The Rusalka Cycle is a stage show that premiered in California two years ago and will reappear in 2008. There are photographs of it on Kitka’s website but they don’t do this soundtrack album justice. In some of the photographs women are wearing bodices and look horribly as if they’re trying to roister. In others they crouch around in earth-tone shifts with wreaths of sticks and leaves on their heads like amateur night at the local nu-pagan collective. The stage they’re working on appears far too big and the performers are half-lost in this gaping black space.
Don’t let that put you off the CD. The music is sharp and sometimes unsettling. The women chorus in unison, wailing crisply, snapping out brisk, beautiful bleats and screams on cue. Even if you’re not already familiar with Kitka you might remember the Bulgarian State Radio and Television Female Choir, the singing group that sold a slew of albums in the early 1990s under the title Le Mystère des Voix Bulgares. Their hard-tinted voices, the crystal glints and strange piercing edges, this female singing that was beautiful without being smooth, all of this sounded new and surprising.
Kitka on this album are using some of that same hard-edged glint but instead of singing the Slavic folk songs exactly as they’re done in their native countries, they’ve had them stitched together by the Ukrainian musician Mariana Sadovska who has turned it all into “a nontraditional performance piece.” The Rusalka Cycle, we are told, does not follow “a linear narrative”. Instead it “intends to evoke a mesmerizing, dreamlike journey”. Material for the show has been borrowed from Ukraine and other countries near it, Bulgaria, Bosnia, Albania, Georgia, and Croatia, with a few lines taken from American folk songs and blended in to eerie effect.
The rusalki themselves are figures in Slavic mythology, spirit women, often unquiet ghosts. They tend to haunt waterways. Therefore a number of song titles in The Rusalka Cycle refer to water; “River Rose”, “Wave”, “To the Lake”, “Sirens”. In some regions the rusalki are thought to be longhaired and beautiful, in other places they are ugly and cadaverous. Sometimes they have perpetually wet hair, or green eyes. They can blight people or reward them. At times they will drag a living person underwater to stay with them in their lonely homes. Then the person is never seen again. Rusalki can regulate the seasons, promote fertility in women, and bring sunshine or rain. For one week every year they are supposed to be especially restless and during that week there are festivities. At the end of the week there is a ceremonial funeral service, returning the wandering neighbourhood rusalka to her home in a nearby river, lake, or pond.
The The Rusalka Cycle‘s “dreamlike journey” seems to follow the progress of the festive week. The first song is called “Awakening” and it starts with a rising chant, the prows of the notes coming out like sunbeams. The Kitka rusalki jump out of their rivers with their eyes open. The album closes with a solo vocal crawl, as if the spirit is tired, weary, willing to go back home and stop sitting on birch branches as she is assumed to do, combing her hair and luring the living to their doom or issuing mystic impregnations.
In between those two tracks, the singers are sometimes quite excellently scary. “Sirens” has a lovely, feral sound; unforgiving in the way that Värttinä can be unforgiving, mad and rude. The images of modest russet shifts dissolve in the face of this shrieking. The singers are Cassandras without hope or prophecy, screaming like geese, going beyond theatrical sadness into a kind of wild, pleased grief, the Riot Grrls of myth. Other songs are gentler. “Farewell” has a sorrowful cello. But the album never droops or turns into a sentimental fairyland in the way it could have done.
Mention fairy women or mermaids and your audience might, depending on who they are, start to picture pink dresses, wings, wands, sparkles, sweet magical events, Disneyland, and smiling little girls. Kitka is looking for listeners who want a harder version of mythology. The folk songs that Sadovska has chosen for the group don’t let them lose sight of the spirits’ frightening side. Even the sadness in “Farewell” is creepy, the lament of women who became rusalki after they met cruel deaths and are now condemned to an unnatural half-life. There’s a weird vocal bubbling halfway through. One of the voices is rough, low, and faintly vengeful. You can be sorry for these undead women, but it doesn’t mean you’d want to be around them.