“Life is a winding road,” the old folk song says. In my career as a musician, my road has definitely taken some twists and turns. Whether performing my harp music, writing for voice and piano or composing for an instrumental ensemble, I have carried my classical music background and training in one hand and a penchant for experimental techniques in the other.
Every single composition on this CD represents a time capsule from my life. I played and recorded each piece on a different piano, in another city and in a different period of my life. In all of the pieces, I applied the method I call “preparation in real time”—the personal performance practice I often use in my live performances. It implies using devices, easily movable objects, and different fingerings to temporarily shift the instrument’s timbre from the piano to that of a harpsichord or clavichord. For instance, in Genesis (2009) and Kosmogonia (Cosmogony) (2005), following the proverb “necessity is the mother of invention,” I came up with a vibrating glove. When placed on the piano strings, the electromagnets stuffed into the glove’s fingertips helped create the sostenuto-sounding strings, mockup flute sounds, and bass clarinet I needed.
For an acoustic baby grand piano, Mappa Della Memoria was recorded live during my recital at the Bogliasco Foundation in Genoa, Italy, where I held a composer’s residency in 2004. Sonatina No.1 was composed in 1996 and recorded in 1997 on an upright piano after I rescued it from the local bar and somehow fit it into the kitchen of my studio apartment in Manhattan. Based on the eponymous work by the ingenious Italian visual artist Mario Fallini, The Memory Map is a fitting piece to start this album with. Like a traveler who retraces his footsteps, Fallini draws his version of the iconic medieval allegory of memory, traditionally depicted as a portly matron in elaborate dress, by “stitching” the titles of his works in each fold of her sumptuous attire.
Sonatina No.2 and Sonatina No.3 were composed in 2004 and recorded on an amplified Chinese-made baby grand piano I purchased at a liquidation sale at the San Francisco Opera. I dedicated this piece to Morpho, a large, mysterious South American butterfly with iridescent wings who lives for only a day before being sealed for eternity into a pendant by a jewelry maker. In the already-mentioned Genesis, I wondered what it sounded like when God went about making the world. During my college years, while sitting in the symphony orchestra and counting numerous empty bars in my harp parts, I entertained the idea of getting a job in a planetarium.
I recalled that fantasy many years later in KOSMOGONIA, where I explored the ways to depict in sound the mindboggling theory of the ever-expanding universe.
Victoria Jordanova, an American composer born in Kragujevac, Serbia, is probably best known for her magnificent Requiem for Bosnia for broken piano, harp, and child’s voice. The current CD is her first for piano since the release of the Requiem in 1994. Unlike the Requiem, which exists only as a recording and cannot be performed live (the namesake broken piano no longer exists), Kosmogonia is comprised of works that can be performed in concert.
Born in Serbia, a longtime San Francisco resident, and now living in Los Angeles, Jordanova’s aesthetic predecessors include West Coast American experimentalists and mavericks Henry Cowell and John Cage. She is inspired by their innovative piano compositions, and especially by Cowell’s “string piano” (when performers bypass the piano’s keyboard and play directly on the strings, variously plucking, strumming, rubbing, and otherwise manipulating them), as well as his generous use of tone clusters; and Cage’s “prepared piano,” inspired by and extrapolated from Cowell’s string piano, in which items such as screws, bolts, bits of rubber and other materials are inserted and wedged between the strings, thus dramatically transforming the instrument’s timbre.
It should be no surprise that other important influences on Jordanova include Krzysztof Penderecki and György Ligeti, both composers who experimented with and explored sound masses, unorthodox timbres, and unconventional musical textures and techniques. In an undergraduate class taught by composition professor Dr. Jere Hutcheson, Jordanova encountered Penderecki’s Kosmogonia (1970) (a work that inspired her own work of the same title found on this CD), Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima (1960) and Ligeti’s Atmospheres (1961).
Such inspiration is borne out when Jordanova states that she uses a computer and MIDI instruments to compose, “But whenever I really want to test an idea, only the piano will do. I open it, knock on it, touch every part of it, play it inside and out, amplify it to hear its softest whispers, and present it with all kinds of toys and devices to coax every possible sound out of it. And it always gives back more than I expect, surprising me with new sounds and possibilities.”
Jordanova’s wide-open ears are on a never-ending quest for new sounds, timbres, and sonorities. She says, “Some of the best times of my life were spent with pianos. I have played many pianos in my life, and I’ve never found one I didn’t like. From the old upright, which never could be tuned properly, that I rescued from a local bar and worked on in my Manhattan apartment to the one that fell two flights of stairs in the French-American International School in San Francisco, which I used to record my Requiem—all gave me something unique. Sometimes I feel that there is more at play than a mere material object, as in the medieval concept of anima mundi–a pure, ethereal spirit diffused throughout all nature that animates all matter in the same sense in which the soul was thought to animate the human.” She concludes with a rather cunning and insightful proposal: “Maybe the piano participates in my compositions as much as I do.”
In her Sonatina no. 1 for upright antique piano, Jordanova coaxes beautiful sounds from an instrument that would have horrified Chopin and would be considered beneath contempt by contemporary concert pianists. Instead of regarding the faults of the antique piano as shortcomings, she views them as opportunities for sonic exploration. Indeed, Sonatina no. 1 would be a completely different and much less successful work was it played on a pristine concert grand.
Those familiar with the string piano and prepared piano, and with works by composers such as Stephen Scott who also use extended techniques on the instrument, including “bowing” the strings (for example, strands of rosined nylon fishing line are threaded under the strings then drawn back and forth to excite the series), will recognize the instrument as a piano but may be bewildered by the manner of sound generation in Genesis and Kosmogonia. These compositions require a vibrating glove, in which small electromagnets are placed on the fingertips. Jordanova does not insert her hand in the glove to stroke or massage the strings. Instead, she uses the glove as a holder for the electromagnets, placed directly on the strings. Further manipulation, including using the keyboard, sustaining pedal, and touching the string with the fingers, change the overtone structure to discover new timbres and advance the music.
The amplification employed in several works on this CD is used only to precisely reveal the subtleties and nuances of the piano rather than to increase power and volume. By running the sound from the microphone directly into the computer input, the typical recording studio problems of capturing acoustic sound accurately are circumvented. The amplification and recording techniques allow the listener to hear everything–harmonics, partials, and other acoustic phenomena–in a way that would not be possible using traditional recording methods. As a result, one hears the music differently and in a way that enhances Jordanova’s compositions and reveals her extraordinary gifts.
— Dean Suzuki
Associate Professor of music history at San Francisco State University and producer and host of “Discreet Music” on KPFA-FM in Berkeley, CA.
In KOSMOGONIA, Jordanova’s long-distinguished creativity is again manifest. She brings to the work her signature alchemy, blending classical with experimental.
Each piece in this piano retrospective represents an “entry” from Jordanova’s intimate piano diary that she kept from 1997 to 2009. Each piece was performed on a different piano in a different city and at a different point in time.