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A Look Across the Sea: Olga Bell at the Walker

To spark discussion, the Walker invites local artists and critics to write overnight reviews of our performances. The ongoing Re:View series shares a diverse array of independent voices and opinions; it doesn’t reflect the views or opinions of the Walker or its curators. Today,  filmmaker and writer Justin Schell shares his perspective on Olga Bell: Origin/Outcome. Agree or […]

Olga Bell. Photo courtesy the artist.

Olga Bell. Photo courtesy the artist.

To spark discussion, the Walker invites local artists and critics to write overnight reviews of our performances. The ongoing Re:View series shares a diverse array of independent voices and opinions; it doesn’t reflect the views or opinions of the Walker or its curators. Today,  filmmaker and writer Justin Schell shares his perspective on Olga Bell: Origin/Outcome. Agree or disagree? Feel free to share your thoughts in comments!

So much media right now is about showing images of Russia, from the Sochi Olympic Opening Ceremonies to the ethnographic (and often condescending) puff pieces about “the Russian people” that form much of NBC’s Olympics coverage. Whether or not the timing of the Olympics factored into the decision to program the world premiere of Olga Bell’s Krai last night at the Walker, the ideas, sounds, words, and images of her work all seemed to deal with questions of mediated representations of faraway lands.

The first half of the performance started this theme, which comprised a set of music by Angel Deradoorian, a collaborator with Bell who was also in The Dirty Projectors. The highlight of the set came right off the bat, a premiere of Deradoorian’s Duduk for Two Voices, an unaccompanied vocal duet meant to evoke the Armenian duduk woodwind instrument. Bell and Deerodorian started in unison and drifted around various scales, filigreed melody lines that always seemed to find their way back home to unison. After this, a whole band came out and Bell took her place amongst a trio of backup singers. It was hard to understand most of Deradoorian’s lyrics, as they were delivered in a fairly low vocal range and blended perhaps too well with the other vocal and instrumental lines. However, these pieces also showed Deradoorian’s compositional skills in both her creative use of harmony (especially how she interacted with the other vocalists) and her creative use of scales in creating melody lines. As my friend put it, the music went from Armenia to the blues to the Beatles, sometimes in the span of a few phrases.

Olga Bell took center-stage for the second half of the performance, which was the world premiere of Krai. Each of the piece’s nine movements represents a specific geographic area, or krai, in Russia.

The music Bell created for Krai is fascinating. While the text is in Russian (and becomes inscrutable without the proper language knowledge), the music had wisps of melodic and other musical styles that place it within various Russian sonic traditions, including a particularly nice use of a digital octave displacer by Bell that gave her a characteristic “Russian bass” voice. Jumping between time signatures and interweaving melodic lines (sometimes a duet between Bell and guitarist Grey McMurray, others between Bell and the multiple backup vocalists), the music couldn’t be placed or pigeonholed as easily “Russian,” reflecting her own musical journey since she left Russia at an early age.

I can imagine, though, competing (and perhaps contradictory) interpretations of Krai. Sonically, the piece evokes much more complex musical histories of mixing, change, and an embrace and evocation of ideas of tradition. The poetry and visuals, however, seem pretty conventional, offering a relatively uncomplicated view of Russia. 

The visuals felt like they could’ve been part of the Sochi Olympics Opening Ceremony. (Music like this, however, would never be in an Olympic Ceremony, as it’s far too adventurous.) The visuals were mostly of the “God’s Eye View” variety of mountains, cities, and landscapes. Many were sweeping time lapses, be they Koyaanisqatsi sped-up traffic flows or hyperreal HDR timelapses through the night (where the stars and the land can be seen equally illuminated). Often times the direction changed (sometimes forward, sometimes reverse, making the landscape look like it was breathing), images were overlaid upon each other (as happened in the piece’s final movement, “Kamchatka Krai”), or artfully blurred and distorted.This last point makes me think of the haziness of memory and how images of a home (whether it be a house, a city, or a country) can become distorted and changed the longer you’re away from it. 

The lyrics of Krai seem straight out of 19th century folklore traditions, with idealized figures of Cossacks riding through the countryside, poetic descriptions of the taiga, and an overall feeling of “Mother Russia” that doesn’t match the complexity of vision that Bell’s music put forth. This isn’t exactly a criticism. Really, it’s fairly common in the artistic realm of diaspora to idealize the place you left that you also call home. Bell candidly wrote in her program note that she “traveled” to these krai only through the mediated sounds and images from things like Radio Moscow tapes and RuTube videos, as well as, perhaps crucially, her mother’s words. (She was in the audience last night and, at one point, boisterously approved of her daughter’s work, eliciting a big laugh from Bell.) Works like Krai that engage with ideas of homeland and heritage always have to strike a balance, part reality and part invention. Bell’s exploration of her own (mediated) homeland perhaps tried to evoke this balance in the work’s different aesthetic components, yet the overpowering nature of the poetry and the visuals tipped the scales more towards invention than reality.