Hovhaness Interview: Seattle 1983

Richard Howard interviewed Alan Hovhaness during a stay at his Seattle home in October 1983. At this time Howard, a friend of Hovhaness since the 1970s, also worked with the composer on compiling the first detailed published catalog of Hovhaness's extensive output.

Streaming audio clips (MP3 format only) are by kind permission of Richard Howard

Photo: Hinako Hovhaness

Dr. Hovhaness, you are one of the most prolific composers in the history of world music. You are the recipient of honorary doctorates from the University of Rochester in 1958, and Bates College in 1959. You have been commissioned to compose works for such internationally renowned artists as Yehudi Menuhin, Jean-Pierre Rampal, Leopold Stokowski, Thor Johnson, Andre Kostelanetz, The New York Philharmonic Orchestra, and more recently the harpist Nicanor Zabaleta. Your music is widely performed in the United States, where you have received many standing ovations, and has been hailed for its distinct originality and extreme beauty and delicacy in Japan, Korea and India. And yet you have undergone comparatively little by way of established academic teaching. How did this remarkable outpouring of music begin?

Well, I think it began very early before I had any teachers. First I made an attempt when I was four years old, but that failed and later I suddenly started [again] at the age of seven, when I heard a piece of music by Schubert – the first time I heard a piece and realised that this was composed by somebody. They had music appreciation in the grammar school that I was in. So then I started composing. I realised that I had music in my head. Before, I thought that everybody else had the same experience, so I’d never written it down, but I started writing it [from] then.

You thought that because you were having musical ideas, everyone had musical ideas like you?

Yes, that’s what I thought and I took it for granted. So I guess Schubert started me off somehow.

And what kind of music did you have in your head at that time?

Well, all kinds of melodies. And then my mother had a little organ that you pump, a little harmonium, and I liked the lowest note on it – it had a kind of mysterious quality – so I made an oratorio called The Creation using that lowest note to start with. But actually I had many melodies that I heard in my head and I wrote those down.

And at what age did you first feel the influence of Eastern cultures on your musical ideas?

Well my opus 1, Oror, which means "lullaby" in Armenian, was not really an Armenian kind of melody but it does have an Eastern quality that permeated much of my thinking. But I think that my father one time brought home a record of the greatest Armenian composer, Komitas Vartabed, a kind of Armenian Bartok who collected and arranged in the most sublime manner ancient folk music from different districts. His music influenced me. Of course I went through the fever of all the masters of classical music, Schubert fever, Beethoven fever, Wagner fever - that was almost beyond the endurance of my parents! I played these on the piano, and arranged scenes from operas, and things like that. Mozart fever - that my parents could take more easily - and so on.

Were you therefore a musical black sheep of the family?

Oh I think so, because nobody else had ever tried music before, that we know of in the family history. They may have in ancient times, but I didn’t have any music forebears, so it was a kind of peculiarity of mine.

Were you born in Armenia?

No, I was born in Somerville, Massachusetts, near Boston. Then my childhood was spent in Arlington, a suburb of Boston.

In the Thirties you became so dissatisfied with your musical style that you destroyed almost everything that you had written up until then, including operas and a prize-winning symphony, since when you have composed a further 380 works, including 55 symphonies. How much music did you destroy?

Well, actually I didn’t destroy that symphony, but used its material later in other works. But I destroyed about a thousand works or so of all kinds, including many piano pieces, many violin and piano sonatas, and various vocal and choral works of all kinds. It’s hard to say, but about a thousand. It took about a couple of weeks and a huge fireplace to burn them all.

And what qualities did you feel were missing from all that music to make it so unsatisfactory?

Well, I’d gotten a letter from Roger Sessions, who’d been interested in my very early childhood music. He thought it had some originality. He came to see me one time during that period. Then later, when I showed him some of my other work, he said, “This work is no good”. He may have said it in a better way than that, but anyway he said it’s not good and doesn’t show any originality or any talent. But he said, “You must have talent because your very early work had”. And he said, “You should study the classics, not because they are classics, but because they are the only music good enough”. So it struck me like a sword. I felt there’s truth in what he says and I began to be very discontented and I thought the only thing to do is to close my eyes, burn the stuff and start over again. So I did! Of course, very shortly after that I began to have a conscious feeling of my Armenian and Oriental heritage. I began to feel this influence and this led me into feeling that, after all, it’s no use trying to be a modern Mozart. I think that started my discontent. I felt I hadn’t been really finding myself. And the early work was perhaps closer to what I should be doing – the very earliest work. Not that it was technically good. It was written in ignorance, whereas I’d already developed a conscious technique, which might have inhibited my real inspiration. So for all kinds of reasons I wanted to start over again. Also a little later, because of my great interest in Eastern forms of music, there were the Eastern and Indian influences.

So are you saying that the very earliest works you wrote were in fact more Orientally inclined than the works that immediately followed them, which you destroyed as well?

Yes, the earliest works were, and I think that that made me realise that what [Sessions] had seen in the early work was perhaps the direction that I should take.

Among the Oriental musical forms that have so captured your imagination is that of the ancient Japanese court, known as Gagaku. Can you tell us something about this particular musical form?

This is an orchestral music which came from two great civilisations, T’ang Dynasty China and ancient Korea, and came to Japan in about 700AD. In China they had tremendous orchestras, like Berlioz speaks of when he says he wished we had orchestras of a thousand and describes the loudest kind of music you could have if you had that many instruments. Well, in ancient China they had that, and it lasted until the invasion of Genghis Khan. But it lasted and went to Japan and has continued to this day. Of course, because of the world cut-backs and depressions and all that, and also lack of proper appreciation and interest, these orchestras are made up of just a comparatively few players now. But anyway, it’s the oldest orchestral music which has survived – we don’t have anything from ancient Egypt that has survived, and it’s one of the great musics of the world, I think.

What other early or oriental musical forms have influenced you?

click to hear

Actually, even before I really went into the Armenian heritage, I was influenced by Uday Shankar, the dancer who brought an orchestra of Indian instruments and music by Vishnu Shirali, an Indian composer and arranger. This happened in 1936 in Boston and influenced me very much in my musical outlook. This is a more modern type of Indian music but still it’s thoroughly Indian and has no connection with Western music.

What aspects of the modern Western symphony orchestra most excite you in the cause of combining ancient and Eastern influences with a contemporary symphonic sound?

Well I love all the instruments, and I think that, used properly, they can convey almost any kind of sound you want, and almost any kind of music you want. The orchestra is a beautiful instrument. Also, the string orchestra is probably the greatest instrument that Europe or Western civilisation has so far created.

Are there any modifications or improvements that you would like to see in the modern orchestra which would enable it, as a single many-faceted instrument, to be even more expressive?

Possibly the ones that could include facility in using microtones, small intervals. That would be very important. Also the fact that the keyboard instruments, such as the piano, have dominated orchestral writing too much since the last century. Of course Wagner used a piano all the time to compose, but he thought orchestrally. But the piano is always out of tune, so as it can be acceptably in tune in every key, therefore there’s a certain out-of-tune quality in equal temperament which doesn’t have to exist in the orchestra. The orchestra can adjust to any changing situation and still use absolutely pure intonation. So I think if we could take away some of the ‘improvements’ that have been made in keyed wind instruments, if we could take away those improvements and perhaps have something else, we could have a more flexible orchestra.

So this suggests that the trombone, for example, is near enough an ideal instrument as far as you’re concerned?

Yes, the trombone is the last survivor of the old civilisations, so to speak. The trombones were used as a choir in tower music from churches in the Middle Ages and also through Bach’s and Handel’s time, to a certain extent. I think that’s a marvellous instrument. I know one famous conductor said he wanted to have keyed trombones, but I think that is a kind of disaster, because of the tyranny of the modern piano.

So the opposite would be to have a slide trumpet would it?

I think that would be wonderful – I’m all for it.

Whom do you most admire among composers of the past?

Well, I’m a tremendous admirer of Handel. Beethoven considered him the greatest composer, so did Haydn and Mozart and I think he’s the most Homeric composer of all in his oratorios like Israel In Egypt and Jeptha, and he’s also one of the greatest lyrical composers. He has a grandeur and sublimity which I admire very much. Of course, I admire Bach tremendously too. However, I think Bach has so many admirers in this period that it’s eclipsed the understanding of Handel until recently. I think people are beginning to discover how equally great these two giants were. And Bach, while he was old fashioned, he carried the old-fashioned techniques to such an extent that I would say that he’s the father of modern science in music.

I have tremendous love and admiration for Mozart. His perfection of form and melody is something that I’m always amazed at. There’s no end to his wonderful operatic music, from Idomeneo on through Die Entfuhrung, which I love dearly, and all his operas, Don Giovanni, Marriage of Figaro, The Magic Flute, they’re all so wonderful I have no words to describe them - one goes on forever, if one tries.

Also Beethoven – the spirit of nobility in his music is very uplifting to me and often gives one courage.

I especially love Schubert, one of the most original composers of all time, I think. One of the greatest melodists and one of the greatest harmonic composers. He pushed harmony to [new heights] – for instance, the modulations at the beginning of The Young Nun, are hardly equalled even by Wagner in Gotterdammerung. Extraordinary songs he wrote, covering a tremendous field, over 700 of them. Some of the least known songs surprise me, they’re so beautiful. I don’t know why they aren’t all equally well known, they’re just wonderful. As a child I used to play them. My parents would give me half an hour when I could do what I wanted to do, after I’d done all the other things I was supposed to do - which I didn’t care about, school work and things like that, and practising piano, which was alright - but if I could have half an hour before I went to bed, I was allowed to do what I wanted and that was to play and sing Schubert songs to myself. And often times I would go to bed in an ecstasy of weeping and admiration. I feel that Schubert was the first composer who understood and really represented the very poor people and their struggle to survive, and their problems, their loves, their death, everything about them somehow. The voice of the poor is first heard in Schubert, and I don’t think anybody’s ever done it any better, or not as well really. He’s almost like a Mussorgsky, but he’s many other things too.

Wagner, of course. I had a Wagner fever and I tried to play his operas on the piano - I used to do sections of them. I admire Wagner tremendously. I think he loved Switzerland the way I do. He was exiled there. But nature in Switzerland, a kind of luxuriant nature and marvellous mountains, certainly influenced Wagner’s Ring and perhaps even the wonderful music of Parsifal. Of course, Tristan was the love music he wrote in Switzerland to Mathilda Wesendonck. Of course when you hear the first motif, the first notes of Tristan, if they’re at all decently played, it almost knocks you down. You feel this really changed music and you feel helpless in the hands of such a tremendous, expressive power. I know that many times I happened just to hear that much and I think “this is so tremendous I’ve gotta stay away from it or I’ll not be able to do anything any more today”.

Whom do you most admire among contemporary composers?

One of them is Julián Carillo ... his dates are 1875 to [1965]. A remarkable composer, not writing for conventional instruments, or when he did he managed to use them, such as the violin, to get a different system of intervals, like third tones and quarter tones, and so on. He wasn’t just concerned with quarter tones, which is kind of making our system more artificial, but he was, I think, getting closer to different kinds of tuning systems and that’s one reason we don’t hear his music as much as we should. Stokowski has performed some of his music and there is one recording by CRI of a work of his, but his music has a remarkable sound to it and is quite original. Another composer is Allan Gustav Pettersson. The tremendous symphonies that he wrote have impressed me very much. Another composer, who is Japanese-American, is Paul Chihara, who was born in 1938. He’s a remarkable orchestral colorist, a very skilful one. His music is very delightful I think. I’ll mention Lou Harrison, an old friend, who’s working now on Gamelan music, but he’s written some very beautiful music and about the time I was studying Gagaku in Japan, he was studying Ah-ak music in Korea, and he knows more about Far Eastern music, I think, than anybody else who’s a composer. I appreciate very much the work he’s done. Nicholas Flagello, who was born in [1928], is a very fine composer. Everything I hear of his is very expert and beautifully written. Another very original composer is Lucia Dlugoszewski. She was born in 1931 and works with a dancer, whom I’ve worked with also, Erick Hawkins. She’s a very original composer and some of her work now is recorded. She studied with John Cage. And I’ll mention John Cage: the period of his music which I especially like is the prepared piano music and Concerto for Prepared Piano and Orchestra (1951). [Some of] this music was written around the time I first met him, 1943 to 1951. That period of Cage’s music I like very much. In the mean time he got to know Boulez, and his style changed. I don’t love Boulez’s music. He’s a tremendous intellect and he has his place, but I feel that John Cage’s music before he met Boulez was very original and I sort of wish he’d continued that style a little longer. I admire Toru Takemitsu of Japan. He was born in 1930 and is a very fine composer I think. I must also mention one of the finest American composers of symphonies and large and smaller works too, William Schuman, born in 1910. I admire his Third Symphony very much and I heard his Second Symphony which I thought was quite original. The Sixth and Eighth I’ve known, and I think he is a very powerful composer.

You have acknowledged the influence of other great names outside the musical sphere, by way of dedications, or even in the titles of some of your works: Fra Angelico (a homage to the 15th century Italian painter), Firdausi (inspired by the 10th century Persian epic poet), and Meditation on Zeami (the great Japanese poet of the Noh stage). Is there something you can tell us concerning the impact that these eminent artists first made upon you?

Well, I think that Japanese Noh is one of the most perfect kind of operas that could ever be imagined and I admire Zeami as I admire Shakespeare and the Greek playwrights. He was not only a great playwright and a great poet, but a great musician too. He conceived the whole musical style of the Noh play and some of my operas have been influenced by Zeami’s point of view.

And a work like Fra Angelico was inspired perhaps in a moment when you happened to see a painting by him?

Well, I feel this way about Fra Angelico. As an artist he was a naïve painter, perhaps, but a kind of mystical, mediumistic painter, painting angels and so on – perhaps what Francis Bacon called the celestial or higher intelligences. I think it’s what he stood for, rather than the painting itself, that influenced me; the kind of joining together of heaven and earth, like the ideal of Chinese painting. Fra Angelico is a psychic painter in my way of looking at things. He was really painting his visions of the “angelic intelligences”, as Bacon called it, and I was referring to psychic painting when I wrote the work Fra Angelico. Actually, to me that particular theme had come in a strange and visionary way; I’d been very ill and I’d thought I wasn’t going to be able to go to a concert which I was supposed to go to, in connection with my work. And suddenly I found myself singing the main melody, and I suddenly realised I was healed, I wasn’t ill anymore. It came like a vision – like an angelic vision – and that’s why I gave it that title, so it was not just the artist Fra Angelico, but actually the kind of angelic vision that I was referring to.

You mentioned Francis Bacon, which happened to be my next question! Another notable figure to whom you’ve paid homage, a homage which seems to have spanned all the years of your creativity – your first symphony was dedicated to him in 1936, and also your recent piano sonata Ananda written in 1982 – is the English Elizabethan statesman and philosopher, Sir Francis Bacon. Your admiration for Bacon has been constant. Can you tell us why?

Well, first my great admiration for, and the mystery of, Shakespeare struck me in my childhood. The strange picture* which is a kind of a cipher in itself – the only portrait of him during his lifetime – struck me as a great mystery and I loved the Shakespeare plays so much. They seemed to have such wisdom, and I never could believe that this person was what people think he was. I had a feeling there’s a great mystery, perhaps the greatest mystery in the world, surrounding Shakespeare – the beauty of his name and so on. When I began studying Francis Bacon, I realised that Francis Bacon and Shakespeare were one. This was Francis Bacon’s nom de plume, him being a follower of Pallas Athena, as the “shaker of the spear”, and Francis Bacon’s motto “I will shake my spear at ignorance”: will shake spear. And the way he spelt it in many of the early editions, “Will” and then “Shake hyphen spear”, clearly shows his parentage. Ben Jonson, who was Bacon’s best friend, says in the introduction to the 1623 volume of Shakespeare plays, “How well thou dost shake a lance as brandished at the eyes of ignorance”, and the literary men always called Francis Bacon “Pallas” or “Pallas Athena”. Throughout my life, since childhood, Francis Bacon has been for me the greatest master, the greatest genius of all time and he’s been my inspiration. His work is such a tremendous subject, it is a mystery, and people are working on it and will have to work on it for many, many years to discover more. One can read Ben Jonson’s last work, which he called “Discoveries”, in which he identified Francis Bacon. When he was writing about Francis Bacon as Lord Chancellor, he quoted the same words as he had said earlier about William Shakespeare, that “when his socks were on he did that which was superior to haughty Rome and insolent Greece”. The socks having to do with the tragical plays. He said that about Shakespeare and he said exactly the same words about Francis Bacon.

* The “strange picture” referred to here is the 1632 Shakespeare line engraving by Martin Droeshout, in the London National Portrait Gallery, catalogue number: D 16530.

So it’s Bacon’s character as a philosopher and writer that’s most inspired you?

Very much so, and also his innocence as a man, because he was falsely accused and was a kind of martyr. There’s been a book written called The Martyrdom of Sir Francis Bacon – his name should be cleared, and I think that a great genius should be recognised and not maligned as [Thomas] Macaulay maligned him about 200 years after his death.

In 1960 you wrote a tone poem entitled Copernicus. Astronomy has been an interest of yours since earliest years, how has this influenced your music?

Before I was five years old, when we lived in Somerville, MA, I remember asking my father: “Is that star a world like our own world?” And my father said “That’s Jupiter, it’s much bigger than our world”. From the very earliest time I was always looking at the stars and I became very much interested in astronomy, so that after my first piece when I was four failed, I thought I would like to make my career as an astronomer. Then as soon as I started music, I realised that that wouldn’t be possible for me because I was never a good mathematician at all. Music became the important thing but I always was interested in everything to do with astronomy.

And this actually gave you inspiration for particular musical works did it?

Yes, very much so. Recently, I called my 52nd Symphony “Journey to Vega”. Of course, this is an imaginary journey because I believe that it would take us 400,000 years to go according to the speed of any of our space probes. So we can’t do it physically, but we can do it in imagination. But I was interested to hear recently that they’ve discovered planets around Vega.

And Vision of Andromeda, the 48th symphony, was that similarly inspired?

Yes, that was very much inspired by this tremendous galaxy which, to the naked eye, looks like possibly one star, but it’s billions of light years away, and it’s an entire universe like our Milky Way. We have many, many universes or galaxies.

You say that you destroyed a thousand works and this was around about the beginning of the 1930s. Your immense prolificacy suggests that your methods of working must be extremely fast. I believe that your opera Etchmiadzin, which lasts for 2 hours, was composed in 22 days; to be precise, between the 12th of May and the 2nd June 1946. Are there special conditions or times which are more conducive to working so quickly?

Well, during that time I was staying in an Armenian household and was well fed. They were very kind to me when I had that commission from the Armenian church to write an opera. So I could put all my time into it, and I did. I don’t try to compose rapidly, but often times the music just comes very fast with the inspiration, and I find myself composing perhaps for hours, though it seems hardly any time that I’m aware of. Another thing is that I used to compose all night, and I liked that because all night seemed to be for an eternity. I had all the time in the world and I could work calmly and slowly with complete concentration and have it done by dawn. I don’t do that anymore, but I still do compose rapidly. One thing, when I was writing television movies, that sort of thing, they never gave me time to do anything else. I had to score the whole thing for orchestra right off, I didn’t have time to think of it, I just wrote my full score immediately - like I generally do - but then I had to get it done, usually in two days because the copyists were waiting to copy the parts and the rehearsal and recording session had to come very quickly. So I had to work with tremendous rapidity then.

Another time, I got a commission [from CBS Radio and Television in 1953] to do an Easter Cantata the week before Easter, for chorus, orchestra and soloists. I wondered if I could do it so quickly, but suddenly the inspiration came, and I got it all done Saturday night, Sunday and Sunday night – I just worked steadily through and by Monday it was ready for the copyist. And the copyists were waiting to copy the parts because the rehearsal was going to be on Wednesday. And I still think that’s one of my most inspired works, one of my best.

The fact that it was a commission so soon before Easter, that didn’t bother you at all?

No. I think the only way I could ever get heard of anyway, was that I was the fastest composer. If they needed something quickly, they’d come to me, otherwise they’d go to someone else whom they thought was more fashionable. If they really needed fast work they’d come to me. And somehow, I don’t know, I’m inspired when I work fast – it’s hard for me to work slowly.

Even now, today, do you compose at particular times, or are you composing whenever you can?

Whenever I can is the answer really. I still love composing, I like to do it, it’s always a new adventure. I compose anywhere, wherever I happen to be, whether it’s at home, in a coffee shop. I used to compose on buses. I have a built-in orchestra so that I can try anything out in my mind, without hearing it physically.

So outside disturbances don’t disturb you?

I have a good blocking-out system, because most of the music that I hear, I don’t like, it doesn’t do anything for me. So, I just don’t hear it anymore, I turn it off even if it’s going on. Unless something good happens to happen, I hear something that’s suddenly a good piece, then I get very excited about it and I try to listen.

This is a piece that isn’t your own, that may come into your environment from the outside?

Yes. In one coffee shop I sometimes hear something, like a part of a Haydn symphony, so I immediately have to look up the score and see what it is. I jot down a motif from it so that I can identify it afterwards, because I may get very excited about it. A Mozart or a Haydn symphony – I say that because Mozart and Haydn wrote so much music that you’re likely to hear something that you’ve never heard before. Beethoven’s work you know, because he didn’t write that much music, he controlled himself to write more or less only masterpieces. So I would recognise that immediately, but I hear things by certain masters where you don’t know what it is.

Do you plan a work very far in advance?

I think many works plan themselves. Actually they grow out of nothingness and somehow build themselves up in my mind. And then I may find that there’s a certain symphony that I haven’t finished … I’ve finished four movements of it, and I have no idea yet what the finale will be, I haven’t found something that I feel is quite right or quite grand enough for what I want it to be. So that work has to be put aside for some commissions that I must do right away. But I am thinking about it and one of these days I’ll get to it.

Which symphony is that?

That’s Symphony No.54, I’ve got all the movements except the finale.

You say that you can compose almost anywhere, so presumably you don’t compose at a piano at any time?

No, the piano is only good for testing things if I have several versions of something and I want to get back and play them and see which I really think is the best. It’s not satisfactory really for orchestral music because a piano doesn’t sound like the orchestra, but of course you can imagine the orchestra - which I’m sure Wagner did when he used the piano. He always used a piano. So I use the piano to test ideas that I’ve already written in my notebook.

Photo: Richard Howard

Many composers did compose at the piano, because its range covers the pitch range of the whole orchestra. But that’s not an advantage where you’re concerned?

No, that doesn’t help because the range can be anything that’s audible. Stravinsky said he used the piano because he liked to make a noise or get the feeling of a sound. I may be wrong in quoting that, but somebody said that that’s why he used the piano, or he may use it for percussion reasons. I don’t know. I used to be a pianist and it was very natural for me to come to the piano finally when I had something I wanted to compare and criticise. But as I say, I think it’s disastrous to compose orchestral music at the piano. You should compose it entirely away from the piano and then come to it afterwards if you want to, because the piano has a pedal and you have to make the pedal in the orchestra. You have to use horns or some other part softly. You have to have something that takes the place of that. That’s only one of the reasons. There’s another reason. The piano is a more artificial instrument and all sounds decay immediately when you’ve struck them. Even piano music, I don’t compose at the piano. I never play it until it’s finished. And many pieces have been played by other pianists and I’ve never touched the piano at all in those pieces. There is one exception, where the theatre asked me to improvise and they recorded it, and I improvised the Poseidon Sonata and then later wrote that out. That was an exception because that was definitely just an improvisation session.

Is there any particular instrument for which you especially enjoy composing?

I can’t say really … I love the string orchestra and also all the instruments. They mean different things to me, for instance I use the trumpet like the voice of a priest. It has power and grandeur - as the cantor in the synagogue is supposed to be the voice of god, the trumpet can be that in the orchestra. Trumpet, trombone, horns sometimes, but especially the trumpet and trombone have a certain kind of power. The horns are very beautiful as a choir – every instrument is like that. I like the oboe very much, the clarinet slightly less, but it’s a very flexible instrument. And of course flutes, bassoons. But probably the oboe family – the oboe, English horn, and so on - especially appeal to me, perhaps because in Japan I found myself having a certain native skill on the ancient oboe, the hichiriki, which was the main instrument, the melody instrument, of Gagaku music.

Your 2nd Symphony, Mysterious Mountain, written in 1955, came to you in a rather extraordinary way did it not?

click to hear

A part of it did. In the middle of the last movement I had a sudden feeling of fatigue and so I just lay down and went to sleep for a moment. And I had a kind of a visionary dream of a master leaving the Earth and the trees and everything were weeping. And this music moved me very much and I immediately woke up and wrote it down. The funny thing about it is, I was writing this for Stokowski and I’d given him a full score of the whole symphony and I was starting to copy the parts. And when I came to copy the wind parts I suddenly had the same peculiar feeling of fatigue, and I lay down and had the same dream all over again. But I found I had missed a bar out of every phrase, so that instead of being in groups of fours, which I had written down, it should have been in groups of fives. Five times five form for that section, so it has an amazing kind of form, a square root form - perfect form in its way - and I corrected it and I called Stokowski and I said “Wait a minute, I have some changes” and he said “Just send it to me and I’ll paste them in”.

Have other pieces come in the same way?

Sometimes they do. Sometimes I’m aware that I’ve had a beautiful melody in a dream, but I can’t catch it, so it’s gone. If it comes just before I get up, perhaps I can remember it. But I have a terrible time sometimes trying to reconstruct it. Also melodies come while waking, but it’s like catching a wild animal that rushes through the room, and if you don’t catch it very fast, it’s gone.

You mentioned that you played the hichiriki. I’ve heard that you taught yourself to play the sitar during your visit to India, and that while in Japan you played the sho, in an otherwise all-Japanese ensemble. Are these reports accurate?

Yes, especially I learned the sho. That’s perhaps the most celestial sound in all music, the mouth organ - and that’s the instrument of harmony in ancient music. It has a whole system of harmony, entirely different from our own, and not so unlike some of the harmony in Wagner’s Tristan. So I always think perhaps Wagner was a Gagaku composer way back in a former incarnation. The sho I loved and I played it, but in the actual ancient orchestra, the pupils of the Imperial Court Orchestra put me with the hichiriki, which I had the most skill with and I used to play that in the student orchestra. We would meet every month in the shrine and would play, and our teachers would play less important parts. I would have to play a solo here and there. It was a wonderful experience. I loved doing it.

And what about the sitar?

I played the sitar not well, but that was in Boston when I was a very young man. I had artist friends who didn’t like European classical music, they liked only Indian music. We used to invite Indian amateur musicians to come and teach us Indian instruments. The sitar I never played as well as I did the veena – I found I could improvise on the veena, a wonderful South Indian instrument. It’s a stringed instrument, very beautiful sound, very vocal quality and very appealing. So I used to compose music even on the veena, just improvise it and then I’d write it down.

Are you more attracted to South Indian music than music from any other area of Indian then?

Well, I love it all, but I think North Indian music was the first that I heard and most of the people who came to study technical subjects, in technology and science and so on, were amateur North Indian musicians. They would bring their instruments because they felt homesick and would like to make music in their new environment. South Indian music was not known in this country at that time and later I was able to study it. But the veena, however, is used in both North India and South India, so that instrument I was familiar with. I’m very fond of South Indian music, that is kind of the foundation of Indian music in a way.

Are there other instruments that you play, apart from the piano?

I can’t say I play them well enough to say I “play” them, but I’ve “played at” many instruments now and then. Folk instruments of the Near East, such as the saz, and the oud, which is a lute, I’ve played those and composed on them too. I can’t remember offhand all the instruments I’ve fooled around with but these are the instruments [on which] I’ve acquired most skill. I always wanted to play violin but that was impossible in my childhood because there wasn’t enough money, I guess, for me to study violin. But I fooled around with that too, on my own.

I studied and played two types of shamisen, the Kabuki shamisen - the nagauta, or long song shamisen - and the joruri shamisen for the Bunraku, the doll theatre, that’s what the music is for. I studied with a master, a really wonderful teacher, to learn music for the doll theatre, that’s the large shamisen. And the nagauta shamisen, I had great fun with that, just improvising and playing Japanese songs - so much so, that I felt kind of disgraced afterwards because one very good artist photographed me playing it and I looked so silly, as though I was trying to compete with a geisha. So I forget to mention that sometimes because I was embarrassed. But I really enjoyed playing that instrument very much.

Talking of your early life, you did actually play the organ didn’t you?

I forgot to mention organ because, after all, that’s a keyboard instrument and any keyboard instrument I could play. So I was able to earn my living in all kinds of ways, partly playing organs in churches and that sort of thing. Any keyboard instrument, and percussion instruments, those I can play. I could play my own music sometimes, whereas very great percussion players couldn’t because my music was considered not legitimate for the percussion many times. But it is legitimate now because percussion music has become much more flexible. They aren’t just “the kitchen” the way they used to be. The percussion section is now a whole orchestra in itself. It can be a very poetic thing.

In what way was your percussion writing regarded as “not legitimate”? Was it to do with complexity of rhythm or was it the fact that you used percussion as much as you did?

Well, it was complexity of rhythm. In Anahid, a one-movement symphonic work, I was going to conduct that in 1946, and I was very worried about the timpani part because I used the timpani in very complex rhythms, like you might hear in India, going into cross-rhythms and then coming back into the main rhythm which was a 7/8 rhythm, and all kinds of 5/8, 3/8 and 13/16 and things like that against it, and then finally meeting the main rhythm again. Apparently two of the really fine players gave up right away because they thought this was ridiculous and asking something impossible, and they gave it over to a very young man who was good at timpani and he came to a rehearsal not knowing what he was going to face, but I talked to him a little bit and I said “When you come back to the main 7/8 I will give you a cue with the left hand, so that even if you get out in some of the complicated places, please meet me there”. And it worked beautifully, and he said “Oh, I see why they wouldn’t play it. I never had such a difficult thing in my life!” But he did it very well and, it’s funny, now any good timpani player can play it. They don’t complain any more. So that kind of development has happened enormously since the early forties.

And in your Symphony No.14, Ararat, there’s rather a lot of timpani in that, isn’t there?

Yes, there are about four different meters going at the same time. They’re all written as one meter but actually that’s what it really is, entirely different rhythms against each other - a whole carpet of rhythms going on under the trumpets, using four timpanists.

You’ve lived in several different places, often close to mountain scenery. What is the special importance of mountains?

I think from the time I was a young child I always loved mountains. I felt each mountain had its own ruling spirit somehow. If I saw a mountain, I wanted to climb it right away. Of course, I didn’t live in the Himalayas or in the Cascade mountains here, but every mountain that I could, I climbed, sometimes to my parents’ horror because if they let me get near enough to it, I was on top before they could do anything about it! I would get to the top and I would compose something and I would also make a drawing of the panorama so I would remember what it was. So mountains have always meant a great deal to me. When I was going anywhere in Europe, or when I had to make the Russian tour in 1965, or on my way to Greece earlier when I had a Guggenheim to go there, or going to India, I would always stop in Switzerland because I liked to be near those mountains, I liked to have some experience with them.

You have said elsewhere that amongst the musical works of the 20th century you most admire are two by Sibelius, Luonnota and The Swan of Tuonela. Was it your admiration for Sibelius or your sense of the landscape which inspired him, that led you to live for a while in Finland?

Well I actually lived in Finland only for about two weeks. I wanted to meet Sibelius. I don’t like to bother composers, and I’ve often sat next to very famous composers, like Stravinsky, but I never tried to talk to them or introduce myself. But with Sibelius I made that trip to Finland because from childhood I’d always loved his music. I remember when I was about eleven, I heard his Fourth Symphony, and I thought “My god, how can anybody write anything after that? It’s all said there”. So I had a tremendous feeling about his music. Of course, I realised that The Swan is a wonderful work, though that technically belongs to the last century, because he’d written already some very great works during the 1890s.

And did Sibelius welcome you?

He was very cordial to me. The first meeting was a little difficult because he immediately started speaking in French and my French was bad – only high school French – so that I was slow [to understand]. He was talking to me about Finnish cigarettes and showed me a map of the lakes, and he said “You must see all these wonderful lakes”. I said “I’ve just come to see you”, and he said “Oh, you can’t mean that!” or something like that. He joked about it. So that meeting we didn’t really communicate, but I came again. With a great labour, I concocted a letter in French and I gave it to the maid, who was washing clothes in a brook in front of his house. She said he was in Helsinki. I saw the curtain move a bit, after she’d gone in with the letter, and then suddenly she said “He’ll see you”. And so I went in, and I had this time his opus 12, a piano sonata, in my hands. He said “I wrote that 40 years ago. I was a very young man. There’s a passage in here which is very hard, you can change it.” And I said, “I don’t need to change it, it’s not too hard”. So he asked me to play it. So the first movement I played right away. I felt those powerful eyes boring through the back of my head and I thought how can I go through with this, but I’ll try, and he immediately jumped up and patted me on the back saying “Vous êtes musicien, vous êtes mon ami”. So then he called his wife, his daughter who had been playing that sonata earlier in her life, whatever of his family that was there, and brought me whisky and everything and we had a wonderful time. I showed him some passages in his scores that I loved very much, and whisky spilled on them and he said “Critics won’t call me dry anymore!” We had several meetings after that, and I appreciated very much that at the end he said “This visit not forgot” in English.

Did you play him any of your own music?

Yes I did. I played a sonata that I had written on the way over there, shipboard. He said “I see you have no trouble to have ideas and melodies. Your style so far is a line between Handel and me. In ten years from now you’ll find yourself, I can see it in your eyes.”

And did you see him again ten years later, for him to give you a verdict about that?

I didn’t see him, but we corresponded throughout his life. I sent him my First Symphony, the Missa Brevis and several other works and he wrote very kindly about them. When he received my First Symphony he wrote “You have found yourself now.”

I believe that you were much inspired during your youth, by many days spent walking and climbing in the mountains. Is it possible to say how such inspiration came to you, or the form that it took?

Well one thing is that if I suddenly had a tremendous inspiration when I was young, I couldn’t take it. I’d have to take a long, long walk and exhaust myself. Then it often failed because I got myself so tired that I went to sleep instead of writing anything. But I finally was able to control that situation, so I could control the inspiration so it wouldn’t hit me so fast or paralyse me so that I couldn’t do anything, and I found that many times I could work out ideas during long walks. Most of my best friends were good walkers too, and my father was a very good walker, so we used to take long walks and climb mountains together during my childhood.

Inspiration was sometimes an instantaneous thing, which I could hardly explain. All I know is sometimes I’d get a sudden idea, or even a whole piece would seem to be lying before me like a landscape, and then it would vanish. Or it would sometimes be so exciting to me, that I couldn’t stay in the room where I was. I would write down a note or two, and I could hardly bare the power of it, so I’d go for a long, long walk and then come back. If I was lucky, I could perhaps go further, but then sometimes I’d have to sleep it off – I’d be too tired from the walk or too tired from the excitement. And the danger was, in those days, that it would disappear, so the next day I couldn’t do anything about that particular idea or piece. I think gradually throughout my life I was able to control that excitement, and channel it better so that I could work calmly, and not get excited or dazzled by something, but find a way of working to try to do something with this force, this sense of the unknown.

So when you talk about the power of an idea, you’re referring to the extent to which it excited you?

Yes, I think so. Inspiration is something that comes perhaps every day, in one form or another. It’s not always taking a musical form, but it is like a channel. Sometimes perhaps the way Francis Bacon speaks of it, the “angelic intelligences”, as he said in his work. Under his pen-name “William Shakespeare”, he speaks of that “familiar ghost, who nightly gulls him with intelligence” – that means swallows him with ideas, with inspiration.

And during these walks, is it true that you experienced an unusual sensation of travelling quickly across great distances, or finding yourself in what seemed like another country?

Well, I think that’s more a kind of visionary experience that happened one time. I was on a hill and someone said, “That’s a wonderful view”, and I suddenly saw a view which I’d never seen before of another country, and I didn’t know what it meant. I thought how marvellous this country is. Later I went back to that hill many times and I never could see anything remotely like it. So I don’t understand what it was, it seemed to be very Oriental, a view of China or some other place. I never really understood it, I think it was some kind of special vision that happened at that moment when I was still very young.

Was there something tangible in your view which made you realise it was Oriental, or was it just a feeling that you had?

It’s a memory of the view, and the mountains are very pyramidal and sharp. A beautiful lake seemed to lead to those mountains. I’ve never seen anything like it. I’ve seen that lake many times and the mountains around it, and I’ve climbed many of them, but I’ve never seen that particular view again.

Many of the titles of your works, as well as some of the texts you have written, seem to allude to metaphysical or mystical worlds and states of being. Over and above the strange experiences you’ve already mentioned, what is your experience of other visionary states?

Well, I think a great deal of it I owe to my friend and teacher, Hermon di Giovanno, who actually had a Greek name because he wanted to be an opera singer when he was young. Some local conductor said he should have an Italian name, so he had this peculiar name that didn’t have anything to do with him, but is a translation. He was born in Mytilene, the Greek island just off Turkey. He was a visionary. I think his influence was very important on all of us in Boston, the painters and myself. I still have some of his paintings. I think when you associate with somebody who has this ability, some of it, because of the aura, somehow enters one’s own experience. He prophesied the future many times, and was a tremendous influence and guide in my work. He helped me into the Oriental [musical] influences, so that I think I owe many things to him.

You mean he prophesied things in your personal future?

Yes, both personal things and music which I would write later. He was the one who first told me that I should go into my Armenian background and learn all the systems of ancient Armenian music. It started with that. I said, “How can I do it? There’s nobody who knows those things.” And he replied, “Somebody from Constantinople is going to knock on your door, either tomorrow or the next day, and he’ll bring a book of Armenian notation and he will ask you to do some arrangements, and you’ve got to do it whether you want to or not.” And, sure enough, the next day there was a knock on my door and a choral conductor from Constantinople had this book of ancient hymns and he wanted me to arrange several of them for choirs and he also explained the notation for me. So, that’s just an example of many things that happened.

So this experience actually increased your interest in learning about Armenian musical notation?

It did, and you see I was against that sort of thing. I never wanted to be a folk song arranger or anything like that, I had too many melodies of my own. But this kind of made me do it, and I think the more melodies you know and hear, the more styles of melodies, the more ragas, as they call it in India, the better your own melodies will be, and so it improved and lifted my whole melodic style.

Do you believe that reincarnation may be an explanation for your empathy with the other times and cultures to which you’re so drawn?

I think so, because when I started to study counterpoint, I came back to Frederick Converse one time and said “Look, I want you to teach me counterpoint.” And he said “What do you mean? You know it.” I said “No, I don’t know it. I can fake it, but I don’t really know it, and so I want very strict training.” And so I did it very, very thoroughly and I had some kind of feeling right away that I had done all this before, and better!

You have been hailed and honoured in the East, but to what extent, if any, do you feel that the strong Oriental currents in your music have made it alien or difficult to Western ears?

Well, they were possibly in the earlier work, but I’ve always felt impelled towards a kind of universal quality in music. Some ragas or scales that I may have used or created may have bothered some people but I think the world is coming much closer together, so whatever may have [once] affected people against my music, now has changed. We’re getting to a kind of mixed language which almost includes things from all over the world. It may be sometimes the long melodic line, or a piece which is basically only a melody, as Indian music is many times, without an accompaniment or harmony, a non-harmonic style, which is an important part of my music – especially the part of my music during the 1940s. Somebody once described me as playing something on the piano over and over again causing the audience, which was Armenian, Arabic or Greek, to get crazy about it, and they wondered why they were interested in this music that was just repeating “over and over” again. Well, as it happened, there was no repeat in it at all, it just stayed in a mode, but the melody was always changing. Some people don’t hear it as change, they only hear that there’s no harmony and think it’s based on one chord, like Wagner did in the beginning of Das Rheingold, and so they think that everything is repeated because the chord doesn’t change. Oriental people know it is not being repeated, they listen to it melodically and I think that Western people in this century are so used to heavy or thick harmonies that they really don’t listen melodically. They’re beginning to more and more of course, but at that time especially it just sounded [to them] like nothing or like repetition. So that element, and also the strangeness of certain melodic scales that I used – Turkish, Armenian, Indian and Arabic – may have confused people at first. They didn’t realise the emotional expressiveness of these intervals. So I think it did make me sound like a crazy composer to some people back in the early Forties.

Melody seems to be a prime component in your music, is this always your first consideration?

Well, I think composing melodies is the first thing that I did. It was the first inspiration I had. Everything else seemed to me to be subservient, but also important. Some melodies belong with certain harmonies, and give birth to harmonies themselves, but to me the melody is the most natural and most satisfying thing. I think music without melody to me is decidedly lacking in the most essential thing. In Oriental music in many cases, melody is the whole thing. A whole piece may be a melody and nothing else. A long melodic line with a wonderful form can be a very perfect piece. This visionary Greek teacher I had – not a musician but a wonderful clairvoyant - suggested to me a form I like to use, which is an introduction, then a sort of surprise vision, and then finally a fulfilment or hymn of praise - all this purely in the form of a long melody. The overture to Avak The Healer (1945) is an example of that, firstly a supplication, then the surprise of the descent of the angel, and then a final fulfilment or glorification. I use that form many times, sometimes it’s just melody alone. And there are other forms of melody, sometimes a melody which starts in one mode and then goes into a new mode and stays there, never coming back to the first one. Or a melody which stays only in one mode, or a melody that may have several modes and return perhaps at the end to the opening mode. So melodies can have their forms. I know that Vincent d’Indy, the wonderful French composer of marvellous music, such as the Symphony on a French Mountain Air, said the most difficult thing to do is to compose with no harmony, just a melodic line. This means that pure melody is really the test of a composer in his estimation, and I feel that’s true too. To me that’s the test of music.

Are there particular works of yours which, having suffered stormy premieres, have finally found acceptance?

Well, I’ve found that when some critic has ridiculed or misunderstood a work, sometimes it’s turned out to be very successful, more so than others. I won’t say that it’s always that way. Some things have been well received at first and they’ve continued to be. But I always sort of joke about it because if someone says something very bad about a work, I think that’s good luck, it will turn out very well later.

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One example is my concerto for piano and strings Lousadzak, which means “dawn of light”, meaning a kind of spiritual dawn or spiritual journey. This work used the piano in a very different way and had a special form and was misunderstood right away in Boston. There was an Armenian audience mostly, and they didn’t understand it. My amateur orchestra liked it pretty well, but then I introduced some professionals from the Boston Symphony and afterwards one of them said “I like Oriental music but this is far too Oriental.” I played the first performance and conducted from the piano that time. Later I got another pianist because I felt I really couldn’t conduct that work and play it at the same time, it didn’t quite work out so well that way. So when it was done in New York there was a fight between two critics. One of them was Lou Harrison. Lou Harrison and John Cage came to that concert, more or less to laugh at it because they’d heard that I was a crazy composer. Lou Harrison told me afterwards that from the first few notes it sounded good, but he wondered when it was going to go bad, as expected. But he said it never went bad through the whole thing. He got very excited about it. And when Lousadzak was done there was an intermission. [Lou] liked it so much, another critic was almost ready to fight [him], he was so angry about it. Lou Harrison said afterwards “If we’d only had a real fistfight it would have made history.” However, they didn’t quite get to that point but people in the audience were already crowding around to see what would happen. I had to encore part of Lousadzak because part of the audience liked it so much. John Cage came right away to meet me back-stage and he said “Lou Harrison will be meeting you tomorrow because he’s got to write a review.” And he gave me the best review I’d ever had up to that time. So that was both stormy and friendly. It was very exciting. Recently [pianist] Keith Jarrett has played Lousadzak wonderfully, and it’s had its best success in New York, the Cabrillo Festival, and in Europe recently with Keith Jarrett and [Dennis Russell] Davies conducting it.

So when exactly was it that Lou Harrison almost had his fistfight?

That was in 1945 at the first New York performance. The music was written in 1944. It was about a year ago [i.e. 1982] when it came into its own [with Keith Jarrett].

Generally speaking, is there a particular direction you would like to see music take at this time?

The direction music takes is not my business, I feel. I want to do what I do and I believe this is influenced by secret forces which we don’t know. It’s too great a responsibility for me to prophesy. I don’t feel I can, neither do I have any conscious wishes how music should go. I know I want my music to go a certain way, and even that I leave to whatever spiritual influences there are.

To what extent is your music aleatoric?

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In Lousadzak, back in 1944 when I composed it, my friend Hermon di Giovanno was describing it. He said he heard some of it in a visionary state. He heard a strange murmuring effect and he tried to describe it. He wasn’t a musician, he didn’t know music - except he was a tenor and wanted to be singer. The way he described it, I tried to imagine how one would write it, and I created that kind of aleatoric notation and I called it “spirit murmur”. Then of course a lot of people laughed about it. My amateur orchestra, however, didn’t laugh. They enjoyed it because it gave them a rest from things that they had to count and play in rhythm – in this, all they had to do was just play it very freely. But as soon as we got professionals in they would all laugh, but when I took it to New York, members of the Philharmonic orchestra started to laugh, but then said, “It really sounds good”. So that was the beginning of my aleatoric things. I used it as a background and as a sound in itself. Later I developed it much more, for dramatic purposes also, so it was, so to speak, a beginning. Also John Cage had been there at that first performance [of Lousadzak] and he noticed these things, but he went in a different direction when he created his aleatoric music back in the fifties. I remember the New York Philharmonic had played Meditation on Orpheus in the early sixties and then later, nearer 1970, they said, “Actually we thought that was rather strange, but now everybody’s doing it in one way or another”.

But any aleatoric techniques you use are usually within a framework; they don’t take the work over in a way that perhaps they do in some modern composers’ works?

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No, I always refuse to do that. Somebody once asked why don’t I write a whole work that is aleatoric, and I said that’s not the purpose of it – this is an atmosphere, or a carpet of sounds. But I’m not interested in making it any more than that. It may be the whole thing for a certain section, and it’s always controlled, I control the sounds I want. So it’s like a cloud but every note of the cloud is planned. It’s just that I allow these sounds to be very freely sprinkled, so to speak, and every player does it a little differently so that it creates a whole cloud of sounds. I think that's the way I wanted to use it. As more people have used it, I have used it less and less. But I figure, since I started it, I think I still can use it and have the right to it, but I’m always changing my technique if I can improve it.

One of your most popular pieces seems to be And God Created Great Whales, in which you used tape recordings of whale sounds recorded under the ocean. What prompted you to write this?

Well, actually it was commissioned by the New York Philharmonic. The scientists who had recorded these whale sounds, they were interested in saving these wonderful and intelligent creatures – so I’m all for that. [Andre] Kostelanetz wanted to do it on the [Philharmonic’s] promenade concerts. That’s how it came to be written. After the first performance, I guess the audience liked it but the critics said that “Hovhaness has been harpooned”, and they sort of ridiculed the whole thing. I know both Kostelanetz and I thought this piece is interesting right at this moment but it will be forgotten very quickly. But instead it seems to be one of my most played pieces, probably the most played right now, which is long after that date, about 1970.


Finally, is there any advice you would give to young artists in any field with regard to the way they approach their creativity?

I think they should approach it with their whole heart and soul and mind. I don’t have any advice because everybody has their own vision and sometimes I may be able to help technically, but I think that it’s always a mistake to push an idea that’s not theirs. I think they should find themselves and find their own ideas. That’s the main thing, they should compose from their own visionary experience.

Thank you very much for answering such personal questions.

© Richard Howard, 2005


Photo: Richard Howard


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