Alan Hovhaness,"Opening a Window to Cosmic Love: Private Acetate Discs 1946-55"
An ear-opening collection of radio broadcasts, live performance recordings, and sketched works in progress from a prolific period in the life of this highly distinctive American composer. In the 1950s, Hovhaness was composing around 12 major works a year, in addition to extensive traveling for research and teaching. He may well have suffered from hypergraphia - an overwhelming urge to be constantly creating - and it is a wonder he found time to be married six times.
Born in Somerville, Massachusetts in 1911, to a Scottish mother and Armenian father, Alan Hovhaness had a clear vision and unstoppable determination. From a very young age he loved nature, mountains in particular, and felt the need to compose. Sibelius' 4th symphony was an early inspiration, and Hovhaness' description of the unison melodies in the piece "so lonely and original, [they] said everything there was to say‚ and not only about music" can be applied to many of his own compositions, including on this release. He attended the New England Conservatory at age 22, and actually traveled to Finland in 1935 to forge a friendship with Sibelius. Two years later his 1937 Exile symphony was lauded as the work of a genius by English conductor Leslie Howerd. Yet things did not proceed smoothly: he had four unsuccessful applications for Guggenheim funding, and when he did win a scholarship to Tanglewood, quit after feeling marginalized and humiliated by teachers Aaron Copland and Leonard Bernstein. The phrase "ghetto music" was allegedly bandied about by Bernstein, who you might think would have been sensitive to such tosh, but it apparently doesn't work that way.
Hovhaness subsequently spent much of the 1940s surviving on meager earnings as organist of the Armenian church in Watertown. At this difficult time he persisted and the universe responded. His spirituality and embrace of his Armenian heritage flourished after guidance from Hermon di Giovanno the Greek painter and mystic, and Armenian colleagues financed and promoted him in both Boston and New York circles. Things turned irrevocably in his favor with a 1944 debut concert of his concerto for piano and strings Lousadzak. In attendance were Lou Harrison and John Cage. Harrison describes the high decibel arguments in the intermission, between attendant Chromaticists and Americanists, both probably aware that they were listening to an original composer who was in neither camp, as "the closest I‚Äôve ever come to one of those renowned artistic riots." He swiftly wrote a rave review and Cage supervised the publication of Mihr (Op.60) for Henry Cowell's New Music series. Cage, of course, is regarded as the doyen of chance operations and aleatory music, and he must have become aware of notations in some of Alan Hovhaness' scores pointing to freedom for musicians to vary the performance. Enthusiastic reviews followed after two brilliant 1947 New York concerts, and then, in October 1955, Leopold Stokowski's use of Hovhaness' Mystical Mountain for his debut with the Houston Symphony made sure the critical tides stayed turned in favor of the composer.
Hovhaness does not appear to have harbored any grudges, nor lost his humility. If he felt persecuted by anything it was by the need to write down the compositions surging through his head. There is a story of him being taken to hear a Thelonious Monk concert and spending much of the post-gig social time swaying to the music he still heard and furiously writing down all the notes he recalled Monk playing. In any event, Opening a Window to Cosmic Love is a marvelous collection from a pivotal time in the composer‚Äôs career. Several pieces are from a commission for television called Assignment India and others from Arjuna, which was also the first Western music ever performed at the Madras Music Festival in India on New Years Day, 1960. What emerges from listening to this Hovhaness collection is the strong sense that did not merely borrow influences (he never steals a folk tune wholesale) from other cultures and locations (Russia, Korea, Japan, Hawaii, Honolulu, or wherever) to spice up his own creativity. Instead he incorporates them in his compositional thinking in a way which transcends both geography and time. There are also hints here of the more expansive compositions (which money allowed him to create) and the deliberate romanticism which dominated his work from the 1970s until his death. The spiritual purity and simple melodic beauty of these delightfully unpredictable and complex works is undimmed after three quarters of a century. Hovhaness achieved his vision "to create music not for snobs but for all people, music which is beautiful and healing, to attempt what old Chinese painters called 'spirit resonance" in melody and sound."