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Maria Stankova – The Mystery of a Bulgarian Voice

Published October, 2012
by Easterndaze

What is music? For most people, it is something more confined within boundaries than we ever realize. We’re so used to the common conception that in order for it to be considered music, any sequence of sounds should have, for example, a beginning and an end, some clear pattern or structure, discernible rhythm, melody, etc., that we find it difficult to think of music on a more abstract level, unburdened by cultural or historical factors.

I’m writing all this as a way of introducing the subject of this text – a Bulgarian girl named Maria, who’s been living in New York for many years and is probably the most experimental musician my ears have ever encountered.

Maria uses her voice to create sonic landscapes that can be both frightening and fascinating. She performs solo as well as with Pygmy Jerboa – her collaborative project for voice and electronics with sonic comrade Ivan Naranjo, and she composes pieces for other artists, too. She’s also pursuing a PhD in music. Since I find it difficult to theorize upon her art, I decided it would be best if I just ask and let her do the answers, so here we go:

Could you introduce yourself?

Maria Stankova, performer and composer; born in Pleven and raised in Sofia, Bulgaria; 28 years old. 

What was your first encounter with music and when did you become aware that sound exploration is your vocation? 

I sang classical music with the Youth Choir of the Bulgarian National Radio for 9 years. Later on, in my early 20s, I became interested in the vocal production in village singing from the Shop region of Bulgaria –this style is raw, almost the antipode of what I was taught in the youth choir. The main areas of resonance are the throat and the chest – everything that’s prohibited in classical singing. I enjoy singing in both styles. Still, it wasn’t until I started improvising (and I mean free improvisation, without any notation or style) that I knew what I really wanted to do – imagine, build and organize sound according to my own rules. At some point I wanted to transmit what I imagined to other people, so I started notating things, composing. 

You have formal music education, yet your works – be it compositions or performances – essentially deconstruct the common concept of music. To what purpose? How do you define music? 

If we think more broadly of sound as the dissemination of waves in a certain medium (air, water), then our perspective about music changes, too. Almost all sounds (as long as they have a duration longer that a single period) have pitch (frequency) and some kind of periodicity (rhythm). For example, both the sound produced by an airplane engine and the note A 440 played by a flute have a fundamental frequency, and a unique set of natural and artificial harmonics. In the case of the flute, the amplitudes of the natural harmonics are much louder than the artificial, and vice-versa in the case of the engine. Almost all sounds have rhythm, too, or some organization of attacks and durations in time, but the attacks may not be symmetrically or regularly divided (what we call beat). If we move on to tuning, there are close to infinite possibilities for tuning an instrument besides the equal temperament. In the latter the twelve notes are separated by equal intervals of 100 cents (the system for tuning a piano and the most common in Western music).There’s a nerdy musician joke about that – standardized harmony was a capitalist plot to sell pianos. Many musicians in the last 60 years have opened up to the possibilities besides the standard. Since we are talking about pianos and tuning, the first example that pops into my head is La Monte Young’s “The Well-Tuned Piano”, which is tuned in just intonation (the intervals in a scale are based on simple ratios, rather than equal distances): 

Moving on to your question about “the common concept of music”, I assume that what people mean by that implies the presence of a regular beat, equal temperament and an easily discernible form, or the concept of music established during the baroque and classical periods of Western music. Sound as a physical and natural phenomenon, however, has a much wider reality and behavior. 

Going back to the airplane engine example – when does the sound of an engine become music? I think that as soon as we start listening to it in musical terms, as soon as we start experiencing the sound of an engineas music, we’re already having a musical experience. I think of music as a human phenomenon, as something that requires the attention of a listening human being to exist. Sound to me is a physical phenomenon, and music is a human phenomenon.

For example, for Duchamp the moment when sound becomes music would be the moment of the performance in a music venue, or the moment when sound become the subject of attention of an audience with certain expectations and habitus. For me, the act of listening, even if it is personal, fleeting, unshared, is sufficient for music to begin.  That said, I don’t think what I’m doing is deconstructing the common concept of music – I would say that I am thinking of sound and music in acoustic and perceptual terms.

Of all sources of sound out there, (human) voice seems to be your primary tool for, and object of experiment. Why are you so fascinated with voice? 

Mainly because it’s the instrument I know best and I’m not bad at. It also felt like a less intimidating place to start composition-wise, because I had no formal training in composition. But I’ve always been interested in writing for other instruments, too.

When listening to your music, I feel deliberately prompted to experience the perception of another sensation (vision, taste, smell or tactility) through the sound, to the point of being disturbed. Are you consciously playing with the ways sound objects can affect your (listener’s) mind? Do you see sound more as a cure or a weapon? 

I’m not sure about which part of my music you’re referring to, but I will assume it’s my improvisations with voice and electronics solo or with Pygmy Jerboa. I haven’t really theorized what I do in that context very much. I just do it. There is a lot of thought behind it, but when it comes to the final result – I haven’t theorized it and I like that state of non-theorization.

Most of your work is free improvisation. Could you explain the difference between this and a bunch of random sounds to a non-educated enquirer?

Improvisation requires musicality (thinking about form, structure, timbre, texture, intensity), skill in your instrument, concentrated listening – it’s similar to composition in many ways, but the focus is the here and the now. And random sounds are just random sounds – anything can follow after anything, there is no musicality or listening involved.

You’ve been in the US for many years, yet I know you use every opportunity to come back to Bulgaria. In what way has your motherland shaped you as an artist? Do you feel that in America, despite the distance, there is more space for experimental musicians of (Eastern) European descent (like you) than here?

There are several cities in the US with established experimental music and contemporary classical music scenes. New York has the biggest and most diverse one, because well, there’s a lot of everything in New York. Being Eastern European is neither an advantage nor a disadvantage for what I do or the scenes that I’m part of. It’s something that is very important to me personally, but not so much professionally, as my music is not grounded in ethnicity or tradition. I have a lot of family in Bulgaria, so there’s a natural urge to go home as much as I can afford to, and a strong sense of belonging. I try to play at least one concert every time I’m in Sofia, solo or with Pygmy Jerboa. 
Your first official solo release is due early next year…what else does the future hold? 
A collaboration with International Contemporary Ensemble to write a new long work for flute, bassoon, bass clarinet, violin, viola, percussion and electronics; a tour with Ensemble Pamplemousse in California, and hopefully, a defended dissertation proposal.

by Snezhana Bezus, proprietor of the Beatbucket blog.