Dealing With the Human Condition: Lisa Bella Donna
“I look at my arrangements as landscapes or as a type of wilderness that you can go in and explore,” sound alchemist Lisa Bella Donna said over a recent Zoom call. “The voyage itself is the destination.”
Bella Donna uses synthesizers as her primary tool for creating these musical journeys. As she describes her immersive practice, she sits in her studio in the Appalachian wilderness, surrounded by her instrument.
She draws upon a wealth of experience—including her time working at a commercial recording studio as a teenager, touring as a jazz musician, and playing pipe organ—to create her compositions and wandering improvisations. She credits the commercial studio, which handled projects she didn’t necessarily care about, like radio and television ads, video scores for college demonstrations, and vacuum cleaner commercials, as the place where her prolific career began. While she was there, she came across important ’70s-era instruments, like the ARP Odyssey analog synthesizer and the Fender Rhodes electric piano, and fell in love with their sound.
“It was so fascinating for me to have something tactile, to be able to just have something that I felt and [to] create some sort of musical drama or musical intention manually, much like a guitar or a piano,” she said. “But even more, it turned into something where I started to hear things way differently as a composer. I started to hear the whole world as a possibility.”
She quickly became omnivorous toward music, listening to and playing every genre and rigorously training herself in classical music. She didn’t take formal music studies, as they were prohibitively expensive, but she pored through books and lived at the library, teaching herself how to read scores and learning the history of music. Studying the craft of the pipe organ in particular heightened her love for music and helped her transition to playing the Fender Rhodes.
“As soon as I sat down and played a Fender Rhodes, it put me to work,” she said. “When I bought my first one, I just put [it] in my car, and would go play rock, jazz, blues, contemporary, country music, anything that I could make a living doing.”
Touring as a jazz percussionist was also a highly influential experience. She’d play across Europe, performing four or five sets each night, which showed her the importance of making choices when improvising. “It pushes you to learn and to just make a selection and commit to the moment,” Bella Donna said. “When you’re in a room or you’re on stage with musicians who are that intuitive, then the goal is to listen and to make a conversation piece and to make a home for your fellow musicians as well as your listeners.”
She builds on her experience in jazz when creating her freeform, melodic, and sequenced albums. Often when she improvises, she looks to find a muse and see it through, focusing on making welcoming and transportive music. Recent recordings like December’s Pentacle (2020) exemplify this commitment to immersive sound, illustrating idyllic winter landscapes through spun-out, winding motives that gently repeat to create a trance.
Nature is a muse that continually pops up in Bella Donna’s work, stemming from the time when she’d stopped working as a regular session musician and moved to a new town. It was there she became interested in tape-based compositions that transformed the sound around her into musical pitches. Though she was able to use some of the skills in manual tape manipulation she’d gained while working at the commercial studio, it was a new challenge.
“This is a whole different way of composing music, using semitones and microtonal techniques,” she said. “How can I do that and still make it something that’s not just this recital music, or something that still brought people in and made them want to listen? I wanted to take them to some unknown places, some uncharted territories.”
This newfound interest led her to a 10-day stay in the woods, where she recorded the 2001 album, Wilderness. She camped with her books on physics, microtonal composition, and extended techniques, making frequency graphs as a way of notating the pitches of the bird calls and other natural sounds she heard. It sparked her interest in translating these ideas to the synthesizer.
“It’s always great to try to recreate those things on synthesizer, taking field recordings and filtering them through a synthesizer,” Bella Donna said. “What I wanted to do on synthesizers [was] to create organic worlds that were electronic, and something that I could do by myself.”
Nature comes through even more tangibly in Bella Donna’s album art, which often pairs scenes of sprawling wilderness with vibrant sunsets and neon colors. The imagery, which regularly uses photography by her partner, Tristan Whitney Weary, has a decidedly ’70s aesthetic, drawing upon the era’s psychedelic world.
“On my Bandcamp (lisabelladonna.bandcamp.com), I would say 95 percent is all my design,” she said. “I don’t consider myself necessarily a visual artist, but I do have a taste for it, and I know what I’m after. And I’m definitely a child of the ’70s.”
Her visual inspiration comes from labels like ECM Records, whose classic covers blend grainy still-life photography with clean typeface, artists like Roger Dean, who’s known for designing the iconic Yes logo, and Harley Davidson’s leather-studded aesthetics. And as she looks ahead to making physical releases, she hopes to find visual artists to work with who share her interest in creating a musical voyage, to make complete packages that invite listeners to step into another world.
Right now, though, she’s on a break from releasing 25 albums over the past two years, which have spanned the gamut from the kaleidoscopic synthesizer explorations of albums like Changin’ Times (2020) to the exquisite fingerstyle guitar of The World She Wanted (2021). She’s instead focusing on teaching and consulting; her newly rearranged studio is the perfect setup for students to come in and learn how to play synthesizers. And while that work is different from her life as a performer, through every project she pursues, music provides a refuge for connection and a journey deeper into our psyches.
“All of us have to deal with some sort of human condition,” Bella Donna said. “And what better way to find your way through these internal things in life than through music.”