Gelsey Bell/John King, ‘Ciphony’

Posted by on September 29, 2017


Gold Bolus Recordings, 5.11.2017

The pelagic sections of the open ocean are classified by diminishing light and life. Closest to sea level, the epipelagic zone gets the most light, down to the hadalpelagic, which covers the ocean’s deepest areas like the Mariana Trench. These regions are used as the guiding principle behind Gelsey Bell and John King’s dynamic collaboration Ciphony.

Both artists have separately fostered remarkable solo careers. Singer Gelsey Bell’s prior theater work has led to a series of Broadway-inspired songwriter releases, but she’s clearly also interested in experimental work, evidenced by her winning the Monroe Lippman Memorial Prize for her NYU dissertation on John Cage, Alvin Lucier, Robert Ashley, and Joan La Barbara. She pushed her vocal limits in Shakespeare Songs, an abstract take on The Bard’s source material. Further straddling the experimental and mainstream worlds, she completed a yearlong residency at New York venue Roulette in 2016 and currently performs on Broadway as Princess Mary in Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812.

John King is the other half of the duo. Becoming the music director of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company after John Cage’s death, King has fostered a deeply explorative career marked by its sheer magnitude (not to mention its multifaceted approach) — perhaps only matched by John Zorn. The staggering discography of King’s 200-plus works run the gamut, from orchestral works to string quartets to brass sextets to pieces for acoustic and toy pianos to solo accordion. There are also a multitude of vocal studies alternately reducing the instrument into a collection of sound effects, chants, whoops, screams, grunts and bellows. It’s easy to get lost, but it’s a good kind of lost.

The artists’ wide breadth of work informs Ciphony, first developed for the Compagnie Centre National de Danse Contemporaine in Angers, France, and performed at the Joyce Theatre for Merce Cunningham’s EVENT in March 2015. Ciphony‘s cover depicts a vantablack obelisk, perhaps a meteor falling toward earth, but could just as easily be a submarine hurtling, plunging to the ocean floor. What’s the rush? The thrill of exploration, of course. On the journey, the ocean layers — pelagic, epipelagic, mesopelagic, bathypelagic, abyssopelagic, hadopelagic — function to elucidate Belsey and King’s artistic process, but also ours, as we uncover the layers of their careers.

Using an eclectic selection of instruments (metallophone, African ngoni, viola, vocoder, and of course Bell’s haunted voice), the intermittent and chaotic passages wash over us like turbulent ocean waves. The short opener “Pelagic” is a collection of shrieking loops, detuned synths, and a single bell tone coupled with a note from Bell’s voice, both of which are never heard in the track again. The longest cut, “Epipelagic,” manages a deft balance between Bell’s vocals and surreal warblings that articulate to a strangled, murky build just as quickly as it dips to near silence. At its conclusion, Bell’s tortured scream cuts to the marrow, a scratchy, strained ululation, the vocal equivalent of nails on a chalkboard; the scary realization is that she may not have processed it at all. The musicians are never content to stay put in their musical discoveries, as evidenced by “Hadalpelagic” (its etymology deriving from “hades”), which contains a lullaby that vanishes after the first minute to be replaced by a mechanical whirring that intensifies to close out the record.

Bell and King swim throughout the record, unleashing all manner of alien sounds, a joy for those of us with a love for timbre for its own sake. We’re reminded of how the ocean itself is a strange, ineffable entity capable of placid waves and tumultuous storms, our primordial birthplace that can just as easily kill us with its undertow, though through the eons existing without any intent at all.