The Eleanor Hovda Collection
Eleanor Hovda (1940–2009) was a full professor and composer-in-residence at Princeton, Yale, and Bard College who suffered a debilitating illness that led to her eventual death in Arkansas in 2009. She was a minimalist not in the systems-based sense of a Steve Reich or holy minimalist tradition of a Gorecki but in the sense that her arrangements are generally spare, with often an instrument or two prominently featured and only rarely a dense ensemble sound in play. Often a programmatic concept underlies the compositional design, such as when the alternation between introverted and extroverted gestures during “Snapdragon” suggests the movements of a child's hand while attempting to snatch raisins from flames. Similarly, “Crossings in a Mountain Dream” evokes its title in draping Libby Van Cleve's languorous oboe tones against a chiming backdrop of electric guitars played by Jack Vees. Innova has done adventurous listeners a great service in issuing this illuminating and definitive four-CD overview of Hovda's work, and also for supplementing the discs with extensive liner notes so that the listener eager to gain the fullest insight into the individual works is able to do so.
The first CD's five sparsely arranged settings are performed by the Prism Players, who do a magnificent job of realizing Hovda's scores, and special mention must be made of flutist Jayn Rosenfeld, whose contributions help bring the pieces so much to life. In keeping with its title, “Onyx” (1991), presented in its Chamber Ensemble version, threads woodwinds, horns, and strings into alternating ribbons of colour such that a fourteen-minute scene-painting of nocturnal mystery and elusive life-forms is conjured. The piece, so heavily concentrated in detail, exemplifies Hovda's generally understated approach, as does the even more evocative “Song in High Grasses” (1986), where breathy flute and cello playing and a yodel-like vocal by Charlotte Regni (for whom the piece was written) create the image of an African plain filled with softly rustling grasses and the lonely cries of hidden creatures. Its title a reference to both the opening and closing of a flower's petals and to the aforesaid English children's game, “Snapdragon” (1993) opens with braying oboe flourishes that call to mind Bartok's The Miraculous Mandarin before the piece settles into a contrasting series of droning pitches and agitated flute patterns. Inspired by Hovda's ruminations on making music for dancers, “Leaning Into and Away” (1994) draws upon a kindred energy in effecting graceful transitions between lithe movements and meditative stillness. Some of the opening CD's most beautiful moments arise during one especially gentle episode where the instruments' voices are no louder than whispers.
The second CD, Coastal Traces, is again minimalistic in terms of overall sound with eight settings featuring the wondrous Van Cleve on double reeds, Vees on bass and guitar, and Hovda herself, who along with Vees performs (on the framing “Coastal Traces Tidepools 1” and “Coastal Traces Tidepools 2” pieces) inside the grand piano case with mallets, hands, and ‘bow' strings with violin bowhairs. Derived from dance scores produced for the Nancy Meehan Dance Company, the pieces are more free-form in nature than formally notated. Organic is an admittedly overused term, but it's applicable here, as the material often flows with the natural movement of the human body, the instruments' bows, scrapes, plucks, and swoops lunging in certain places and at other moments seeming to ready themselves for a daring move of one kind or another. The keening bray of the shenai (an Indian double-reed instrument) courses through “Shenai Sky” (and the later “Beginnings”), calling to mind ancient Chinese music, after which Van Cleve and Vees unite for arresting oboe and electric guitar duets. The beautiful clarion call of her oboe d'amore on “Glacier Track” also might remind certain listeners of her spectacular playing on Ingram Marshall's 2001 release Dark Waters.
In contrast to the modest line-up of musicians on disc two, the third features a broad spectrum of configurations, from the The Relache Ensemble (1987's “Borealis Music”) to The Cassatt String Quartet (1988's “Lemniscates”) and California EAR Unit (1992's “Regions”). A few pieces boast dramatically unusual arrangements, with “Boundaries” (1989) scored for four flutes and four double basses and “Centerflow / Trail II” (1983) performed by Hovda herself on double-bowed cymbals (with double bass bows) accompanied by an audience whose humming is blended into the cymbal's metallic sonorities. An ever-mutating tapestry of strings and woodwinds simulates a hypercharged energy field of electrical impulses during “Borealis Music,” one more in Hovda's series of highly concentrated microsound meditations. A prolonged exploration of stillness and subtly modulating textures, the ethereal “Lemniscates,” originally written for the Kronos Quartet, explores harmonics, overtones, microtonal shadings, and pitches that waver around the fundamental written pitch. Hovda's sensitivity to the body's natural rhythms are also central to “Journey Music,” whose instrumental chamber voices breathe and interact based on their own internal tempo decisions, resulting in a slowly evolving mass of overlapping textures. Synchronous moments do emerge, but for the most part the piece's unfolding creates the impression of one liquid seeping into another and spreading within it.
The final CD, Excavations, primarily features settings for single performers, the closing work the exception. Hovda herself performs “Ikima,” a 1986 piece for solo shakuhachi, while Van Cleve (oboe), Janis Weller (flute), David Gilbert (flute), Elizabeth Panzer (harp), and Lee Humphries (piano) are featured in separate pieces. “Jo Ha Kyu,” its title (“Jo” stands for beginning, “Ha” for opening up or scattering, and “Kyu” for rush to finish) a reference to a Noh drama-related aesthetic form, is a prototypical Hovda work in that it not only calls upon Van Cleve's oboe playing prowess but asks that she also produce as many vocal and breath sounds as the conventionally musical. That is, the performer's entire being is involved in generating the physical flow of constant inhalation and exhalation. Breath flow becomes a reference point elsewhere, too, such as in (obviously) “Breathing” (1983), where Weller uses eight flutes to produce its fluttering “wind melodies,” while the full movement of the body is invoked by Panzer's sensitive rendering of “Dancing in Place.” Hovda's boldly adventurous approach also informs 1973's “Spring Music With Wind,” where next to no conventional piano sound emerges. Instead, Humphries conjures a desolate outdoors landscape by playing the inside of a grand piano using five rubber mallets plus a curved glass bottle.
There's so much music to absorb in the collection that one arrives at the final piece wondering if enough stamina and concentration remain to take on the challenge of the half-hour opus “40 Millions Gallons of Music.” It proves, however, to be an ideal closing statement, no matter its length. Composed in 2001, the piece is Hovda's sole improvisational work and involves voice and instrument sounds (water gongs, flutes, percussion instruments, harmonicas, melodica, zither) reverberating within a empty 40-million-gallon circular water tank (practically the size of a football field) located in Arkansas. Sounds hang suspendedly in the air for extended moments, with Dan Coody's low-pitched chants resounding repeatedly amongst the shimmering harmonica, melodica, flute, and bell tones. Recorded approximately ten days after the 9/11 attacks, the piece exudes an eerie stillness that makes it feel like an elegy of sorts, with Hovda directing the ghostly sound design in the moment and allowing for the integration of natural sounds (such as the cawing crow that flew into the water tank and the hum of the plane flying overhead moments later).
There's an exquisite level of craft and imagination on display throughout the set, and Hovda's wilfully outsider sensibility is exemplified in rich, textural compositions that allude to and in many ways anticipate drone, microsound, and soundscaping genres. It's a revelatory collection in the way it so thoroughly documents Hovda's artistry and body of work, and shows how she looked beyond the notated page so as to incorporate the physical dimensions of bodily experience into her compositional thought-process. And how exhilarating it must have been for the performers she called on to collaborate with her, especially when she asked them to bring so much of their entire being into the realization of a work, as opposed to their technical command only. In fact, the only regrettable thing about the collection is that Hovda isn't alive to see it. Any composer would be thrilled to be honoured with so definitive a homage.