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Jordan De La Sierra — Timeless Conversations & Beautiful Ideas

As long-time advocates for Jordan De La Sierra's work with sound, we at the Numero Group herein share with our listeners and our readers our collective commentary and review of his musical ideas as put forth in the 1976 recordings of Gymnosphere: Song of the Rose.

Within the mysterious design of Gymnosphere: Song of the Rose winds a restless ribbon, spooling, yearning, waxing, waning. A signal example of the virtue of rational sound, it is a creative journey of enduring resonance; an echo of one person's quest to plumb the depths of nature's duality. Rising, falling, vanishing into silence, its ephemeral shapes reflect an odyssey of sorts; a gesture of transparency, an artlessly simple confession awash in a complex sea.

Despite its theoretical underpinnings, Gymnosphere: Song of the Rose is a departure into a realm of unabridged expression. All of the takes in this set of recordings are live-performance takes, sonic excursions masterfully piloted by a navigator trusting in his teaching and trusting in the lessons of the sound.

The recording and release of Gymnosphere is a singular achievement we are lucky to have documented in full. Borne in gothic reverb in San Francisco's Grace Cathedral, its rising and falling and vanishing shapes, its mysterious clusters of notes, express, in waves of sonic vibration, the sound of an infinite blooming. Upon repeated listening, the performance never fails to evoke a deeper and deeper insight into the curious fabric of space. Across its vast, four-sides, the piece seems to occur naturally, in stasis. As a gift to posterity, it is, in a very real sense, a mirror of our endless journey; a mirror of the cosmic cycle of birth, transformation and death. Instant by instant, piloted by a navigator at one with the lessons of the sound, Gymnosphere: Song of the Rose is a gesture of creation of the highest order. We encourage everyone to listen closely to this music.

In the language of letters, what follows is a series of autobiographical sketches, a rough portrait profiling, in his own words, aspects of Jordan Stenberg-De La Sierra's life and creative journey.

Everything elucidated in this article is, to the best of my recollection, a true and accurate articulation of circumstances and events as they occurred.

If I have taken some anecdotal, poetic or colloquial excursion that has led me astray from the true-north of fact, I take full responsibility.

This compilation of remembrances draws from both written quotes and recorded interviews.

Jordan De La Sierra / California / 22 February 2019

My first lessons as a student of art and drafting began as a child watching my father work. He was a well-educated man and a highly-respected sign-writer and painter, the last in a lineage of three generations of 'gold leaf masters'. With paper and pencil, a straight edge, a perforation wheel and a bag of blue chalk, he could layout any pattern the customer wanted. All of his life, he made a living with his brushes, his brains and his creative sensibilities.

My mother was a beautiful woman with a beautiful voice. She loved opera. By the time she was in her mid-twenties, she found herself singing professionally as a member of the San Francisco opera chorus. She sang with the chorus for a couple of years and then, one day, on a train, things changed very quickly. At first, it was something about meeting 'the man of her dreams'. Then, just like that, after a brief engagement, my mother and father were married. My mother had always wanted to have children and, have a big family, she did. Always there for each of us as we were growing up, she opened the door to everything that followed.

I was the first born. Raised in the foothills of central California, not far from Yosemite, I spent a lot of time exploring nature. When I was a boy, I wanted to sing just like my mother. At an early age, she started teaching me my 'music-reading lessons'. One Sunday, she took me to church, handed me a hymnal and said, "You'll be fine, son. Just follow the music and sing along." That's how I got started in music. Fairly quickly, I was able to read most anything she put in front of me. Her presence in my life has made all the difference in the world.

Throughout my high school years, I studied music constantly. In 1966, I was awarded a full scholarship to the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. While there, I continued my classical vocal training. German lieder singing intrigued me most of all, song cycles and the like. I memorized and performed Robert Schumann's Dichterliebe, a setting of songs selected from Heinrich Heine's popular Buch der Lieder.

I also remember singing Franz Schubert's Die schöne Müllerin, a song cycle for voice and piano. As time went by, I was able to master a challenging repertoire of 18th, 19th and 20th century art songs. I sang songs in Spanish, French, Italian, German and English.

Up until 1967 or so, the constellation of my sonic beacons included acapella music from the early church —modal melodies, plain song and Gregorian chant; polyphonic vocal pieces from the Renaissance — unaccompanied motets, madrigals, chansons and the like; the baroque preludes and fugues of Johann Sebastian Bach and the chamber works of Vivaldi; the classic shapes of Mozart's piano compositions, symphonies and operas; the haunting etudes of Frederick Chopin; the mysterious melodies and harmonic progressions of Erik Satie's Gymnopedies and his elegant Gnossiennes; the operas of Verdi, Wagner and Alban Berg; the eclectic, poly-tonal symphonies of Charles Ives; the engaging, Zen-like talks of Alan Watts and other broadcasts from the archives of Pacifica Radio; the popular music of Laura Nyro, Otis Redding and the Beatles; the jazz of Dave Brubeck, Miles Davis, Count Basie and Duke Ellington; all these threads, all these influences, among others, were an endless inspiration to me.

During my time at the conservatory, I studied music theory, counterpoint, composition and orchestration. In the fall of 1968, I became interested in the creative ethos of work being done by contemporary composers like Luciano Berio, Olivier Messiaen, Gyorgy Ligeti, John Cage, Robert Ashley, La Monte Young, Terry Riley and others.

In early 1969, I was taking a composition class with Loren Rush. As part of our studies, we took a field trip to visit the electronic sound research lab at the Mills College Center for Contemporary Music where Robert Ashley and Bill Maraldo had just been named co-directors. The week before we embarked on our visit to the 'Center', Mr. Rush played for the class Mr. Ashley's piece She Was A Visitor. When we got to Mills College the following week, Mr. Ashley and Mr. Maraldo were there to greet the class. As a young student, meeting a composer like Mr. Ashley was a big deal for me. I told him how much I had enjoyed listening to She Was A Visitor and that I'd never heard anything quite like it. Then, as I was about to turn away, I mentioned a little about a composition I was working on called Carousel Piece: Mind Over Matter – a one-act opera for silent film and live music. When I said 'opera', his eyes lit up and he said, "I'd like to see something like that." I said to him, “I'm working on it.” He was very gracious. I enjoyed our conversation.

That day was a day of constant discovery. Along with everything else, I found out that Bill Maraldo was an accomplished cinematographer. Out of curiosity, I asked him if he ever did any film work on the side. Briefly, alluding to my Carousel Piece, I inquired if he would consider filming 'a fully-costumed troupe of actors riding a spinning carousel in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park'. I was delightfully surprised when he replied, "If you can pay for four or five blank rolls of film, I'll be happy to do the shoot." Thanking him for his willingness to consider my proposal, I told him I had lots of work to do before filming could begin, but, that when I was ready, I'd be back in touch with him.

Later that afternoon, following a demonstration of Don Buchla's iconic Buchla Box and a tour of the concert hall, we expressed to them our appreciation for inviting us over. That's how I met Robert Ashley and William Maraldo.

Having worked through a gamut of organizational challenges, I was able to pull all of the elements of the Carousel Piece together. I had the 12-minute film that Bill Maraldo had shot and helped me edit. I had a girls' chorus from a local, private school who had learned the vocal score and, having completed the last of my keyboard parts, I was eager to find a suitable venue where I could perform the work. Thinking back to my first meeting with Mr. Ashley, I decided to ask him if he would consider allowing me to preview the Carousel Piece for him in the Mills College concert hall. Without a lot of fol de rol, things came together quite smoothly. The set- up was very minimal. Just a couple of vocal mics for the chorus; a feed for my electric piano; a projector and a screen. As I played my electric piano, the girls' chorus sang the score to my libretto. While the music played, a silent-film featuring a long series of single and multiple exposure scenes depicting actors dressed in Elizabethan costumes riding a merry-go-round, was projected in the hall.

After Carousel Piece, Mr. Ashley and I began a conversation that went on for several years. One occasion, we'd discuss the transient nature of matter and microbes and such, while on another, we'd talk of macrocosms, microcosms and the time-space continuum writ large, always addressing, amid existential considerations, new approaches to musical ideas. During one of these conversations, I began to convey to Mr. Ashley a conceptual galaxy of thoughts related to the vibratory-framework of a composition I would later call The Garden Of The Food Of Transforming Impressions.

Early in 1968, as a member of the San Francisco Conservatory New Music Ensemble, I participated in a live performance of Terry Riley's In C. I played the Bb tenor saxophone, transposing the single-page score up a whole a step to the key of D. With respect to parametric considerations, I had an immediate affinity for Riley's approach to sound, tuning, tonality, rhythm and the element of chance that weaves its way through the fabric of his musical ideas.

I was able to audit one of Terry Riley's classes at Mills in 1970. After the class, we shared a brief, but far-reaching conversation. I told him I was a scholarship student studying voice at the San Francisco Conservatory and Terry told me that he, too, was studying singing, singing of a different kind. He asked me if I'd ever studied the music of India. I said I had not, but that I was interested to know more. The upshot of our conversation led me to a meeting and audition with Terry's teacher, the master North Indian vocalist Pandit Pran Nath. Soon after the audition, I commenced my study of North Indian singing with the renowned vocal teacher.

As our friendship continued to unfold, Terry introduced me to his close friend and fellow progenitor of the school of sonic Minimalism, composer La Monte Young. On a trip to New York, I met Mr. Young and his wife, the gifted artist, Marian ZaZeela. Through Terry's friend Tariq Hamid, I met the master water-colorist, Harish Johari, a man with whom I would begin a decade long study of Ayurvedic folk medicine, sound, art and cooking. Studying with Mr. Johari, I was able to gain practical insights into ancient, tantric teachings. Day by day, as I embraced the practice, I internalized a finer appreciation of the greater Hindu pantheon. All in all, I'll never forget the extraordinary days I was able to spend with Terry Riley, with his family and with his friends.

In late 1970, I met KPFA's music director and fellow composer Charles Amirkhanian. A year later, Mr. Amirkhanian invited me to perform one of my early vocal compositions live on the air. The piece was titled Seahorse, Butterfly, Cuckoo, Bee, Swan, Zebra, Owl. The song was one of my first minimalist compositions created to explore the tonal resonances of pure sound with shape.

The essential extract of language, of sound and of word, inspires me endlessly.

In San Francisco in the spring of 1971, inspired by Charles Ives' spatial sound-picture Central Park In the Dark, I set out to craft some truly, new music. The pieces I composed were interdimensional symphonies, dreamscapes of sorts. Due to a fortuitous set of circumstances, I was able to present the performance events at the recently opened Theatre Artaud. The musical ideas took the form of all-night concerts. I titled the first piece, 'A Stitch of Light, of Fragrance and the Music and the Sphere', and its followup, a month later, 'Music in Waves and Poppies Dance the Light and Sound of Nature'.

'A Stitch of Light' and 'Music In Waves' garnered positive reviews and gained me some notoriety in the SF performance-art community. Charles Amirkhanian, an early champion of my work, had decided to record the 'Stitch Of Light' event for future broadcast. As fate would have it, due to a fire in the KPFA mobile-recording truck, the concert was not documented. For some who were there who witnessed it all, it has lived to this day, nearly fifty years on, as a memory, still vivid and clear.

With regard to what led to the creation of 'Gymnosphere', I can only say that the sonic-structure and texture of the work emerged fully-formed on the heels of the 'A Stitch of Light' and 'Music In Waves' concerts. While A Stitch of Light, of Fragrance and the Music and the Sphere elucidates, in the abstract, a macrocosm of my musical ideas, 'Gymnosphere: Song of the Rose' reflects an inner, more intimate exploration of an infinitely spacious, microcosmic realm."

San Francisco in the '70's was like a state of mind; a place in time and space where artists and scientists and inspired luminaries of every school and every stripe bounced off one another like free electrons. One such chance encounter led to my meeting with Mickey Hart – drummer, percussionist and vision-keeper for the Grateful Dead. A few years after I met him, he decided to use my artwork on the cover of his album titled Diga Rhythm Band. When United Artists released the record in 1975, the image appeared in black and white printed on silver mylar.

My friendship with Mickey Hart began as an exchange of musical ideas. Over time, as we visited, I told him about my 'Gymnosphere Series' and how I was interested in the idea of recording a truly 'well-tuned' piano. The concept appealed to his adventurous sensibilities. He said to me, "If I wasn't so busy, I would invest time in this project myself." I never forgot that. I never forgot that he was the first to encourage me to bring my 'well-tuned piano' idea to fruition. A few years later, after many enlightening forays into the realm of 'rational sound,' I met Stephen Hill.

One rainy night in the winter of 1974, I stopped by the studios of KPFA Radio in Berkeley, California. When I got to the front door on Shattuck Avenue, I rang the bell, but, no one buzzed me in. I decided to go to the back of Edy's Ice Cream shop to see if I could get in through the narrow alley behind the store. Discovering that the door to the passageway was open, I entered and eased my way through the dark to the base of some stairs that led to the back door of the station. I climbed the stairs and when I reached the landing, I knocked on the door. The man who answered was Stephen Hill, but I didn't know it at the time. Thanking the gentleman for opening the door, I walked into the station. The gentleman walked straight to his chair in Studio-A and sat down with his female associate. Hearing the 'on-air' sounds, I quickly realized that I was listening to a live-broadcast of Music From the Hearts of Space and, in that instant, I also realized that the man who had opened the door for me must have been Stephen Hill and that the woman sitting next to him must be his co-producer Anna Turner.

I had enjoyed listening to their broadcasts many times before and I wanted to tell them so. Poking my head into the room, I introduced myself and said, "I love your show. Good sound makes such a big difference. Having heard your voices on-the-air for so long, it's nice to put a face with sound." That's when Mr. Hill said, “Thank you for supporting what we're doing. What brings you out on a rainy night like this?” I told him I had a new composition I'd been working on and that I needed a piano to play and, having often visited the station, I thought I would drop by and see if the piano in the music room was free. In passing, I said to him, “You might like the music. It's aligned with the type of sounds I've heard you feature on your program. If you'd ever like to hear the piece, I'll play it for you sometime.” Without hesitating, Mr. Hill said, "Sure. How about now?" He got up from his chair and I followed him to the music room. I sat down at the vintage, Steinway grand and started to play. After a minute or so, Mr. Hill interrupted, saying, "Stop. I want to get this piece down on tape." Stephen went right to work setting up some microphones and cabling and, soon, handing me some earphones, looked at me and said, "Now, will you play that piece for me again?" I smiled and nodded, "Yes." Stephen then remarked, "We only have about 15 minutes left until the end of our break. Let's get started." The next sound I heard in my earphones was Mr. Hill's voice saying, "The tape is rolling." I played a short excerpt from a work in progress titled Night's Cascading Threads of Splendor. When the performance was over, Mr. Hill said, "That was beautiful." Then and there, Hill and Turner decided to air the new recording on their show.

Not long after our meeting at KPFA, I visited Stephen's production studio Celestial Sound. Located in a 2nd floor warehouse space at the corner of 21st and Alabama in San Francisco, the loft housed an ever-expanding, highly-organized library of recorded sounds on vinyl and audio tape, a beautiful compendium of music both ancient and modern. That afternoon, I shared with Stephen an overview of my on-going interest in the virtues of 'just-intonation'. I told him, "Using the piano as a vehicle, I want to bring the vibratory reality of 'rational sound' to life on analog tape. To capture on tape a reflection of these tuning ideas, I have to find the right grand- piano and I have to place it in the right acoustic-space. Most of all, once I have the right piano in the right acoustic space, I need enough time to 'properly-tune' and 'masterfully-record' the instrument." After Stephen heard me out, with a smile on his face, he said to me, “None of that is a problem. We can do this. We just have to start taking steps.”

It had been five years or so since this compelling idea had crossed the screen of my mind. In that moment, I sensed, that with Mr. Hill, I'd finally found the right partner to help me achieve my goal. The exploration of the 'Gymnosphere Series' was ready to begin. Without cutting corners or abridging my vision, he simply went about his business, facing every challenge head-on. When I think of him, I think of someone who, through thick-and-thin, always brings his best to the situation. I love his sensibilities and his gracious way of being and I love the work that he and his wife, Leyla, continue to do with their program, Hearts of Space.

In the years since the release of the work, when referring to Gymnosphere: Song of the Rose, Mr. Hill says, "It stands as one of the most artistically significant products of the period."

After the release of Gymnosphere in 1977, I was commissioned to play the piano in the atrium lobby of the Hyatt Regency Hotel located at 1 Embarcadero Plaza in San Francisco, California. It was a union contract requiring four hours of performance each day, five days a week, for a period of six months. Each day's performance from 12:30 to 4:30 PM included selections from the Gymnosphere Series along with new pieces modeled on structural improvisations I was exploring at the time.

Folks often ask me, “What are you working on now?” With respect to the day-to-day, I enjoy working in the yard, visiting with my cats and spending time with my wonderful wife. Aside from trying to keep up with the devastation of the climate-changing news, I do my daily constitutional which includes doing a few dance steps, getting some exercise and picking up the trash that magically appears in the streets of my neighborhood overnight. From the stuff that I find, I recycle what I can and put the rest in the rubbish bin. Most days, as my practice begins in earnest, I continue to draw and I continue to write. As the spirit moves me, I still enjoy singing and playing the piano. Those who have known me the longest know that poetry has always been a constant in my life. The essential extract of language, of sound and of word, inspires me endlessly. I find I am always working on new poems, new pieces in new rhythms and new shapes. I am curious about many things and, like most writers who are dedicated to the craft, I write about subjects and issues that compel my interest.

The writing touches on everything under the sun and, once in a while, if I like the way a certain poem resonates, I'll set it to music. All in all, these are the disciplines that I hold dear. These are the forms of expressive confession that have shaped the course of my life and work.

When it comes to the distillation of creative ideas, I'm finishing a book I've titled Buffalo Zen: Songs From the Nature House – Poetry and Collected Writings. It's an expansive body of work that I'm hoping to usher into print with the aide of a quality publisher. Also, by a turn of good fortune, Global Pacific Records and CBS/Sony have returned to me the rights to re-release my mercurial, world-beat album, Valentine Eleven, a project that had a brief run in Billboard's contemporary-jazz poll, back in 1988 and '89. My dear friend and co-producer, Teja Bell, has just re-mastered the album and, after years of being out of print, we're looking to find a new home for the music.

Over the course of the last year or so, I've been working with Mr. Robert Neville and the talented crafts people at Fine Art Tapestries in North Carolina. He and his staff are currently in the process of weaving a set of classic, high thread-count, jacquard wall-hangings - exquisitely woven reproductions of selected drawings and paintings. A series of twelve tapestries titled Jordan De La Sierra: Archival Collection will be released in the spring of 2020. In the meanwhile, folks can see the first completed piece here.

For the last forty-years or so, I've been working on a composition titled Orange-Flower Grove: The Garden of the Food of Transforming Impressions. It's a very down-to-earth piece designed to hit its stride in about 3,000 years. The structure of the work explores a labyrinthine matrix of elemental paths that lead to a vista that opens out upon a 51st century garden; a living environment most aligned with those of the ancient Persian schools. If, before I exit this magnificent domain, I am fortunate enough to secure the requisite funding required to properly undertake the construction of such a piece at such a place on Earth that rests at the right elevation with a reliable source of downward rushing water somewhere in a longitude and latitude appropriate to its design, I will build it. Utilizing my notes and the score I've been working on, I am ready to begin any day.