Friday, July 3, 2015

Alan Hovhaness - Requiem and Resurrection for Brass Choir and Percussion - Symphony No. 19 "Vishnu" - Sevan Philharmonic, Alan Hovhaness conducting - Crystal Records 1990/Poseidon Society 1971

When I bought this disc a couple decades ago I was a bit perplexed and surprised by the music it contained. For the first time (or not...I may have heard "Fra Angelico" or "Mountains and Rivers Without End" earlier-I cannot remember-anyhow one of those three works was my 1st outing experiencing the "other" AH style) I was listening to Hovhaness's music with an avant-garde leaning, full of his "spirit murmur" aleatoric techniques (many of his modal and indeed better known works too use his pioneering "controlled chaos", however typically they are brief passages that seem to emerge out of nowhere and slowly fade just as mysteriously..) and brass glissandi that excites and almost overwhelms with it's cosmic power. These works, such as the two featured here, are every bit as steeped in Hovhaness's deep spirituality and musical grandeur not unlike "Mysterious Mountain", "Celestial Gate", "Psalm & Fugue", and so on; we simply get to travel through an aural galaxy that seems almost primordial and alien in it's extreme originality (Symphony No. 19 "Vishnu" is, to my mind and ears-one of Hovhaness's greatest symphonies, an extreme masterpiece, unlike anything else in "the cosmos"). This is music of the absolute *highest* order. 

The "Vishnu Symphony" is one of the most original orchestral works of the 20th century, and deserves to be widely known. Right from the unsettling low-brass growlings of the very opening, it is clear that this is a work of astonishing invention. It is certainly his boldest work with regard to exploring the limitless sonorities afforded by his 'senza misura' aleatoric technique, which had come a very long way from the hushed pizzicato murmurings of 1944's Lousadzak. Yet the composer's facility with what he called 'controlled chaos' allows it to sound completely at home in this adorational hymn to the universe, where its purpose is to portray mystery, magnitude and cosmic energy. The aspect of the Hindu god Vishnu with which this tone poem is principally concerned is related to his most ancient character as a solar god, depicting him as "protector and preserver of the life of the spheres in their endless rotations and spiral motions". From the composer's own description, it is clearly a very ambitious work:

"In Symphony Vishnu I continue to explore my invention of 'spirit sounds' or 'controlled chaos' first introduced in Lousadzak which I composed in 1944. In Vishnu I develop whirling waves of sounds to their apex of elaboration. 'Controlled chaos' is achieved by precise and exact written notes of irregular and varying patterns, played simultaneously at variable speeds. Sometimes the sounds are delicate and mysterious. At other times bells, trombones and trumpets reach climaxes of wild, free sounds circling like orbits of fire".

"Vishnu symbolizes the creative forces of the galaxies. The symphony suggests the concept of the circulation of divine energies throughout the universes. Wild but controlled chaos bursts out in brass and percussion in free, rhythmless passages, followed by bells. This might symbolize the explosions which take place in the central core of giant galaxies of stars when millions of suns explode simultaneously, throwing out new universes of stars and planetary systems."

Alan Hovhaness, Poseidon Society disc annotation:

Originally conceived as a cosmic tone poem entitled To Vishnu, the work is in one continuous movement cast as "an unfolding giant melody of adoration to the immensity and sublimity of limitless stellar universes". The giant melodic line is "non-harmonic, [but] unisonal or soloistic, with bells, drums and drones". The different sections of adorational melody ("hymns and love songs to nature, plants, forests, waters, mountains, planets, suns and galaxies") are preceded and punctuated by "clouds or mists of sounds". The clouds in question are "volcanic clouds, storm clouds, celestial clouds, nebula clouds, star clouds". All instruments are involved in the cloud music at various times. Since each 'controlled chaos' cloud is written using the notes of a distinct scale or mode, what we hear is a carefully calculated modal cluster, and thus we never descend into anarchic atonality or chance music. As always, Hovhaness chooses his instrumental groupings and their motifs carefully, such that detail can be heard through the surface haze.

The work was composed partly in Lucerne Switzerland in July and August 1966 and partly while Hovhaness was composer-in-residence with the Seattle Symphony Orchestra the same year. Many Hovhaness traits of the 1960s can be found in this work. Long sections are drone-like whilst huge melodies unfold, and the listener in a hurry may tire of these harmonically and texturally static sections. There are frequent sudden shifts between instrumental groups, e.g. high strings with tuned percussion often cut-off brass and timpani. One recurring trait in this work is the tension between major and minor thirds, expressed both melodically and harmonically. Even in the texturally sparse melodic sections of the work, Hovhaness achieves highly original sonorities. Much of the work is in 7 meter, and the phonetic 'Al-an Hov-ha-ness' rhythm, three quarter notes (crotchets) plus two half-notes (minims) features prominently in a march-like section, later used on the Carl Sagan television series 'Cosmos'. The last third of the symphony is quiet and subdued, and the composer has compared the work's overall structure to the classical Japanese three-part form or 'Jo-ha-kyu', likening Vishnu to "Cosmic adoration, cosmic processional-dance, cosmic death and glorification".

"This may be Hovhaness's greatest work. It is surely his most thoroughgoing use of aleatoric quasi-improvisation in senza misura ... one of the great one-movement symphonies. An impressive statement, impossible to take lightly."

Timothy Virkkala, writer and editor

Unfortunately, this work almost achieved a 'cosmic death' at its premiere on June 2, 1967, which was also broadcast. Commissioned by the New York Philharmonic for its 1967 Promenade season at Philharmonic (now Avery Fisher) Hall, the conductor and Hovhaness 'champion' André Kostelanetz savagely cut sections out, and reordered the remaining ones. Instead of 30 minutes, the 'premiere' had lasted a mere 11. Feeling it was one of his best works, the composer was naturally very disappointed. Thankfully, he conducted a full recording of it for his own Poseidon Society record label in the early 1970s.

-I have taken the above notes (under the album photo) from as I don't have time now
to really write my own. 

(I will add the Crystal Records notes written by AH sometime soon also)

Enjoy this astounding music!!




Johannes R. Becher said...

Something that carries the ominous qualifier of "for brass choir and percussion" is surely too much for me :)

Greetings after such a long time !

Toon van Dijk said...

Many thanks and regards from The Netherlands.
Veel dank en groeten uit Nederland.

Anonymous said...

Extraordinary! Had no knowledge of this music thanks!

theblueamos said...

Happy 4th of July from Jerusalem.

Tzadik said...

Hiya Blue thank you for the wishes my friend!


Tzadik said...

Hello Johannes it's nice to hear from you, I was wondering actually if you went on Holiday (if so, and for such a duration-I am jealous both of such vacationing and that you must be independently wealthy ;)
Ha, so have you warmed to the brass choir & percussion yet??



Tzadik said...

You're welcome maestro Toon :)

Tzadik said...

Anon, you are welcome, love the enthusiasm :) Thanks for commenting friend


Audentity said...

Thanks for sharing this obscurity.

Tzadik said...

Hello Audentity (I recognize your "name" from somewhere...either you commented here a couple times before -sorry if I forget!- or I have seen you on other blogs in the past..)

I'm happy you like this AH disc, Vishnu is an exceptional symphony.