Composer Spotlight: Chris Kallmyer – Directing Ears Towards Sound

Photo by Zoe Aja Moore

Artist Chris Kallmyer creates collective experiences at the intersection of art, music and design. ·On Saturday, October 23rd, ACO will present his work All Possible Music as part of  New Canons. He joined ACO’s development director Lyndsay Werking for a conversation about how he approaches art.

Lyndsay Werking (LW): I notice that the word “composer” is not anywhere in your bio. Can you tell me about that?

Chris Kallmyer (CK): I think at its heart, the role of the composer is to direct one’s ears towards sound. To entice and invite a kind of attention to the world of sound. When I started writing music, I found it impossible to untangle the web of senses. It’s like a nest of strings. You try to pull one out and all the others come with it. It’s hard to work with sound and not talk about sight.

When I started creating these experiments with music, I found myself exploring the sight of performance as much what would be performed there. I was more interested in what your role might be as an audience member. So often, the line between audience and performer becomes very blurred.

LW: You have been commissioned by museums and art centers as well as music organizations. How do you describe yourself and the work you create?

CK: I’ve thrived on ambiguity for years. It’s no longer that useful. An argument can be made that these labels – artist, sculptor, composer – these roles are convenient for our organizations.

You find artists who cook. Bakers who like to tell jokes. I think it’s a shame that we don’t have more complexity with that within our culture. I like thinking of myself as a sound artist. I play guitar every day. I used to be an ensemble member of Wild Up, which was how I first worked with ACO.

I haven’t thought that much about labels. The core of my work is creating scenarios where radical sound can take place. You can approach institutional reform through these unique experiences. That’s very exciting as an artist. I’ve generally attempted to use whatever material is around me to do that work.

I did a piece several years at that was an organ concerto for the organist of the Minnesota Twins. She played the start of every song on the organ, while a hundred people played catch with lemons. You could hear the organ, and the sounds of catch. It felt amazing and smelled amazing.

Medium is a funny idea. We call it a medium, not a deep. My work has a medium, deep, and shallow idea. I don’t tend to disrupt my deep ideas. But my medium ideas come and go.

LW: Tell me more about the visual representation of your works. I notice that when you click on “Works” in the menu of your website, the page is organized by image tiles.

CK: The site is organized by image tiles because often there is a strong visual element to the work I do. Crickets is a work of 1,000 live crickets in a small box with a heater and leafy greens and they are amplified. As a sound installation, it’s interesting because audiences think composers are trying to trick our ears. Composers might auto-tune or make a bass clarinet sound high and squealy. In this piece its laid bare. The imagery of the box and crickets is quite evocative.

CK: Toru Takemitsu said something like, we have to let sounds breathe on their own.

He was saying that we can’t load sounds up with culture and meaning, they should exist as their own. But I’ve started to think the opposite. When you’re working with a banjo, you have to think of the history. With Crickets, you’re experiencing the sound of crickets, your memories of crickets, and share the story of that experience. It’s the start of a dialogue. You can give it meaning and connect it with your life.

Sound is valueless unless it’s imbued with value by a person. That process of turning one medium into something of value is like alchemy. It has to do with our humanity. Pieces of music are permanent in a way because you can revisit them over again. As humans, we are impermanent.

LW: I’m really looking forward to sharing your work All Possible Music with our audiences soon. Can you tell me about it?

CK: All Possible Music was a book I developed in 2016 and 2017. The idea of the book was to lay bare the way I look at music. Music is not just the stuff that happens on a stage. It can change and grow to encapsulate a variety of places and a variety of purposes.

We go to a concert hall. We have a contract with the symphony that they are going to play something powerful and that we are going to experience catharsis. There’s a variety of experiences with music and sound. They happen everywhere in the world and primarily from the listener’s experience.

The book was made of three folios.

The top folio describes adjectives. Loud. Quiet Avante-Garde. Blissful.

The middle folio describes genres of music. Honky-tonk. Blues. Jazz. Symphony.

The final folio is context. Deep in the woods. On a desert island. On a concert stage.

It’s a mad libs. These are concert that go undocumented or may never happen. The book explores this full range of all music that could ever happen. It’s an impossible task and it fails. It’s a test case for the audience to understand how music plays a role in their life. We use music for dancing, loving, mourning. I think we can write-off those functions.

A couple years later, I was invited by Cincinnati Symphony to create an experience inspired by the book. They opened their hall for free. What I created was a handwritten film of the piece. The work could potentially last for days. There’s a million possible scores in the book. Every 20 seconds you get a new score.

Installation view, Cincinnati Music Hall

LW: Do you have any rituals that you practice?

CK: I meditate. I take a walk with the dog every morning. I have a cattle dog; her name is June. Short for Juniper. I go to the studio every day. I alternate between thinking and doing. One usually gets me unstuck from the other one.

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