Percussionist Gloria Yehilevsky: From Vanguard to Visionary
I’m in the dark. A masked woman playing a vibraphone with bows as though it were a stringed instrument appears before me. She drags the bows down the metal bars like driving stakes through the heart of a vampire. She pulls an ethereal, shimmering moan from the instrument. Her image doubles as faces, feet, flowers, and furry caterpillars curled up like pastries appear in the space around her. A plucked string instrument begins to sound, and a masked guitarist appears before his notes explode into colorful droplets floating in the darkness. Next a masked bassist appears, rounding out the sound with a meandering melody as images of brightly colored figures holding hands fill the empty space. The images continue to swirl, at last giving way to a neon grid where the vibraphonist, guitarist, and bassist are joined by another masked percussionist standing behind a setup consisting of congas, cymbals, a snare drum, and an additional vibraphone. Images of faces, hands, and even glowing fish float above the musicians’ heads.
No, I did not just come off an acid trip; I just watched the second movement of Dreamerfly and Other Stories, a Fantasia-like fusion of contemporary jazz and animation, developed by a British-Chinese visual artist, two British jazz musicians, and two American percussionists—one of whom is San Diego native Gloria Yehilevsky, one of the directors behind this unique project.
The Coronavirus has thrown a cloud over the entire planet, but every cloud has its silver lining, and one of those is Ms. Yehilevsky’s return to San Diego. Her vision, diverse musical experiences, and penchant for unique collaborations make her a local musician to keep an eye on as virus cases drop, San Diegans get vaccinated, and venues begin to open.
Born to parents from the former USSR, Yehilevsky eschewed the ballet classes and piano lessons offered to her as a child for the study of percussion. She played in the bands at Oak Valley Middle and Rancho Bernardo High School before joining the front ensemble of the Santa Clara Vanguard Cadets, the feeder group for the Santa Clara Vanguard drum and bugle corps. After a grueling audition process and a sleepless night spent practicing scales in her head as she lay in a sleeping bag on the floor of a high school gym, she advanced to the top Vanguard group under the direction of Paul and Sandi Rennick, whom she names as major influences on her decision to pursue music as a profession.
From the Vanguard, she moved on to Morehead State University in Kentucky, where she was a George M. Luckey honors program scholar and was recognized with the Outstanding Undergraduate in Music award. The scholarship program required her to study abroad for a semester, so she chose Örebro Universitet Musikhögskolan in Sweden, where she studied with marimbist Daniel Berg and vibraphonist Anders Astrand. She credits both teachers with inspiring her to begin improvising, an unusual skill for a classically trained musician, but one that Yehilevsky has made extensive use of as an educator and a performer. At the Percussive Arts Society International Convention, an annual summit of folks committed to banging on things as a means of musical expression, she facilitated a master class, empowering musicians of all styles to explore guided improvisation. She also compiled a list of solo pieces for percussion involving improvisation, a list I wish I’d had while locked in a practice room playing boring college marimba solos and orchestral excerpts during my own days in music school.
Upon graduation, Yehilevsky moved to England where she earned a master’s degree from the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire, a program where she honed an intense focus on contemporary classical music. At the conservatoire, she participated in 50 to 60 concerts per year, including appearances on BBC television and radio. However, it was also in England that she stumbled into one of the most basic yet terrifying human experiences: loneliness. She soon discovered that she wasn’t the only one struggling; the government of the United Kingdom established a Minister of Loneliness position to address this chronic issue among its citizens. Inspired, Yehilevsky joined forces with visual artist and animator Shiyi Li to create a 15-minute live performance with multi-screen animation, live camera, and contemporary chamber music named in honor of the newly created government post. They performed their Minister of Loneliness project around the globe, including stints at festivals in Thailand and France.After graduating, Yehilevsky relocated to Chicago to take advantage of the vibrant free improvisation scene in the city. She led the grueling life of a freelance musician, driving from the North Shore to the Western suburbs and everywhere in between for private lessons, orchestra pit gigs, and rehearsals with a variety of contemporary music ensembles. On January 1, 2020, she rang in the new year at Slate Arts, a tiny hole-in-the-wall space for experimental music and visual arts where they held monthly free improvisation sessions. Chicago had delivered on its promise of a music scene where Yehilevsky could thrive.
Yehilevsky playing Gigue from Violin Partita II in D minor by J.S. Bach.
Three months later, the Coronavirus shuttered live music venues across the nation, including Slate, which has permanently closed its doors as a result of the pandemic. In August of last year, Yehilevsky made the difficult decision to return to San Diego, where she has remained active as a performer despite the lockdowns. In March of this year, she performed a virtual mini-concert to raise money for Lift Music Fund, an organization that awards microgrants to young Black, Latinx, and Native American musicians. Her program featured a combination of pre-recorded and live works written by contemporary composers and Yehilevsky herself. She also premiered the Dreamerfly project.
Yehilevsky first had the idea that would become Dreamerfly while still in Birmingham. She listened to a podcast about elliptical galaxies and related to their chaotic and entropic nature, so she recruited bassist and composer James Owston along with her former collaborator Shiyi Li to create an interdisciplinary music and animation performance project. It has evolved beyond the original galactic concept to focus on the Chinese philosophy The Butterfly Dream, which juxtaposes the life cycle of the butterfly with the human journey toward self-actualization. British guitarist Daniel Kemshell and American percussionist Lindsey Eastham also participated in the project, and, together, the artists call themselves the Sounding Eye Collective. Despite the challenges inherent in coordinating meetings and rehearsals among musicians on different continents, the pandemic provided a unique opportunity for a project operating on such a global scale. The Sounding Eye musicians recorded their parts in front of green screens while listening to a click track, and the resulting recording streamed live from the Herbert Art Gallery in Coventry, United Kingdom. The second movement, “Loss,” can currently be seen on the gallery’s YouTube channel. Yehilevsky and her colleagues have plans in the works to stream the project from additional venues, and I look forward to seeing which San Diego-based club, gallery, or other live music organization will be the first to share this innovative work created by one of our own.
Like the Dreamerfly caterpillar, Gloria Yehilevsky has gone through a metamorphosis from drum corps fanatic to classical percussionist to avant-garde jazz improviser. Despite the challenges of the pandemic, she has continued to produce outstanding new projects and performances. San Diego has strong jazz and contemporary classical music scenes to which Yehilevsky has much to contribute, and I’m excited to see how she will continue to evolve and influence others here in the city of her birth. To follow Dreamerfly and other Sounding Eye collaborations, including Yehilevsky’s Minister of Loneliness composition, visit soundingeye.com or @SoundingEye on all major social media platforms.