Meeting Victoria Jordanova in person is an experience in cosmopolitan style, elegance and sophistication. The woman is also serious and purposeful without being dour or humorless. She’s a native of Serbia and a long time resident of the United States who became a citizen in 2000. Her world view has been shaped by an international career and informed by contemporary politics and culture.
Those same qualities and concerns are reflected in Jordanova’s body of work as a harpist, composer and media artist. Requiem for Bosnia, her 1992 breakthrough debut as a composer, was a somber and urgent essay for broken piano, harp and child’s voice. As with the Requiem, there’s also a haunted soul in her homage to the fallen of 9/11 titled Outer Voices. In other projects, Jordanova puts aside the tragedy and mortality and instead dusts off older musical forms in pieces like Short Attention Span Symphony, New York Love Songs, and Piano Sonatina.
The two selections on Jordanova’s latest CD continue in her characteristic sound world, an evocative studio mix of harp, field recordings and electronics. What’s new in the main work Kernel is that her programmatic focus goes green. While it’s not exactly true that her past works are all about city life, there’s often a feel of urban sophistication, plus the aura of electronics tends to suggest modern and temporal concerns. By contrast, the six movements of “Kernel” progress through the seasonal life cycle of a plant.
Jordanova’s self awareness and understated humor come through when she remarks: “I’m a typical urban person who loves to escape to nature, loves other people’s gardens, and finds plants intriguing.” As an observer with a certain distance, she comes up with a fresh reframing of the relationship between nature and music. Rather than fashion something that’s about the pleasures of meadows and forests, she examines the biology of it all and posits that the vibrational structure of a musical pitch is parallel to the genetic growth of a plant.
“While taking a walk recently, I began comparing pitches with seeds,” says the composer. “Similar to a how a seed is a capsule containing the genetic material of the plant–roots, stems, leaves and flowers–the fundamental in music is comprised of all its overtones, as its sound is defined by all of the component frequencies of a vibrating string.”
Overtones (also known as harmonics or partials) aren’t new ground for harpists. Yet according to Jordanova, performers are seldom called on to use anything beyond the first harmonic, usually referred to as “at the octave.” It’s also possible to get three additional harmonics on the longer harp strings, which sound the partials at an octave and a fifth, an octave and a seventh, and two octaves above the fundamental, respectively. This is the realm—the rising leaves and flowers of sound—where Jordanova mostly dwells in Kernel.
The construction of each movement began with an informed improvisation, meaning that she gave herself some preset parameters before starting, including the particular key, electronic set up, and gestures or small sounds that would be the starting point of the music. After the recording came more electronic processing. The fifth movement Wilting is the only section with no post-production editing or sound treatments, the echo and distortion effects all being made in real time. The final movement Winter departs from the emphasis on harmonics and is built from multiphonics, which is the generation of multiple pitches from a single attack on the instrument.
“Harpists are no more conservative than other instrumentalists. But they don’t think about their instrument the same way as I do. Being a composer means you are interested in new things, open minded to adventures into music,” says Jordanova.
She cites John Cage and Igor Stravinsky as two of her “favorite gurus” because they looked beyond the standard parameters of how instruments can be used and thereby found new sounds fostering new growth. “Challenges make us more creative or more imaginative, because they inspire us to stretch the limits or go around the obstacles. I think that both the composer and the gardener should keep their wisdom in mind. Growth is possible from all kinds of seeds.”
Grit, the companion work on this disc, represents Jordanova’s return to working with the new and unpredictable sounds of a distressed instrument, in this case a pipe organ. The site was the Church of Santa Prisca de Taxco, in the state of Guerrero, Mexico. Built in the late 18th century, the imposing structure is in a traditional and ornate style with two bell towers and is considered a world monument. By the late 20th century some of the walls and plaster were in decay, due to the vibrations from earthquakes, local mining and automobile traffic. Substantial falling debris landed in the pipes of the resident organ. Some would consider this a tragedy but to Jordanova it was an opportunity.
“I played on this organ a little the first day of my visit and was fascinated by its distorted sounds. The next day, a priest was very surprised by my request but kindly permitted me, despite my foolishness, to sample its sounds.” Her visit happen to coincide with Semana Santa (Holy Week), the most sacred period of the Christian calendar culminating with Easter Sunday.
Seated at the organ console Jordanova experimented with the keyboards, pedals and stops and found the results enchanting. Meanwhile, “the people were flocking into the church. The Nahuatl people were dressed in their beautiful folk attire and other people were dressed in their Sunday best. Some were praying, some listening and some whispering, wandering what were those strange sounds.”
Grit is a searing collage of sounds collected in those public sessions. Ambient noise from the worshippers was not edited or filtered out and only sounds recorded at Santa Prisca were included in the final mix. Given the circumstances of the generative material, the “grit” of the title is self evident. But for Jordanova, there’s a larger theme to the work.
“The grit in the pipes also represents the grit people get. We are fed words, beliefs, ideas, and prejudices from stupid and dangerous politicians, priests and technocrats. All that is the distortion of truth. The true organ sound is to be found somewhere underneath. But is the organ ever going to be restored?”
– Joseph Dalton
About Jody Dalton:
A former classical music record producer, Joseph Dalton arrived in upstate New York in 2002 and plunged into writing about the far-flung arts scene. His stories have received awards from ASCAP and the Associated Press.
He has twice received the ASCAP Deems Taylor Award for music journalism (2004 and 2010) and he took a first place award from the New York State Associated Press for arts and entertainment writing in 2005. Dalton has also contributed to Time Out New York, The Advocate, Opera News, American Record Guide and Symphony Magazine and the web sites New Music Box and Musical America.
Victoria Jordanova is a composer, harpist and media artist. She has a tightly controlled focus to her work while melding experimental techniques, electronics and improvisation with her classical music education, described as “a singularity of vision…” by NewMusicBox Magazine.
Jordanova’s music is informed by an international career, the San Francisco and New York alternative avant-garde music environment, as well as today’s contemporary politics and culture. Jordanova released six albums on CRI, Innova and Arpaviva labels, with her music included in “Forty Years of Discovery ” the CRI anniversary anthology release of American music.
In the US she has performed at Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully Hall, Merkin Concert Hall (NY), MOMA, LACMA, Yerba Buena Forum, and other venues. Her large-scale multidisciplinary work Panopticon was granted by the San Francisco Arts Commission.
Abroad she was awarded residence in the Cite Internationale des Arts, in Paris and composer-in-residence at the Bogliasco Foundation, Genoa, Italy. Jordanova has performed at Cité internationale des arts (Paris), Gubbio Music Festival (Italy), Festival Gargiless (France), Bogliasco Foundation recital (Genoa, Italy).
Her work is described as “strange and fascinating, very personal and delicate, full of great imagination” by Jan de Kruijff – Musicalifeiten, Netherland, and “still very beautiful in a traditional sense” Tim Page, New York – Newsday. In 2002 Jordanova founded Arpaviva Recordings, a Los Angeles based independent music and media label.
Q: The title Kernel and Grit suggests a story behind the music. What would you like listeners to know about these pieces?
A: Yes, there is a story within this album; it’s programmatic. Kernel & Grit is a six-movement suite for harp and electronics. It is about nature, but it’s more about the similarity between the biology of a seed and musical pitches rather than pretty flowers and meadows with brooks. The first track is Kernel, or Zrnevlje, (which is one of those succulent Serbian words best pronounced by grinding the consonants and vowels together in your mouth.) Try it: Zher-nhev-lyhe
The music on the first track Kernel is like a seed, or a capsule, containing the genetic material of the plant roots, stems, leaves and flowers. The music is composed of the fundamental pitch, the overtones and by all of the component frequencies of a vibrating string. Kernel makes use of various overtones, percussive harmonics, and also multiphonics on the harp.
On Grit, the last piece on this album, I recorded my playing on an 18th-century organ in the famous Santa Prisca Cathedral in Guerrero, Mexico. Plaster and fine dust had filled the organ pipes which so graced this glorious instrument and created magnificent sound distortions. Perhaps you can imagine how blessed I felt when years ago during one of my sweaty and dusty road experiences I walked into that sacred sound space. It was just last year I finally composed Grit using those recordings from that damaged organ and processed the sounds electronically. Those recordings, behaving as any other good seeds do, grew into a composition.
Q: Tell us about a place in the world that had a big impact on your art?
A: Every city I have lived in has brought me meaningful experiences. And often, those experiences were different from what I had expected. But of all places, my time in San Francisco was the most unexpected. The city had one of the greatest impacts on my music and creative work. It brought a big shift into my perspectives which had been shaped during my years in Paris where I studied harp.
…And speaking of an impact, one day a piano fell down a flight of stairs in front of me and broke into pieces. This event led me to create a piece for piano, harp and child’s voice. After that, it felt natural to stop performing classical music and to focus on composing and recording my own music. I also began to meet and improvise with some of the best musicians in the alternative music scene. During that time I was also learning about and incorporating electronic sounds into my work. This gave me a whole new direction to explore different ideas in music.
Q: What does a perfect day look like to you?
A: Everything depends on how I feel about my creative work; which sometimes feels like work and not so creative. So, back to your question, let’s say on a good day, I’d make coffee early in the morning and sit on the bench in our garden watching the sun play different colors on wet grass like shiny powdery glass. I’ll think of some idea, something, that if I do it right now may take me to a new point in my composition. With that thought, I would go to my studio with the coffee and in my pajamas and work. And if things start happening a most splendid gratified feeling would arise. Following that, I would have a day on the beach with sweet peaches and a melon, and a really, really good book. I would swim in the ocean with Relja and Annie, our canine grandchild who also loves the waves.