Vital Vox: An “A&Q” with Gelsey Bell
On November 5, singer-songwriter Gelsey Bell presents the premiere of her song cycle Scaling at this year’s Vital Vox Festival, a two-day series dedicated to expectation-defying vocalists as composer-performers. In an attempt to defy our own expectations for our interview, Bell and I decided to experiment with the format of our discussion. A modified “A & Q” ensued, in which I offered statements and the composer responded with a question as often as possible. Here is the result:
Daniel J. Kushner: The world premiere of Scaling will be presented as part of the Vital Vox Festival. According to the press release, the performance will involve a borrowed piano, a house plant, and a pair of shoes. It seems like these three items have a certain prominence in the cycle that one previously may not have given them before.
Gelsey Bell: Let me know if you agree: I’m hoping to use the theatrical and metaphorical world of certain everyday objects or everyday situations within the fabric of the piece…I feel like often in musical contexts there are things like, OK, we’re borrowing a piano, or this is the piano of the space, and I want to think about how to actually bring that situation into the artwork itself, so that we’re not ignoring that fact. Maybe some people don’t ignore that fact. It’s wrapped up in what kind of performance you’re doing. And then maybe the house plant and the change of shoes will make more sense within the context of the show, and maybe it won’t. That probably depends on how people are making sense of things.
DK: It sounds like you’re giving the audience more responsibility for the narrative, like a narrative is a more subjective thing that results from an audience member’s perspective rather than an authoritative version of what’s happening.
GB: Do you think that that is that unusual?
DK: No, not necessarily. I don’t think it’s usually so overt. It happens all the time in art, and it’s important for art to do that, but I don’t think we’re usually so conscious of it. It happens more or less automatically when art is effective, but it’s good to challenge oneself and challenge others to come to their own conclusions more actively. I’m all in favor of anything that engages somebody in a way that they haven’t previously been engaged.
GB: Yeah, totally. I can only hope that that’s something I’m able to do. Have you noticed how oftentimes playfulness doesn’t show up in the more serious art contexts, how seriousness can really overcome what would otherwise be playfulness?
DK: Yes. I think it’s something so ubiquitous that I don’t even think about it. You being a singer-songwriter, I think this really ties in well—singer-songwriters who make “serious music,” whatever that means, they seem hesitant to do things that make them seem more lofty or somehow give them more responsibility than they think they’re do, specifically in regards to the idea of thinking of themselves as composers. And if you’re thinking about things in a pop song idiom, you’re somehow taking yourself less seriously.
GB: I feel like I don’t want to answer this as a question so that I can actually engage with what you’re saying. I’m part of an ensemble called thingNY, which is a group of composer-performers, and I’m the singer in it. Other people do both popular music and classical music, but I very much have not taken on the composer title for a very strong reason, and I talk with them a lot about this. I really feel like the way I compose music is song-based, and for a lot of people in that world, I think they think it’s really silly of me to keep the singer-songwriter title, because there’s a hierarchy between the two, and they don’t understand why I’m embracing the lower of the hierarchy.
But for me, I kind of get this punk rock attitude, like, Come on you guys, I’m not going to take that hierarchy seriously, and I really think of music in terms of song, and I really think of myself on a trajectory with singer-songwriters, and I don’t look at one being more serious than the other. That’s really just an institutional myth that has been put in place to help people get funding and to feel better about themselves. That’s something I feel really strongly about, as being someone in both of those worlds. For this song cycle, I’m very much musically, taking a lot from the singer-songwriter part of the world that I’ve been in. We’ll see how the non-singer-songwriters feel about that.
DK: Historically, it’s not factual to say that there’s a dichotomy between composers and singer-songwriters. Schubert was a songwriter, Mahler even, obviously Ives. Those are just a few.
GB: Yeah, and I think part of the difference, too, if you look at the history of classical music for instance, it also has to do with performing your own music, and I think part of the mystique of the composer comes from composers who don’t perform their own music. But it’s like you say, you go back to Bach, he performed all of his stuff. Or Liszt or something like that, so I feel like the term that I’m seeing more and more of—the composer-performer—is really the same as the singer-songwriter, only singer-songwriters are vocalists and composer-performers are not necessarily vocalists.
DK: It does seem to me that with the phenomenon of the composer-performer, the current generation is involved more than ever with the execution of its own work.
GB: Yeah. And why do you think that is? (I feel like I’m Socrates or something.)
DK: I think it’s out of necessity, mainly. I think that it’s in order to promote one’s work and to make sure it gets presented to the public. It’s a function of practicality. It also makes a lot more sense particularly because composers’ work is more inter-related with other composers’ work. There’s less a sense of exclusive ownership—This is a piece that I wrote.
GB: I wonder—I haven’t thought of it that way. I certainly think it’s so that the work will get put out there, and I think a lot of composers are put into situations where they realize their work is never going to be heard if they’re not part of performing it. And I also think that a lot of composers end up learning a lot from that experience, in many ways influencing how they then go back to writing. I haven’t thought about how it’s connected to not feeling ownership. Are you connecting that to sampling and how the lines of ownership have changed so much just because the music business has been changing so much, in terms of recording?
DK: Not necessarily—I‘m thinking about the extent to which composers in the New York scene seem to be collaborating with one another and within other disciplines.
GB: And do you think that’s connected to the band situation, how for so long, it would be like OK, well, the Beatles wrote this? You know that the songs John sings, he wrote, and the songs Paul sings, he wrote, but all together, it’s all under the moniker of the band, and you never know what people come up with and what they don’t come up with. So the ownership ends up being a more collaborative thing, period.
DK: Yeah, I do. I would venture to say that the majority of composers working today either grew up with or have otherwise been influenced by rock music, hip-hop, or any other music style that has galvanized youth culture within the past 60 years or so. It’s a reference point that a lot of people have.
GB: Not only is everyone being influenced musically by the strand of mainstream rock ‘n’ roll and popular music, which is the majority of what most people are listening to, but also that the way those people deal with their music is influencing the classical, or contemporary classical, or new music—or whatever term I’m supposed to use now. Just because you can see, They’re forming a band, they’re going on tour or They’re putting out a record, and that’s how people are getting to know their music or They’re going about funding their lives as musicians this way or the social interaction they’re having with their collaborators and with the producer is happening this way. I feel like all of those situations that surround the lives of popular music musicians—people who are coming out of more academic situations are starting to see that, and there’s starting to be more of a cross-pollination between those two social worlds around music, not just in terms of the music style or how people listen to it but how the musicians themselves function in their role of I’m a musicians, this is what I do for a living.
DK: I would be remiss to not talk about art song. I’ve found that “art song” can mean different things to different people. Someone can pick a single attribute of art song and use that attribute to form his or her definition—maybe it means more chromatic chord progressions, maybe it means through-composed as opposed to verse-chorus-verse-chorus. Arts songs can exist in a pop song guise and pop songs can exist in an art song guise. The fluidity of the definition is interesting—it doesn’t seem like something you can pin to the wall and display in a butterfly case.
GB: I don’t know what to think about the category of art song at this point, actually. I feel like the strongest place where I can put it on the wall as a butterfly is when I’m looking at Italian art songs from 150 years ago, and I can say, Alright, well that’s an art song. This is part of a category of this historical group of art songs. Today in the contemporary world, in all honesty, it’s not a term that I use, although I guess I could. But I feel like if the term is used, it’s used to “up the rep” of some music in a way that it doesn’t necessarily need to be, or it can indicate, I’m going to sing a song in a classical style, and I’m gonna sing Bel Canto, which normally doesn’t mean pop music. And then the big difference is the compositional writing and the arrangement, but it’s also literally the kind of vocal technique you’re using, and when that’s used with non-classical voices, then it becomes this issue of Why do you need to “up the rep” of the music you’re doing?
I’m using the term “song cycle” for Scaling because I’m really grouping these songs together. If I was making an album, I guess I could say it was a “concept album.” But I’m also just thinking of the piece as a theatrical whole, if that makes any sense. I wrote the songs knowing that they would be performed live. One of the things I do with the song cycle is I play the piano in unconventional ways while I’m singing songs. And so I’m grouping them together, thinking about it as a theatrical, coherent performance, and in that way, the term “song cycle” made a lot of sense, but I didn’t necessarily think of it as I need to put these pop songs together, and if I call it a song cycle people will take it more seriously, and I can do it in different venues.
DK: Perhaps you can go into specifics about what makes the piano playing unconventional.
GB: One of the songs in the cycle I wrote so that I’m lying on top of the piano and I play the piano while I’m singing from on top. So I’m playing the keyboard from the other side, which is a totally different way of engaging with the keyboard. I basically use that physical position to enhance the emotional quality of what I’m singing about. Often when I write songs, I’m playing the piano, and I think, Well let’s say I want more minor chords, because that fits the mood or Let’s say I want this kind of rhythm because that fits the mood of the emotional energy behind the lyrics. I wanted to take that to another level, where I was keeping in mind What are the physical positions of my body, and what do they say about the words I’m saying?
So I have a song where I’m playing the piano from the other side, which is really disorienting, and also, Where is she? Why isn’t she sitting in front of the keyboard? Or I have a song where I’m playing it with my knees, and so the physical position I’m in while I’m doing that makes me literally feel very different. Or I have one where I’m playing the keyboard turned away from it, so it’s as if I’m chained to the piano, like I have to keep playing it but it’s like I’m trying to get away from it, and that very much is tied into the words I’m saying, and to ultimately how I’m trying to explore what it means to really be tied to an instrument, or we can think about that in even bigger metaphorical terms. And I’m trying to really bring that out more of my singer-songwriter world, because that’s where I really engage the piano, whereas the stuff I do as vocalist in experimental contexts is often just the voice.
For more information on the Vital Vox Festival, visit the official website.