‘The Eleanor Hovda Collection’ = ELEANOR HOVDA: Ariadne Music; Coastal Traces; Sound Around the Sound; Excavations – var. performers – Innova (4 CDs)

by | May 14, 2012 | Classical CD Reviews

‘The Eleanor Hovda Collection’ = ELEANOR HOVDA: Ariadne Music; Coastal Traces; Sound Around the Sound; Excavations – various performers – Innova 808 [Distr. by Naxos], 4 CDs, 260:03 ****:

This is easily one of the strangest but most fascinating collections of new music I have heard in awhile. I chose to listen to a good chunk of Eleanor Hovda’s music before reading a single thing about her. She is a new name to me and about thirty minutes into the first disc I found myself hearing sounds that reminded me of a little John Cage, a touch of Kenneth Gaburo and certainly some of the spatial music of Stockhausen.  I was even reminded me of a little of the most static slow moving New Age work of perhaps Brian Eno or even Steve Roach. Ultimately, all such comparisons came up short and I realized that Hovda’s music was something very different and very hard to stylize or categorize.
Reading the booklet notes indicates that some of what sounded like connections in her music, to me – to my gratification – actually are present. The notes also reveal that Eleanor passed away from an extended illness in 2009. The current collection serves as a bit of a retrospective of her work. Hovda had been a very unique experimental composer for a number of years. She really did study with Gaburo and Stockhausen and with Mel Powell. She also admitted an influence from the music of Morton Feldman and Pauline Oliveros.  As a pianist, she had worked with modern dance companies such as Merce Cunningham and Martha Graham. Hovda had also spent a lot of time studying Japanese music, in particular the concept of “ma” which allows time and space to influence emotion such as that in the development of music. (A related concept is the very basic “eastern” notion that music is – essentially – the organization of sound in time.) Hovda was married to NY Philharmonic conductor David Gilbert, from whom she learned many valuable things about how traditional acoustic sources, such as those in an orchestra, are organized into sound groups and timbral families by all composers; most unusually by the modern composers whose work Hovda had heard with the Philharmonic.
Hovda, herself, also had a strong grounding in the sciences, having worked for a time at a secure physics lab in Maryland charting sound waves as they deflect off the upper reaches of the atmosphere.  This four-disc set of Hovda’s music is a good, somewhat comprehensive, look into her ethos and output. To be sure, this is a very dense, complex set of works to listen to and not all will even attempt to understand what she was trying to do. Her music evolves slowly and the sounds and textures within vary dramatically from the delicate to the strident, from the barely present to the nearly invasive and what rhythmic propulsion exists is very gradual and barely becomes more complex than a pulse. Each of the works contained in this set has some of these very broad characteristics in common. Her use of tone color and some very unusual timbres seems to align with a couple of her philosophies – as quoted in the booklet notes by Jeannine Wagar.  Hovda believed in what she called “sound excavation”; the use of all possibilities when collaborating with one musician at a time and then “excavate” the sound possibilities inherent within each. It is said that, while working in Duluth, MN, at the Arrowhead Regional Arts Council, she bought inexpensive student versions of just about every orchestral instrument to experiment with what is possible.
The works in this collection – and there are over four discs – are organized into groups (which serve as titles) around a unifying concept. These central concepts being Ariadne Music, Coastal Traces – Tide Pools 1 and 2, Sound around the Sound and Excavations. The variety of tone color is amazing and includes piano interior, conventional wind ensemble, flutes with double basses, bowed cymbals and shakuhachi.
Eleanor Hovda was, clearly, an original experimental voice in new music. Her music is absolutely not populist fare. Even people who have a great familiarity and liking for “new music” may or may not care for these works; may or may not be able to appreciate what Hovda was doing. Ultimately, I think this is a fascinating look at a fascinating person who may have become better known under different circumstances but whose music definitely deserves the chance to be heard. Kudos to the always daring Innova group for giving us that chance.
—Daniel Coombs

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