Experimenting with Bella Russia: A preview of the local band’s Artisphere endurance performance

Like so many artworks of the modern era with notoriously controversial reception histories—Manet’s Olympia, Picasso’s Les Demoiselles D’Avignon, Robert Mapplethorpe’s John N.Y.C.—music also has the power to create rippling currents intended to disrupt habitual thought and mundane routine.

Arlington-based Bella Russia is inspired by one such story, that of James Singer Sargent’s Madame X. Following the recent release of their similarly titled music video, the band is offering local audiences an opportunity to participate in a departure from the conventional concert experience, by inviting art and music lovers to Artisphere on Saturday, September 7, for an eight-hour endurance performance.

“It’s more of an art piece,” explained drummer Josh Braden.

Fine art is no foreign concept for the band members who each have an artistic practice outside Bella Russia. Josh paints and is reportedly an exceptional draftsman, while bassist Nathan Mitchell works as a professional photographer.

Guitarist Alex Braden studied sound art with Thomas Stanley at George Mason University, and will be presenting an interactive sound installation in the parking garage of the Capitol Skyline hotel as part of the upcoming (e)merge art fair.

“I think the personality behind the other crafts make their way into the music,” said Josh, “The way I see songs is the way I see the way I would paint or draw in so many ways.”

“If you look at Josh’s art and then heard him play it would make a lot of sense,” added Alex, who described Josh’s work as “really complex and dark, dark.”

Similar to a painting, a photograph, or an installation, the music of Bella Russia is intricate. It is layered and has texture. It has an underlying order and inherent structure supporting the above surface. It is necessarily a process.

“We wrote songs and those are rules,” explained Alex, “But we create these areas where we can embellish, where we can take away, and where we can improvise.”

The Artisphere performance will function as the launch of Bella Russia’s first EP, Epaulet, which for its cover, appropriates James Abobott McNeill Whistler’s Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1 (more commonly known as Whistler’s Mother), as well as Whistler’s Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket, which in 2012, served as the title of the band’s first recorded song. And while during Saturday’s event, the band will perform four artfully titled tracks—Marfa, Madame X, Degas, and Ambergris—Alex, Josh, and Nathan will also be improvising and experimenting.

“I foresee us expanding on some of the songs a bit. But it’s eight hours, so I’m hoping we’ll be generating new ideas and just having fun with it, “ said Josh.

The band mates had other ideas: “We should do that Brian Eno thing, and write different strategies for playing on cards, and right before we play, pull them out. So like, play with brushes instead of sticks,” said Alex, referencing the innovator of ambient music who was prone to using chance operations in his compositions.

“We’re going to have to have some weird strategies for staying around and playing for eight hours,” Nathan said with an amused smile.

Though the final performance will be a surprise for all, each superbly adept musician looks forward to utilizing Artisphere’s wide variety of instruments—possibly taking advantage of a grand piano—to perform “fire drills,” switching instruments during the eight hours.

Visitors to Artisphere on Saturday will be viewing Bella Russia from a window above the Black Box Theater. Josh described the situation as a “fishbowl,” and like Alex and Nathan, hopes to draw a diverse audience. For a band who takes traditional music techniques like scales and harmony out of its writing process, and substitutes orthodox methods for “ridiculous nonsensical metaphors that have nothing to do with music” (Josh offers, “Imagine you’re swimming in a pool and you get out and everyone had a hotdog and there is none left for you.”), Bella Russia is enthusiastic to perform for an all-ages audience that “enjoys performance.”

Bringing the Art in DC to You,
Roxanne Goldberg

Bella Russia Endurance Performance will take place Saturday, September 7 from 12:00- 8:00 pm in the Black Box Theater at Artisphere, 1101 Wilson Boulevard, Arlington, VA 22209