Jacqueline Nova created forward-thinking, often transgressive electroacoustic music in the 1960s. New releases are helping put her back on the map.
A report by Allyson McCabe for The New York Times.
Back in the 1960s, when female musicians were mostly confined to the roles of teacher, interpreter or muse, the Colombian composer Jacqueline Nova was charting new pathways in Latin America. Using tools like amplifiers, cables, pulleys, transformers and oscillators to create novel sounds, her sonic experiments anticipated the music software programs and apps that are commonplace today. Nova also helped to lay the foundations for the development of sound art and interdisciplinary feminist art worldwide.
Yet Nova’s work is only now beginning to resurface and her influence to be reckoned with. Scattered recordings began appearing online a decade or so ago, followed by presentations in museums. It culminated this fall with the release of a double album, “Creation of the Earth: Throbbing Echoes of Jacqueline Nova: Electroacoustic and Instrumental Music (1964-1974),” from Buh Records in Lima, Peru.
Perhaps the delayed recognition is not surprising. Nova — who died at 40, in 1975, from bone cancer — was a consummate rule breaker. An independent woman and a self-identified lesbian in a field dominated by men, she created forward-thinking, often transgressive music. Though classically trained, she played with variations in form and blurred the boundaries of acoustic instruments, electronic sounds and human speech. She also challenged the conservatism of Colombia’s musical establishment by keeping the structure of her scores open to interpretation, inviting performers to collaborate rather than defer to her authority.
“Today we can say she’s a sound artist or interdisciplinary artist, but she was an autonomous person driven by curiosity,” said Ana María Romano G., a professor at El Bosque University in Bogotá and a musical innovator in her own right. “She had questions about sound, about the here and now. Hers was not the kind of music we could hear in the streets, but she was interested in the freedom to engage in the world of sound — acoustics, physics, timbre, orchestration.”
The work was often political, sometimes overtly so. Nova brought the chants of the Indigenous U’wa into her 1967 piece “Uerjayas. Invocación a los dioses” (“Invitation to the Gods”) and again in “Creación de la Tierra” (“Creation of the Earth”), her 1972 masterwork. By sonically altering recordings of those chants, she raised questions about what it was like to be perceived as an “other.”
Nova’s work with visual artists was no less provocative. Rather than positioning audiences passively, Nova and Julia Acuña’s “Luz-Sonido-Movimiento” (1969) invited viewers to physically activate the installation’s various components. Nova contributed a soundtrack to the sculptor Feliza Bursztyn’s series “Las Camas” (1974), in which metal bed frames, outfitted with electric motors and colorful satin sheets like those used to cover images of the Crucifixion during Holy Week, moved suggestively to a throbbing beat.
Nova rejected the idea that music was meant only to be performed for the elite in hushed concert halls. She gave lectures, hosted a program on Colombia’s national radio station, composed for theater and films, wrote for magazines and newspapers, and worked tirelessly to support like-minded contemporaries by cultivating receptive audiences. For Nova, experimentalism was more than a new method of making music. It was a method of making change. And why wouldn’t it be for a composer whose outsider status led her to forge her own way?
Born in 1935 in Ghent, Belgium, to a Belgian mother and a Colombian father, Nova spent her early childhood in Bucaramanga, the capital of the Santander region in northeastern Colombia. She came of age during La Violencia, the Colombian civil war that stretched from 1948 to 1958, the year she was admitted to the National Conservatory as a piano student. At the conservatory, she worked with the contemporary composer Fabio González Zuleta and became the first woman to graduate with a degree in composition. In 1967 she won a scholarship to study at the Latin American Center for Advanced Musical Studies in Buenos Aires, where she found the infrastructure and community to support experimental music made with machines.
For all the intensity and breadth of her work, however, Nova didn’t achieve the renown she deserved during her lifetime. The musicologist Daniel Castro Pantoja points out that the contributions of Latin American composers were often regarded as secondary to those of European and North American vanguard figures like Pierre Schaeffer, John Cage and Milton Babbitt. There was also the issue of gender bias, leading Pauline Oliveros to write an essay for The New York Times in 1970 asking “Why have there been no ‘great’ women composers?”
Another obstacle to gaining widespread recognition was Nova’s unapologetic denunciation of traditionalists. She dismissed those who clung to the classical conventions as fearful of the present and the possibility of progress. In 1966, she argued for bursting that protective bubble: “The world of the composer, of the artist,” she wrote, “is situated concretely in the current moment.” Beyond that are “the fainthearted,” she continued, “those who can’t make up their mind about joining our fight.”
That fight was cut short by Nova’s early death from cancer. The movement she had started building was still in its infancy, and since she didn’t teach, there were no students to carry on the work. Colombia’s experimental music scene fell into a long period of dormancy, Romano G. said.
Recovering Nova’s music and establishing its place in the electroacoustic canon has been an obsession ever since Romano G. first encountered it as an undergraduate in the early 1990s. Attending a concert of “Creación de la Tierra,” Romano G. said she was shocked by its beauty as well as its rarity. “Works by women were not generally presented, nor studied,” Romano G. said, “Maybe Clara Schumann or Hildegard of Bingen, but certainly not contemporary women from Latin America.”
Romano G. became something of a Nova detective. While working at the Colombian Ministry of Culture she discovered a trove of material, including scores and press clippings, in its Center for Musical Documentation. That led her to Nova’s brother, who gave her access to Nova’s personal archives. Interviews with contemporaries helped her further situate Nova’s life and work in a multilayered context. Though Romano G. admired Nova’s technical proficiency as a composer, she said she was also eager to learn how she managed to flourish creatively despite living in a conservative milieu that was hostile to change.
At first Romano G. presented her findings in academic journals and within Colombia’s experimental music scene. And then, in 2017, she organized a sound installation based on “Creación de la Tierra” for the Museo de Arte Moderno in Medellín, and another in 2019 at the Blaffer Art Museum in Houston, in collaboration with Castro Pantoja and Tyler Blackwell. This past fall, she put together the double album for Buh Records.
Nova’s legacy can now be heard in the current generation of Colombian artists like Alba Triana, whose work includes sound and light sculptures, vibrational objects and resonant spaces; and Lucrecia Dalt, who fuses the traditional music of her childhood with electronic, and sometimes otherworldly, sounds.
But Ela Minus, a Bogotá-born musician, said the impact of Nova’s approach to making and understanding music has yet to be fully realized. “There is still not a lot of structure for electroacoustic music in Colombia. The idea is that musicians should reach back to the past to ‘folkloric’ instruments, and avoid ‘European’ ones” — that is, electronic instruments and music technology.
Ela Minus stumbled onto Nova’s music around 2012, as a Berklee College student in jazz drumming, while perusing music videos on YouTube. “She was working with tape machines!” Ela Minus said, adding that she was blown away by the sophisticated spatiality of Nova’s 1968 electroacoustic composition “Oposición-Fusión” and how huge it sounded. Ela Minus, 32, said the revelation helped her to imagine a new approach, inspiring her to switch to a double major in drumming and music synthesis.
Today Ela Minus creates music in a homemade lab where she patches self-built hardware synthesizers together with samplers, drum machines and effects pedals to create interwoven beats and pulses. Romano G. says she’s not surprised to learn that Nova’s experiments continue to spark the imagination and traverse borders, whether geopolitical or generational. “She was more contemporary than many people today.”