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Vital Vox: "A & Q" With Gelsey Bell

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On Saturday, November 5 at 8 pm at Roulette in Brooklyn, 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.

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 really feel like the way I compose music is song-based, and for a lot of people in that world [of composition], 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.

DK: I would be remiss to not mention 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.

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?

For more information on the Vital Vox Festival, visit the official website.

An extended version of this interview, with more questions from Gelsey Bell, is cross-posted at You're So Post-Post-Rock Right Now.