Faculty Profile: Vessela Stoyanova

Marimba Luminary
Vessela Stoyanova
Vessela Stoyanova
Gonzalo Plaza

Watching assistant professor Vessela Stoyanova ’00 perform live with her band Bury Me Standing, one realizes that she is probably the only faculty member whose style blends elements of traditional Balkan vocal music, punk, and odd meters. Oh, and she plays it all on a MIDI-controlled marimba that emits sounds ranging from vibraphone to accordion to distorted guitar. Stoyanova has developed a truly unique musical voice.

Growing up behind the Iron Curtain in Bulgaria, Stoyanova studied classical piano in an orthodox conservatory tradition, but eventually emerged as a prolific, multifaceted musical artist. Berklee was lucky enough to attract the future faculty member first as a student.

“When I was 16, the Berlin Wall came down and everything changed dramatically,” Stoyanova recalls. “But prior to that, my music was the product of a strict Eastern European classical aesthetic. My mom was a pianist and all of my piano teachers eschewed improvisation. Even the government frowned upon it because they considered it too ‘Western’ a concept.”

When Stoyanova’s was in her early teens, her parents let her choose a different instrument. She became enamored of the sounds of percussion, and they bought her a drum set. “Though I was officially studying orchestral percussion—like timpani and snare drum—I began getting into heavy metal through underground bootleg tapes,” she says. As part of her percussion studies, Stoyanova was exposed to the marimba. “I just fell in love with it. Its sound, feel, and raw musicality were almost overwhelming.” She found a professor willing to give her free lessons for a year, after which she was accepted to the National Academy of Music in Sofia to study orchestral percussion.

“At that time, I began listening to the music of Dave Samuels and Gary Burton,” she remembers, “but there were no marimba teachers at the conservatory. A classmate showed me a Berklee catalog and [the college] looked like another planet— plus there was rock music there! I knew that had to be my next step.” Stoyanova’s parents sold their car to be able to send her to Berklee’s Five-Week Summer Performance program. With a scholarship and help from a friend, she was able to enroll as an undergraduate. Once in Boston, she worked at a variety of jobs to make ends meet, including a coveted position at the American Repertory Theater.

Although she’s played a traditional marimba for years, Stoyanova is frequently at the helm of the Marimba Lumina, a MIDI mallet controller that lets the user play music via a control surface based on a marimba’s layout. “It has amazing expressive capabilities that other mallet controllers don’t,” she says. “When I first played it, I knew it was the perfect way to reconnect with my roots. Balkan music has a lot of microtones, vibrato, and breath control— elements that can’t be reproduced on a standard marimba.

The MIDI instrument allowed her to start a progressive rock band called Fluttr Effect, which blended all her influences. “I got my hands dirty learning how to help a band survive,” says Stoyanova. “I learned about booking, management, putting out CDs, buying our own van, and the like.”

Around this time, Stoyanova discovered Pan 9 in Allston, a live-in artist’s collective whose members curated wildly innovative monthly shows with multimedia. Fluttr Effect became the house band, and developed friendships with Amanda Palmer and the Dresden Dolls. “Our first show sold out within a few minutes. Later on we won a contest to appear at a big festival in Germany.” The group plateaued after a few more years, and Stoyanova formed the duo Goli with the band’s cellist, Valerie Thompson ’02. They successfully completed a Kickstarter funding campaign to make an album that is due out this fall.

Stoyanova’s current project, Bury Me Standing, began as a residency at the Lizard Lounge in Cambridge. “It turned out to be a great way to audition players for the band,” she says. Stoyanova and drummer (now husband) Nate Greenslit joined forces with a bassist and a rotating cast of talented singers including Burcu Guleç ’13. The group will play at the Berklee Performance Center on October 19 with support from a faculty grant.

Since her Pan 9 experience, Stoyanova has maintained connections with musicians, dancers, acrobats, and other performance artists. The outcome was the formation of the Elephant Tango Ensemble. Stoyanova and cellist Thompson wrote a score for the Aesop’s fable The Elephant’s Child, and hired puppeteers to produce a show. She has since worked her music into Vaudeville- and cabaret-style shows.

During the second year of her master’s program at New England Conservatory, Stoyanova accepted a position at Berklee. She currently teaches harmony and private marimba lessons. “During the summer I teach a unique Balkan ensemble,” she says. “Elements of Bulgarian music are touched on in Berklee’s vocal and Middle Eastern ensembles, but my summer class lets students dive deeper into odd meters that lean toward progressive rock.”

One of Stoyanova’s accomplishments at Berklee has been to work successfully with students who have to repeat a class after having trouble with it the first time. “I’ve converted a lot of those students into harmony aficionados,” she asserts. “It’s a huge victory convincing skeptical students that their course material can make them better musicians—even if they’re Music Business or MP&E majors.

“From day one,” explains Stoyanova, “I always tell students ‘You are my colleagues. Forget about the teacher-student dynamic, let’s just all be musicians together. After all, tomorrow we may be on the same gig at a rock club.’”

Ryan Fleming ’03, a guitarist and recording artist, is the assistant director of the Berklee Fund.