What the composer found in his orgone box
In his review of Leopold Stokowski and the Houston Symphony's 1955 premiere of Alan Hovhaness' Mysterious Mountain the critic Hubert Roussel remarked that "The real mystery of Mysterious Mountain is that it should be so simply, sweetly, innocently lovely in an age that has tried so terribly hard to avoid those impressions in music". To that I would add it is also a mystery that music which is so accessible yet avoids all stylistic platitudes remains so neglected in 2021 when a continuing anti-Boulez backlash mediates concert programmes.
Fritz Reiner conducting Mysterious Mountain with his Chicago Symphony Orchestra is one of the glories of recorded sound. Reiner was notorious for using his baton to whip orchestras - if you haven't heard his 1960 Scherezade you haven't lived - yet in the sublime opening of Mysterious Mountain his interpretation is patiently majestic. On the CD reissue, which couples the work with Prokofiev's Lieutenant Kijé Suite and Stravinsky's Fairy Kiss: Divertimento, the remastered 1958 sound is excellent and belies the recording's age.
Our social media dominated culture demands that everything has to be neatly tagged. So Alan Hovhaness is tagged 'mystic composer', Lou Harrison is 'gamelan composer' and John Cage is 'silent composer'. Which does all three of them a grave disservice. They were all members of a select group who redefined the avant-garde in early-1960s New York. Their influence extended far beyond music, and most notably they were associated with Julian Beck and Judith Malina's notoriously radical and uncompromising Living Theatre. John Tytell's The Living Theatre: Art, Exile and Outrage chronicles the turbulent history of the experimental group and sheds revealing light on the musicians involved. After reading this extract I guarantee Alan Hovhaness' music will never sound the same:
'In February, one of the actresses in Desire, Seraphine Hovhaness, introduced Judith to her husband, Alan, a composer who agreed to give a benefit concert on one of their Monday special event nights with Paul Goodman reading homeoerotic poems. An American of Armenian heritage, Hovhaness was influenced by an ancient, pre-Christian musical heritage, and his compositions were haunting and magical, Julian thought. On another Monday night, Dylan Thomas read his poems with his oratorical grandeur.
Julian exhibited a selection of his paintings in the lobby of the theatre, and it seemed to him as if the dream of making The Living Theatre a free community of artists and friends was in the process of being realized. He wrote to his friend Robert Prising, who had moved to England, that he was trying to foster a weltanscauung among artists and that New York had become "the most creative place in the world now," compared to ancient Babylon or Alexandria.
The energy of the theatre was spilling over into their private lives. One night, Seraphina and Alan Hovhaness invited Judith, Julian, and a group of the other actors to their place in the Village, which was decorated with astrological drawings. Naked, Judith sat in Alan Hovhaness' zinc-lined orgone box and felt a Reichian rush of heat and excitement.'