Monday, July 4, 2011

Alan Hovhaness - Mysterious Mountain / And God Created Great Whales

1994; 8 tracks
Gerard Schwarz / Seattle Symphony

There are places in the imagination where journeys unfold, where serenity and truth reside. In these places, the spirit responds to softly beckoning institutions, which in turn become pathways to summits of peace and profundity. And along the pathways, exquisite details vibrate with color, ephemeral and fragmented, the mindscape fertile and enigmatic. Alan Hovhaness is just such a traveler, a seeker of that which is spiritual and true, and his vehicle is music.

Alan Hovhaness' 2nd Symphony, Mysterious Mountain (1955), is just such a place, imaginary. It is of no importance that the title was added later and that it does not describe a particular place. One can still journey there, and by a path of one's own choosing. Of an early performance of the symphony, critic Claudia Cassidy wrote in the Chicago Tribune:
"It seems to remind everyone of something... and it reminds me of the Alhambra. I don't expect you to take the same journey, but there it is for me in its rich textures, its formalized designs, its serenity of scrolls and arabesques, its sudden sounds - harp sounds - of water spilling with a glint of the metallic into a hidden pool."

Even if the particular journey is open to interpretation, the composer's intention is clear: to create an aural impression steeped in his own spiritual philosophy. Namely, that "Mountains are symbols, like pyramids, of man's attempt to know God. Mountains are symbolic meeting places between the mundane and spiritual worlds. To some, the Mysterious Mountain may be the phantom peak, unmeasured, thought to be higher than Everest, as seen from great distance by fliers in Tibet. To some it may be the solitary mountain, the tower of strength over a countryside - Fujiyama, Ararat, Monadnock, Shasta or Grand Teton."

That imaginary place where the "mundane and spiritual worlds" meet is the logical quest of an artist such as Hovhaness. Early in his eclectic education he developed a passion for the mysticism of sound, which was first fed by exposure to Armenian and Indian cultures, and later by those of Japan and China.

Also included in this recording is Prayer of Saint Gregory, a simple, homophonic string chorale supporting a plaintive trumpet solo. Prelude and Quadruple Fugue is an example of Hovhaness' compositional style, the most prevalent of which being the contrapuntal techniques of the Baroque. If portions of Mysterious Mountain evoke Renaissance choral writing, the "Alleluia" of Alleluia and Fugue (1941) does so even more. Both modal and imitative, the piece seems to intone the syllables of the title, and the composer giving testimony to his faith.

And God Created Great Whales (1970) is unique among the compositions on this disc. It is, in fact, less "composed," even at times aleatoric. Players are instructed to "continue repetition, rapidly and not together in free non-rhythm chaos" for a given period of time; and later, "very wild and powerful!" From the din, a pentatonic melody emerges, preparing the way for four recorded songs of the great humpback whale. (For musical purposes, the third song has been slowed down to lower the pitch, but the low pitch of the fourth remains at actual speed.) The result is a hauntingly portentous depiction of earth as it emerges from its primordial chaos. The composer writes: "Free rhythmless vibrational passages, each string player playing independently, suggest waves in a vast ocean sky. Undersea mountains rise and fall in horns, trombones and tuba. Music of whales also rises and falls like mountain ranges. Song of whale emerges like a giant mythical sea bird. man does not exist, has not yet been born in the solemn oneness of Nature."

There is a center to everything that exists.


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