Early and pre new age music is a great interest of mine, and I was elated to work on a reissue of one of the genre's finest and most overlooked releases. I wrote the liner notes for the Numero Group's deluxe reissue of Bay Area artist Jordan De La Sierra's masterpiece, "Gymnosphere: Song of the Rose," which was for the first time lovingly recreated from the original master tapes. Here's the full text:
"Ten years before the New Age genre was recognized by the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences at its annual awards show in 1987, the genre’s entrancing burbles and post-folk finger-picking were brimming from home studios all over the Bay Area. And in 1977, an outsider to this outsider scene arose to become one of its greatest talents. A young multidisciplinary artist, trained in classical technique and chock-full of innovational ideas and ecstatic truths, Jordan De La Sierra has a mind and vernacular soaring with cosmic concepts, but his gentle heart is unvaryingly open and accessible on earth.
His generosity and commitment to artistic integrity is perhaps why De La Sierra is first to attribute the inspiration for his interstellar space piano to his friend and teacher Terry Riley, the San Francisco minimalist composer who, along with La Monte Young, championed the idea of “pure sound with shape”—notes that have not been confined by Bach’s Western, “well tempered” piano tuning. Instead, De La Sierra’s work incorporates the opposite point of view, what Young called “well tuned,” where notes are not flattened or sharpened in order to fall into an octave of 12 equal semitones, but instead reverberate to the fullest extent of their potential at varying lengths, and simply bend within their player’s improvisations and textural sonic explorations.
Born in 1947 to parents of Slovakian and Spanish origins, De La Sierra was raised in California’s San Joaquin Valley, spending his adolescence on the basketball courts and in the theaters of Fresno. His first recordings were made in his mid-teens for Hollywood’s Joli label, which issued “The Voice In The Wind” b/w “Every Time It Rains” in 1965. At 17, De La Sierra gave his first solo classical vocal recital, singing English, French, German, and Italian art songs, and earned a full scholarship to San Francisco’s prestigious Conservatory of Music, where he studied theory, composition and voice. A heady student of the avant-garde, he performed the works of John Cage, Earl Brown and Robert Ashley with New Music ensembles at the Conservatory, while also exploring his identity in song craft.
Soon after graduation, De La Sierra gathered an avant ensemble of players for his first original work outside of school, which became the first interdisciplinary outfit to perform at the Mission District’s Project Artaud, a multi-story abandoned warehouse that had been renovated to support local theater productions. Here he collaborated with musical minds but also across artistic genres, incorporating elements by light-artist Daniel Conrad, who fashioned his first “light instrument” for De La Sierra’s pieces “A Stitch of Light of Fragrance and the Music and the Sphere” and “Music in Waves and Poppies Dance the Light and Sound of Nature.” Choreographer Carlos Carvajal’s assemblage of dancers from the company of The San Francisco Ballet added physical movement to Sierra’s sounds.
As important as the artistic community in San Francisco was to the young De La Sierra, his evolving interests across disciplines were growing, as was his penchant for solo exploration. He met Terry Riley in 1969 while doing un-credited post-graduate studies at Mills College Center for Contemporary Music with Robert Ashley, and became enthralled with Riley’s In C and A Rainbow In Curved Air. Riley, through La Monte Young, had grown increasingly enthralled by Indian classical singing, especially Kyhal master Pandit Pran Nath. Following Nath’s 1970 visit to New York with Young and visual artist Marian Zazeela, he traveled west to mentor a number of minimalist composers, including Riley and his younger disciple De La Sierra, who would spend the next three years under the tutelage of Pran Nath. This inspired his first cycle of meditational songs, Music In Bong, and one of those pieces, “Seahorse Butterfly Cuckoo Bee Swan Zebra Owl,” was performed on KPFA in March of 1972.
Founded in 1949, Berkeley’s KPFA was the first listener-supported radio station in the United States. Its freeform program directors would send readings of Allen Ginsberg’s Howl and Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s Coney Island of the Mind into the living rooms of the Bay Area’s intelligentsia, and in 1973 open up a weekly late night slot for Stephen Hill’s three-hour “space music” radio program Hearts of Space. Hill relocated to San Francisco in 1970 after obtaining a graduate degree in architecture from the University of Pennsylvania, but abandoned the building of physical spheres for the construction of sonic spaces.
“I met Jordan one memorably wet November night in 1975 when he appeared completely without warning at the back door of KPFA,” Hill wrote in the abandoned liner notes to 1985’s Narada cassette reissue of Gymnosphere. “[Jordan] announced that he had come to play the piano on the Hearts of Space program, which was already in progress! Having heard a previous recording, and being duly impressed not only with his single-minded intensity, but also with his enormous physical presence, I agreed.”
The recording of Gymnosphere: Song of the Rose took place at a small studio in Berkeley, which while affordable, lead to a few hiccups in the vision for the sound of the trans-dimensional space piano. The pair rented a nine-foot Steinway D concert grand from Sherman Clay in downtown San Francisco, and hired a piano tuner to reconfigure it from the Steinway’s tempered scale to a well tuned scale at the start of each of the three days of the session. Hill then secured a basement studio at 1750 Art Street, a nonprofit created for the advancement of New Music run by the contemporary classical vocalist Tom Bucker, where Hill often worked and which fit the modest budget for the session
Five-and-a-half hours of music were captured in that subterranean space. De La Sierra transformed the 15-foot room into an Eastern temple strewn with silks, gardenia flowers, bottles of essential oils, stones and energy crystals. He defines Gymnosphere as a “temple of aesthetic-action,” and this sonic enclave was that theory in motion, illustrating both the importance of De La Sierra’s multi-sensory perception as well as his forward thinking. The dark room was illuminated by a single Indian ghee candle, which De La Sierra assembled by placing a wick twisted from cotton in a jar of clarified butter. Natural drones were achieved through the adept utilization of the Steinway’s sustain and soft pedals. However the tiny studio lacked any natural acoustics, which stunted De La Sierra’s vision for the richness of this space music. Unsatisfied with their results, Hill and De La Sierra doubled down on a concept that the young composer had learned under Terry Riley’s wing: Instead of playing with only a short tape-delay echo used to expand and multiply each note, the pair rounded up a team of assistants and took to the iconic Grace Cathedral on Nob Hill, home to perhaps the greatest natural acoustics in all of the Bay Area.
That long, foggy day in November of 1976, in the house of worship atop one of San Francisco’s original Seven Hills, is largely responsible for Gymnosphere’s simultaneously primal and futuristic sound. Inside the church the original recordings from the studio were played through speakers and recorded, and these reverberations captured within the walls of the stone monolith were mixed by Hill with De La Sierra’s original piano takes and tape delay echoes, resulting in the epic sound of the space piano, meant to transport listeners from their earthly locale to a cosmic realm in the great spirit-field.
With the Hearts Of Space record label still eight years away from launch, Hill referred De La Sierra to what was the best Bay Area option at that time, Unity Records, founded in 1975 by Peter Georgi, an inexperienced rich kid from Marin County out to make waves in this new era. Georgi’s original mission with Unity was to license as many songs by Bay Area artists at possible, those minds creating serene and otherworldly vibrations out of home studios, in order to assemble a series of compilations introducing the world to this new San Francisco sound. In this pursuit he enlisted the studio expertise of Hill, who was to transfer and re-master Georgi’s catalogue. While only one compilation was ever released, Anthology: Volume One Give Me Wings (UR 1000), in the process Georgi took an interest in De La Sierra as well as Iasos, Laura Allan and other pre New Age visionaries crafting ecumenical compositions, and signed each artist to modest one album deals.
Gymnosphere’s level of sonic manipulation was nearly impossible to perform live in the late ’70s, requiring equipment that was too costly and too unwieldy for small New Age performances, but De La Sierra was invited to play works inspired by the Gymnosphere sessions in the lobby of San Francisco’s Hyatt Regency from July through November of 1977. By the time Unity released the double album Gymosphere: Song of the Rose that same year, the ever evolving multi-disciplinarian had his sights set on visual art, poetry and developing a Dylan-esque singer-songwriter persona on the back of dozens of songs he’d written with lyrics centered on fictional characters. To reduce costs, Unity cut Gymnosphere: Song of the Rose in half in 1978, jettisoning the second and third sides and De La Sierra’s 20-page book of India-inspired drawings and musings on the tableau of space. As De La Sierra walked the singer-songwriter line, Unity’s founder Georgi had strayed from the path. After a series of financial mishaps that lead to a complete loss of trust in the community, Unity quietly folded in 1982.
From 1980 to 1984 De La Sierra fronted The Jemstone Band, before returning to his now-en vogue New Age roots with the Teja Bell-produced Valentine 11 album for the Sonoma-based Global Pacific label in 1988. A follow up album, Soft Science, was scheduled for release in 1989, but was shelved when Global Pacific began to fall apart. The album remains unreleased. In 1984 Stephen Hill and Anna Turner launched the Hearts of Space label and issued more than 150 ambient, electronic and new age titles before being bought out by Valley Entertainment in 2001. In January 2013 the Hearts of Space radio program celebrated its 1,000th broadcast on the 40th anniversary of its debut. Jordan De La Sierra has returned to the San Joaquin Valley, and continues to pursue music, poetry and visual art, every work and thought and breath guided by his signature mantra, 'In truth and goodness and beauty.'"