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June 14, 2018

Alan Hovhaness – Composer/Conjurer of the Stars

Alan Hovhaness

Armenian-American composer, Alan Hovhaness.

Hovhaness changed the way I think about music. I first heard his work in 1998, sitting under the dark stars at Higgins Lake State Park while waiting for a friend to join me. The radio was tuned to CMU Public Radio, and on came “Celestial Gate.” Orchestral arrangement suddenly was common to me. I was not listening to a composer’s idea of how I should feel; I was being asked join a composer on a journey through the tonality and progression of the earth and cosmos.

His symphonies are Eastern in nature that they are based in a key, or a form and rarely stray from that place, if at all — almost like ragas, or meditations. Sure, it could be put that way — Hovhaness wrote meditations. “Mysterious Mountain” and “Celestial Gate” for examples carve their own paths from simple bases — melody finds its way along via simple chord pattern and unobtrusive repetition. The listener is rarely ask to take for granted a sweeping key change or a leap into a segment not belonging at all to the first. Hovhaness made symphonies that were “easy” to understand yet complex in their simplicity.

“Celestial Gate” is aptly named. The movements evoke hours of stargazing, if you’ve ever done that — if you’re old enough to remember not having a cell phone and had the lucky experience of being somewhere with little light pollution, and you plopped yourself under the sphere of stars that asks us to look. After a while — after passing the hard part — the asking big questions — you start to see the sky from a clearer place. Questions fall away and all that’s left is the quiet ringing of the stars’ frequency, and you, in your chair or on the grass. Hovhaness was aware of this ringing and adequately completes a human version of it in “Celestial Gate.”

I urge you to listen.