Gelsey Bell
Gelsey Bell: Get a Little Closer

Gelsey Bell: Get a Little Closer

There is a captivating mix of singer-songwriter intimacy, fourth wall-crushing theatricality, and curious experimental exploration in the work of composer, singer, and multi-instrumentalist Gelsey Bell.

Performances of her 2011 song cycle SCALING, for example, have her crawling over and around the piano to play from positions that would likely make Tori Amos’s head spin. For “Cradle,” an intimate meditation for voice and metallophone from her 2013 cycle Our Defensive Measurements, she spends some time coaxing the audience to within arm’s reach before she begins to sing.

Bell's Casio keyboard

Bell’s Casio keyboard (down a few keys) has seen her through the creation of a lot of music.

With a background that spans music theater, woman-at-the-piano club shows, and the presentation of experimental work—both of her own design and of composers such as Robert Ashley—the cross-pollination of influences is perhaps to be expected. But the breakdown of walls—both between genres and between performer and audience—remains a tightrope to walk.

It’s also a place of risk and vulnerability that Bell welcomes. “I love an aesthetic of mistakes. I want things to get a little messy. I’m not interested in the sounds of perfection.”

“And I guess getting the audience involved is a great way to do that!” she concedes, laughing.

Music and risk
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Even when she isn’t inviting the audience into, say, the bathroom with her for a little acoustic exploration, her preferred ways of working leave her open to the artistic ideas of collaborators both in creation and interpretation, especially through her regular work with collectives such as thingNY and Varispeed. Experimental music has allowed her to take “very seriously the idea of making work with your friends”—collaborations she finds to be fun and efficient because everyone brings a deeper level of appreciation and understanding to the table.

Further explaining her interest in such work and the opportunities it brings, Bell says, “I have full control over my performance and my body, and I’m not interested in having full control over any other performer’s body. I work with a lot of people who are composers in their own right and they have their own musical intelligences, and so I’m much more interested in creating a musical situation where we can all embody that.”

Bell's score for rolodex

Bell’s score designed for delivery via Rolodex currently in development.

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This openness to exploring ideas is one of the things Bell finds attractive about both the experimental music scene and academic environments—two places where she finds she can be playful and curious in different yet complimentary ways.

She earned her Ph.D. in performance studies from New York University in January 2015 and is currently at work on a host of new pieces for upcoming performances this spring. On reflection, Bell says she feels somewhat like she’s at the cusp of more fully blending her various pots of experience—pockets that she previously kept somewhat isolated from one another.

I feel like I’m at this place of total exploration and I’m just having faith that I’m going to come out with something. I feel like I’m really in that mode where you’re just like, okay, I’m an artist. I have to let myself fail. I have to try a million things. I have to hate stuff, I have to love stuff, and I have to trust that if I put something on that’s really horrible it won’t be that no one wants to see anything that I do ever again. And just have faith that this kind of dream of some sort of sound that I have in my head that doesn’t have these intense boundaries can happen.

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4 thoughts on “Gelsey Bell: Get a Little Closer

  1. Pingback: Gelsey Bell: Get a Little Closer | New Music USA

  2. Paul Albert Van Diest

    Gelsey, I’m so happy to see you in your apartment/studio w/ your blue shirt and Mona Lisa smile, or is it Cheshire! Your comments about welcoming, even seeking failure stimulate me to say that I learned the most from my failures, and that the more I had, the more courage I saw in myself. I taught myself to smile/laugh/giggle when I made a mistake playing my grandma’s violin, so as to be closer to the satisfaction of a retake. Best wishes to you and thank you for your inspiring interview. I remember a college professor’s poem about birds shitting on the nest as part of the natural process of being in a family, home, and life. Let me know when (or don’t bother-your mom will, I hope) you come to Berkeley for a performance. Many affectionate regards, one who remembers you and your sister in the front yard playing with my girls, and spirals of music coming from your mother’s piano. Paul Van Diest

    Reply
  3. Jenna Homsey

    Wow. I just wanted to say that you are remarkable and inspiring. I am intrigued to see someone like you who has majored in performance studies bring another dynamic to art that I has remained unseen to so many. There should be no fear. All music is a work of the mind and soul and neither has a boundary, so why should behavior? Thanks and good luck with creating some new colors for this ever darkening world. It is the darkness we see in our mistakes that really shine through in free form.

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