Dirty Projectors' Olga Bell: Krai shows my impressions of Russia

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Eric Lippe
Olga Bell

Olga Bell of the Dirty Projectors has completed a nine-movement song cycle Krai. For Bell, this is a very personal project. The writing process was a way for her to connect with her Russian history, and allowed her to forge a deeper artistic bond with her mother.

Tonight, the project debuts at the Walker Art Center, with accompanying video projections by Alejandro Crawford of MGMT. The two-part evening will begin with a collaborative set by Bell and Angel Deradoorian, also of the Dirty Projectors. Gimme Noise caught up with Bell between rehearsals to talk about how her mom has influenced her as an artist, and the inspiration behind Krai.

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Courtesy of the Artist
Olga Bell

Gimme Noise: Your mom helped to create the piece you are premiering at the Walker. How has she helped to shape you as an artist?

My mom is a very artistically inclined person. She's a linguist and a translator professionally, but she's always known a lot about many different kinds of music, and dance. I have distinct memories of her taking me to the Bolshoi Ballet when I was like, five. She's a very cultured person. I feel like a lot of Russians of her generation are like that. That had a huge influence on me.

She and my longtime Russian piano teacher were very strict, and also very loving and very intense. They helped me be very intense about being a pianist when I was a kid. I guess maybe she could be 'Tiger Mom,' but she wasn't that much of a 'Tiger Mom.' You know, Russian moms can be really 'tiger-y.' Most little kids aren't terribly self-motivated, and I was in that category, so she really pushed me to play the piano and to compete and perform as much as possible, and I think that that has had a tremendous impact on where I am now, and who I am now.

Can you tell us about the piece you are premiering?

The piece is called Krai. That word in Russian means the edge of something, or the fringe, the periphery. It can also mean a wilderness, or a hinterland, and in this case, sort of the third meaning is a literal, political designation of a land mass, like a state or a territory. There are nine regions that I found one day on a map on Wikipedia, nine regions scattered all across the country of Russia, these various krais. I just got really into them.

I left Russia when I was seven, and of course studying up on geography or culture when you're that young isn't really what you do in kindergarten. It was really cool to explore the cultures and music of these pretty far-from places in Russia, 'cause foreigners don't know about these places at all and most Russians don't even really know very much about them because of how much attention and resources are concentrated in the big cities, like Moscow and St. Petersburg. So, it was interesting to explore these places.

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Courtesy of the Artist
Olga Bell

Did that help you feel more connected to where you come from?

Yeah, absolutely. My mom helped me with a lot of the text. She turns out to be a brilliant poet and lyricist. It was really great to work with her in that way. When we lived in Moscow she had a show on Radio Moscow, and she would play music on that show from all around the Soviet Union, and from all sorts of indigenous pockets. It's really great. Even though this piece isn't like, a musical survey, ultimately its my impression of these places. It's very personal.

What are the visual elements that accompany Krai?

Alejandro Crawford, who is best known for his work with MGMT, is doing visuals for us. The basis of those visuals will be mostly landscapes, Russian landscapes, specifically from these nine regions. 

In terms of collaborating, how is it different for you to work alone as opposed to collaborating with other people?

I really enjoy collaborative projects. I think that its really healthy for a musician to be on either side of the equation. When I'm doing my solo project, or when I'm playing with people who are doing my music, its a leadership role. Then, when you're playing someone else's music, its a great opportunity to experience what it is that your band members experience all the time. A lot of the time a collaboration is sort of like a 50/50 thing, and that's more on the creative side, when you're making it together. I really enjoy both, and I think I wouldn't ever want to just work alone. I really need other people, and I enjoy that process.

What were some of your more memorable collaborations?

Making music with Tom Vek has been really great, and I think we'll continue to do that. Being in Dirty Projectors has also been really wonderful.

Bell performs Krai this Thursday in the McGuire Theater of the Walker Art Center. She is accompanied by Angel Deradoorian and Twin Cities and Brooklyn-based musicians including Brian Nichols and Greg McMurray, with video projections by Alejandro Crawford. 8PM, $20($18 for Walker members)

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