviewers have never referred to.
I remember Miss Proctor went to it when it was given by the school kids. It was given in the hall of the Arlington High School, but by junior high school musicians, who were all youngsters like myself. I was 13 years old when I wrote it and just 14 when it was performed. When my teacher went to it--the name of the opera was "Daniel"--she said, "Well, this music sounds very Jewish and I think the Jews would like it." But it really was Armenian, you know. It was very modal and it had that sort of atmosphere. Then later I wrote another one which was quite different. A more humorous opera, which I did when I was in high school.
What was the high school opera about?
It was an Oriental subject, but I was no longer writing Oriental music at that time. It was prepared by one of the high school boys about the Crusades, but it was entirely imaginary and I treated it with a lot of humor and arias, more in the manner of a conventional, classical opera style.
During this period, like Tanglewood and shortly after that, were there particular composers or styles of music that you liked that would not be your choice today?
Basically, I don't think I have changed. There are certain composers I have always admired very much, but I have always admired nature mostly and the music of the Orient. However, composers like Monteverdi and Handel and many other of the great Masters, ones like Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert--all of the classical composers--I have admired very much in their ways, and I have never changed from that. I have also found an affinity with a few composers of this century--from Sibelius on to Webern. Webern because of the sparseness in the use of a single note. There is a sort of Oriental spirit, an almost Japanese spirit in the best of Webern's works. His use of the row idea I like. But I don't go along with Schoenberg. It's hard for me to think of others because I'm not particularly in sympathy with the music of this century.
The modern sounds that are in my music actually come from a very early music--the earliest orchestral music which was very modern sounding and a very highly advanced music which we call Gagaku, which came from China. In the seventh century it came to Japan. I find I can build on the modernity of that very well. But I don't listen to new composers very much unless they are young composers I am trying to help, and who have asked me to listen to their music. I don't want to listen to others because I don't want to be influenced by anything. I want to go my own way.
You are an extremely prolific composer. I know you are well into the two hundreds now and that doesn't count the hundred or more that you discarded earlier.
Well, I must have discarded more than a thousand. I have discarded far more than I can ever imagine. There were periods when I sometimes made fires in a large, open fireplace that lasted about two weeks, which was how long it took to burn my compositions. So there has been an awful lot that I have destroyed. I had to. I have always written a great deal. I wrote perhaps every day and I think that this is not unusual. Oh, maybe in this century, but actually all the old masters wrote a great deal. There is nothing like practice. It's like practicing one's instrument thoroughly, and composing needs a lot of practice, too.
Which of your compositions are you most satisfied with in retrospect?
I think that of my 21 symphonies, each has its own place. They are very different from each other, quite different in style. For instance, the Eighth and Ninth Symphonies are very different from each other. The Eighth is sort of linear, Indian-Armenian style, along melodic lines. An Armenian modal style, sort of like LOUSADZAK, which is a piano concerto of an earlier period. This is one of my most original pieces from back in the 40's, whereas the Ninth Symphony is a quite original form in 24 short movements, all of which belong together and move at the same time. This is the ST. VARTAN SYMPHONY. So those two, for instance, are just opposite. The Thirteenth Symphony is as different from the Twelfth as the Twelfth is from the Eleventh. I revised the Eleventh recently. It's quite different from what it was. The Eleventh Symphony actually harks back to my earlier style in the sense that the first movement really came from the time when I was just given a scholarship to the New England Conservatory, and it was really part of the symphony that won a prize at that time. That was back in 1932. So the First Movement was 1932, with some changes here and there. The Second Movement was from about 1960. The Third was from 1969, I think, although the theme might have been an early one from the 1932 period. So that some symphonies represent very different periods in my life, but I think that those works and then things like the operas and the MAGNIFICAT . . . it's hard to say . . . I can't remember all the many things I do. I am trying to replace pieces that I didn't like and wasn't satisfied with so that in the new catalogue most of the pieces are more or less what I want them to be, but there are still a few which one would like to get rid of, somehow.
Do you employ a direct use of folk themes in your melodic lines?
Not directly. I am very much influenced by the form and by a kind of structure that folk music has in its feelings. But actually, only in the three Armenian Rhapsodies and in the twelve Armenian Folk Songs have I used actual material that I have collected. Those are based on folk songs or motifs. There are a few pieces which were written on commission using certain themes. I never use a theme without stating that I borrowed the material for some commission where they wanted this used. The bulk of my work is based on my own melodic themes influenced from the kind of folk material available from my Armenian background. Being an Armenian, I didn't go West like most of them have. I went East. I went to India spiritually. I'm not speaking now of my physical move which came much later. When I was very young, I went to India without leaving Boston, while studying with Indian musicians and studying Indian instruments.
Many of your rhythmic structures are built on Indian tala forms.
Yes. The tala is the rhythmic structure. But I make my own talas, too. I do use some Indian talas occasionally, but I vary them in my own way and actually I have made up many talas of my own, some more complex in the piano piece called "Shalimar." In the end of the first movement of Fantasy there's a little tala of my own which is typical. If I can remember, it goes: 7, 7, 7, 5, which is the number of the beats, and then that is repeated: 7, 7, 7, 5, six times, and the seventh and last time it is: 7, 7, 7, 7, 5. There is an extra "7" in it. That makes for a little structure in itself.
That also, I would think, gives a kind of climax.
Yes, it does. I often use a tune that is fairly symmetrical, that is, typically Medieval or European in rhythm, but against that melodic line I may have two or three talas going at the same time that are irregular. But they may all be written in 2/2 time or 4/4 time, so that it doesn't look that way. I have to be practical because often I only have one rehearsal to do things in. So I try to make things look as legible and as readable as possible, and though musicians may be playing these things, they don't have to be aware of them. If they were aware of what they were playing, they might become frightened and confused. That's a little trick which I have always taught my pupils to do: to edit their work after they have composed it. You can compose it the way it comes, but afterwards one should edit it to make it as practical as possible, without losing any of the vital idea.
Of course, one of the greatest weaknesses with performing musicians is their rhythm.
Yes, it is. It is a problem.
They can really fall apart rhythmically.
That's true. I have great difficulty with some of my pieces because of that. Some of my pieces have no special problem, but others are very difficult to perform.
What about this so-called ground note, or two or three notes that permeate your music?
Yes, drones . . . drones . . .
That's getting into the Indian jhala, isn't it?
Well, that's Indian. When you have purely melodic music, without harmony, you need a held note. Non-harmonic music, and I do write some of . . . the EIGHTH SYMPHONY is entirely non-harmonic, there is no harmony in it at all, then you need a point of comparison which the Indians have in their drone. I am sure that, originally, the Armenian Church had the held note under the Sharagans, and this gives the melody a basis and a vitality so it can flower. It needs something to support it, in other words. It needs something to support the mode and the structure of the mode, so that you hear the different intervals of the melody. It's a point of comparison, constantly, and it lends emotion to the melody, and the emotion is strengthened by this sustained note. I sometimes use whole series of notes going in free rhythm, too, as a sostenuto: the basis of a complex drone to go on while a melodic line is being played against it. This is an Oriental principle and, of course, it is something I have developed in trying to find interesting ways of composing for our orchestras. The jhala is a little different. The jhala comes from the word jhalataranga, or waves of water. The jhalataranga is an instrument, a very simple one in India, being made of a series of little porcelain bowls filled with different levels of water which are struck with a stick. You might play melody while the drone keeps vibrating and then the melody notes make a figure which is called jhala in Indian music even if it's not played on that instrument. In other words, you can play a jhala on a sitar, on a marimba or a percussion instrument. You can play it on the piano, and so on, so that it is really an effect. You handle the drone as repeated notes and the melody as single notes. You can apply that kind of figuration to melodies and it will work, so that's what jhala means. It came from an instrument, but then it came to be a style and a kind of figuration.
I understand that you were the first Western composer to be invited to an Indian Music Festival and that you composed for Indian instruments.
Yes, that's true. In 1959 when I was in Madras, India, they had a Christmas Festival around that time of Solstice--from the middle of December into early January. I think the first concert was given in December and I wrote quite a lot of music for that. The MADRAS SONATA comes out of that. In January, I wrote something for Indian instruments called NAGOORAN. I based it on the name of a saint who was familiar to all the people in Madras: a saint who lived a hundred years earlier who had been a very strong and very peaceful influence, uniting the Hindu religion and the Moslem religion. People from both religions used to consult him. He sat by the river there and went into a trance and advised people about their problems. So I selected this theme, and I went to his shrine and sort of got into the spirit of this Saint and wrote the music for an orchestra of South Indian instruments. I later planned to do something with this music but it hasn't been played since then because it was written, as I said, for Indian instruments.
You would have to do some revising before you could get a Western ensemble to be able to play this.
That's right, because I sat on the floor and conducted it in a way that Indian musicians would be able to follow, allowing certain free improvisational sections based on various notations which I had translated in Telagu [sic] and Tamil.
We wouldn't even use the same type of notations because we don't even have quarter tones on our scales.
True. Although, of course, we have Julian Carrillo. I think he is one of the most interesting and most neglected composers of this century. He wrote for quarter tones and all kinds of small divisions of sound. Very beautiful music. It is very difficult to play and that is why we don't know it as we should.
Do you find it is hard for people accustomed to Western music to be able to hear the close intervals of modal music and to follow the patterns of movement that are in the sounds?
Well, it was very hard when I first introduced this kind of music in the 40's because they thought it was repeating. They don't understand because you don't modulate, you are not repeating. It is constantly growing and changing. This is one of the difficulties. They don't hear melody by itself unless they hear harmony. The Western musician--the trained musician, especially--is used to hearing melody as something in and surrounded by harmony, but actually he is hearing harmony more than melody. This is particularly true because of the stress of harmony through the period of the Romantics, the Great Romantics, Wagner, and so on--beginning with Chopin--Schubert, actually. But the early ones were great composers of melody also. With Wagner, it's an harmonic art. A very great art which, of course, developed through Schoenberg to its ultimate end, in a way, with the final culmination or cul de sac, really, from TRISTAN and from that side of Wagner. So naturally people listening for this kind of music cannot understand Oriental music at all. Not, at first, anyhow, but there is a great difference now. I find that pieces which were not understood then are listened to very differently by the young people today.
That's quite true. I think that the audiences in this country, especially the younger audi ences [sic], are attuned to this kind of music. Ravi Shankar is almost as popular as the rock bands. These young people can sit for hours over a raga, and you will find with the Noh Theatre, when it comes, that there is a real participation with the audience, and a feeling of understanding.
It makes a big difference. They don't have the same prejudice and they listen and they get much more out of it. The Noh Theatre is something I love very much. When I was in Japan I used to go every week, for a period of almost one year--while I was studying there. I have been influenced especially in my operas. Almost all my operas are, in a way, my own kind of Noh Theatre.
Well, we have been talking here and there about audiences. But many composers, in fact most of the artists today, are having a very hard time being received. Composers, particularly, are having difficulty being heard and in being accepted by the audiences and critics when they are heard. Have you experienced these frustrations?
Not so much once the music is heard. But I have experienced a great deal of delay with many works which are now successful, but they were not played for many, many years. This was one of the difficulties. Once they were played there would be a change, and especially once they were published, because then people tended to discover them for themselves. For a long time they weren't published and this made it hard, and there was also the problem of narrow-mindedness. And then they had difficulty reading scores properly. People read scores according to the music they are used to and know. They cannot read a score written in a different style; they just think it must be wrong. When they hear it, they are surprised, because then they understand how it looks. So now they are beginning to get used to my scores, but they wouldn't trust them in the 30s.
But the ears of the younger musicians that are now coming out of the conservatories should have much less difficulty.
Yes, that's very true, especially for the good ones. But of course to read a score is difficult anyway, and there are many things in modern music that cannot be understood just by reading. That's where recordings help a great deal. But recording is very slow, especially for contemporary work. It is expensive and it is difficult to get commercial companies to record things. That's something we need more than anything else right now because many people who don't read do listen to records. Their whole knowledge of music is based on that, so of course they can't listen to the things that aren't available. Also, many very good records of contemporary music have been allowed to disappear. They don't recut them even when they are successful. The commercial companies are so greedy about having everything sell in the millions that they are not interested in the things that sell in the thousands. That's one of the problems, and so they let them go out of print, and they let them be deleted from the catalogues. People are always asking me for the ST. VARTAN SYMPHONY. I wish I could give it to them, but unfortunately it was deleted years ago.
Well, we have these tremendous fads in the arts, the same as we do in women's fashions.
Yes, that's one of the difficulties. When stereo came in, they wanted to get rid of all the mono. This is so artificial, because it isn't necessary that things be so perfect. You can get a lot out of a recording, even when it isn't perfect. Because nothing is perfect, anyway.
All recordings are still canned music and you do not have the presence of live performance, and so that, too, is a tremendous difference.
Yes, but there is the counter danger that recordings played too much tend to kill live music. But to have new music available on records helps live music to a certain extent. That is, it helps live performances, because it gives people the courage, when they hear something, to try and do it themselves. The pieces of mine that have been recorded are the ones that are played the most.
Not only that but people should recognize that in recordings, if there are a few minor errors, you can stop and patch them up. But it always lacks the spontaneity of the experience of the live performance. I have heard things imperfectly performed that were simply glorious because of the vitality, because of the life that was in the music.
Oh, I agree. I find it really a sort of frightening and terrifying experience, and exhausting as well, to make records. I know if something goes wrong in a live performance, I can always make up for it; I can always somehow, through conducting, get people back onto it again and you can get a tremendous excitement and a daring which you don't get in a recorded performance. In a recording you know that if something is wrong you can do it over again, but perhaps the musicians will be tired, the brass may have their lips tired a little. You can't overplay things beyond a certain point in a recording. Sometimes everybody gets nervous and then somebody will make a mistake. When you have an orchestra, somebody is going to break under the tension and then you have a patch-up job to do.
It's really fantastic some of the patch-up jobs that have been accomplished. I have heard audiences applaud spontaneously because of a good patch-up job right at the end of a movement when something has gone wrong and is then recovered.
Oh, yes, it's very difficult. Fortunately, when conducting, I seem to have an instinct for getting the exact tempo again. I've had some otherwise good recordings in which the trumpet missed a high note, or something, and they had to do it over again. I would rather they had left the mistake, because the second time it was a little slower and you get a feeling somehow of loss of energy at the time when the push should be at its greatest. So that's one of the dangers.
You take a lunch break and you come back and there's a whole different atmosphere.
Very true. There is nothing more difficult. If you can't make it in one session or two connected sessions, you're often in trouble, because then the patchwork doesn't work as well.
How much time have you spent now traveling and living in Eastern countries?
Well, the first time was around 1959 when I went to India and studied South Indian music in Madras. I didn't specialize in North Indian music because that was the music I had studied in the early 40s from various Indian musicians who had come through Boston. There was a group of painters and myself, and we were always getting them to play for us and to teach us all they knew about their music. Most of them had studied music in India in their childhood and they brought their instruments with them and played, so we were able to learn quite a lot about North Indian music in that way. Naturally, there is far more to it than that--infinitely more--but at least I had a start. So I wanted to go to the source of the earliest Indian music, which is in South India. I wrote a book about my studies there, only in notations--not in words. I collected about 308 ragas of South India when I was studying with various masters there, and if they didn't know a raga themselves, they would say, "Well, we know somebody in a certain village and we are going to play there tomorrow night. We will get this raga from him and bring it back." So in that way I was able to collect quite a lot of material and write it down. The ragas, of course, are not modes the way we have them. They are partly modes. They are actually modes with a kind of melodic format--a kind of style out of which melodies can be composed. The same notes, for instance, of a mode might be used in two different ragas and then, too, a raga may have one kind of an ascent and several different kinds of descents, or it may be what they call a bent or snakelike raga, a vakra raga, one which has many loops in it, so that the raga is a difficult word to translate, really. You have to study that kind of music and get into it. The raga will be played, for instance, at a certain time of day or at a certain time of night. Now they say they don't do that any more because otherwise they would lose some of their most beautiful ragas which belong to 2 a.m. or 4am those mysterious times of night. And so they mix them up now, but they do play a raga for at least an hour. In South India it used to go on for several hours, for the whole period of which that raga was involved. The raga also has cosmological significance in the sense of time of day or night, with the deepness of the night, or the approach of dawn or various parts of the day when the sun is just rising, or later, and so on. It's all very complicated. The tala is the rhythm form.
I studied all of this in South India and then I went on to Japan and gave concerts and experienced what I could in a short time because I was on my way home, but I was fortunately able to go back to Japan in 1962 for about a year and study all kinds of forms of not only Japanese music, but other forms, too--music which came from ancient China, which no longer exists in China. Then I went to Korea and studied the Korean ancient music which came from China, and Korean ancient music which came from Korea itself. I studied the instruments and played in an orchestra of ancient instruments in Japan. I studied in the same way in Korea. I wrote a symphony in Korea for the Korean New Year of 1963. It was a New Year's concert played on the radio with a string orchestra, a Western string orchestra with Korean instruments utilizing, especially, the kyago which is a Korean koto, that my teacher on that instrument played. It was my Sixteenth Symphony. They are doing it now in Seattle, I believe.
So it looks as though the twain of East and West that was never supposed to meet has begun to merge in many countries, not only here but in Eastern countries, as well.
Oh, yes, especially in Eastern countries, I think. This is especially true in Japan where they have the young composer Takemitsu. He is the best composer I know of in Japan. Ozawa had conducted some of his works with the New York Philharmonic. He uses some traditional instruments and players along with a Western orchestra.
So there seems to be a distinct trend in Eastern countries to explore the exotic West. And the reverse is of course also true, for we are here looking into all aspects of Eastern culture.
Yes. The exotic West has been a danger up until now. I hope it won't continue because it has destroyed many types of Eastern music. This is certainly true of European music which has conquered so much of the world. I'm taking Europe and America as one larger province of Western music. It certainly has destroyed an awful lot of original music in other continents. Africa has especially suffered a loss of its music in this way. As soon as the radio gets into a village that has had marvelous music, the music disappears, and this has been happening in Japan and Korea and China, as well.
Indians, fortunately, are a little more stubborn. The Indian musician, until recently, has refused to succumb. But it is also true that the Western influence has not been good for the many forms of Indian music. The Indian musicians that come to this country are too much affected by it and tend to simplify their style, and they often lose the many beautiful subtleties because they think it won't be received. In order to be popular and to sell their music, they think they have to do this and of course if they're not successful in the West they go back home to India and they don't win the place they want there, either. So there is always this desire for success, which is unfortunate, but at least the Indian music has kept some of its integrity and some of its quality. For this I am very grateful. Japan must rediscover much of its lost art, but of course they are keeping alive the Noh Theatre and that is something very wonderful.
Have you gone to Armenia in your travels?
In 1965, on one of those government exchange arrangements, I was suddenly taken over to Russia and Armenia and listened to a lot of the new music there and also gave some concerts of my own in all the places where I went. That was, let's see, Moscow, Tiflis, Baku and Erevan, in Armenia, and Leningrad, and then back to Russia again. That was quite a tour.
In Soviet Armenia, do you find that much of the folk tradition is active and being retained?
I hope it is being revived. Some of it was still there. I think it is not in as pure a state as it is in Georgia. Georgia has really discovered some wonderful old music, especially of the seventh century. There is a group of young male singers who have formed a choir and have performed a lot of it when I was there. It is really magnificent, this early Georgian music. Unfortunately, I felt that the Armenian groups tended very much to Russianize their music and modernize it in a very banal way, to make it very loud and very fast which sort of took away all of its original rhythm, so it really has none of its subtlety, none of its character. But there are some good musicians working there. One young musician, Ajemian, for instance, is a fine modern composer and I think that they are due for a revival of their music. There is a great interest in music there. There are lots of orchestras, very good orchestras, and fine Western concerts. But their own music has had this tendency to suffer to a certain extent by over Europeanization. It's not so much because of the Soviets, because this has happened throughout the world in Armenian communities. They have too often treated very rudely their best folk musicians. They have not understood them. They thought that because their music was original, it couldn't be very good and that's one of their troubles. The original, real, true Armenian music has not been appreciated, either in the West or in Russia. It has been one of the great difficulties.
Despite your travels, is there still somewhere that you feel is your home, or where you have roots?
I have my only apartment in Lucerne, Switzerland, and that's where I have all my music and paintings and books. That's about all I have that I might call home.
You have been a wanderer for many years.
Yes. In Japan they call me the Wandering Armenian.
Are there compositions of yours other than the ST. VARTAN and some of the other symphonies that you wish were being performed now for audiences, or recorded, so that they would be available?
There are a good many. Out of 235 works, it is difficult to say at the moment, but fortunately there are some new records which have come out this year that I am very happy about. The Seventeenth Symphony and the Twentieth Symphony were well recorded by Marx. And then the concert that I gave last year at the Cathedral, Kavookjian Hall, the Armenian Cathedral, that has just come out on Mace, and then some records I made myself in England, FRA ANGELICO and the Eleventh Symphony are out with the Poseidon Society. These are all listed in the Schwann catalogue, or will be, but there are many pieces which are played which are not recorded. Actually, I hope to do the operas before too long. The short operas, which form, more or less, a kind of Armenian Noh Theatre.
Your compositions are very frequently for an ensemble of winds or brass instruments with strings in the background. Are there certain instruments you prefer composing for?
Well, I love them all. I love all the instruments and I love the regular orchestra. There has been a preponderance of wind symphonies because of the lack of strings in America. This has caused a sort of crisis, turning the band into the wind orchestra, resulting in calls and commissions for symphonies for this combination. In Mozart's time there was a great deal of orchestral music needed. Today, no one needs orchestral music. But they do need music for wind orchestras and for winds and percussion. New groupings, perhaps not instruments, but a new grouping of instruments, and this is inevitable and it is to meet this need that I have written this music. It is not necessarily a preference, but whatever I do, I do to the best of my ability. I discover many new possibilities as soon as I try something different. While I love the conventional orchestra, I feel that one has to go along with whatever the new possibilities and needs are in music, just as they did in the day of Mozart and Haydn.
There is a very serious crisis of string players. I have heard over and over again that it has become very difficult to get together a first-rate string section.
This is true. I think the trouble, too, is that the discipline required to play a string instrument goes against our mechanical, push-button age. Nobody wants to work that hard.
Also, the kids, while they are studying, want to be able to play in the school bands. Most of our wind players come from the West, where the big football teams are.
This is an interesting observation. While America doesn't necessarily supply the greatest trumpet players and the greatest wind players in the world, especially in brass. I really have a hard time finding trumpet players anywhere else. I fortunately found some very fine ones in England and there is a very fine one in Switzerland. My music was usually discovered by these people because it was in the field where they had a need, and it therefore got around.
I wonder if we can say that there is a cultural significance between the brass instrument and the American personality?
Well, it gives a quicker result. But it requires great art to play a trumpet as well as Gerry Schwarz or Vacchiano. To play this well is not easy. It is far from easy. But perhaps if a young player gets encouragement, he can make a beautiful tone much easier on a trumpet than he can on a violin. And it is a powerful instrument. It gives a sense of excitement and a sense of the fast living that the industrial age has created in America, which is better expressed by crowds and by noisy instruments, than by strings. The problem, however, is that strings are very valuable and if we have to write more for brass, we have to develop its subtle singing qualities. And this, of course, is what I've tried to do. However, there have been other periods when these instruments were highly developed, such as San Marco, Venice, in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth centuries.
I went to Venice last year for the first time. I wasn't doing any music there, but I had been doing music in other places. I went there and stayed there for a while and then one day I suddenly felt absolutely at home. I felt that I would love to make music there because the architecture was so suitable for it, especially music for trumpets.
Getting back to the strings; what about the Suzuki method in Japan of teaching very small children to play, who are too young to read any music.
Well, I think that may be very wonderful. That may save the world. Suzuki may very well save the situation for strings. We needed that and it came just at the right time. While it may not make for the greatest solo violinists, I think it will help our orchestras immensely and, of course, out of that will come some very fine solo violinists, as well. I have great hopes for this. I know some Japanese musicians don't agree with me, but I really feel that this will do a great deal for the world. And we need, and probably will have, more Japanese musicians in our orchestras in the future.
We have a lot of Orientals playing strings.
That's right. They have the patience to master string instruments. It is their nature to be patient. For instance, some of the old Japanese instruments ceased to exist in China and Korea, in part because they didn't have the patience to take care of the instruments. For example, the shoh, the mouth organ, which is the most celestial sound in the world, is an instrument I love to play, but I don't dare play it because I didn't pay enough attention to the care of the instrument. You have to take it apart, unsolder it, tune it every day for four hours, and put it together again; and then you get this marvelous celestial sound. If you don't, well, there are about fifty shohs in America, none of which play anymore. Or they make a few groans, but this is a great art that only exists in Japan.
Are you still looking for new sounds and new forms of expression for your own composition, or have you already utilized what you know to its fullest?
No, I'm always looking for new elements of sounds, and then there are so many possibilities with what we already have. What I am looking for is a deeper truth, a further penetration into what I have already done. And into what I feel is needed in music. A deeper, more emotional understanding of the universe, a greater oneness with the universe. However, I am certainly always open to new sounds if they are beautiful, but not to the noise of traffic jams--we have had enough of that.
Actually, I had been thinking of the recent scientific recordings of whale sounds and of the Whale Symphony you have written.
They are wonderful sounds, of course, and I would like to see the whales taken care of, so that we don't destroy them. And so this was a project which I was very glad to be connected with.
How did it come about?
Well, actually, through the New York Philharmonic and Kostelanetz. They introduced me to the man who had made these wonderful underwater recordings of whale sounds and this inspired me to do it. They asked if I'd write a piece, and I did, using these sounds. The record should come out very shortly now. Columbia recorded it. The Philharmonic, as well as several other orchestras, have already performed it.
It's part of the ecology now.
Well, that's very nice. It's a very important thing anyway that we stop ruining the earth for ourselves, as well as for everything else in nature.
Have you experienced changes in your life because of your exposure to so many different cultures, in your personal life or within yourself?
Yes, I think I have. There are parts of me, of course, which have had an affinity for all these cultures. These feelings remain, always, and certain friendships, but it is hard to have friends so scattered, as I have. So many of the people I love live in far ends of the earth, and this is a problem. The fact is, I don't enjoy traveling. I travel a lot because I have to now, but I don't really enjoy it. I always long to repeat certain experiences with certain groups I have known. I would love to go back and play in a Gagaku orchestra in Japan in the shrine again, the way I used to, but this is impossible.
How about playing the organ in an Armenian Church again?
I always loved doing that. I wouldn't be able to make it every week though, the way I used to.
What do you see as an overall trend of the cultural direction of America now?
This is hard to say. I really don't know.
So much is happening.
Yes, yes,, I know. We are in a very dangerous period. We are in danger of destroying ourselves, and I have a great fear about this. There is a great deal of rebellion among the young and I agree with them because I have known this same rebellion all my life. I sympathize with them very much. We have to do something constructive about it. It's not enough to just fly off the handle. Violence won't help. I believe we have to really find the answer by going within, not just being external about it. But it's a very serious problem. The older generation is ruling ruthlessly. I feel that this is a terrible threat to our civilization. It's the greed of huge companies and huge organizations which control life in a kind of a brutal way, and therefore all of my sympathies are with the young people. I hope something can be done about it. It's gotten worse and worse, somehow, because physical science has given us more and more terrible deadly weapons, and the human spirit has been destroyed in so many cases, so what's the use of having the most powerful country in the world if we have killed the soul. It's of no use.
My hope is with the young, and one reason I'm asking you about this is because I see the young becoming more gentle and looking within themselves to recognize their tendencies of brutality and to try to find peace in living with those tendencies and not letting them be a dominating influence.
Yes, that's the greatest hope. In America my closest and best feelings are with young people. I traveled with a young American orchestra in Switzerland. They were wonderful people and I enjoyed it very much. I enjoyed talking to them and spending hours with them.
Where did they come from?
They came from Tacoma, Washington on the West Coast. And, of course, the Seattle Youth Orchestra is a beautiful group of young people. I have since met them many times in different orchestras. I conducted them a few years ago and I go back and see them every once in a while and they do my music and we get together. These young people are wonderful, very idealistic and I feel there are people all over America who have this quality. My only hope is with them, actually.
Do you think that the difficulties of being a musician in this world of material gain that makes such uncompromising demands on people can produce young people who will be able to carry on our musical traditions and even improve and enlarge them? Will they be able to withstand it?
I'm not sure in some cases, but at least they may bring to life some of the idealism they have now. Whether they can all be musicians, I'm not sure. This may not be the right path for some of them. I hope as many of them as can will continue because that's very important and naturally I want to see musicians continue in music as much as possible. But still the person must do what's right for himself. It is a very difficult path and sometimes an lead to stagnation when one is placed in the position that some musicians in cities like New York have been, where they have a very difficult time of it. If they get into a good job it may be fine, but then they may have to do too much work. If they don't they have nothing.
The good jobs for some musicians in New York today happen to be "Broadway pits"--in show business--meaning they have to feed their children. Some of our really fine solo talent is lost this way.
It's lost because they're doing something that musically has no significance whatsoever. They're having to do purely commercial work, and that kills them after a while. It kills the spirit.
I've seen many go under with deep bitterness.
Yes, I have too and it's very tragic.
Do you find this in other countries? With musicians?
No, not so much.
Not even England?
England has a different spirit. Well, it is much less efficient, but it is more human. I prefer that. You may have more trouble in England sometimes, and sometimes you suddenly find that you don't have the people you were working with the last time. They may be out of town and you suddenly find that you have somebody whom you really can't accomplish very much with. But human relationships are much better there. It is much more human, much warmer, and I like this. The English have known a lot of suffering and perhaps they have been through the worst of it. They don't have the luxuries we have, but then they don't have the greed we have--perhaps as a result.
There is a deep serenity in your music, even the climax is more one of adoration than disturbance. Over and over again I have heard this in your music.
Yes, I guess that's true. It's hard for me to say because I'm too close to it. However, I'm trying to record a new work which is called LADY OF LIGHT. This is an anti-war work, with the text being written as an opera. But it is not an opera, though it could possibly be done as an opera, or a dance drama. It has a very important part for the chorus. It's built on a medieval Swiss legend. However, I have changed the male and female roles. It was the legend of Shalabala in Berne, about a small village where this person, whom I have now made a girl, becomes possessed and starts dancing and leads the whole village around the countryside, dancing continuously, and the Bishop of Berne becomes alarmed about this and thinks it is getting out of control, and he sends his army, who destroy all the men in the village. But the women of this village, which is atop a mountain--while the army of the bishop is sleeping in a valley--put flaming torches between the horns of their goats and push them down the mountainside to make the army believe that a huge, new army is coming at them, which causes them to flee. They are absolutely routed. There are pictures of this in Switzerland. So I made this the basis of the story. As I said, I have the woman as the dancer because I wanted a particular part, a big part, for a soprano. I'm hoping to record this. It is a kind of anti-war statement. It begins with a long section which is a sort of heavenly element or Nirvana, or whatever you might want to call it, and ends with that again. The plane of eternal qualities, and then the martyrdom of this girl on earth is taken up in the story and then resolved with her entrance into this heavenly sphere. I am going to try to record it in London at the end of March, so let's see how it comes out.
It does sound as though it should be extremely exciting. You have used a great deal of symbolism of the eternal and the everlasting in your works. You have a profound concept of this. I know that the program notes for the MYSTERIOUS MOUNTAIN said that the mountain symbolizes eternity.
Yes, yes, that's true.
And the protest against destruction is ever present, even when it's not.
Yes, yes, that's one of the things in my life, I think. This is a central point.
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