Kali Malone The Stockholm-based composer talks DIY spaces, tuning organs, and happy accidents

Photo: A.M. Rehm

I learned of Kali Malone after a musician friend off-handedly mentioned that they had made a “Kali Malone-type beat.” I do not remember how but I somehow found the composition “Velocity of Sleep.” Soon after, I tweeted “Kali Malone has changed my life,” although, I didn’t know what I meant by that until a bit later.

After listening to more of her work I am sure that something has been altered in me — something fundamental about the way that I listen, and the feeling of listening, and how those experiences are able to make me feel. Perhaps this is because of the way that so much of her work humbly and intricately explores some of the most basic fabrics of music, like harmony, and tuning systems, and time, and tells the stories of each in voices I want to completely stop with, absorb, and engage.

Kali grew up in Colorado and lived there until she was 16, after which she spent time in Western Massachusetts before relocating to Stockholm in 2012. She has been there since and is currently pursuing a Masters degree in electroacoustic composition at The Royal College of Music.

So far in 2018 she has released a cassette, Organ Dirges 2016-2017 (Ascetic House), and an LP, Cast of Mind (Hallow Ground). A triple CD of organ music is coming later this year from iDEAL Recordings, as well as the debut album from her new project with Acronym and a vinyl reissue of Organ Dirges 2016-2017.

This interview was conducted via Skype between Brooklyn, NY and the Colorado Rocky Mountains.


I know a bit about the music scene in Western Massachusetts, but what is happening in Colorado and Stockholm?

The music scene in Denver, Colorado has changed a lot the past few years. Mostly because Denver has been gentrifying so rapidly and the housing crisis has made a lot of people move, and it’s difficult to acquire venue spaces for underground music. Especially since the Ghost Ship tragedy, which triggered a cascade of repercussions throughout the whole country, some of our most important DIY spaces have been shut down and some of our heroes have fallen, so it’s been a really tumultuous couple of years.

But growing up there, I remember shows happening everywhere always and all extreme musics were bound into a night, so from a very early age, I was exposed to a lot of different extreme expressions. The shows were mostly all ages and happening in people’s homes or warehouses rather than in bars; it was a pretty inclusive community.

In some ways, I’ve found that sort of community in Stockholm for sure. In Stockholm, we have many shared resources and shared spaces, like state-funded studios and venues, so it’s kind of hard to avoid ending up in a community there. A lot of those are institutionalized communities, so people aren’t necessarily choosing each other, but you get a lot of diverse expressions through that also. The thinking is kind of like, “We happen to share this space together, we happen to share these resources, let’s get along and do something.”

You have Fylkingen, which is an 85-year-old artist-run society and venue for experimental music and art. And there’s EMS, a state-funded studio for electroacoustic music that houses very-well-cared-for Buchla and Serge modular systems. At these places, you’re working with many different generations of people at once, so you can really learn a lot and keep certain traditions alive. Outside of those more institutional and formal communities, my friends and I have our own studio called Tropiska Föreningen, and we put on more DIY shows and exhibitions.

Great venues in Stockholm have also shut down since I’ve been there, but that’s kind of the nature of doing underground music — nothing is ever permanent, and you always have to be working at it and readjusting to the circumstances. The minute you get too comfortable with it, you lose it. You always have to live with that anxiety of not knowing what’s going to happen next, which is why it’s so important to have that community around you.

Why did you decide to stay in Sweden?

Well, I went there initially because of Ellen Arkbro. I met her in New York when I was 16 at a house show, and a year later I went to visit her in Sweden and she introduced me to EMS and Fylkingen. I started playing music with a bunch of people there, and I never wanted to leave. It was a really formative and groundbreaking experience, especially for my exposure to improvised music. When I first heard Swedish improvised music, I noticed that it was very careful and considerate of the other musicians, and it inspired a different sort of listening in me. Up until that point, when I’d played improvised music, it was a lot about taking space and blasting sound, even though I wasn’t quite sure what I was trying to articulate yet.

After that, I moved to Sweden really naively when I was 18 with just my Fender Blues guitar amp and some pedals, and I’m still there six years later.

Did you grow up playing guitar?

I did play guitar, but I was mostly singing classical music — I’m a classically trained singer. But I stopped singing when I moved to Sweden.

Something lingering in you…

I was talking to my friend Kara-Lis Coverdale about this, because I recently heard her sing for the first time and she has a beautiful voice. I asked her if she ever puts her voice into her music, and she put it in a nice way, something like, “It’s my life friend. I don’t need to put that into my music, so personal, but one day…”

I stopped singing because it got to a point where using the voice became a bit too vulnerable. It expresses so much; it’s almost like showing someone your bare body. I think that, throughout my work, I’ve been trying to create more boundaries or shields for myself to make it more difficult for certain indulgent expressions or intuitions to come through uninvited. Although, of course, that’s going to happen no matter what. No matter how many barricades you put between your ego and what the final result of the music is, you’re still going to be completely exposed in the end. So I think that not using the voice and creating more generative, rule-based music has been my formula for challenging that osmosis.

Where do you think that desire is coming from?

When I was younger, music was an especially cathartic form for me, and I had certain experiences where I felt like I over shared or memorialized too much through the music. The final pieces held so much weight over me and even fossilized certain memories and experiences. I love that music, but it’s private. Since then, I’ve been figuring out new processes that achieve the same result but do not take such a personal toll. In recent years, I’ve stuck to composed music and algorithmic structures. For example, all of that organ music that I just put out, that was all generative and rule-based but it’s still very personal to me.

How did you begin to play the organ?

One of my first friends in Sweden is an organist, and I would go to the church and watch him practice. But I never really thought of it as an instrument for me because, in my mind, it was still so connected to the traditions of the church; it wasn’t yet sonically liberated from that particular setting and culture for me. Then Ellen Arkbro and my other friend Marta Forsberg put on an incredible organ concert in a church, and that was kind of the first time I heard live, contemporary pieces on the organ that really resonated with me. It was inspiring, but I still wasn’t thinking “I’m going to write for organ.” But then I met the organ tuner Jan Börjeson for some research I was doing for my thesis. I’m very interested in tuning systems and temperament systems, and so I wanted to talk to an organ tuner about their experiences with that because they are often tuning in many different temperaments. I went for a 10-minute interview with him, which turned into us tuning the organ for eight hours, and now I’m his apprentice. So, I actually started playing the organ through tuning it.

That all sounds so fated and intuitive, which is interesting because the organ is so epic in my mind. It’s so tied to history and architecture. I’ve been wondering about playing the organ in these spaces, and feeling it in your body, and how it’s possible for you to transfer an idea onto an instrument that’s so immense. But I guess you have this particular restraint on it.

My approach to the organ right now is generally very restrained. When I go to the organ to freely improvise, I usually just create static drones. Because there’s no dynamic range with the organ, it’s difficult for me to embrace movement. I’m just entrenched in stasis, and I want to stay there forever. So to sort of combat my immediate desire for stasis, when I sit down to play the organ, I have very rule-based methods. I create canon structures that use number matrices in a sort of serial fashion to determine note durations, and then I usually record the whole canon voice by voice. I’ve come to appreciate the process, but it’s actually extremely tedious and ascetic and not immediately gratifying, because I don’t hear the entire harmony and composition as one. But there’s something in that process that’s very grounding, like I’m slowly working towards this macro structure that I imagine but cannot hear yet. At times, I’ve found that when I play the whole canon as one, I get so swept away and I become too expressive in a way, which is fine and fulfilling for my personal experience, but it’s a different thing when I’m recording and am after a certain restraint and discipline. It’s almost the same thing with singing — becoming so emotionally involved in the music and penetrating its humility with your ego, with your indulgent ego, and potentially spoiling the subtle autonomy ingrained in the composition. So, I have a number matrix in front of me and I have a metronome, and I play these patterns and count from this chart. It’s not exactly a passionate experience, but it is extremely meditative.

It’s funny that your Ascetic House release ended up being released on tape. Thinking about “big” music, that’s very big music in my mind, and then it was transferred to this incredibly modest format. But somehow the huge feeling of it still comes through. The music feels powerful.

Thank you. When I play those pieces live in a church, it has a completely different expression than it does as a tape piece, and the contrast between the two experiences has me often questioning the identity of the music. I first had the idea of this music as a tape piece rather than as live music, mostly because of the additive production process and the generative methods that resemble my approach to creating computer music, but also because you can play it really loud from speakers and organs just aren’t that loud.

Interesting.

Yeah, despite our idea of organs being these massive instruments designed into the architecture of massive buildings, in reality they’re not as loud and powerful as the idea of them. Especially after being so conditioned by loudspeakers, our threshold for amplitude is a lot louder than it was when the organ was once considered the most powerful sound-making device. The first showing of Organ Dirges 2016-2017 was actually transmitted via tape and loudspeakers dispersed throughout this giant disbanded iron mine called Mimerlaven — an industrial ruin that far surpasses the steeple of the local church. I became so used to close-mic’ing the organ and playing it very loud through speakers in the studio that when I eventually had the first live acoustic performance in a church, the music appeared so soft and diffused in reverb.

Going back to your remark about the cassette format — at the time, it didn’t really strike me as strange to put the music on tape since that’s generally where my music ends up, however there is a vinyl reissue coming up. I’m also working on a triple CD set of organ music for iDEAL Recordings.

What are you using to record these?

For Organ Dirges, I didn’t know that I was making a record when I was making those recordings. I recorded them in just a few days after completing my thesis — it was this fun and different thing to do, like a palate cleanser. So I just had my Zoom, and then sometimes I would hook up additional microphones to the Zoom. So yeah, the Zoom, and then I use AKG C414s, if you want to get specific. [laughs]

Those recordings weren’t made in a church; they were made at my school in a pretty dry room. I actually prefer to record the organ in dry rooms, because the sound loses certain cultural signifiers when removed from the reverb. For the new pieces, I’m using an organ that the actual organ students don’t care to use, because it’s not in equal temperament, so they can’t play their standard repertoire on it. They put it in this little closet rehearsal room that has no acoustics, but it’s awesome because I just close-mic’d the organ in many different places, so you have a really interesting spatial image.

Whenever you’re recording live instruments, are you always doing your own recording?

Yes, definitely.

Your role in the recording process came to mind because the first piece I ever heard from you was “Velocity of Sleep.” After listening to it enough times, I began to hear your breathing in it.

That’s actually the theorbo player’s breathing!

Oh! Well now I can’t unhear the breathing. It feels so raw and so intimate, and it adds this whole other texture to the piece. Hearing the breathing really set up this scene in my mind of the whole instance of the recording, not even the performance, just the recording. Was it just by chance that the breathing made its way into the recording?

It’s funny you point that out, because this is one of the reasons why I love working with humans so much, because the process is so unpredictable. The accidental fragilities that come from a sound like breathing end up becoming the most precious parts of the music for me and they really end up influencing the composition.

The theorbo player, Peter Söderberg, was using his breath as a sort of metronome. That piece is difficult to play because you can lose concentration so easily. You can make yourself fall asleep when you’re playing it, because it’s just this slow, additive pattern. If you’re too buried in the music, you can lose track of where you are, but if you’re too conscious and counting, you’ll also screw it up. The way he remained present was with his breath. Every time the new phrase started, he would take a deep breath and it just got in the recording and we didn’t have enough time to re-record it with a different microphone placement. It’s often accidents like this that I first dislike because they weren’t part of my original plan, but then later become key elements of the music.

It’s often a creative feedback process between the musicians and me. I’m not just imposing my ideas upon them; they have some autonomy and really influence what the music is going to be.

One of the reasons I’m really interested in you is because you have all of these different musical identities or voices, one of which is the composer. Tuning also makes me think about this idea of eliciting voices from instruments and now, like you’re saying, also from musicians. When you go into a recording situation, is there anything that you definitely need to get out of it as a composer, or is it more improvised? Is your thinking more along the lines of, “I’ll see what happens with these people”?

The harmonic domain is pretty strict, but the time domain I usually leave somewhat open. I’m very certain when it comes to tuning the instruments and the chord structure and the melodies, and then the time domain changes depending on the context. For instance, I’ll record different durations of every pitch — two, four, eight seconds — but I’ll sometimes tell the musicians to use their internal clock of what those durations are. Depending on the pitch, if I have a trombone player playing a very low pitch, they are going to lose air quicker, so their perception of eight seconds is maybe four clock seconds. But then if the sound is very resonant in a comfortable range and you are really listening to the periodicity of the waveform, you can just go on and completely lose time.

I’m also always so interested to see how the musicians can use some of their improvisational skills when it comes to creating timbre, especially with bowed instruments. For bowed instruments, I’ll usually do two takes: one where they play extremely static and maintain even partial distribution, then another version where they play the sustained pitch but with uneven partial distribution and non-standard bowing techniques. While maintaining a single tone, they’ll grind their bow up and down the bridge and a completely different harmonic spectrum will occur. I have them explore that themselves on their own time domain. So, it’s a certain freedom within my mapping.

That sounds very alive at the same time.

There’s so much discovery in that process. Every time I’m recording musicians, I feel like I’m going to have a heart attack because I’m so excited by all the unexpected results. Because I’m not really an instrumentalist. I have these ideas, but then when I actually hear them on the instrument….

I was recently working with Lucy Railton, an incredible cellist. We tuned her cello in this beautiful septimal tuning, and she just played the open strings. At one point, she told me “You have to feel this.” She sat the cello on me and with two bows played it heavy upon my stomach and I felt the whole back of the cello resonating my body. That experience of actually being in her shoes but hearing my design was very powerful.

Tuning has come up quite a bit. Where does this interest in tuning come from?

I’m really interested in discovering harmonic expressions that have been erased from our musical narrative since the standardization of equal temperament in the 18th century. Before equal temperament, you had many tuning systems for different instruments and cultures and feelings. Tuning systems differed depending on whether you were in a small village or a big city, mountains or seaside, or if you were in the church or the castle. It’s obvious to me that my musical experiences translate into my understanding of reality and society. Those emotional and aesthetic experiences create our understanding of the world. I think it’s actually terrifying that our Western musical experiences have been narrowed down to a combination of twelve tones. Those are also non-periodic, they’re not even in tune. It’s only the illusion of pitch since they are all actually equally out of tune. Equally bad, equally good.

I definitely have a lot of thoughts fueling this quest for non-standardized harmony and creating harmonic experiences that can be meaningful and jarring, even if they are not typically atonal and appear surface-level normal. I’m making the most harmonious music I can, but I think it can be just as blistering and subversive as noise. The harmonic domain has always been my main point of departure, but I specifically got into tuning through Ellen Arkbro and Marcus Pal when they were studying just intonation with La Monte Young. Ellen and I were in a band called Hästköttskandalen, where we explored just intonation on acoustic and electronic instruments, and eventually we ended up having our own little study group in Stockholm because nobody was really teaching us about other tuning systems. It’s completely absent from the conversation at music schools. It’s like a language that has been dissolved. That’s why I’m interested in organ tuning, because it’s one of the few places where that conversation and craft is still alive. Even if the organists don’t know much about it, the tuners do.

I actually just had lunch with an organ tuner and a piano tuner, both in their early sixties and from a completely different background than me. It was right after my mentor had taught me how to tune equal temperament by ear, which is one of the the most heartbreaking and uneasy musical experiences I’ve had. Basically you go in a circle of fifths and fourths and make everything in tune, and then you make it all slightly out of tune. It’s a really psychologically strenuous process to do that, to make it all perfect and resonant then fuck it up before anyone gets to hear its glorious nature. So anyways, I met this piano tuner immediately after, and I was very distressed and said to him, “You have to do this all the time, and you don’t even get to tune in cool temperaments on the piano!” He seemed kind of troubled about it, and I was worried I had offended him, but then he raised his fist and stated “Meantone temperament for the people!” It was such a relief to hear that, because I realized that they’re also in on this fallacy; they just tune in equal temperament to make a living. It’s something that people aren’t really talking about enough. They perceive the tuning subject to be elitist or highly academic and not relevant to them. But it’s relevant to anyone who listens and works with music, and depending on the context, it can be quite radical.

You’re talking about it.

[laughs] Well I’m talking to “tuner people” about it.

But even for them, it’s cross generational, and they know that the knowledge isn’t being lost.

It’s a craft that needs to be taught, or else it’s just going to disappear.

This kind of brings me back to what I was saying earlier about your multiple musical voices. You have this whole life as a technician, and then as a tuner, and as a composer, and then you’re in a few groups [Swap Babies, Sorrowing Christ, Upper Glossa with Caterina Barbieri], and you have a label [XKatedral]. I’m curious how you navigate all of these projects. How do you decide what to pursue at any time?

These projects always come about by chance, the people around me, and my location. My environment totally dictates what I do. I also just feel like I need to have many projects happening at the same time, as that’s kind of how I operate best. Because I’m in the middle of it all, I see the consistency and I feel like I have the same mode of expression in all my projects; it just comes through with different instrumentation or in different forms.

Do you find that right now there is anything you are gravitating to more?

K: For the past several years, my process has been very dictated by stern ideology. Since working with the organ, I’ve come to somewhat embrace the compromise of equal temperament and empathize with the reality of tuning versus the idea of tuning. I’ve been able to make much more movement and melody-driven music when I’ve been working in equal temperament, different than the more static, block-chord structures that have occurred when making music in just intonation. In some ways, it’s been freeing, because I became a bit righteous and imprisoned in my own ideas, but working with the organ has made me realize that it’s not so binary. There are unexpected beautiful expressions that can come from releasing your strongest principles, and I’m open to those new territories.

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