The Rusalka Cycle: Songs between the Worlds
First Appeared in The Music Box, January 2008, Volume 15, #1
Written by Douglas Heselgrave
Mon January 21, 2008, 09:00 AM CST
At times, it is as beautiful as a single breath of wind that gently skitters across the surface of the water at dawn. At other moments it is as unsettling as the crackling whoosh of a wildfire as it spreads through a field of dry timber. Kitka’s The Rusalka Cycle: Songs between the Worlds wrestles with the spirits of women who prematurely have died in ways that were, perhaps, unjust. Like the sirens from Greek mythology, the call of the Rusalki is seductive and unnerving, and the beauty of their songs is designed to lure unsuspecting listeners to their deaths. With such a warning contained in its liner notes, it is best not to operate heavy machinery while listening to The Rusalka Cycle.
Kitka — which means ‘bouquet’ in Bulgarian and Macedonian — began in 1979 as a collective of like-minded women from the San Francisco area who shared an interest in exploring the dissonant, asymmetric rhythms of Eastern European vocal music. In the nearly 30 years since its inception, Kitka has evolved from an amateur gathering into a professional singing and theatrical group that has recorded many albums and toured internationally. Since 1997, Kitka has been co-directed by Shira Cion, Juliana Graffagna, and Janet Kutulas, and it currently is considered to be one of America’s most technically adept vocal acts.
Not satisfied simply to rest on their laurels, however, the members of Kitka approached The Rusalka Cycle with the desire to create a record that challenged their abilities. "We wanted to make a piece that really stretched us as performers," explained Cion. "[We wanted to make] something theatrical and risk-taking, something that took our audiences on a total sensory and emotional journey." While searching for material, Kitka kept encountering tales of the Rusalki in the Slavic folklore that stretches from the Balkans to Siberia. The songs on The Rusalka Cycle are inspired by week-long rituals that are designed to appease these spirits whose mischief is believed to cause an array of tragedies, from crop failure to birth defects.
"We realized that these entities were more than just characters in fairy tales," Cion continued. "[They were] very real forces in the collective consciousness of many rural Slavic villages. There were such rich folklore and imagery surrounding the Rusalki, and there were powerful songs that refused to leave our minds’ ears."
The members of Kitka elicited the aid of Mariana Sadovska, a renowned Ukrainian singer and musicologist, for help with finding and arranging material about the Rusalki. Sadovska had spent 15 years traveling from village to village throughout the Balkans collecting ancient songs, and she agreed to assist in creating The Rusalka Cycle as long as the members of Kitka committed themselves to making a pilgrimage to the Ukraine during Rusalka Week. Sadovska felt that it was important for the group’s members to experience the rituals firsthand. She didn’t want them to record the tunes in the cultural isolation of an American studio without hearing them be performed by women who truly believed in their power.
For Kitka, the journey to the Ukraine was transformative, to say the least. Arriving in time for Rusalka Week, the group joined the processions that wound their way through the small villages and took them to ancient cemeteries where tunes that were designed to appease the troubled spirits of the Rusalki were sung. After hearing women use the traditional Rusalki song structure to exorcize their own personal laments, the members of Kitka began to comprehend the important psychological function that this music served.
"As the sun rose, we joined our hosts, [who were] covered in green leaves, in a slow procession," remembered Cion. "Once we reached the graves, the interwoven sound of dozens of individual laments rang through the early morning air. Some were freshly grief-stricken. Some were obligatory. Some verged on being humorous."
As Kitka traveled through the Ukraine, its members collected songs and deepened their understanding of Rusalki tradition. Repeatedly, the group encountered survivors of Chernobyl, and the elderly women that they met happened to be some of the few remaining people who continued to carry the oral tradition of the Rusalki with them. As Kitka’s journey unfolded, the urgency and the significance of its work began to resonate strongly. In their minds, the unseen spectre of radiation was inseparable from the portentous phantasm of the Rusalkis that village women’s songs conjured.
"The deeper we went into the material, the more intensely we trained," said Cion. "More bizarre, scary, and miraculous things started to happen. Madness, near blindness, hallucinatory fevers, heart attacks, broken bones, pregnancies, psychic visions, and more all touched the project in various ways. We really felt the Rusalki were there, messing with us."
As universal and fascinating as the story behind the creation of the album is, the music on The Rusalka Cycle will remain an acquired taste for most listeners. The depth and range of the singers’ skills are indisputable, and the breadth of moods and emotions covered by the ensemble is awe-inspiring. It is, however, nearly impossible to find a counterpoint or comparison in Western tradition for the sounds that Kitka has conceived. Rules of harmony and melody, which guide North American, Western European, and, for that matter, African music, are absent. As such, The Rusalka Cycle can be difficult to approach. Nevertheless, some of Icelandic chanteuse Bjork’s more "outside" and atonal work is perhaps closest in spirit to at least a few of the tracks featured on the disc.
Despite these cautionary notes — and keeping in mind that Kitka’s music won’t appeal to everyone — there is something immensely compelling about The Rusalka Cycle when its contents are heard in context as part of a suite. Cold and chilling, its music is the sound of souls trapped in winter. With voices at the high end of the spectrum flickering like embers of coal, illuminating the vague skeletons of harmony that allow its tunes to move forward, the album illustrates a formidable journey of the spirit. With The Rusalka Cycle, Kitka has produced a deep and challenging effort that will keep pushing, prodding, and insinuating itself deeper into the listener’s consciousness, and through repeated exposure, the dark heart of this truly amazing work of art inevitably will be revealed.
The Rusalka Cycle: Songs between the Worlds is available from
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1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!
Copyright © 2008 The Music Box