ACF is pleased to co-present the premiere of Krai by Olga Bell as part of the SPCO Liquid Music series. The piece received support in 2011 from the JFund commissioning program, with funding generously provided by the Jerome Foundation. It is a nine-movement song cycle which has been called a “sonic love letter” to her Russian homeland. John Nuechterlein met with Olga recently and asked her to share the context of this piece for the Twin Cities audience.

The Russian word Krai means “edge” or “border”, which refers in this piece to the Russian territories with the Krai designation. Tell us how you happened to choose this particular geography as the source material for your piece?

I’ve always been fascinated by this one word (in Russian: край) and its many meanings (there are at least six), from “fringe” to “homeland”. I Googled the word one day and found the “Krais of Russia” Wikipedia entry, with these nine territories scattered clear across the continent. I started clicking around on each territory and reading about the towns, resources, checking out their flags and crests and sort of made it my mission to find out as much as I could about these places and the people who live there.

Can you describe the range of indigenous music you’ve incorporated into the cycle? How has it informed your writing?

My mother was a huge help in finding this source material. When we lived in Russia she worked for Radio Moscow, and one of the shows she wrote and hosted was a program called “Folk Box” that consisted entirely of indigenous music from all around the Soviet Union, which as you know included even more territories and cultures than present-day Russia. I believe there’s some indigenous influence in all Russian music, but for this piece in particular the second movement “Altai Krai” and the last movement “Kamchatka Krai” use recognizably “indigenous” sounds and techniques. For Altai, I listened to lots of throat-singers from the region and even tried to learn Altai-style throat singing, which is very similar to Tuvan throat-singing in that the voice creates a low ‘drone’ sound over which overtones and harmonics can be heard. I wasn’t able to successfully replicate this technique myself, but I sampled an alarm drone that sort of mimics the harmonics, and I dropped my own voice down an octave for the first half of the piece to create a sound more like what the actual drone tones these singers produce. I also taught myself some jaw-harp, a popular instrument in Altai, and wrote that into the movement. The “Kamchatka” region is not unlike Alaska, where I grew up, and I’ve always been fascinated by the Inuit style of throat-singing. That technique can be heard throughout the movement–sort of a competition between women that involves heavy rhythmic breathing.

I think it’s wonderful that you collaborated with your mother on the lyrics for this song cycle. Did you choose texts together or independently?

Our workflow really varied from movement to movement. For “Perm Krai” my mother sent me the lyrics first, a Cossack ballad she had found, and I wrote the music to the lyrics. “Stavropol” and “Zabaikalsky” also began with traditional texts. For “Krasnodar” “Kamchatka” and “Krasnoyarsk” a lot of the music was already in place, with sort of mumbling-nonsense lyrics, and my mom came up with these beautiful texts to go along with what I’d written. I’m really in awe of her command of the Russian language, particularly her ability to stylize the words into more archaic forms.

Do you hope for a performance at some point in Russia? How do you think Russian audiences might react to the work?

YES! I have absolutely no idea how Russians will react to this piece, but it’s definitely my dream to tour with this music in Russia, particularly in the nine “Krai” regions.

What are you most excited about as we get closer to the premiere?

I can’t wait to work with Angel Deradoorian and the Russian singers from the Twin Cities. It’s going to be surreal, hearing other voices singing this piece instead of my own voice overdubbed a million times.