New York-based artist Gelsey Bell had just performed her song cycle Scaling a few weeks ago at the Vital Vox Festival in Brooklyn (Read a review of it here), and it seemed that this one work told me so much about an artist that I knew very little about. It seemed to be like a Rosetta Stone of everything that her creative output encompasses–self-written pop songs, classical piano, new music, theatre and performance art. What was most memorable about this performance was her playing the piano from different positions (from underneath, from the top of the piano belly down, from behind her back, with her knees, her arms and knuckles) and how much it was the antithesis of a singer/songwriter set, which she has also done.
During a video chat I had with her, Gelsey spoke about the piece.
“It’s certainly about exploring the idea that the position that you’re playing the piano from has a poetic resonance for what you’re singing about, and so, it ended up being kind of maybe like, in etudes of different positions you can be in at the piano, but that was always coming out of the idea that the physical position that one performs the song in informs the song itself, and then also, once you’re in that position, how can you write for the piano? How can I compose in such a way that I can still be playing and still singing, and still being totally present with that? What kind of music comes out of that? Because I, very much, compose in a way where it’s like ‘what am I doing physically?’. It’s very embodied, it’s not me with the pen and paper, which I think is pretty standard for a singer-songwriter.
It was very much a stab at trying to bridge my experimental tendencies with my singer-songwriter tendencies, and to see how those two kinds of modes of working work together and what came out of that, so it very much feels like a solo set would be for me at some singer-songwriter gig like at [Caffe] Vivaldi.”
Towards the end of the cycle, members of the audience were randomly handed notes placed inside little bags by her partner for the performance, fellow performance artist/composer Paul Pinto, and they said for us to go up on the stage and put our ears close to the skin of the piano. After telling her that I was expecting either another scream or a loud chord cluster on the piano while we were in that position, she responded with a laugh “It never occurred to me! People were nice enough to come onstage with me, and then to scare them? I try not to piss my audiences off!”
SCALING (Performed live at Roulette, Brooklyn, NY 11/5/11; You can either stream the album here or on the Bandcamp page, and also download the entire CD–Tips suggested)
Bell, a former native of northern California, and the daughter of a philosopher (dad) and a musician (mom), was earning top honors from Pennsylvania’s Lehigh University as well as NYU, and had simultaneously been cultivating a career as a performing musician in both the singer-songwriter and performance art circles.
Her debut CD Under a Piano was written, recorded (2004) and self-released in 2005 when she was still an undergrad at 22.
“I started playing shows in 2004–Within six months I made my first album. I’ve been writing songs for many many years and I haven’t really been performing them regularly. So as soon as I started performing them regularly, it just made sense to have an album, I mean that’s how it is in the popular music world. That’s just something everyone does. When they leave the performance, you want to have something to share with people. It seemed like a real obvious step for me. We did it in like a day and a half. Most of the songs that made it to the album are like second or third takes. I did it really quickly.”
Among the other projects in Gelsey’s arsenal are song cycles titled Bathroom Songs (Pictured above; it can only be performed in a bathroom), Song Cycle in Time/Space, and Telephone Songs. She also performs in the ensembles thingNY (whose In House was directly inspired by Gelsey’s Bathroom cycle) and Varispeed, who have recently performed Robert Ashley’s Perfect Lives in a single performance as part of a series of performances celebrating Ashley’s works given in NY.
“Perfect Lives wasn’t necessarily meant to be played that way. It was a 7 episode opera made for television, and it’s never been aired in the States–It was aired on BBC in the eighties, but it’s set up so that the show itself goes throughout the day, and then has different episodes–Here’s the park episode, here’s the bank episode. We took the piece and turned it into a site specific all-day.”
thingNY: In House (trailer)
As Gelsey continues to perform these works she also has a second (for the lack of a better word, pop music) CD titled In Place of Arms, and also has plans to continue working with Scaling.
“The truth is, I don’t really want to move away from Scaling quite yet. I would like to set up more situations to keep performing the piece, because one performance, that’s just not enough! [laughs] I’d also like to perform it in more of a singer-songwriter context–I’d like to bring it to the spaces where I just do normal stuff (Caffe Vivaldi, Rockwood, etc). Part of my feeling with Scaling is–My hope is that I could perform it with many different types of assistants doing what Paul did. For instance, the cover song that he sang–The structure of the piece is so any song could be put in there, and that’s what would be connected to the person that sings it. At the moment, I want to figure out where to perform it again and see what the future of the piece will be. It was such an honor to perform it with the Vital Vox Festival.”
Here’s hoping I’m a future assistant!
Tom Swafford: This Is the Real Me (excerpt; NY, 11/15/09)
Myself/to Myself (live at Caffe Vivaldi, NY 9/12/10)