On the night of January 12 in Minneapolis, Jeffrey Brooks had a dream in which his friend and fellow composer Eleanor Hovda appeared, informed him that she had died, and urged him to pass on word to David Lang, another close friend and the co-founder of Bang on a Can in New York.
Hovda had indeed passed away, exactly two months prior, after eight years of declining health and a three-month stay in a hospice in northern Arkansas. Hovda, 69, shared a home in Fayetteville with her companion of 20 years, the conductor Jeannine Wagar.
A native of Minnesota, Hovda spent much of her career in New York and was a respected and beloved member of the contemporary music community. Her many friends and colleagues across the country are still learning of her passing.
A FaceBook page, “Eleanor-Hovda-Remembering” has about 100 members and Brooks hosted a memorial salon at his home on February 6. But at the time of this writing The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette remains the only newspaper to run an obituary of the composer whose works were commissioned by the Kronos Quartet, the Boston Musica Viva and Mikhail Baryshnikov’s White Oak Dance Project, among many other institutions and ensembles.
In an extensive interview this past weekend, Wagar explained that she and Hovda kept her grave condition quiet. After Hovda died, “I was just too fragile to let the word out on my own” says Wagar. In the preceding 18 months, Wagar’s orchestra, the North Arkansas Symphony, fell apart financially and ceased operations and Wagar’s mother died in the same hospice room where Hovda spent her own final months.
Wagar, who has remained in Arkansas, returns to New York this week to begin sorting through Hovda’s many scores and recordings in the couple’s apartment in the Greenwich Village artist complex known as Westbeth.
The following chronology of Hovda’s final years, based on Wagar’s account, shows that the composer’s independent and creative spirit remained until the end, as did a determination to learn and explore, even into the realms beyond death.
Academic immersion and southern retreat
In the late 1990s Hovda held a succession of short-term faculty positions at Yale and Princeton Universities and Bard College. According to Wagar, she thrived in the academic environment but became increasingly constrained by the time demands coupled with the desire to continue writing and performing her own works. Hovda already held a B.A. from American University in Washington, D.C. and an M.F.A. in dance from Sarah Lawrence College, but during that same period she also enrolled in N.Y.U. in the Ph.D. program for performance art studies.
“She was taking all these weird wonderful classes but got burned out,” says Wagar. “Meanwhile I got this job out of the sky in Fayetteville. We decided to keep the apartment in New York but she’d come down and serve as composer in residence with the orchestra and be able to recover. She loved to teach but was doing too much, just a ton of stuff.”
In her position with the North Arkansas Symphony Orchestra, Hovda visited 10 elementary schools in the region and with the students wrote a series of simple pieces, which were then incorporated into a work for full orchestra. She also wrote a tongue-in-cheek fanfare, though Wagar says that it remains incomplete.
The couple quickly become ensconced in the local scene, which Wagar describes as progressive and “pretty far out.” They even collaborated with the presiding mayor of Fayetteville, Dan Coody, on an impromptu performance inside an empty water cistern in late 2001.
Wagar recalls that Coody, acting in his official capacity, had visited the 40-million gallon tank after it had been emptied for the kind of cleaning that happens only every few decades. When he sang into it and found a 60-second decay, he knew Wagar and Hovda would enjoy making a visit as well. With a battery of wind, string and percussion instruments, the trio held two improvisation sessions under Hovda’s direction. The second, which was recorded, included a fourth participant — a crow that twice slipped in through the small passageway to sing a few notes. Hovda named the piece “Only One Crow.”
Working through health problems
Back in New York in 2002, Hovda sought treatment for a problem tooth, which revealed a tumor in her palate. A series of surgeries in New York disfigured her face and impaired her ability to speak. While five years of reconstructive procedures in Arkansas were successful, Wagar now views the dental troubles to be the beginning of a long and slow decline.
For the next seven years Hovda remained in seclusion, primarily in Fayetteville. She continued to write music, primarily new annual works for the Nancy Meehan and Laura Pawel Dance Companies.
She also delved into new theories of sound and physics.
According to Wagar, Hovda had a strong background in research science, dating to the early 1960s when she and her first husband worked for the federal government in Washington. “She knew a lot about physics and sound but it was top secret at the time,” says Wagar. “They would shoot waves up into the ionosphere that would come back as images. The theory was that if there were nuclear activity, it would show up.”
“That triggered the research she did when she was ill,” continues Wagar. “A new theory of harmonics came to her in a flash and like a good scientist she tried to disprove herself. She spent 10 to 12 hours a day on that for five or six years and was ready to get it out there to the public.” The work resulted in boxes of writings, graphs and charts as well as a new direction in Hovda’s composing style.
But the couple faced a series of crises in 2008. In March the finances of the Northern Arkansas Symphony fell apart and it ceased operations. Hovda was in New York that March, performing one of her scores for a season of Laura Pawel’s company. Still there a few weeks later, she consulted a doctor about her flagging energy and was diagnosed with breast cancer.
After a year of treatment, Hovda received a clean bill of health in May 2009. That same month she gave a performance, again in New York, with the Nancy Meehan Dance Company. It would be her last public appearance.
The following summer in Arkansas, Wagar and Hovda shared the tasks of finalizing the estate of Wagar’s mother, who had died, during the same tumultuous March, 2008. In August, Hovda had further health complaints and was given the terminal diagnosis of bone cancer.
Several episodes of intense pain soon made it clear that Hovda should not remain in the couple’s home. She took up residence in the Circle of Life Hospice, located in the Fayetteville suburb of Springdale. Only a few close friends were contacted and invited to visit. Among them was David Gilbert, the conductor to whom Hovda was married from 1964 to 1973, a period when he was an assistant at the New York Philharmonic under Bernstein and Boulez.
“It was a wonderful thing,” recalls Gilbert of the August visit. “She was quite lucid, had no pain and actually felt good. I came with a New York contingent, mostly her dancer friends. She just perked right up. We took her walking and had lunch on a patio and she was actually dancing in the halls at one point.”
To the surprise of her doctors and the hospice staff, Hovda did not allow death to rush in. According to Wagar, over the succeeding three months — an unusually long stay in hospice — her death was called six times, but she kept returning, awake and full of insights and stories.
“When she first got there she said, ‘Okay since I’m here, if you guys are studying death, I’ll explore for you,’” recalls Wagar. “And the doctors said, ‘Fine’. But then she took it seriously.”
Wagar wrote notes of the statements Hovda made each time she reawakened and is keeping them private with plans to make them into a book. But she did pass along one particularly musical episode — of Eleanor hearing angels sing in duets, trios, quartets and full chorus.
“Eleanor wasn’t the type of person to get into all that,” says Wagar. “She had a strong spirituality but hated to talk about it and she hated religion or any kind of belief system that would put you into a certain way of thinking. She would say that you have a direct connection to your higher power from within.”
“I expected her to pass away within days of my visit but it took all the way to November,” says Gilbert. “Apparently, she made medical history by doing that. It was unbelievable but being Eleanor that doesn’t surprise me. She almost taught us all how to approach death when it comes.”
“She was turning her life over every day and when she died it was beautiful,” says Wagar. “She went out completely lucid, with love coming from the other side.”