Part 1

Name: Yolanda Kondonassis
Occupation: Harpist
Nationality: American
Recent release: Yolanda Kondonassis's FIVE MINUTES for Earth is out via Azica and features compositions from 15 different composers.
Recommendations: Book: The Hours, by Michael Cunningham.
Cunningham’s writing is so beautifully honed for rhythm and sound, it’s almost like music.
Poem: "The Wild Rose", by Wendell Berry. One of my favorite poems of all time and a complete life metaphor in a tiny nutshell.

If you enjoyed this interview with Yolanda Kondonassis and would like to find out more, visit her official website. She is also on Facebook, Soundcloud, and twitter.

When did you start writing/producing/playing music and what or who were your early passions and influences? What was it about music and/or sound that drew you to it?

As a kid growing up in Oklahoma, I always had this sense that there were incredibly amazing, exotic, and sublime experiences out in the world, but I just couldn’t see them yet from my vantage point. But with music, I felt like I could hear them – or perhaps even taste and smell them.

My mother was a classical pianist, so music was a part of the family culture. I had vinyl records and cassette tapes that I would play on a continuous loop – Beethoven Piano Sonatas, Bach Brandenburgs, Vivaldi Four Seasons, Tchaikovsky, Faure, Poulenc, Ravel, Gershwin – Rudolf Serkin, Alfred Brendel, Murray Perahia. I also wore out my other favorites like Earth, Wind, and Fire, Billy Joel, and Carly Simon.

To me, music was like a drug – a mind-altering substance and a survival tool.

Some people experience intense emotion when listening to music, others see colours or shapes. What is your own listening experience like and how does it influence your approach to music?

I would say it depends on the music, but I always see color - and I am most drawn to music that makes me see a deep, rich, or vivid palette. My emotion can be intense when I like something, but almost stifling when I don’t.

Very often, I have a vision of what I want to hear and if it feels counter-intuitive or inauthentic, I squirm. However, that squirmy feeling applies more to traditional music than to new music, With new music, I want to be surprised - perhaps even shocked - and taken to new places.

How would you describe your development as an artist in terms of interests and challenges, searching for a personal voice, as well as breakthroughs?

I would say it’s an ongoing quest.

My voice has changed through the years – and I think that’s as it should be. The consistent thread in my musical voice has probably always been a desire for clarity of sound and intentional, almost inevitable-sounding musical timing. Beyond that – my approach has evolved in a number of different directions through the years and actually, quite a bit very recently.

I think when it comes down to it, one’s artistic voice is a manifestation of what is important to a person at any given time. When I was in my teens and twenties, I loved speed and fluidity and perhaps placed a priority on those things. During my next two decades, I moved in a direction that placed a lot of importance on sculping time, nuance, phrase, and resonance.

With my most recent project, FIVE MINUTES for Earth, which is a recorded collection of fifteen new commissions inspired by Earth, I am obsessed with the idea of the harp as a chameleon - a facile, multi-colored creature with an endless sonic palette. Of course, this wonderful tracklist of diverse music helps me delve into that obsession, but I am very much about letting the harp be exactly what it is in its most authentic, raw, expressive form – and not sacrificing so much of its energy to the traditional harp priority of sweetness of sound above all.   

Tell me a bit about your sense of identity and how it influences both your preferences as a listener and your creativity as an artist, please.

Well, one’s identity tends to change a bit over the years too.

I would say that the best thing about the passage of time is that we tend to become more of who we are and are less likely to try and be something we are not. I’ve learned that I know what I like, and I trust my judgement. I think many of us on the musical journey might look around at various times and think, “Well, maybe I should be more like that.” Experimentation can be great and is a super valuable tool, but you’ve got to land in an authentic place that emanates from something specific to you – to your experience, your taste, and your sense of what you want to send out into the universe as yours.

But with that said, and as I often say to young musicians who claim that listening to recordings will stifle their creativity and originality, if you want to find your voice, you need to hear and study other voices first. Otherwise, how will you know if your voice is even original when it may actually be a subliminal imitation or an already overused approach? Originality and identity isn’t about being different – it’s about being a honed, deep, nuanced, thoughtful version of yourself. And since there are no two indentical people in this world, you will have an original voice and artistic identity if you can manage to find and express what is unique about yourself.

And in the process of that, one’s personal identity often illuminates itself as well. It’s like you see yourself in a mirror that tells you a lot more than the kind hanging on the wall in your bathroom.

What, would you say, are the key ideas behind your approach to music and art?

When I decided to devote my life to music, I’m not sure I ever made a “decision.” It just seemed like the obvious thing that I would do.

When I chose the harp over the piano in my mid-teens, that moment did feel like a decision. At that turning point, I decided that I could make more of a difference as a harpist somehow. Teenagers don’t always know what they’re doing, but somehow that rather intentional decision formulated in me a mission of sorts – a purpose to push the harp down the runway a bit and to help the evolution of an instrument that was still perceived as a bit of a rare oddball at the time.

As it might relate to the key ideas that have informed my approach to music, I guess I would say that the early identification of a mission kept me looking for avenues, approaches, and projects that would have an impact on repertoire, audience-building, pedagogy, appreciation, expectation, and expansion. That purpose still informs my approach today and I feel joy and satisfaction when a project accomplishes my hoped result and the musical product is one that might make an impact of some kind.

How would you describe your views on topics like originality and innovation versus perfection and timelessness in music? Are you interested in a “music of the future” or “continuing a tradition”?

Wow, I really love that question. I would say I believe in both sides of that picture. I am a perfectionist by nature and that does inform my approach somewhat, but I absolutely do not the buy the false choice and very popular rhetorical question: Do you want it to be perfect or do you want it to be musical/original/innovative?

First of all, perfect is a silly ideal. Nothing is perfect, but I think the quest for something in that general vicinity keeps us striving and asking ourselves for more, as long as it doesn’t twist us into paralysis. And I am not sure that “perfection and timelessness” are a matched pair of terms. To me, timelessness in art means that something lasts beyond its premiere or its introduction - not because it is a slave to tradition, but because it is meaningful in an important way and can be sent into the future with its meaning or depth intact.

I believe that composing and playing music that has meaning is not a quick or disposable endeavor. Innovation takes time, thought, and soul-searching. Originality isn’t a one-off. If I have one complaint at the moment, it would be that our current mindset in the classical music world leans into the idea that innovation, originality and “music of the future” needs to be made, delivered, consumed, and disposed of quickly to make room for the next original thing.

I fear we might one day find ourselves looking back on a pocket of time where we can’t identify quite what lasting innovations we brought with us into the future.

Over the course of your development, what have been your most important instruments and tools - and what are the most promising strategies for working with them?

All of the obvious things like a great instrument and good work habits make a big difference, but in a more personal sense, the most important tool in my life has probably my inner compass.

There are always so many times when things just feel like they are swirling around nonsensically – especially in recent years with so much political division and a global pandemic – but the ability to stop, breathe, think a minute, and figure out which direction is true north is a blessing.

My compass wasn’t always perfect, but it developed over the years. I think it’s possible for everyone to build their own compass and create the mindset to support it. It just takes the realization that we can help choose our own destiny – it doesn’t always need to choose us.

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