Interview: Jordan de la Sierra

After a timely reissue, the New Age musician draws out his vast and surprising musical map.

This past November, Chicago label Numero Group reissued a record called Gymnosphere: Song Of The Rose by a composer named Jordan de la Sierra. The record – a deep and deeply searching piece of piano music based on a scale of seven notes that unfurls over nearly two hours – became a cult classic for what was eventually described as New Age music. De la Sierra, whose birth name is Jordan Stenberg, kept at it in his own private way, charting a journey into music that has lasted his entire life; including cameos from Terry Riley, Stanford psychopharmacologists, Indian watercolor painters and Clarence Clemons, saxophone player for Bruce Springsteen and friend to Stenberg for nearly 18 years. Mike Powell reached him in Fresno, California, where de la Sierra lived as a child and now lives again.

Tell me about the making of the record, and where you were at as a composer at the time.

I began to work when I was very young. My father was a very fine craftsman as a sign writer; he did the old gold leaf work, murals, very nice work for people that needed signs and business, illumination for their businesses. My mother was working, raising us as children. She would take us to church and I’d sing out of the hymn books with everyone else that was standing there singing. In high school I really began to experience a lot of really positive feedback from my singing and my saxophone playing, and I began to really do a lot of work as a professional in those days, singing in a lot of situations professionally. I had a full scholarship to go to the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. I majored in voice and minored in composition, and then I took the major in composition because I began to become more and more engrossed in it.

In the last two years of my time in music conservatory, I had the good fortune to meet Terry Riley: a very, very fine musician in the school of minimalism, working with La Monte Young out of New York. Terry came to the conservatory for a brief time. We were doing a performance of one of his compositions with the New Music Ensemble, “In C.” One thing led to another and I ended up meeting him and La Monte Young as well. I began to take up the study of sound with Terry. He liked what I was doing and introduced me to his Indian teacher, Pandit Pran Nath, who La Monte was also studying with. The music that I studied with Terry and Pran Nath really came out of the minimalist school, what I would call “pure sound with shape.”

Jordan De La Sierra - Gymnosphere: Song of the Rose

It’s interesting to me that you sort of got started performing, practicing, learning music, in this kind of – I don’t want to say spiritual context, but in the context of singing hymns and being involved in the church. It seems like that’s a relationship that seems to have continued into the composition. When I read the liner notes of Song of the Rose, for example, there’s a strong connection there between spirituality and a certain mode of living or being or thinking, and the performance of music.

Well you know, it’s interesting: I’m not really an orthodox person in any sense of the word, in terms of adhering to a particular line of religious practice. I have a wonderful interest, a personal interest, in the Buddhist sensibility and the study of Buddhism and the practice to whatever degree I’m capable of, and I’m sure I would be capable of a lot more if I spent even more time embracing it. What I’m saying is those early experiences do crystallize a sense of being open to a relationship with the elemental world. I went to church and sang, but that was the sound for me. The sound was everything. I loved the sound. I loved it from the earliest I heard it. When I could sing and make sounds, and follow the notes in the book, it wouldn’t matter if I was playing Dave Brubeck’s “Take Five” on the saxophone, or whether I was singing a song in church. It was just the sound was absolutely transforming to me.

I just was hungry to know about the different elemental, vibratory – the sphere that we’re walking in and moving in as living creatures, as human beings, in relationship with other living things.

And I learned to be with other elements, other than sound. I learned to walk in the forest and learn about the plants. I was in the Audubon Society as a boy. It was one of those things where I just was hungry to know about the different elemental, vibratory – the sphere that we’re walking in and moving in as living creatures, as human beings, in relationship with other living things. I learned about birds, I learned about mosses, different kinds of flowers and plants, the nettles; the ones that you can get, like the poison ivy and the poison oak and all that kind of plant as well, the ones to avoid, the different kinds of herbs. That meant a lot to me as a child. And seeing my father paint and draw with such excellence made a huge impression on me, you know. You’d just, watch him.

So having done so much singing and playing saxophone when you were younger, how was it that you came to the piano, and the kind of performance you did in Song of the Rose?

Well, when I came to conservatory in San Francisco, I’d been playing piano - not as my first instrument, but as a composition major there were things that we were required to do. I began to apply myself, and it just came very naturally to me. And I’ve continued breaking it down; when you take a book of, say, a jazz musician, you have what is called a fakebook, and the fakebook is just the chord changes with the melody playing, and the melody written down. If there are words for the song, then they’re written out with just chord changes. And, of course, the time signature. If it’s in 4/4 time, or if it’s a waltz, or if it’s a jump tune - whatever. That was also another way for me – I just learned to play off of chord symbols. I’d already studied harmony, composition and counterpoint, and the rest of it as part of the studies in the conservatory, so those things all made sense to me when I broke it down.

The beautiful thing is, as you know, that we have been blessed to live in a time where you could listen to some of the greatest and finest music of the past through records. I was exposed to so many things by living in San Francisco. I just soaked it up like a sponge in my formative years. I’ve carried on my explorations because it means a lot to me to be open.

What were some of the things you were exposed to in San Francisco?

When I was at the conservatory, one of my composition teachers used to sit us down and we’d listen Alan Watts lectures, Zen and the Art of Archery, Otis Redding, Laura Nyro and The Beatles. "These are the assignments for this semester." I’d already been thoroughly immersed in the study of harmony and counterpoint with another set of really orthodox teachers that were very well established in those fields. I began to take on this sense of absorbing and studying these different idioms as part of my life work.

So you weren’t familiar with thinking about music that way until you had gone to conservatory?

Well, when I was in high school I was playing at my junior and senior prom, all of the popular music of the day, and then of course a lot of the music that had come from previous generations, because the older musicians I was playing with were all union musicians. I was playing 2nd sax, not 1st sax. They would have me sing “Blue Velvet” and “Shadow of Your Smile” - all these wonderful songs.

What I’m trying to say is that while I had a classical background singing French, German and Italian art songs, I had this other background in playing pop. These things were part of my consciousness, but in composition school I realized you could also study all these things from a whole different standpoint. You don’t have to be making necessarily reproductions of Wagner operas or Beethoven symphonies. You can if you wish, but there are many other ways to go.

That’s one of the things I write about in my book that accompanies the Song of the Rose music: the way in which sound is like a form of food. If it’s in tune, it can really become a form of nourishment for our body.

[Terry Riley] had introduced me to some amazing people, too. He and Pran Nath had friendships with others from the Indian community, including a man named Harish Johari, a watercolor painter of amazing skill. That’s where my drawing and my artwork started to really take off. One of the things with Harish is that he was actually doing some research with another friend of his, who was working at the Stanford University; they were studying psychopharmacology and neuroendocrinology, the effects of sound on the brain and the nervous system, the effects of different kinds of herbs and medicines, and how it affected the right and left hemispheres of the brain. This work just totally absorbed me. I began to take a great interest in the ways in which sound, light and all these things worked together to address our central nervous system. That’s one of the things I write about in my book that accompanies the Song of the Rose music: the way in which sound is like a form of food. If it’s in tune, it can really become a form of nourishment for our body.

At one point, a friend of mine invited me to travel up to a ranch in Northern California where [Mickey Hart] the drummer from the Grateful Dead lived. We knew each other for some time before I met him with his drum band, the Diga Rhythm Band. One day, when I came to see him, I brought a big folder of my new artwork that I had under my arm, and he saw some of the pieces and his partner in the band, Zakir Hussain, who's a very distinguished Indian tabla player from India. So [Mickey] and Zakir saw the artwork and decided together that they would like to approach United Artists, the record company that they were putting the record out with, to see if that record cover could be used for the record. It couldn't have been more than two or three months later when Mickey called me and said, “If you go to downtown San Francisco, you'll see your album cover on the side of the wall of Tower Records at Columbus and Bay.”

Tell me about the Grace Cathedral, and how the recording came together.

First, I needed to find a piano-tuner and a piano I felt comfortable playing on. I was able to get a really fine grand piano into the studio, and the studio that we recorded in originally was in Berkeley, 1750 Arch St. I had a great piano-tuner who was not only familiar with Western piano tuning techniques in the tempered scale, but he also had been studying Indian music for almost ten years, and knew how to tune to the subtleties of what you would call pure sound. He could get the pitches to be aligned with a fundamental pitch, and make sure that all the harmonics were aligned.

The tuning that you hear on Song of the Rose was the result of pitches that I had determined that I wanted to use, and the cycles per second that I wanted to use. They would all be harmonically aligned to a fundamental and so every note that’s in the scale - and I only used seven notes - are totally the product of that fundamental pitch. You’ll hear the harmonics coming out in the fundamental. If you just played one note, if you listen to it very, very, very carefully, you can hear all the harmonics of all the notes in that single note.

It was coming from the school of minimalism. Pure sound, with shape. I didn’t think of it as New Age. New Age was added onto it as a thought form after the fact, and that’s okay.

Once that was in place, I sat down and began to play the improvisations that I had been developing over a period of years. Stephen Hill had the ability to capture these pitches with his recording equipment and once it was recorded, I put a very slight delay on the signal of the tape. I was playing live. It turned out really cool. When that was done, we mixed the dry signal and the other signal, and then that signal got played in the Grace Cathedral. We wanted to get more reverb so we were looking for a bigger room - a space to let the reflections of sound work - and that was where we chose to do it.

It makes me think of stuff like [Alvin Lucier’s] “I Am Sitting in a Room” and Stuart Dempster – you know Stuart Dempster, the trombone player?

Oh I know, I know, yeah.

The incorporation of the sort of natural atmosphere of a building like that.

Are you familiar with Nicolas Slonimsky?

No, I’m not.

A very eccentric man. Baker’s Biographical Dictionary of Music and Musicians is quite a large compendium of composers and musicians throughout Western culture. Nicolas had been doing the additions to the dictionary, and I got a note from Charles Amirkhanian at KPFA Radio to submit some of my new compositions for consideration for the dictionary.

I mention this because there’s one composition called “Circles, Lines, and Planes,” which is for nine bagpipe players and 81 bugle players in the Grand Canyon. So “Circles, Lines and Planes” was my first composition based on ideation. I haven’t performed that piece, but it is laid out to be performed. That was, that’s - I mean, if you wish to - that’s one of the things that drew me to [opera composer] Robert Ashley: his amazing ability to project ideas. Also, La Monte Young’s butterfly composition where he released the butterflies. That was the composition.

It’s almost like a Fluxus-style musical piece where the music is not apparent, at least to somebody who doesn’t think deeply about music. You can’t figure out how that might be a musical performance.

You are so in tune, my friend. John Cage was a perfect example of this as well. A magnificent sensibility about ideation, and how the sound is triggered. He used the sound of the piano and the prepared piano, but his ideas transcend it. I mean, that’s what, getting back to the Alan Watts lectures, you get into the whole Zen ethos of the thing.

So, you’ve told me about the recording of Song of the Rose, but I’m curious about the life of the record after its release. It seems to have had a kind of a cult life in that people who are interested in this kind of music see it as a kind of touchstone, but most people don’t know that it exists, and it’s being brought back out nearly 40 years later.

It was touted as one of the original New Age projects. But when I was doing the work, it wasn’t from the New Age perspective. It was coming from the school of minimalism. Pure sound, with shape. I didn’t think of it as New Age. New Age was added onto it as a thought form after the fact, and that’s okay. It started to grow a life of its own.

What is your relationship to this record now? Were you surprised to hear from Numero Group, or did you just think, “Well, great”?

I was very surprised. When Song of the Rose just kind of vanished into the ether and nobody was doing anything with it, I would occasionally hear of someone who wanted to put it out and would just say, “OK, go ahead.” I just kept on making my own music. I had a group called New Symposium that I’d formed to play with me in concert. I was playing my live performances of world beat music and my songs. I played in the Great American Music Hall in San Francisco, and art and wine festivals and places like that.

It was a fun time, a wonderful time with a great group of musicians that I had put together, but I couldn’t afford to maintain it. I’d had this background in construction and I began to build for the next 15 years or so. I was doing a lot of work with heavy concrete and steel installations, stair systems, all kinds of retaining walls on large estate projects. Stuff like that.

I was living in a little house in San Rafael, CA. and, lo and behold, here comes Clarence Clemons, walking up my driveway.

In 1991-92 a friend of mine introduced me to Clarence Clemons, the saxophone player from Bruce Springsteen. Bruce was on hiatus with the E Street Band, and Clarence was living on the West Coast in Mill Valley, CA. A Native American Indian friend comes to me and says, “I’ve got someone that you should meet, I’m gonna talk to him.” A few days later I get a call from Clarence’s management, and his manager says, “If you send us a fax, Clarence will come to your house tomorrow in the morning and speak with you at 10:00, and visit with you.”

I was living in a little house in San Rafael, CA. I faxed the directions house over to Clarence and the next morning at 10:00 in the morning, lo and behold, here comes Clarence Clemons, walking up my driveway. We spent two hours together in that first meeting. I played the piano and sang my songs for him, and I served him tea and a special apple cake that I had made. He said, “You know, this is like a Bible to me, these songs.” He says, “I just love these songs.” He says, “I want you to come up to visit my house.”

We became friends and he started to invite me to come and play with his band, so I did, along with my construction work. I took time off to visit with Clarence and do performances. We knew each other for 18 years. He was one of those people. We just struck a chord. He made a film in China and I worked with him on some of the elements of that. Just, different things that he was doing. He had a record that came out with BMG, and I played the flute on that record.

So, that’s pretty much what happened. I’ve been writing songs and continuing with that, and enjoying it ever so much. And had that encouragement. I’m hoping my construction days are winding down now because I’m really at a stage in my life where I’d like to do more just concertizing of my songs, more singing and recording my songs. And, of course, Song of the Rose I will perform anytime, in any place that wants to invite me to play.

By Mike Powell on January 14, 2015

On a different note