Remembering Eleanor Hovda

Remembering Eleanor Hovda

This Saturday would have been the 70th birthday of Eleanor Hovda, a prominent Minnesota-born composer and dancer whose compositions were championed by leading new music ensembles all across the country. Her friend and colleague Jack Vees offers this memorial and celebration of her life and work.

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jack vees

Eleanor Hovda

Eleanor Hovda: If Tigers Were Clouds…Then Reverberating, They Would All Create Songs (1993) performed by Zeitgeist; from the Zeitgeist CD, If Tigers Were Clouds (innova 589)
   Tigers Were Clouds

Eleanor Hovda: Spring Music with Wind (1973) performed by Jed Distler, piano; from the Composers Collaborative CD, Solo Flights (CRI CD 864, available through New World Records).

[Ed. Note: This Saturday, March 27, 2010, would have been the 70th birthday of Eleanor Hovda, a prominent Minnesota-born composer and dancer whose compositions were championed by leading new music ensembles all across the country, including the Bang on a Can All-Stars, Boston Musica Viva, the Cassatt and Kronos Quartets, the San Francisco Contemporary Music Players, and Zeitgeist. She also taught at Princeton and Yale, among other schools. For the past decade, she was based in Springdale, Arkansas, where she died on November 12, 2009. Eleanor Hovda’s friend and colleague Jack Vees offers this memorial and celebration of her life and all of the music she wrote which will continue to be with us.

THIS JUST IN: In the coming months, innova will be releasing several new CDs featuring archival performances of Eleanor Hovda’s music.—FJO]


I had always expected Eleanor to come back. I guess that sentence is going to require some clarification. When I heard of her passing it had a doubly surreal quality. To give some context here, I first became acquainted with her because Libby Van Cleve, an oboist (also my wife), had worked with Eleanor in a 1981 composer and choreographer workshop in Duluth, MN. I got to know her a bit later. Libby and I then worked with her in the mid-eighties, and we had a residency at Yellow Springs in 1991, and also played several seasons for Nancy Meehan’s dance company at St Mark’s. I also remember the delight her works brought at some of the very early Bang on a Can marathons.

She was known and loved by a close-knit circle of people, many of whom are readers of this publication. Eleanor was one of our treasures. It seemed that it was only a matter of time before everyone else beyond that circle caught on. However, she was an intensely private person, but not bashful—so wider public recognition might be delayed, but it was certainly coming.

Because “shunned the spotlight” is an overused phrase, it may be better to think of her wending her way, as she often would, across the stage toward the instruments. Sometimes the literal spotlights would be on, but not yet set, leaving pools of bright and darkness, Eleanor rambling along in her way, looking at her collection of sound producers (instruments, noise makers) which she herself had assembled as if she were seeing them for the first time. This is a little odd only because we knew that she had spent dozens of hours with that assembly, deciding if the gong should be struck with a knitting needle or a chopstick. So maybe it’s only just a wee bit odder that 5 minutes into the piece, the gong gets struck with the chopstick, and it’s exactly the right event (we had heard it the other way and then this way many times while under construction). It’s only a minute and a half later when the gong is struck by the knitting needle this time. Again it’s exactly the right sound at the right moment in the piece.

Oh, and those scores, the grafitus that reminded us what to do, where to put our hands, mnemonic devices, choreographic innuendo, Dr Bronner’s label verbal density, or Ikea-like wordless picture instructions. Those scores fire a Joycean salvo of details. Hmm… what is it, messy, organic Ferneyhough? Not quite. Unlike Brian, there’s no neat grid, impressivist penmanship or third party body of theoretical explanations. Things just grow out of each other and then recede back into their surroundings.

When she taught at Yale in the 1990s, her students knew that she was bringing a very different perspective to the scene, and they loved her for that. Yet by the end of her time there, she seemed tired, even withdrawn. Shortly after this, she dropped out of sight for many of us. Some of it may have been the general weariness that many feel when running an artistic bent through the wringer; the unending, long shot grant writing, the tough schedule of academic deadlines, all those along with the perennial quest to keep the muse flowing in the face of diminishing time. We didn’t know, but she was already beginning to battle a most persistent foe, her declining health. When I said I always thought she’d come back, I first meant it in the small sense. It seemed that her move West was to recharge her batteries, to gather herself for her next big creative push. I thought all we had to do was give her some space to do that recharge. But now I see that my opening comment is voicing that typical big denial, the feeling that she’s not really dead because she can’t possibly be.

Eleanor was always able to draw out of us, (Lib and me, along with many others), the most colorful, quirky and beautiful sounds, by describing what she wanted in colorful, quirky, and beautiful ways. One day she said to me, “Do that, you know, those mouse footed things you did before.” I knew exactly what she meant.