Sounds Heard—Eleanor Hovda: The Eleanor Hovda Collection
Libby Van Cleve
Cassatt String Quartet
California EAR Unit
Eleanor Hovda has been a musical hero of mine for years. In the 1990s I was completely gobsmacked by the music on her CD Ariadne Music—so much so that the moment I found out about another disc, Coastal Traces, I ran out and bought it immediately. I spent many, many hours sitting on the living room carpet with headphones, soaking in those sound worlds and trying to figure out how on earth music like that could possibly be written down. The sounds Hovda was able to elicit from standard orchestral instruments—flute, violin, etc.—were completely new, fascinating, and otherworldly to my ears, and they still are today. But then the CD releases stopped, and I heard not a single peep about her until reports of her death in 2009. Although I do wish that it hadn’t taken Hovda’s passing to find out more about her as a person, she was clearly a quiet and very private sort who saved her insatiable musical curiosity for close friends and family, a few students, and most importantly the musicians and artists with whom she collaborated.
Thanks to the initiative of Hovda’s longtime partner, Jeannine Wagar, in partnership with Innova Recordings, an archive of Hovda’s music has just been released in a four-CD set. The first two discs of The Eleanor Hovda Collection are re-issues of the CDs Ariadne Music and Coastal Traces, both of which were originally released by OO Discs. Ariadne Music consists of chamber works deftly performed by the Prism Players, while the music of Coastal Traces is derived from modern dance scores created for choreographer Nancy Meehan. The musical material from Coastal Traces is performed on double reeds by Libby Van Cleve, bass and guitar by Jack Vees, and on grand piano “innards” by Hovda herself.
CDs three and four, respectively titled Sound Around The Sound and Excavations contain some works that appear on recordings of other artists, such as the billowing Dancing in Place from Elizabeth Panzer’s solo CD by the same name, as well as previously unreleased performances. Boundaries on CD three, for four flutes and four basses, opens with metallic, wobbling sounds evoking singing bowls from outer space—so unidentifiable that I had to look at the liner notes to check the instrumentation.
The fourth CD contains a number of solo pieces—including Ikima for shakuhachi, performed by Hovda herself—as well as the playfully titled 40 Million Gallons of Music, an extended improvisation for a wide assortment of instruments played inside a giant water tank with a reverberation time of over 60 seconds.
As varied in scope as this collection of compositions is, Hovda’s primary intent—to explore the outskirts of the sonic possibilities inherent in instrumental sound and how they relate to the physical world—is clearly expressed in every piece. One of her main interests was, as she put it herself, invoking “the sound around the sound.” That is, the partials, harmonics, etc. which emerge above (or below) and beyond an actual notated pitch. Accordingly, her pieces are often sonic visualizations of natural phenomena and of physical movement energized by the timing of human breath.
And wait, it gets better! A special treat is in store for those who purchase the hard copy box set. Three of the four CDs are also loaded up with .pdf scores of most of the pieces (scores from the Coastal Traces music were dubbed too cryptic to be included), not to mention extensive liner notes by Hovda, with commentary by a number of the musicians. The handwritten and typed—as in with a typewriter—scores are at once wonderfully revealing and abstruse. They are quite enough to make, as Robert Carl’s Fanfare magazine review states, “…musical theorists sputter in frustration at the challenge of the evanescent perfection of art.”
The Eleanor Hovda Collection is a beautiful and substantive portrait of a brilliantly original musical mind deserving of a prominent place in music history. I encourage you to pick up this recording and spend time in Hovda’s unique sound world. Rest assured that you’ve never heard anything like it.