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Chris Kallmyer’s Musical Poetics of Experiencing Experiences

Creators

Clayton Schuster | February 14, 2018
A multifaceted composer moves performances out of their expected habitats, executing them in charming new contexts.

Talking with Chris Kallmyer leaves you certain of one thing: This is a person who loves his job. Everything else? Open for interpretation.

After being asked whether he considers himself a musician or an artist, his reply is a discussion about the essence and necessity of ambiguity. A speech on the potential of experiential enchantment during museum visits veers off into concerns about the social-justice issues inherent to entering a performance space. The guy is intensely multifaceted and refuses to be pinned down.

Looking over his artwork provides some explanation for this coy evasiveness. Kallmyer’s work is less an oeuvre composed of objects than a poetics of experiencing experiences. His installations often involve taking performance pieces out of their expected habitats and executing them in new contexts that are at once disarming and charming. While his musical roots often guide this impulse toward audio, he’s just as likely to work in video, or sculpture — or anything else that strikes his fancy.

"Los Angeles Department of Weather Modification, Weather Symbols"

What’s your origin story?

I was born in Washington, D.C. and grew up around Maryland. I found my lane by studying classical music and playing the trumpet. I went to Europe and played in the symphony there, but before long I decided that it wasn’t for me. The symphony didn’t represent any of the reasons I had for getting into music: community, dialogue with the rest of life, like politics and sociocultural issues. So I quit about 10 years ago to attend the California Institute of the Arts. I wanted to reintegrate all those things back into my life and work.

What was being in the symphony like?

It’s like being a fine craftsperson where you’re shaping and building things live and collaboratively with other craftspeople. Which is beautiful! But there’s often this strict division of labor between the composer and the performers. The composer is the generator of ideas, and the performers enact or realize that vision in real time. There’s no room, as a member of the symphony, for being a generator of ideas and a performer. Once I started tuning in to all the incongruences between the symphony and everyday life, I realized that I didn’t have tools available to me as a performer to rectify any of it. When I was at CalArts, I didn’t know how to turn this impulse into action. Over time, living ambiguously between two fields — music and art — has allowed me to learn more about what kind of art I want to make and what kind of person I want to be. I didn’t go to that school with the aim of becoming the person I am today. Despite my reason for going, I was pretty unaware of my own interests. I thought I knew, but I became aware of how much I needed to learn, especially about myself. Today I feel more prepared to engage with my own goals. I think that’s a pretty typical journey for students.

"Soft Structures," photo by Chris Kallmyer

So much of your work is based on or involves music. How do you envision yourself: as a musician or as an artist who embraces music?

I thrive on ambiguity. I usually identify with whatever role gives me as much freedom as possible. I tend toward being an artist, but I also realize that I started as a musician who followed certain lines of inquiry. For example, the idea of space. When we change the location of a musical performance, we often change the rules of how we can socially interact with the performance. We expect music to help us dance, help us reflect on a moment in our life, or, you know, set the mood of whatever’s going on. We don’t, however, expect music to tell us a lot about lawn care or cheese. I’m trying to use music to tell us more about the concrete and tangible parts of life. The thing I’ve learned is that any material or medium is a carrier for ideas, whether we think of them as deep or shallow. Like, for instance, tasting cheese and finding the corresponding sound that pairs with that experience. You can record the sounds of the area a cheese is from and have a more complete understanding of the terroir of that particular cheese. Sound can be part of a dialogue with the other senses and other media to add a new aspect to art and ideas. I’m always looking at how a sound or an object can talk to other elements of life. But your question was whether I’m a musician or an artist, and the answer is: yes!

 

All Possible Music, photo courtesy of Fraenkel Gallery

Was there a piece you finished or were working on at CalArts when you realized that you were interested in pursuing these ideas?

There’s never been a point where I’ve been like, “Oh, now I’ve made it and I’m very into a particular idea.” But one moment that comes to mind is when I’d have musicians perform for audiences in the hills around CalArts. I had a trombone quartet play a Bach chorale, then walk 200 yards and play it again, then walk 200 more yards and play it again. I liked how the piece interacted with the environment and, shortly afterward, I became really interested in taking music out of the concert hall and into new environments. It also showed me that experimental music, which we generally [consider to be] inaccessible for the general public, is actually very accessible. The concert hall might be what’s inaccessible. The social architecture inherent to the place makes people feel like they don’t belong there. To me, it comes back to the more general problem of questions. When you have a question, you want an answer. And when you try to answer a question by creating something like art, it spawns two more questions. Then you attempt to answer those and end up with four questions. Now my questions are much tougher to answer. That’s why I feel like there’s never been an arrival point for me. It’s been a constant flow of questions and collaboration.

 

"Soft Structures," photo by Chris Kallmyer

Are you hesitant to work with museums since those too are, at their essence, structures?

No, I’m not. Museums are so great for surprising people. When we think about engaging the public in new ways of thinking about or experiencing art, you have to use the element of surprise. That’s the thing missing from so much art today: a beguiling nature. The more you explain away surprise, the more you lose wonder. A lot of what I do is create scenarios where people have a visceral experience that… how should I put it… These kinds of rich, visceral experiences have an element of levity to them because they don’t have the same social contract that we’re used to in spaces where they “belong.” That’s why I don’t feel a huge amount of worry about putting my pieces in a museum space, which is not typically a space for sound. But I think we miss the point if we say that a museum is just a place for painting or any other single art form. A museum is a place where we’re invited to think about our ideas, which is how I see art generally.

What is important about injecting wonder into a space?

Wonder is life! There’s an element of interaction and breath and attraction that you have when you upend an expectation. By engaging people in that experience, I think you’re able to capture that. There’s a certain value in operating within the established social parameters of a space, but we also have to understand that a theater is not a neutral container, nor is the white-walled gallery. They’re social spaces. The more we’re aware of the way that they work as either enforcing or subverting political, economic, and social agreements, the more we can expand our understanding of that — or, if needed, push against it. Growing up, I didn’t go to the symphony at all. I went to museums sometimes with my mother, but my dad always felt like those spaces weren’t for him. I think there’s a lot of people who think, That space isn’t for me. That’s a real issue. We have cultural spaces like museums and symphony halls, or even a doctor’s office or a coffee shop, and we all encounter a preconceived notion about who these places are intended to serve.

"Live Personal Soundtrack," photo by Charles Villyard for SFMOMA

What are some of your artistic influences?

My influences are my teachers, like Wadada Leo Smith and Vinny Golia. Improvisers I spent time with at CalArts. Cheesemakers like Sue Conley, who’s my mother’s sister. She started Cowgirl Creamery. The way that Sue works collaboratively is how I strive to work collaboratively. Mark Allen at Machine Project is my mentor in this work. He taught me to have a liquid association of ideas and showed me how little you need to be beholden to expectations. Many other artists have influenced my art-making, but these people have defined how I make my work. Oh, and Bruce Springsteen. That was the only artist I knew of growing up, so he’s The Boss.

"A Paradise Choir, Pythagorean Chimes," photo by Ian Byers-Gamber

What’s your next project?

I’m conspiring for a film project this month in San Francisco. Basically, I’m making a small sculpture reminiscent of the work of Sol LeWitt. He made these wonderful gridded sculptures, and that’s my starting point. I’m building one and then taking it on a tour of California to try to get to know it better. I’m going to interview people while on that journey. So I’ll talk to a naturalist and a minister and an architect and a parking attendant and ask them about how they experience this artwork I’ve made that’s exactly like a Sol LeWitt, but it’s not. Then I’ll take those interviews and make a film. I like the idea of a layered authorship, where the film is a work of art I’ll make from the thoughts of other people expressed about my interpretation of a LeWitt sculpture. It’s going to be wild.


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All images courtesy of Chris Kallmyer

Clayton Schuster is a writer based in the San Francisco Bay Area who's always on the lookout for that next cool and weird story. His writing has appeared in Hyperallergic, Hi-Fructose Magazine, ABV Magazine, and more.

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