Alan Hovhaness and Seattle

The Pacific Northwest is permeated by natural beauty, a place where the mountains, forests, and sea intertwine with the furthest reaches of American civilization. The communities that reside in this place are highly diverse, with peoples of many cultures from the Pacific Rim and all around the world mixing together. The music of prolific Armenian-American composer Alan Hovhaness (1911-2000) seems to observe nature in a hushed, reverential atmosphere, and evokes its grandeur and terrible beauty in soaring melodies and epic orchestral textures. Hovhaness’ music blends the sounds of different exotic cultures with those of his own heritage. His compositions are so evocative of these Northwest features that it is no surprise he made Seattle his home in 1970 and resided here for the rest of his life. A closer look at Hovhaness’ unique musical aesthetic not only looks inside life in the Northwest but also shows a reverence for the universal human spirit.

The prolific compositional output of Alan Hovhaness numbers no less than 500 works: operas, ballets (a few choreographed by Martha Graham), choral works, songs, chamber music, and 67 numbered symphonies. His early music was scorned by Copland and Bernstein and the young composer faced setbacks. As he searched for his musical identity, he became fixated on the aesthetic of Armenian music, and changed his name from Chakmakjian (which no one could pronounce) to “Hovaness” and later “Hovhaness” with the emphasis on the second syllable, honoring the name of his Armenian paternal grandfather. Modal, folk-like melodies singing above low, droning sounds became central to his aesthetic. He was a pioneer of early semi-aleatoric music, where individual instruments within an ensemble would repeat a series of set patterns, uncoordinated and at different speeds. This created everything from a lush, soft cloud of sound that he called “spirit murmur” to thundering, cataclysmic orchestral sounds. Trips to Asia between 1959 and 1963 added the indigenous music of India, Hawaii, Japan, and South Korea to his aesthetic. A strong background of classical training added counterpoint to the mixture, and Hovhaness was one of the first American-born composers to bring cultural influences of Asia and Eastern Europe together into the composition of Western contemporary classical music. Hovhaness studied astronomy in his early life, and a fascination with the grandeur of planets, stars, and space crept into many of his musical works.

Just as Hovhaness’ music stood apart from other American aesthetics of his time such as serialism and Copland-influenced populism, his religious and political views separated him from his contemporaries. Hovhaness’ youthful interest in meditation and mysticism was a profound influence on his music. The Greek mystic painter Hermon di Giovanno became a close, highly revered associate of Hovhaness and his pseudo-impressionist paintings could be found on the walls of Hovhaness’ residence throughout the composer’s life. Hovhaness called Giovanno “my spiritual teacher who opened the gate to the spiritual dimension.” His Sixth Symphony is named after a specific Giovanno painting, Celestial Gate. Hovhaness’ spiritualism caused him concern regarding the direction of American society, proclaiming in 1971:

We are in danger of destroying ourselves, and I have a great fear about this … 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 … 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?

The composer’s spiritual views gave him a strong reverence for the natural world, and this tied Alan Hovhaness in part to the Northwest. Written shortly after his relocation to Seattle, his famous orchestral work And God Created Great Whales specifically called for recorded whale calls to be inserted into the performance. The austere darkness of Northwest weather that we see much of the year seems to color his music’s murky lyricism, and the towering mountains of Seattle’s impressive skyline seem to rise out of his epic brass writing and the gargantuan sound of his quasi-aleatoric passages. Gerard Schwarz recorded a number of his works with the Seattle Symphony, where Hovhaness was composer-in-residence for the 1966-1967 season. Hovhaness’ music continues to be performed in the Northwest by ensembles like the Seattle Youth Symphony and Seattle Metropolitan Chamber Orchestra. Rumor has it that on a rainy and cold Northwest day in the late 20th century, a thin, wizened figure could be seen in the food court at Southcenter Mall, bent over a table full of score paper, composing his next mystic ode to the earth and its people.