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Songs Stuck Between Two Worlds

January 8, 2008

Kitka has come a long way since a presumably Birkenstock-clad group of women founded it in 1979. Dedicated to exploring music rooted in Eastern European women's vocal traditions — think Le Mystère des Voix Bulgares with a Western twist — the Oakland-based ensemble, whose name means "bouquet" in Bulgarian and Macedonian, has accomplished the near-impossible: sounding surprisingly authentic.

Kitka

Photo by Pixie Vision Productions

As Kitka has achieved professional status, it has scored numerous coups. These include a New York debut, a nationally broadcast PBS-TV special, appearances on Prairie Home Companion and on Ukrainian national radio and television, Drama Critic's Circle and Izzie Award nominations, work with San Francisco Symphony's Keeping Score, collaboration in Eastern Europe, and a forthcoming commission from Richard Einhorn (who has also composed for Anonymous 4).

Kitka has also become increasingly adventurous, crossing oft-sacrosanct boundaries between folk, classical, and theater. Hence The Rusalka Cycle: Songs Between the Worlds, a full-length "vocal-theater project" co-created by Kitka; its music director and composer, Mariana Sadovska; and stage director Ellen Sebastian Chang.

Premiered in November 2005 at Oakland's Malonga Center, The Rusalka Cycle has since been produced twice and made it onto CD (Diaphonica). After four changes of personnel since the recording was made, the work returned to San Francisco last week for a four-day run at the Eugene and Elinor Friend Center for the Arts in the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco.
Restless Spirits of Women
The Rusalki, we read, are "powerful female figures in Slavic folklore, appearing in many old songs sung by village women in Russia, Belarus, Ukraine, Bulgaria, and surrounding regions. The restless spirits of women who have died unjust, untimely, or unnatural deaths, such as brides who died on their wedding night, young mothers who perished in childbirth, stillborn female babies, or maidens who took their own lives after being abandoned or rejected by a loved one, they inhabit the waters, forests, and fields, luring people to them with their mesmerizing songs and wild laughter."

Taking advantage of the resonant acoustic of the Center's foyer, our modern-day Rusalki first appeared on the second level balcony approximately 15 minutes late (Ukrainian time?) on Friday night. Singing with thrilling, authentic nasal-edged strength, they slowly made their way down the stairs, wove individually through the crowd, convened a mock ritual, engaged in a bit of patter, and traveled between worlds to exhort us to turn off our cell phones and other electrical devices. It's a shame that some audience members blathered through this preface, because it was the only time we were able to hear Kitka without amplification.

Once seated in the theater, we witnessed a choreographed score that, according to notes included with the CD but not in the program, was composed of nine sections. Costuming and a smattering of props — a long bridal veil, wheelbarrow, rattles, and so on — gave the work an authentic peasant feel, while the accompaniment (two cellos plus percussion) lent an unquestionable 21st-century air. Women variously appeared in groupings, moved about the stage, and performed solo. Save for the curious interjection of music by Guillaume de Machaut and Heitor Villa-Lobos, and one strange strain I'll get to, most songs were traditional Eastern European.

This being an art piece, meanings were often suggested rather than stated. Hence, it's interesting to read in retrospect that we began with "Awakening," moved through "Wave," "Farewell," and "Transformation," and ended with "To the Lake." Who would have known? One section began with a guitar-toting singer intoning fragments of "Into the Jungle" — I kid you not — while moving her head and body in a deranged manner. Two minutes later, just like the electric-shocked rats in the animated feature Ratatouille who looked, well, ratty for two minutes, then miraculously healed, she had recovered.
Full of Feigned Feelings
There was no question that we were witnessing references to women's mysteries, traumas, and abuses, but it was only in a suicide section near the end that meanings became clear. That section, distinguished by Juliana Graffagna's gorgeous solo, was for me a highlight. Most of the time, feelings seemed feigned rather than felt. The pillow-pounding section especially missed the mark. Just ask my companion, healer and massage pioneer Irene Smith of Everflowing, who in her work with Elisabeth Kübler-Ross has helped countless women and men externalize their traumas by pounding their hearts out. Smith didn't believe a moment of it.

Perhaps The Rusalka Cycle works better in venues with better sound. In the JCCSF, where microphones were turned so high that a constant electronic "whoosh" was heard throughout, everything sounded boxy and metallic. When Kitka's massed fortes rang out, an unacceptably high level of electronic distortion rendered them downright irritating. The two cellos, which ideally would have lent a wonderful earthy feel to the proceedings, lost their beauty. Only solo voices, softer singing, and the marvelously imaginative percussion of Loren Mach survived with minimum blemish.

Applause between sections was smattered. Some audience members treated the work as a many-movement symphony, intentionally holding back. Few (including myself) realized that they had heard the conclusion until everyone in the ensemble came forward to bow.

I've witnessed many semicomprehensible performance works, most recently Amelia Cuni's realization of John Cage's 18 Microtonal Ragas (see review). The best — certainly Cuni/Cage's — are graced by genius. Beyond what wonderful singing I could hear through the noise, that's what's missing from The Rusalka Cycle.

Jason Victor Serinus is a music critic, professional whistler, and lecturer on classical vocal recordings. His credits includes Seattle Times, Listen, Opera News, Opera Now, American Record Guide, Stereophile, Classical Voice North America, Carnegie Hall Playbill, Gramophone, San Francisco Magazine, Stanford Live, Bay Area Reporter, San Francisco Examiner, AudioStream, and California Magazine.