Interview with Gelsey Bell


Gelsey Bell performs regularly as an experimental vocalist, culling from a wide range of techniques and styles to create her own performance works, to literally voice those of contemporary composers, and to explore improvisation. On , Bell will be premiering a full-length piece called Our Defensive Measurements, commissioned by Roulette and the Jerome Foundation.

ROULETTE: Tell us about the work you’ll be doing at Roulette.
GELSEY BELL: A couple of years ago I started considering how the physical arrangement of an audience member affected how they were viewing and listening to a performance. After doing many repetitions of a single work in many different sites (with my piece Bathroom Songs, which I have performed dozens of times in a wide variety of bathrooms), I began to sense how my proximity to the audience, as well as their proximity to each other, could change the poetic resonance of a song. This is the first piece where I’ve let myself really dive into that issue by designing a physical arrangement or task for the audience for each song. The arrangements and tasks are all very simple but I hope that taken as a whole, in conjunction with the substance of the songs, a larger complexity will be revealed. In some ways, this mirrors the simplicity of the songs themselves, which have mostly come from my work with the metallophone as an accompanying instrument and the innocence it lends to music. The songs I had started writing for voice and metallophone were tending toward issues of protecting oneself – thus the title, Our Defensive Measurements – and how to negotiate… well, to put it simply, other people. This seemed like a good fit for an audience asked to continuously readjust their comfort zone. But not wanting it to be purely focused on the relationship between solo performer and audience, I decided to bring in a chorus of sorts, so we could have a real party. Plus, and this is equally important, I thought it would sound nice.

(Photo by Stefanos Tsigrimanis)

R: Are there working artists today with whose work you identify, or rather, who do you consider to be your peers?
GB: Well, all of my collaborators in this project are my peers. That’s part of the reason why I wanted them to perform it with me. Though I am certainly guiding everything, we have arranged everything together and I rely on their creative instincts and input to help me understand what the piece is doing. Most of us have collaborated on many other projects and our accumulated experience can, at times, function as a truly collective movement both in structural ideas and literal sonic output. For instance, Paul Pinto and I are both in thingNY, and Paul, Dave Ruder, Aliza Simons, and I are all in Varispeed together. The work we’ve done in these groups, which often arranges the compositions of others, feeds back into the work we call our own.

(Varispeed, Perfect Lives Manhattan, Episode 3)

R: What are some defining characteristics of the musical scene you would fit yourself into? What elements of your scene differentiate it from what has come before, or what is happening now?
GB: This question could warrant a very long and involved answer, so I’ll just hit one highlight of my thoughts on it. For a long time, I kept my performances and songwriting as a singer-songwriter and an experimental vocalist very separate. In each scene I underplayed my participation in the other. Until at some point I decided it was just plain stupid to compartmentalize the two and have since been working to bridge my experience in all the “scenes” I have made appearances in (this also includes dance, theatre, performance art…). SCALING, which I premiered at Roulette in 2011, was my first real push towards this by using the piano, my accompanying instrument of choice for the singer-songwriter scene, in new ways while building on the conventions of traditional songwriting – using the two scenes in tension with each other. However, at a certain point, such considerations of the “scene” just act as a hindrance to the creative process. Ultimately I think this leaves me in a situation where I will always both belong and not belong. And in all honesty that’s probably the most comfortable place for someone like me to be.

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The Scientist’s Say” from SCALING

R: What was the last music you listened to?
GB: A mix, entitled ‘Gone Are These Days,’ made by my friend Alejandro Acierto. I really believe in the art form of the mix and though many people have let go of it, I’m holding strong and still make mixes for people all the time. Alejandro and I particularly geek out on the physical vehicle for the album. ‘Gone Are the Days’ is mounted on a painting that I could easily see myself framing and hanging on my wall if it wasn’t for the fact that it was the home of the CD I was listening to.

R: What is music?
GB: A perceptual frame – a performative concept.

R: Do you consider yourself more a composer or a performer?
GB: Nope. In fact, my composing is often a performing, so I have trouble disentangling the two.

R: Who do you see as instrumental in your development as an artist?
GB: Perhaps one of the most influential (and perhaps least aware of the fact) people for me artistically was my undergraduate philosophy professor Gordon Bearn. He always wanted to perform the thought experiments we discussed in class. For instance, when Henri Bergson discussed tracking temporality through muscular effort (in Time and Free Will), Gordon would have the class make a fist and observe their own experience of sensation in relation to time. This kind of phenomenological attention and suturing of theory and praxis has become essential to my songwriting, where the lyrics of a song are so tied to the physical experience of the sonic. This is also probably why the difference between my artistic and my scholarly work is, for me, only an issue of medium and not of foundation or substance.

(Photo by Reuben Radding)

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