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Music Review: Kitka – The Rusalka Cycle: Songs Between The Worlds

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Fire, water, earth, and air; the four elements that have been the focus point for spiritual connections between humanity and the world since we first figured out what our bare minimum requirements were for survival. As we have moved further away from those early days when life was only about survival, our visible dependence on the essential elements has receded.

We don't have to worry about lighting a fire for food and protection from the night, water is readily available either from a tap, a well, or a bottle even, few of us grow our own food anymore so we don't have to toil in the earth, and the air, although somewhat degraded is still everywhere. Of course, this lack of connection also means that the majority of us now take the elements for granted until for some reason we are forcibly reminded of their existence.

Wild fire sweeps through Southern California and threaten housing; drought conditions threaten populated areas in temperate zones; the earth is used up in places and unable to produce food, and there are days in some cities where you have to wear an oxygen mask to breath. While headlines along those lines might catch our attention, the information exists only in the moment and is banished by the next sound bite.
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This makes it even more surprising that some of the old folk tales concerning creatures associated with the elements have managed to hang around at all let alone with their original intentions intact.

One of those that have held on for ages are the Slavic stories featuring the water creature the Rusalka. Like the Sirens that lure sailors to their deaths in oceans, these spirits of young women who have died through misadventure before their time (broken hearted from being jilted at the alter, died in childbirth, or taking their own life to escape abuse) live in forest pools and will lure unwary male travelers to a watery grave.

According to legend, there is one week every year where the Rusalka can leave their watery homes to wander the earth in hopes of finding release from their watery prisons and to spread moisture among the crops to assist the spring growth.

The Rusalka Cycle: Songs Between The Worlds is the latest CD of song and music from the extraordinary women's choir Kitka from San Francisco. In the years since their formation, Kitka has made a name for itself for their poignant and impassioned performances of Eastern European vocal music and performance. Starting as an amateur group, they have established themselves as one of the most innovative small choral ensembles around. Through their own Diaphonica label they have produced five previous CDs while maintaining an active performance schedule, and running specialty workshops on the technique involved in Eastern European vocalization.

The Rusalka Cycle is actually a recording of a performance piece that the group did in collaboration with stage director Ellen Sebastian Chang and composer, vocalist, and director Mariana Sadovska. Mariana composed the score as a collage of folk melodies of Eastern Europe and texts combined with original music. Looking through the scene breakdown for the performance as it's written out in the CD's accompanying pamphlet you can see just how wide a net was cast for sources; from Russia in the East to Corsica in the West.

Not content with just studying, reading, and rehearsing the choir packed up, traveled to a small Ukrainian farming community during a Rusalka week, and watched the grandmothers of the community sing their versions of the songs. With that invaluable experience behind them, they were able to start putting together the pieces of the project.
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With very few lyrics being sung in English, there are one or two places where English can be heard, and one definite English language song taken from a traditional American folk song. However, by the time it reached the point in the performance where English was being sung it took me a few moments to realize I could understand the lyric. Words had become unimportant by then because of the emotional power of the vocalizations.

There is a technique used by Eastern European women's vocal groups, I think it originated in Bulgaria, which somehow manages to expand the emotional potency of the singer. Part of it I think comes from increased breath control that allows for more flexibility in the voice's delivery. Listening to some of the staccato bursts of emotionally driven rawness that was issuing from the singer's mouths I was hard pressed to think of anything that I have heard even remotely resembling what I was hearing now.

Like the best abstract paintings that utilize colour, shape, and composition to express a depth of emotion, Kitka's music is able to evoke and stimulate an emotional response. The sound is archetypical enough that you are able to identify with what is being said without understanding the actual words. As the Rusalka spends her week awake, we come to understand her plight through the sound of the singers.

Perhaps not literally knowing what is going on with the story line opens us up to being more receptive to hearing the emotions behind the plot. Whatever the case, listening to The Rusalka Cycle: Songs Between The Worlds is a powerful emotional experience. It also serves to remind us that some ancient traditions still are able to speak to us on some level or another no matter how far removed we've become from our original belief systems.

Music may have the power to calm the savage breast, but it can also stir the wildest of emotions, and Kitka proves that out with their incredible musical exploration of another culture, The Rusalka Cycle: Songs Between The Worlds

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About Richard Marcus

Richard Marcus is the author of two books commissioned by Ulysses Press, "What Will Happen In Eragon IV?" (2009) and "The Unofficial Heroes Of Olympus Companion". Aside from Blogcritics his work has appeared around the world in publications like the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine and the multilingual web site Qantara.de. He has been writing for Blogcritics.org since 2005 and has published around 1900 articles at the site.