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“Reckoning with my Russianness”: Olga Bell on Origin/Outcome

“I really love when something is so fully focused, so rooted in what it is that it can reach out for its cardinal opposite,” explained composer/vocalist/instrumentalist Olga Bell to The Examiner. “I love thinking about opposites and extremes… I don’t think it’s a motto or a philosophy per se, but it’s a pretty reliable wellspring […]

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“I really love when something is so fully focused, so rooted in what it is that it can reach out for its cardinal opposite,” explained composer/vocalist/instrumentalist Olga Bell to The Examiner. “I love thinking about opposites and extremes… I don’t think it’s a motto or a philosophy per se, but it’s a pretty reliable wellspring for ideas.”

This wide focus has proved fruitful for Bell, as she keeps busy through a variety of musical outlets. Bell is a member of avant-rock group Dirty Projectors, half of duo Nothankyou with Tom Vek, and a mixer and matcher of beats (check out her seriously awesome annual year-end mixes). Her solo album Diamonite, released in 2011 under the name BELL, is made up of intricate electronic pop songs with an edge. In “Chase No Face,” inspired by the true story of a horribly disfigured cat, Bell’s delivery goes from a cool to powerful as she warns: “I am a lion. / Don’t make me sound my roar!”

Bell, who was born in Russia and raised in Alaska, was strictly a classical musician through college, studying piano at the New England Conservatory. After rethinking her plan to attend graduate school for performance, she relocated to New York, where she played piano for a theater production company, interviewed to become an MTV News anchor, and began playing some solo shows that became bigger and longer with time.

Now, Bell finds herself performing and recording with Dirty Projectors. A self-professed fan girl of the band, she knew their intricate vocal lines long before meeting any of the members. Eventually, a spot opened up in the band, and she was put into contact with singer and writer Dave Longstreth. Her fan status was put to good use, and after some whirlwind rehearsing, she began performing with the group. She told The Examiner, “After coming from a classical background where it’s not uncommon to practice or rehearse for many, many hours a day very meticulously, dissecting, interpreting and committing to memory someone else’s vision — a composer’s score — it seemed really natural to just dive and sink my teeth into this music that I had been such a big fan of.”

At the Walker next week, Bell presents Origin/Outcome, a celebration of the past and its relation to her musical present. A highlight of the evening is the world premiere of Krai, a multi-movement homage to Russia. One of Krai’s many definitions is “edge,” and this work exists on the border of many styles. Bell has referred to it as “semi-classical,” but it features electronics and Russian folk idioms such as throat singing. The piece is perhaps the most personal outcome of her many musical leanings.

Through her work with Dirty Projectors, Bell has also gained a collaborator. Angel Deradoorian, whom Bell replaced in the band, was a long-time member and is an active solo artist. She joins Origin/Outcome as a special guest, supporting Bell in Krai. In turn, Bell will lend her voice and fingers to a set of Deradoorian’s music, which similarly reflects on Deradoorian’s Armenian heritage.

In anticipation of the show, Bell took the time to answer a few questions about Krai, her influences, and her work with Deradoorian.

Chris Mode: How did you begin working with Angel? Do both of your experiences in Dirty Projectors affect your work together?

Olga Bell: I loved Angel’s work in DPs. As a fan, I became really familiar with her voice and her parts on Bitte Orca. I felt we had a similar range. I met her a few times and fan-gushed all over her, but I’m not sure she really remembered who I was until I joined Dirty Projectors. Now we’re IRL friends, and I’m really excited to perform with her.

I feel I’m a much better musician after just two years in that band, and Angel was in it for something like six? I don’t think it’s possible to participate in a band that intense and come away unchanged, so, speaking for myself, I feel it’s been really beneficial, personally and professionally.

Mode: You have spoken before about your wide array of musical interests and influences. What role does classical music play in your life versus pop music? Is there even a difference?

Bell: I think everyone should listen to some of everything. I mean, there’s definitely a difference between the kind of feeling I get from an Earl Sweatshirt record versus the kind of feeling I get from a Harry Christophers record, but I love both artists. I love things that are rigorous; I love music that I can’t figure out immediately. I’ve always thought making music was a lot like cooking, and almost everything in cooking benefits from reaching for a little of its opposite, like salt in cookies. I think it’s a great technical accomplishment to work within a strict form or set of limitations, but I’m most interested in producing (and consuming) the crazy collisions, things that are surprising and unprecedented.

Mode: What can you tell us about Krai? How does it relate to your other music?

Bell: Krai is very different from anything I’ve released before. For one thing it’s all written-out and, except for vocals and keyboards, performed by other musicians. It’s much closer to “formal” composition, to the composition I did as a kid, which was entirely for acoustic instruments, as opposed to my “pop” releases of the past few years, which have relied heavily on software sound generators. Krai is also heavily programmatic, which is a new thing for me. I didn’t set any formal constraints on the writing, and there’s no specific story I’m trying to put across, but everything connects in some way to what I found in these places.

Mode: The title Origin/Outcome points to a sense of progression. How does your past (musical or otherwise) manifest itself in your work?

Bell: At the heart of the Krai project is this search for some kind of Russian or more generally Slavic soul. I’m not sure if I’ve been successful at finding it, or conveying it, or if any Russians will recognize anything like that in this piece, but that’s what this has been for me. I hear it in Stravinsky’s music, I hear it in Shostakovich and Gubaidulina, and I think I understand it in Dostoyevsky or Bulgakov, but a lot of people might say I have absolutely no claim to it after living in the USA for so long. I’m proud of being Russian, but I’m never sure exactly what that means, so here’s forty minutes of me reckoning with my Russianness!

I believe Angel feels similarly close to her Armenian heritage, so the first half of the program is an homage to her ancestors’ part of the world, and the second to mine. The title seems appropriate for two American girls presenting a bunch of new music in Minneapolis in 2014.

This new music is just one trajectory of her fresh compositional voice, a path that moves ahead while keeping an ear open to the past. When asked by The Great Discontent about leaving some sort of legacy, she explained, “I guess I’d want to be remembered as someone who was curious, rigorous, prolific, and everywhere at once.” Origin/Outcome is the result of this curiosity, and luckily, “everywhere” includes a stop at the Walker to share it.

Olga Bell presents Origin/Outcome Thursday, February 13, at 8 pm in the Walker’s McGuire Theater. Copresented with the SPCO’s Liquid Music series and the American Composers Forum. Check out ACF’s interview with Bell here.