The Rusalka Cycle

Kitka -  The Rusalka Cycle
Kitka – The Rusalka Cycle
Kitka (with music by Mariana Sadovska)

The Rusalka Cycle – Songs Between the Worlds (Diaphonica, 2007)

I cannot recall where I read one of Värttinä‘s singers commenting that in order to sing Finnish runo-songs, a singer should not be afraid of sounding "ugly." That comment has stuck with me ever since. Runo-songs, and many polyphony women vocal traditions can be dissonant and even strident at times, but perhaps that is where the beauty of open-throat singing and angular harmonies reside. And of course, "ugly," is a matter of opinion in describing vocals sung outside of the bel canto style in which most of our ears are accustom to hearing.

The San Francisco-based women polyphony ensemble, Kitka have also explored the terrain of the human voice, as it appears in Eastern European traditions. The ensemble which was founded in 1979, has gone on to record several exquisite albums featuring open-throat singing and polyphony. The women vocalists have traveled to Eastern Europe, collected songs from various countries, and have just about mastered vocal traditions from Bulgaria, Georgia, Russian, Ukraine and other regions. And now that they have met all of those above challenges, the women have immersed themselves in a ritualistic theater production that deserves the descriptor, "otherworldly."

The theatrical production, " The Rusalka Cycle: Songs Between The Worlds" was composed, arranged and staged by Ukraine-born actress/composer/director and musical dramaturg Mariana Sadovska. The latest recording of the same title, features the cycle of songs beginning with the biting "Awakening" and ending with the soft "To The Lake." To give you an idea of what these songs sound like, think of operatic singer Dawn Upshaw’s most experimental work meets Italy’s Faraualla and Finland’s Värttinä.

Similar to Finnish runo-songs mentioned earlier, The Rusalka Cycle features folklore, beliefs and practices that hail from the old pagan world. The liner notes describes the cycle, "In Slavic folklore, Rusalki are powerful, enticing female entities who inhabit waters, forests, and fields. Believed to be the restless spirits of women who died untimely, even unjust deaths–such as brides who died on their wedding night; young mothers who perished during childbirth; unmarried women who committed suicide after being rejected by a lover; or female babies who were stillborn–Rusalki regulate human, animal, and agricultural fertility; seasonal cycles and the weather."

It should come as no surprise that the Rusalki are feared and appeased with storytelling, song and dance during the spring festival, Rusalka Week. The celebrants of the festival hope that the Rusalka will bring moisture to the crops and I am guessing, other types of fertility so that life can continue with as little chaos as possible.

On "Farewell," we hear the drone of a cello with a solo voice singing lamentations over the top. So far all of the songs have been in what sounds like a minor key with solo vocals alternating with lush polyphony. "Transformation" hails from the country, Georgia and recalls Kitka‘s polyphony interpretations of previous albums. The song features Eva Salina Primack’s soaring vocals over another vocalist’s drone.

Then the ensemble brings the crashing polyphony back for "Last Night." The bewitching "Sirens" has the power to frighten listeners and this particular track does provide us with plenty of screeching, dissonant instruments and is too over-the-top for my ears. "Lamentation" brings in softer, but melancholic vocals. It is just the song to appease the dead, if you ever find yourself in that situation. The final track, "To the Lake" resembles a Russian ballad again in a minor key and resembling a dirge.

Overall, "Songs Between the Worlds" works as a conceptual-art or musical drama production, but I wouldn’t recommend the album to those wishing to hear music for sipping cups of tea. I applaud Kitka for exploring these old ritualistic traditions and preserving songs that are on the journey to extinction. These types of folk songs were traditionally passed down orally from one generation to the next, but with the globalization and modernization of the world, many young people don’t seem to be interested in singing the songs of their elders or carrying on rituals and so these traditions could vanish.

And yet, these old rituals haunt us in the right place. They speak of honoring the earth by honoring those spirits of women who met tragic ends. We are reminded of the Mexican legend of La Llorona, depending on the interpretation, she was either a young mother that was spurned by her lover and killed her baby and herself or a vengeful spirit that stalks small children at dusk.

And whether or not we are over analytical to the point where legends no longer hold any meaning for us, or we still seek out magical realms of enchantment, Kitka‘s latest repertoire will be sure to surprise us and remind us that we are mere mortals living on a fragile planet. And if we don’t wake up in time, the forces will find the means to destroy us. That is, if we don’t manage to destroy ourselves and the earth first. And for those other folks who just want to hear music without any social commentaries, this song cycle offers some unusual bedtime stories sung by a collective of extraordinary women.

Patricia Herlevi is the host and producer of Global Heartthrob Radio, KSVR-Mount Vernon, 91.7 FM and streaming at KSVR.ORG on Tuesday, 2 to 4 p.m. & re-broadcast, 8 to 10 p.m. PST

And host of the healing music blog, The Whole Music Experience.

Buy The Rusalka Cycle.