Unheard Hovhaness


KALAN 773

Alan Hovhaness (1911-2000) is among the most prolific of American composers. He has written so much music that even now, over twenty years since he exited the earthly plane, there remains much music that has not been recorded and manuscripts that await editing and publication. This beautiful recording fills some of those gaps.

First I must say that Hovhaness holds a special place for me personally as his music has always felt like a personal discovery. In my early teens I was immediately hooked when I first heard a recording of his second symphony, better known as “Mysterious Mountain” (in the Chicago Symphony/Reiner recording). It would be years before I attempted to grapple with the structure of his music but I knew it spoke to me.. Another piece which caught my still forming musical ear was his Allegro on a Pakistan Lute Tune from pianist Robert Helps’ classic survey of American piano music on CRI recordings from 1966. And in 1976 Hovhaness’ “Achtamar” was included in radio station WFMT’s bicentennial survey of American Music curated by composer/educator Raymond Wilding-White.

I later heard a broadcast performance from Oberlin of his Visionary Landscapes for piano which also grabbed my attention. I would later hear this in the recording and at a live recital in 2011 performed by Sahan Arzruni in Berkeley, California in celebration of the composer’s centennial (curated by legendary Bay Area Armenian-American composer/producer/educator/broadcaster Charles Amirkhanian). I later purchased the two wonderful discs of piano music by equally legendary pianist/broadcaster/educator/new music advocate Marvin Rosen as well as a disc or two with the composer himself at the keyboard.

That brief personal history serves to illustrate some of why this disc is so exciting to me. This new recording is a sumptuous production that came in a little cardboard CD box with a distinctive design and gold stamped lettering. Inside is a CD in a matching cardboard slipcase and a high gloss paper booklet in three languages (Turkish, Armenian, and English). These useful notes describe the nature and sources of these compositions which are recorded for the first time, some from manuscripts which remain unpublished.

Arzruni is himself of Armenian extraction (born in Istanbul in 1943) and has been active as a pianist for many years as soloist and as a chamber music partner in a wide range of music. Some will recall him as the straight man playing in some of Victor Borge’s humorous recitals. Arzruni is a multifaceted artist whose knowledge and affinity for Turkish and Armenian music along with his firm grounding in the traditional western classical repertoire make him one of the finest interpreters of Hovhaness’ music. The pianists discography is diverse and interesting encompassing classical repertoire as well as fascinating niches of contemporary music from Turkey, Armenia, and their diaspora.

Sahan Arzruni with composer Alan Hovhaness

There are 34 tracks which contain 10 compositions. Some of the tracks require a percussionist (Adam Rosenblatt). All tracks are vintage Hovhaness. Though he is an American composer, born in Massachusetts, Hovhaness, in the tradition of learning non-western musics that traces to composers like Henry Cowell, Lou Harrison, McPhee, Georges Enescu, and other proto-world music scholars who incorporated non-western scales, tunings, and compositional methods in their work. Hovhaness studied variously Armenian traditional music as well as Korean, Chinese, Japanese, Indian, Javanese, and Balinese musics.

The first piece on this disc is the five movement “Invocations to Vahakn” (1945-6). Vahakn is, in Armenian mythology, a god who symbolizes martial victory. According to legend he saved the earth by slaying savage black dragons in pre-Christian Armenia. The first movement is for solo piano. The remaining four augment the piano with various percussion instruments including a thunder sheet, Chinese drums, a conch shell, Burmese gongs, and cymbals. This piece appears to have been recorded only once before in an excellent performance by the Abel/Steinberg/Winant Trio on New Albion records.

Next up is another five (originally seven) movement suite for piano (this time without percussion), “Yenovk” (1951). This work went through several revisions ultimately culminating in it being renamed, “Madras Sonata” (1960). These five movements reveal various aspects of his compositional style including his imitation of non-western instruments and the use of various western and non-western forms. The five movements in the world premiere of this version of the work are: Fantasy, Canzona, Jhala, Canzona, Ballata, and Fugue. Hovhaness was a master of counterpoint and fugue as can be heard here. This was dedicated to Yenovk Der Hagopian, a singer and friend of the composer who introduced him to Armenian traditional folk music.

Lalezar (1947) is for solo piano. The title is a Farsi word for “field of tulips” and, like many of Hovhaness’ works, it went through later transformations culminating in it becoming a song in the 1971 song cycle (The flute Player of the Armenian Mountains) written for the great Armenian bass singer, Ara Berberian.

The next three tracks contain the “Suite on Greek Tunes” (1949). It is dedicated to the Greek-American pianist William Masselos (1920-1992) whose performing repertoire included a great deal of American music. This appears to tbe the first recording of it. The three movements, wedding song, grapeyard song, and dance in seven tala. The last movement reflects Hovhaness’ interest in Hindustani music. Tala is a rhythmic form in that musical system.

Mystic Flute (1937) is a brief piece which is also based on tala. It was a frequent encore played by none other than Sergei Rachmaninoff. The 1962 revision, given the Opus number 22 has been recorded but this is the premiere recording of the 1937 version originally published in 1942.

Journey into Dawn (1954) was originally titled, “Piano Suite No. 2”. This second of four piano suites composed in 1954 is cast in five movements: Hymn, Fugue, Jhala, Aria, Alleluia. Again we hear the eclectic nature of the composer’s interests with elements here of sacred music, western art music, and Hindustani forms.

Laona (1956) was originally titled, “Genesee River” after the river which runs through Rochester, New York. Hovhaness was fond of the views of the river. He later changed the name of the piece in reference to the city in New York state where the Spiritualist Movement established a center in the mid-19th century. This is an impressionistic piece rather unlike Hovhaness’ other works in style but certainly of the same quality. This is its recording premiere.

The three movement “Lake of Van Sonata” (1946, rev 1959). The title refers to Lake Van, the largest body of water in Anatolia and was the center of the Armenian kingdom or Ararat. It was populated predominantly by Armenians from about 1000 B.C. until the Armenian genocide of 1915. In his liner notes Arzruni reports that he has abridged the first movement in collaboration with the composer. This sonata has been recorded at least twice before this release.

Vijag (1946) is a composition for two pianos. The title refers to the traditional Armenian fortune telling festival. Though the notes do not specify, it appears that Arzruni plays both parts. It is a world premiere recording.

The disc ends with a fairly large work, the eight movement “Hakhpat Sonata” (1948-51). It is scored for piano and percussion (apparently the only Hovhaness piano sonata that uses percussion). The percussion consists of a large Tam Tam and a kettle drum tuned to the note “G”.

This is the first recording of this piece whose title refers to a large monastic complex built in 976 CE. The monastery has been placed on UNESCO’s World Heritage List as of 1996.

This is a major release, a gorgeously recorded and produced CD album which fills essential gaps in Alan Hovhaness’ recorded legacy. The liner notes by Mr. Arzruni reflect his depth of knowledge of the music and his thorough research. All collectors of American Music, Armenian Music and lovers of piano music in general will want to have this disc. It is a gem.

Black Classical Part Four


As promised in a previous blog I am here continuing a little personal survey of recordings of music by black classical composers in honor of Black History Month. I suppose it is worth adding that I pursue these recordings because they present interesting and exciting repertoire that has not gotten the circulation it deserves. Sadly this is most likely the result of the failure of producers, performers audiences and investors to look at the value of the art itself, looking instead through the lens of racial prejudice. I hope that readers of these blogs will avail themselves of this music, these performers, these recordings and maybe come to realize that those old prejudices serve only to limit one’s world view and prevent a rewarding artistic experience. Art, like people, must come to be valued by its own merits, not limited on the basis of skin color. MLK definitely phrased that more elegantly.

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And further proof of such valuable art can be found in a series of recordings on the Chicago-based label Cedille. In fact their website cedillerecords.org contains a link to the six albums of music by black composers they have thus far issued.

Building on the work he had begun with the Black Composers series for Columbia in the 1970s conductor Paul Freeman released three CDs in the Cedille series called ‘African Heritage Symphonic Series’. With the orchestra he founded Freeman presents music by Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, Fela Sowande, William Grant Still, Ulysses Kay, George Walker, Roque Cordero, Adolphus Hailstork, Hale Smith, David Abel’s, David Baker, William Banfield and Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson. Freeman released a CD dedicated exclusively to the music of Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson as well.

Violinist Rachel Barton-Pine released a disc of violin concertos by 18th and19th century black composers on Cedille and there is a disc of choral music which includes music by black composers.

Let’s turn now to the Albany www.albanyrecords.com label where you can find more of the artistry of Paul Freeman in 18 albums where he presents neglected music of the 20th century by a wide variety of composers black and white. Most of it is by American composers and much of that in styles related to the mid-century styles of the likes of William Schuman, Aaron Copland and their students. While these discs include music by many of the previously mentioned black composers there are no duplications of works or performances. I have heard but a few of these discs but what I have heard is enough to convince me to plan to purchase the others. Freeman, in addition to bringing the music of black composers to the listening audience has done a fine job of documenting many whose work has been little heard until now.

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Another composer who fits more or less into the context of the conventions of the western concert traditions whose work has informed my listening is that of Anthony Davis (1951- ). While he has played with musicians from more experimental traditions the influence of the western concert traditions is more easily heard.

His study of jazz as well as western classical and eastern gamelan are all evident in his work (though not necessarily all at the same time). The New York City Opera produced his, ‘X, the Life and Times of Malcolm X’ in 1986 and the Lyric Opera of Chicago produced ‘Amistad’ in 1997. He has written concertos for piano and for violin as well as music for orchestra and smaller ensembles. At the time of this writing he is professor of music at the University of California San Diego.

So far the music we have discussed has been of the sort more commonly heard in concert halls these days. Freeman’s efforts have seemingly jump-started the recording industry to pay some attention to the music of black and other neglected composers. Certainly there is much more gold to be mined there. But we have yet to address the contemporary scene, the new and creative artists who are bringing innovative ideas and sounds and advancing the musical arts for subsequent generations. Following on the innovations of great jazz artists such as Charlie Parker, John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman (among many) there was increasing focus on techniques being used by contemporary “classical” composers

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To these ends there is no better place to start than with the AACM, the American Association of Creative Musicians. Founded in Chicago in 1965 this collective has strived to bring various elements of black culture in an incredibly eclectic and experimental milieu which has had and continues to have an influence on music, musicians and audiences. This collective was finally given a proper overview in George Lewis’ book, ‘A Power Stronger Than Itself’. Lewis, a trombonist, composer and currently professor of music at Columbia University in New York was a member of the AACM.

The AACM was not the only such collective but it was one of the most visible, at least to me. And it continues to develop and evolve bringing the complex and innovative musical ideas evolving from the black roots of jazz to a level of recognition and respect formerly accorded pretty much exclusively to European academic models. The AACM, dubbed “Great Black Music” also strives to retain the identity of black music by black peoples of the world looking to non-western models that predate European colonialism marrying them to the best of European models as absorbed by the diaspora. Many of their members now hold academic positions including Roscoe Mitchell, Anthony Braxton, Wadada Leo Smith and Nicole Mitchell.

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Perhaps the best known ensemble to come out of the AACM is the flexibly-membered Art Ensemble of Chicago. Their album ‘Third Decade’ released in 1984 is representative of their work and also marks a sort of end to one creative era for this flexibly-membered group. Most listeners will hear this as progressive jazz and it certainly has those elements. But repeated listenings reveal many layers to this work. And this is but one of a large catalog of albums as diverse as they are numerous (about 50 albums and still counting). More on their work at their website www.artensembleofchicago.com.

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Another prominent figure that was a member of AACM is Anthony Braxton, saxophonist, composer, chess master who dislikes the term ‘jazz’ in reference to his music. He is currently professor of music at Wesleyan University. And indeed his music which ranges from solo saxophone work to small ensemble and orchestral music and opera are difficult to classify. His experimentalism is related to but not derivative of the work of John Cage. It would be impossible to represent his musical output in a single album but the solo saxophone ‘For Alto’ (1968) and ‘Creative Orchestra Music’ (1976) are good places to start in his discography of well over 100 albums. His website tricentricfoundatio.org offers many of his recordings for sale and even offers free downloads of bootleg recordings.

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For the sake of brevity I will discuss only one more artist in this blog entry, Julius Eastman (1940-1990). He was a composer, vocalist, pianist and dancer. As a vocalist he sang and recorded the music of Meredith Monk, Peter Gordon, Morton Feldman, Arthur Russell and Peter Maxwell-Davies. He was very much a part of the avant garde downtown scene in New York of the 1970s.

At the time of his sad death from a heart attack at the age of 49 there were but a few recordings of his work (collected in a nice 3 CD set on the New World label). And many of his scores were lost when he was unceremoniously evicted from his apartment. The composer Mary Jane Leach is attempting to collect and preserve his legacy and has made many of his extant scores on her website http://www.mjleach.com/eastman.htm.

Without a doubt there are many more black classical and avant-garde artists I have yet to discover. I welcome suggestions and I hope that the preceding ideas will stimulate and encourage others to explore these artists and works.

Black Classical Part Three


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For my third installment I have chosen to highlight that series of recordings by conductor Paul Freeman of music by black composers which I mentioned in a previous blog.

In 1974 Columbia Records issued 9 LPs (originally it was to be 12) over the next few years in a series called, ‘Music by Black Composers’. The music was chosen largely by Paul Freeman who also wrote the liner notes and conducted the performances. He was assisted by musicologist Dominique-Rene de Lerma who contributed his knowledge of pre 20th century black music and also edited some of the pieces for performance.

This set of records was featured by my local radio station (WFMT in Chicago) at the time of its release and opened my listening mind to to this cornucopia of fascinating classical concert music by black composers. The series was so titled in part because it included music from many countries and also because it was released before the term ‘African American’ became Le mot juste (but that is another story).

The series was apparently recorded and released 1974-78 and re-released in 1986 as a set under the Columbia Special Products label. Historically it was an important set of releases much like the series curated by David Behrman called ‘Music of Our Time’ which featured some truly cutting edge music by composers writing in the sixties and seventies. To be sure the black composer series was not cutting edge modernism like that series but gains its cutting edge from collecting in one set music from the 18th to the mid-20th century by a set of composers who, other than having been trained in the discipline of music performance and composition, held in common only a skin color darker than ‘white’.

Billboard announced the plan to issue these records in 1973 saying that they were the fruit of a collaboration between the Irwin-Sweeney Miller Foundation of Columbus, Indiana and, with the encouragement of Dominique-Rene de Lerma, the school of music at Indiana University in Bloomington. Citing “campus politics” professor de Lerma reported that Indiana had lost interest so he phoned Paul Freeman (conductor with the Detroit Symphony at the time) and advised him to contact the ‘Afro-American Music Opportunities Association’ whose support then helped launch this series. The original plan was to release four albums per year for at least three years but a great beginning soon slowed and the 9th album (pictured above) was the final release in the series.

Coming twenty some years after the voting rights act of 1965 it retained the some cachet of the civil rights movement and likely was produced at that time in the hopes that this might help sell the albums to consumers. I don’t know who ultimately bought these albums or what their total sales were but I know that some visionary producers at WFMT piqued my interest and that I bought many of these records and listened with interest when they were scheduled to play (I religiously perused the monthly program guide).

The original releases went out of print in a few years. There was a CD set (currently out of print) compiled by the Columbia University (Chicago) Center for Research in Black Music funded by the Ford Foundation that released a selection of the Detroit Symphony performances (now a pricey collector’s item) from that set as well as a reissue of the complete set on vinyl records with the original cover art and program notes which remains, I am happy to report, available by mail from the College Music Society in Missoula, Montana www.music.org.

The contents are:
Columbia M-32781 (1973); volume 1
Saint-Georges: Symphony concertante, op. 13 (ed. by Barry S. Brook; Miriam Fried, Jaime Laredo, violins; London Symphony Orchestra)
—–: Symphony no. 1 (ed. by D. de Lerma; London Symphony Orchestra)
—–: Scena from Ernestine (ed. by D. de Lerma; Faye Robinson, soprano; London Symphony Orchestra)
—–: String quartet no. 1 (ed. by D. de Lerma; Julliard Quartet)

Columbia M-32782 (1973); volume 2
William Grant Still: Afro-American symphony.
—-: 2 arias from Highway 1, U.S.A. (London Symphony Orchestra; William Brown, tenor)
Samuel Coleridge-Taylor: Danse nègre.
—–: “Onaway, awake, beloved” from Hiawatha’s wedding feast (William Brown, tenor; London Symphony Orchestra)

Columbia M-32783 (1974); volume 3
Ulysses Kay: Markings (London Symphony Orchestra)
George Walker: Trombone concerto (Denis Wick, trombone; London Symphony Orchestra)

Columbia M-32784 (1974); volume 4
Roque Cordero: Violin concerto (Sanford Allen, violin; Detroit Symphony Orchestra)
—–: Eight miniatures (Detroit Symphony Orchestra)

Columbia M-33421 (1975); volume 5
José Maurício Nunes-Garcia: Requiem Mass, M. 185 (ed. by D. de Lerma; Doralene Davis, soprano; Betty Allen, mezzo-soprano; William Brown, tenor; Matti Tuloisela, bass-baritone; Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra; Morgan State University Choir [Nathan Carter, director])

Columbia M-33432 (1975); volume 6
José White: Violin concerto (ed. by Paul Glass and Kermit Moore; Aaron Rosand, violin; London Symphony Orchestra)
David Baker: Cello sonata (Janós Starker, cello; Alain Planès, piano)

Columbia M-33433 (1975); volume 7
William Grant Still: Sahdji (London Symphony Orchestra; Morgan State University Choir [Nathan Carter, director])
Fela Sowande: African suite (3 excerpts; London Symphony Orchestra)
George Walker: Lyric for strings (London Symphony Orchestra)

Columbia M-33434 (1975); volume 8
Olly Wilson: Akwan (Richard Bunger, piano; Baltimore Symphony Orchestra; Richard Bunger, piano)
Thomas Jefferson Anderson: Squares (Baltimore Symphony Orchestra)
Talib Rasul Hakim: Visions of Ishwara (Baltimore Symphony Orchestra)

Columbia M-34556 (1978); volume 9
George Walker: Piano concerto (Natalie Hinderas, piano; Detroit Symphony Orchestra)
Hale Smith: Ritual and incantations (Detroit Symphony Orchestra)
Adolphus Hailstork: Celebration! (Detroit Symphony Orchestra)

Later Freeman began a series on Chicago-based Cedille records that released three further volumes of black composers’ music with his wonderful Chicago Sinfonietta as well as several CDs dedicated entirely to single black composers (more about those and more in another post).

Perhaps an innovative label such as Naxos might some day bring these Columbia recordings back into circulation in their entirety in the CD format. Meanwhile I am pretty happy with my LPs with their copious notes and full-sized beautiful graphics. If you haven’t heard this set I would encourage you to avail yourself of some of this beautiful music.