Numero Group: By The Numbers

“When my door is closed, it’s because I’m writing. And when I’m writing, you’ll hear Gymnosphere.”
March 2, 2015, 9:47 am
Filed under: Jordan De La Sierra, Uncategorized


I spend a lot of time writing. Rare is the day when a couple thousand words don’t spill out onto the screen, filling space in many of the booklets, books, stickers, press releases, and website blurbs that Numero creates in a given month. This process has been honed over the last decade, as we’ve gone from first-person narratives to laboriously researched books covering the most minute details, earning Grammy nominations and other back pats from the world at large. In the end, I estimate that less than 10% of the people who buy our records actually read our notes. But that doesn’t mean we’ll stop writing.

I begin always by listening to my subject matter. I’ll hear a record two dozen times in the first week, memorizing the lyrics and  song titles before never listening to it again. I haven’t listened to Ladies From The Canyon all the way through since 2006, and there are plenty of other titles that I might spend a decade not hearing as well. There is one record that is an absolute exception: Jordan De La Sierra’s Gymnosphere: Song of the Rose. In the half decade since it was shared with me, I have used it as a meditative device while in the pursuit of words nine out of ten times. I don’t anticipate this changing any time soon.

Five years ago, while deep in the overnight trenches with my newborn son, I began watching the HBO series In Treatment. The three season, 106-episode run was put down in a matter of weeks, but the theme, Richard Marvin’s “Sophie,” stayed with me for months. There was no soundtrack available, so I satiated my sonic curiosity with a single You Tube clip, playing it end on end for hours while crafting the liner notes for Syl Johnson’s Complete Mythology, my son in the crook of my right arm.

“Sophie” is subtly elementary—it could be played on one hand by a first year piano student. A lone synth washes in the background. But that simplicity has an extremely hypnotic effect, one that coaxed some of my best work out. After a few thousand plays, I wanted more. Lakeshore had yet to release the In Treatment soundtrack, and even still, none of Richard Marvin’s other work struck me in the same way.

There is no one in my life who I believe is better equipped to select the next record than my partner Rob Sevier. Be it a dance party or just a few people hanging out in a darkened living room, he has that innate ability to reach to the right spot on the record shelf and pull out the perfect LP. I called him into my office and asked, “What else sounds like this?” A minute later, he sent me a zip of Jordan De La Sierra’s 1977 LP Gymnosphere: Song Of The Rose. It immediately became my go-to album for writing and contemplation.

For context, I have left in the original draft of my press release:

Jordan De La Sierra came from the Terry Riley and La Monte Young’s “pure sound with shape” school of piano tuning. Notes that have not been confined by Bach’s Western, “well tempered” tuning. Instead, De La Sierra’s work incorporates the natural 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. 

Heavy stuff for 1977, and not exactly what the market was looking for—even in their native San Francisco. Still, Gymnosphere’s producer Stephen Hill convinced Unity Records—the label that has been referred to as the first New Age record company—to issue the unedited double album, clocking in at nearly 120 minutes, with an accompanying 20 page booklet crammed full of De La Sierra’s India-inspired drawings and musings on a pre-Star Wars concept he called “the force.” And of course it didn’t sell well. Gymnosphere was issued in a time before New Age had its own section at Tower. It wasn’t Classical, it wasn’t even 20th Century Classical. At the time, it was filed under World Beat.

After it’s poor showing, Unity neutered Gymnosphere, trimming it down to a single LP. No booklet. No musings. The 6’ 5” De La Sierra didn’t exactly disappear  but by the time he returned in the middle of the ‘80s, an entire slew of post-Windham Hill wind-chime tinklers had come up behind him. Gymnosphere was scheduled for reissue on cassette and CD a handful of times, but was lost in various organizational shake ups. De La Sierra went into landscaping. Stephen Hill took his Hearts of Space radio program and created a worldwide “space music” phenomena. The tapes—five and half hours worth of Grace Cathedral-reverb drenched piano sonatas—sat on a shelf. 

I don’t know if De La Sierra envisioned Gymnosphere as a mediative tool to inspire ideophones, but I do know that he hoped to galvanize the listener, to shape moods and emotions, and he thought it would be best if we listened at night. “May this music be a key for man in his search for himself,” he wrote in 1977. “That he may find his life in love, realizing ultimately that for him all that happens is impeccably correct, reflected in the tone of the situation at hand, through this mirror, the sound of our life.”

I often find that I’ll write something, strip out what’s useful, and then save the document for later contemplation. I’d completely forgotten about the above four paragraphs until stumbling onto “Sophie” again while working on a bio about Lester Bangs. He would have hated this shit, and howled to the moon about it being naval-gazing sonic wallpaper, but I know that in his Romilar-induced trance he found a similar kind of peace. Setting out on a journey that might take all night if he was lucky. We all have our own way.

My way involved another 40 clicks on the YouTube page for “Sophie” and then cracking the shrink on our Gymnosphere reissue. 50,000 word box set liner notes don’t write themselves, but they do require assistance.

—Ken Shipley

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