Twenty Fifteen

Very "I'm in a band"

On the edge of something: Olga Bell interview

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“I should begin by saying that one of my earliest musical memories is of my mother playing a cassette recording of the Dmitri Pokrovsky Ensemble.” It’s surely no accident that Olga Bell begins our interview at this point. ‘Krai’, her debut solo LP released earlier this year via One Little Indian, is an intense interrogation of her concepts of identity and belonging: concepts which are continually shaped and reshaped by messy webs of memory and nostalgia. So perhaps a scene from Bell’s own personal history, in which numerous strands – those of family, of nationality, of music and sound – coalesce in a single moment, is the only logical starting point for our discussion. “[My mother] was a radio broadcaster and journalist. And she had a programme on Radio Moscow called ‘Folk Box’ and she would DJ music on that programme and talk about it: music from all across the Soviet Union which was a territory even more vast than Russia at the time.”

Bell’s enthusiasm for this music is palpable, even as her voice is relayed to me over the phone from across the Atlantic. The composer’s conversation is engaging and erratic, continually spinning off in unexpected transgressions and observations, her humour and personability a far-cry from the occasional steeliness of her latest record. “So even though I grew up as a classical musician, as a classical pianist, and then I moved to New York to get into electronic composition, songwriting, beat making, that sound, that sound of the Pokrovsky Ensemble…” At this point she trails off, trying in vain to recall the name of the recording, lodged somewhere deep within her subconscious. “Basically it’s this Russian folk singing sound that just became so ingrained in me I didn’t even realise it until I had this opportunity to write an original composition for voices and a band-based chamber ensemble.”

Having emigrated from Russia at the age of seven, Bell grew up in Alaska before relocating to her current home of New York. And as such, Bell’s Russian identity is little more than spectral: half-formed and elusive, learned from and displaced onto other people, other times and places. “It really begins with my mother, and then it expands to my piano teacher who is very much also like family to me,” she recalls. “Growing up I had this incredible piano teacher who I worked with from age seven to seventeen and my lessons all happened in Russian and sometimes we would have some soup after lessons. We ate a little bit of Russian food in my household growing up but because I had an American stepfather we mostly spoke English and we mostly ate like normal Alaskan people do, I guess. I do have family in Moscow still but I’ve only been back to Moscow twice since leaving in 1990.”

And it’s this deeply felt – yet residual and intangible – sense of nationality that Bell explores on ‘Krai’, a nine part song-cycle first performed at the Ecstatic Music Festival in 2011. “Judd Greenstein, who’s a wonderful composer and friend of mine around New York, asked me to share a programme with him [at the festival]. He was writing a piece called ‘Yehudim’ in which I performed. And that piece was retelling the stories of King Solomon but it was sort of a fusion of Judd’s history and Jewish culture and the music he was interested in presently. And I was inspired by that and I decided that I would do something similar for the first half of the programme which was wide open, and mine.”

Following this initial moment of inspiration, Bell settled upon the Russian concept of “krai” (pronounced “cry”) to provide the piece with its overarching structure and concept. The word has numerous meanings in Russian, which Bell outlines: “It’s an incredible little four letter word that can mean ‘my homeland’, ‘the frontier’, ‘the edge of something’. In everyday Russian, it just means ‘the edge’, like the edge of the table, or the edge of the curtain.” But the word also has a more specific definition, referring to a collection of remote regions around the country. It’s these territories that Bell’s piece explores, taking the form of a sort of sonic cartography: each of ‘Krai’’s movements evokes one of these regions, drawing on its musical and cultural traditions, its climate and landscape.

“I just googled that word ‘krai’ and at the top of the search results was the map of the krais of Russia,” she tells me. “And I had only really been to two of them and I just decided to go digitally, travel around.” Bell spent the following months engaged in painstaking research, gathering together information to use throughout the composition. “I was pretty methodical about it; I would pick one and I would write to my mom and say ‘now I’m going to spend the next few weeks trying to write something for Zabaikalsky Krai; tell me everything you know. Tell me who lives there, historically who’s lived there, what it sounds like…’ And she would just send me all these video and audio links; and her friends at the radio were able to send me incredible field recordings.”

Despite having collected her source materials remotely in this way, Bell is keen to emphasise the breadth and comprehensiveness of her research: a point that seems important to her personally as well as professionally, as an artist. “I tried to really have the greatest sample size that I could,” she continues. “I just kept searching and listening and watching until something really grabbed me and then I would study it. For the fourth movement, for instance, I was sent, by a friend who’s in Russia, just a really super-duper lo-fi recording of this little granny, and she’s singing a melody that seemed really simple but then she would change time signatures. And I was so hypnotised and enamored by it that I learned it and then I sang it into my computer and then I played it on my keyboard. I learned the technique and rhythms that she was using in this” – pausing for emphasis, marvelling at the seemingly effortless musical complexity – “little ditty that I’m sure she just rattled off like it was nothing.”

Our conversation continues to deviate via anecdotes and asides like this, bespeaking Bell’s desire to emphasise her faithfulness in recreating the sounds and traditions of the krai. “In the second movement for instance, which is ‘Altai Krai’: the indigenous music of that region is very much like Tuva which is right near by. And they have this really, really incredible throat singing. I tried to imitate that with the processor that’s working on my voice. And the very simple strummed guitar part was totally inspired by exactly what I heard on all these recordings of traditional Altai singers. And there’s a jaw-harp which I learned to play and I was able to record in my closet.” Here, she begins to laugh, acknowledging the quaintness of her attempts to approximate the music that has so powerfully captured her imagination.

Such descriptions of the process of composing and recording ‘Krai’ – insofar as they can be interpreted as efforts to establish the authenticity of the project – are perhaps surprising, or at least conspicuous. Of course, any understanding of ‘Krai’ as arising seamlessly from the cultures and places it describes is by no means unproblematic. “It’s sort of an ethnomusicological project, a little bit, but it’s still largely a work of fiction,” Bell allows, “it’s like these impressions of mine.” Even whilst it draws together threads of musical traditions, social history, and even, on occasion, natural sounds, Bell’s narrative remains as artificially constructed as it is rooted in any reality: ‘Krai’ is, and could only ever have been, a sonic reconstruction of the composer’s hyper-mediated, “digital” exploration of the territories of its title. “I could probably go to these places, especially the ones that I’ve not ever actually been to, and have a completely different experience and feel inspired to write something completely different,” she explains. “You could really make an argument that in some way it’s inauthentic.”

But rather than undermine the validity of ‘Krai’, this element of what Bell describes as inauthenticity in fact seems fundamental to the work’s evocative allure. Throughout the piece, the regions that Bell attempts to capture remain veiled in mystique, as if lying – to employ another of the many meanings of the word “krai” – on “the edge of something”. And as such, the piece as a whole can be read as an allegory for Bell’s own sense of Russianness: laden with significance yet understood at a distance, reconstructed out of fragments – stories, cultural artifacts, distant memories – non-imminent to the artist’s own experience in the here-and-now.

This tension – between Bell’s desire to create an artwork true to her homeland, true to herself, and her acknowledgement of the project’s inevitable failure – is played out strikingly within the music itself. Delivered entirely in Russian, Bell’s vocals adhere strictly to the conventions of the indigenous folk singing found across the various krai: “what I really wanted was this fully Russian experience, as far as the singing goes,” she tells me. Yet any attempts to create such a genuine, “fully Russian” experience are continually undermined by the accompanying ensemble which, in Bell’s own words, intentionally sounds “strange and impossible”, mixing elements of electronica, contemporary chamber composition, and guitar-based indie. “It’s an interesting foil to the traditional voices,” she comments, before elaborating: “There’s nothing wrong with [retelling a tradition], but I’m interested in music that provides challenges and collisions and this swing between something that is confusing and something that’s familiar and something that’s dissonant. That’s what really interests me.”

‘Krai’, then, is a piece that perpetually erodes and impedes – negates, even – it’s own progress, the fulfilment of its lofty ambitions residing at an ever-receding horizon. But if this is music about failure, then its failure isn’t without its own beauty: there’s a tragic romanticism to Bell’s acknowledgement of the futility of her (nonetheless earnest) attempts to capture, recreate, and preserve the traditions of these regions – and, by extension, her own elusive sense of nationality. In this sense, ‘Krai’ is probably better understood as a nuanced examination, not of what it means to be Russian, but of what it means to belong to nowhere in particular: to possess an identity that’s based, in the end, on loss, on absence. Or, as the composer puts it towards the end of our conversation: “I do feel American, but I think that part of the American identity is that everyone has come to America from somewhere else.” It’s a poignant image, and one that should serve as a sensitive framing for any encounter with ‘Krai’’s aloof and beguiling sonic territories.

Originally published by Loud & Quiet

 

Owen Pallett at Oval Space, London, 21/5/2014

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The shock-horror of “Sufjan Stevens goes electric” was surely more extreme but Owen Pallett’s parallel move, likewise starting in 2010, was arguably better judged. ‘Heartland’ found the Canadian shunning the chamber pop hesitancy of his Final Fantasy project, embracing instead a boldness that’s culminated in the orchestral electro-pop of this year’s ‘In Conflict’. And this propulsive, widescreen melodicism dominates tonight’s set, Pallett’s violin backed by a taut two-man rhythm section. It’s a slick performance but the real treat comes when Pallett reminds us of his bedroom songwriter credentials, breaking midway to play solo for a handful of songs. As his violin (via loop pedal) fragments into a dense web of melody and multi-dimensional textures, it’s nothing if not a profound display of skill. But what’s wrong with indulgence when it’s as creative as this?

Originally published by Loud & Quiet

Jaded & Faded, Cerebral Ballzy

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Who likes Cerebral Ballzy? Spend some time reading reviews of the Brooklyn quintet’s eponymous debut album of 2011 and you’ll probably be left unsure. Dismissed by punks as punk for hipsters and, consequently, by said hipsters as punk pastiche for punks, ‘Cerebral Ballzy’ was continually conceptualised as music for other people, other factions, and even — in their indebtedness to early 80s hardcore — other times. And it’s hard to feel much sympathy for the group: their debut album was snotty and petulant, comprising two-minute bursts of punk-by-numbers with Jackass-like lyrics about cutting class, puking, and sk8ing. Sure, the group’s identity as a gang of spoilt brats might have arisen mostly from considered play-acting; but if it was all just a big joke, then it was about as funny as their woefully misjudged band name.

Enter the Strokes’ Julian Casablancas, whose label Cult Records is releasing the group’s sophomore record ‘Jaded & Faded’ this month. According to Casablancas, they’re “the coolest band in the world at the moment, a truly legit modern hardcore/punk band.” So what’s changed? On first pass, not much. The Cerebral Ballzy of ‘Jaded & Faded’ is still just as committed to tempos so fast that, through sheer ungodly persistence, they’ll beat the living daylights out of your stupid, naive hope for rhythmic variety or syncopation. Dynamics, presumably, are for pussies, too; despite a newly expansive production job, these tracks blur together into a single unrelenting outpouring of volume. In short, it’s hard work.

And, what’s more, there’s little by way of obvious payoff waiting once the facade of bland extremity has been penetrated. Lyrically, Cerebral Ballzy are still pretty anti-cerebral, pro-ballz with much of the record being, in the band’s own words, about “being fucked up a lot”. But there is, at least, a hint that all this bluster could add up to something more nuanced on ‘Jaded & Faded’. Maybe it’s a newfound sensitivity within the group or maybe it’s just the absence of songs about vomit, but, taken as a whole, the record can seem to cohere — however precariously — into a sincere interrogation of social and cultural identity. Unlike it’s predecessor, the album exhibits something approaching self-consciousness, examining what it means to be young, horny, and futureless in a city like New York today. “Save your safety for another day / save your maybes for another day / we’ll all decay another day” goes the album’s opening lyric, the music’s exaggerated bravado betraying, perhaps, an undercurrent of uncertainty.

But maybe I’m going out on a limb there. It’s hard to tell and, to be honest, you’ll probably find yourself hard-pressed to care either way.

Originally published by Loud & Quiet

International, Lust For Youth

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If Lust For Youth makes music about youthfulness, then it’s only in the sense that Hannes Norrvide’s records pre-mourn its inevitable fading. And whilst this is still true of the Swede’s third record ‘International’, here the tone is more one of wistful regret than bitter irony. It’s like a New Order to the Joy Division of his earlier work, the music unearthing a newfound nuance in its less direct confrontation with despair. And the comparison with the former doesn’t end there. This record is wrapped in the gloss of the early 80s, as compact synth and guitar hooks tumble over one another in a stream of melody and pollowy textures. At its best, ‘International’ might just measure up to its influences, too; on standout ‘Illume’ Norrvide’s by-now-trademark vocals (think Foals’ Yannis Philippakis via Robert Smith) sound haunted and naively hopeful in equal measure. Such glimpses of quality are fleeting, though, and by ‘International’’s close one is left wondering whether Norrvide’s new sense of (relative) contentedness has fatally diminished his music’s vital urgency.

Originally published by Loud & Quiet

Gimme Splendor: Quilt Interview

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Shane Butler and Anna Rochinski, the two founding members of Boston New Psych quartet Quilt, talk in a way that defies transcription. To capture their alternately excitable, erratic, wearing, obscure, fascinating, lucid, engaging meanderings as symbols on a page, delimited by anything as rigid as punctuation and clauses, feels like a crude disservice to their unkempt fluidity. “I think that we also, I mean for this record, the last record too, but more so for this record we wanted to make it like one long piece as opposed to, you know… I mean obviously the songs come in, but we do think about it in that cinematic way of it going through phrases and going through stages.” In outlining the group’s approach to composition Shane could just as well be describing the profusion of ideas – revisions, transgressions, contradictions – that spar for primacy throughout our brief conversation.

John Andrews and Keven Lareau, newer members providing drums and bass respectively, sit back observing, content to offer a wry comment or two at artfully chosen intervals. Anna picks up on the train of thought, “I think the whole record has a narrative that’s fun to explore too. It’s sort of open ended but I’ve had fun crafting a storyline in a way through the entire thing, because there’s so many questions that get asked in the record and then there’s exploratory statements and they’re always like doing this to each other” – here, as words fail, she mimes a tussle between interlocking fingers – “and all the portals that’re opened are sort of explored through different songs.” At “portals”, she begins to laugh, acknowledging the faint absurdity of the word, her enthusiasm’s vulnerability to cynical mockery.

We’re discussing the group’s sophomore record, released this year by Mexican Summer, whilst sitting outside Brixton’s Windmill ahead of their performance later that evening. It’s an album comprised of a series of miniatures: mosaic-like as fragments of psych jams, folksy four-part harmonies, and late-60s pop interlock to create 40 minutes of music that vibrates with chaotic internal energy. It’s a potentially overwhelming experience that the album’s title attempts to encapsulate with the words ‘Held In Splendor’.

“Splendor’s a really interesting word because it’s used in a lot of different ways. Like some people use it to explain magnificence, but it could be magnificence like a visual magnificence, or it could be an emotional magnificence: so it explores inner and outer realms that have many different parts to them.” As Shane continues he arrives at perhaps the central idea underpinning the concept: “I feel like splendor is something that can’t be locked down into a singular experience but one that incorporates a lot of different feelings at once. When you’re caught in splendor it’s like ‘oh my god’, it’s like emotion that could be really up and really low, or be in a landscape that’s just stunning in that way that it has a lot to it.”

So it refers to a quantity of experience, I suggest. “Yeah, quantity of experience is a good way to put it,” he agrees before Anna offers: “Think of those weird Jell-O moulds that old people eat that have fruit in them, and they’re stuck in this Jell-O and they’re just like suspended in this goo. And that’s sometimes what I think of when I think of being held in splendor, it’s like a state of suspension or something.”

It’s a concept reminiscent of the idea of the “postmodern sublime”: a contemporary form of the aesthetic category outlined by eighteenth century philosopher Edmund Burke. A powerful form of pleasure, the “sublime” arises from the mixture of awe and terror – attraction and repulsion – that one feels when confronted with something infinite or incomprehensible. For Burke, the incomprehensible was embodied in the likes of gothic architecture; for Quilt, it’s felt in the unending and unedited data-streams of the digital economy.

“It’s so easy to get overloaded with so called ‘information’,” Anna tells me, “and pay attention to all these things that you may or may not necessarily care about or even be in a position to properly get involved with, whether it’s political or it’s like celebrity gossip or just these images and facts that we’re bombarded with for no reason.” Elaborating, Shane notes specifically the strange synthesis of both positive and negative feelings that occurs during the experience of splendor. “It’s funny that you say overloaded with information, like that whole idea of being overloaded with information where it can be perceived as a negative experience. Because splendor I find to be an overload of a magnificance or an overload of ecstatic energy, at times.”

Quilt’s psychedelic sound may well draw discussions of pastiche or retromania. But the prominence of this sense of informational excess within ‘Held In Splendor’ reveals them to be artists particularly attuned to the aesthetics of the contemporary moment. Across (pop) culture today, intensity and quantity of experience are emphasised over and above coherence, structure, or closed meaning: think of the world of Overly Attached Girlfriends and doges, the multi-coloured absurdism of Adventure Time, or Flying Lotus’s cut and paste “space operas”.

Prompted by my mention of the latter, Shane continues: “Even as a guitar-based band, on some level we’re DJs. We do live in a cultural world where we have a history that we’ve been working with for a certain amount of time. For us, we don’t ever really approach anything and go ‘oh we wanna sound like this’ but we have all of this stuff that we’re filtering through our skill level at every moment, and so it becomes like we’re sampling in some weird way, I don’t know.”

As a point of respite is reached in his stream of consciousness, Keven – up to this point silent – turns to his band-mate: “That was a great way to describe that, that whole phenomenon.” Immediately, John adds, “Except sometimes I want to sound like the Meat Puppets. Sometimes.”

Originally published by Loud & Quiet

I Never Learn, Lyyke Li

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No longer a “pop artist”, now a “singer-songwriter”, declared Lykke Li in the run up to her latest album. Curious, not least because the Swedish artist continues to write singer-songs which are as pop as ever. The real shift is in tone: ancient history is the quirk and bounce of debut Youth Novels. I Never Learn is instead marked by an aloof cynicism, a steely guardedness emerging from a still-raw betrayal. I’m ‘Never Gonna Love Again’, she mourns. I’ve got a ‘Heart of Steel’, she laments. And the sweeping, quasi-orchestral arrangements show she ain’t kiddin’. In less skilled hands, this could all get pretty tiring, tiresome even. Or perhaps I should say more tiring: certainly, the widescreen majesty of I Never Learn can seem constrained by the obsessive monotony of Li’s emotional tenor. She’s fatigued, yes, and she’s not content just to describe how that feels. But what Li might have lost in personability, her music’s gained handsomely in melodic elegance. These songs are intensely focussed, soaring with the grace of Hounds of Love and, occasionally, even the sparkle of Vespertine. It’s all poise and precision, complemented by suitably cavernous, wall of sound production. Still, as an artist that first stole hearts singing about ‘Dance, Dance, Dance’ing, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t wish she’d lighten up a bit.

Originally published by Loud & Quiet

Angel, Pure X

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Angel is what you might call an “atmospheric” album. That said, Pure X’s third LP seems only to fit such a descriptor by virtue of its failing to be, well, anything else. Sure, there’re melodies and lyrics, but both are so vague you’ll have a hard time noticing either. Sometimes-rhyming inanities are delivered alternately in a limp, strained tenor and an equally strained, even limper falsetto. I think he was gazing across a “valley of tears” at one point, an image which might (just) have passed as clumsily poetic if only he had seemed to give even marginally more of a shit than I did. Occasionally, the simplicity and emotional numbness of Angel call to mind Kevin Drew at his most downtrodden, especially if imagined filtered through Kevin Barnes’ awkward sexiness. In fact, make a concerted effort and you could find verses, even choruses; given time I managed to unearth a handful, but to a regrettably meagre payoff. It’s all work, no play. Dull boy.

Originally published by Loud & Quiet

Tim Hecker at Oval Space, London, 14/4/2014

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On stage Tim Hecker is merely a half-presence. No more than a vague form in the shadows, all but oblivious to his audience as he works intently at his laptop. Checking his emails, maybe. But leave cynicism at the door and all these anti-theatrics come to serve as an apt frame for the Canadian artist’s now-familiar Music For Crumbling Airports. For, just like his on-stage demeanour, Hecker’s music is all suggestion and mystique, its seductive allure located in its spaces, its absences. Ghostly forms – pianos, flutes, organs – flicker on the edge of perception, coalescing fleetingly before melting once more into the swooning gauze of noise. That such sonic detail and subtlety are recreated in the live context is admirable. That his music is simultaneously augmented with such expressive force, such sweeping romanticism by Oval Space’s cavernous warehouse setting is just silly.

Originally published by Loud & Quiet

Marissa Nadler at Cafe OTO, London, 23/04/2013

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“Was it a dream?” Marissa Nadler asks, lingering over the final syllable in a languorous melisma. “Or something sinister?” comes the reply from either side, her backing singers’ voices dispassionate, distant. Tonight’s performance is somewhere between the two. Heavy-eyed and sensuous, Nadler’s songs inhabit a faintly surreal space between waking and sleeping: evoking a state in which every sound, every texture, every thought is deeply felt, if not fully understood. The accompanying duo of cello and viola provides the requisite eeriness, softening the edges of Nadler’s handpicked steel-string, echoing the melancholy of her vocals. And there’s interest amidst all this ambience, too. Nadler’s are the melodies that Liz Harris is too coy to write: noir-lullabies that’re both bold and nuanced, conceding to abstraction just often enough to maintain the sultriness of the atmosphere. Dreamy, sinister, whatever: this is a treat.

Originally published by Loud & Quiet

Shortwave Nights, Hiss Tracts

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A microphone at a roadside. If Hiss Tracts betray an affinity to musique concrète, then it’s found more in their sensitivity of listening than their occasional use of field recordings. Shortwave Nights’ droning forms exist within an eternal present, one that’s multi-faceted and infinitely detailed: this is music that throws open the aural dimension, unearthing depth and nuance within the humblest of sounds. On its cover, a microphone sits at a roadside. But it’s not just about deep listening: Shortwave Nights is hardly documentarian, and never Cageian. Hiss Tracts’ soundworld is as intentionally constructed as those of their previous work with the likes of Set Fire To Flames and Godspeed You! Black Emperor – the former’s atmosphere of prettified dejection and conflicted nostalgia for the rural being an especially close reference point. On its cover, there’s no microphone, no road, only their aestheticized image – indistinct, suggestive. And all this makes Shortwave Nights a rare, beautiful thing: an ambient album that’s neither anonymous in its abstraction nor stifled by its glimmers of compositional intervention.

Originally published by Loud & Quiet

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