The Kindness of Strangers
One of my favorite things about living in the middle of the city of Baltimore—which the locals call Charm City—is that I constantly am interacting with strangers. As we walk around town, we tend to greet other pedestrians with a nod, and when I’m out with my dog, people often stop me to ask questions about him. Sometimes these brief encounters lead to delightful experiences, like the day that I opened my mailbox to find a coffee mug and keychain proclaiming my love for Belgian sheepdogs (my dog’s breed) without a note or any other indication as to who my kind benefactor was. Although I eventually identified the other dog companion who had given us these gifts, I still don’t know his name, nor does he know mine.
Similarly, at times the world of new music can feel like a charming town in which everyone is working towards the same goals and is willing to help out strangers in order to share the music they love.
I find that there are more great composers working today than I can possibly keep up with. Sometimes it seems that people tell me about amazing pieces by composers who are new to me on a daily basis. We live in a time when the wealth of creative riches can be completely overwhelming and physical distance is no excuse to avoid learning about good music. Because of this, some composers who clearly deserve more recognition can get lost in the shuffle.
In my opinion, Eleanor Hovda is a fantastic candidate for the composer most deserving of far greater recognition than she has received. I have long admired her sonic landscapes, which have never failed to grab my attention, even when I’ve been listening to compilation CDs in the background while administering to other tasks, and I was saddened to hear about her death in 2009. She left behind a relatively small catalog of works, but all of the ones I’ve heard have been of the highest quality and I’m very happy that Innova Records recently released a 4-CD compilation of her music.
I’m working on a guitar quartet right now, and, as usual, I began by listening to several examples of contemporary quartets. The Minneapolis Guitar Quartet’s recording of Hovda’s striking 1992 piece, Armonia, blew my mind with its beautifully constructed sounds in an entirely engaging form. I wanted to study this piece further, and so I went online to try to purchase its score. I was saddened to find that it wasn’t available through any distributor that I could locate, nor was it in my local libraries.
Next, I went to the website for the Minneapolis Guitar Quartet, who had commissioned the piece, and sent an email through their “Contact” link. I also posted a query on the wall for the Facebook group “Eleanor Hovda—Remembering” asking if anyone knew how I could purchase the score. Within a very short time, several people offered to ship me free copies, and less than a week later the score arrived in my mailbox. Sure enough, studying it has proven to be extraordinarily fruitful.
I can’t help but compare this experience with those we often have with major publishers. Sometimes it seems that the large publishing concerns would rather we didn’t try to perform the music they represent. It can be frustrating when you want to learn more about a piece but are faced with obstacles from traditional publishers—like exorbitant rental fees and lack of communication—that can create barriers between the people who love the music they publish and the music itself. In the case of Hovda, I felt immediately welcomed by her community of family and friends, who clearly believe in her music and want to see it spread to as many interested people as possible. I only hope that the kindness of these strangers fulfills its function and continues to allow for the music of this amazing composer to be heard as often as possible.