Author: chris.kallmyer

Goofing off, Perfected: Lessons from Fluxus

In my columns so far, I have explored different ways of integrating fields outside of music into our work, including alternative educational models and institutions, as well as considered the ultimate purpose or function of our work. In this, my final post for the month, I’d like to recap a personal experience on the periphery of traditional music.

This summer, I’m creating a collection of performances at the Walker Art Center surrounding an exhibition of Fluxus works by George Brecht, Yoko Ono, Allison Knowles, and many others. I recently sat down with Sarah Schultz, curator of public practice at the Walker, and a group of local artists, and Sarah asked a seemingly simple question: what is Fluxus? What followed was a conversation where simple statements became instantly complicated. For example, Fluxus is an insular form speaking to the art world’s nuanced concepts of the object, vision, and experience. Simultaneously, Fluxus is an open initiation to life and living, enabling the public to take the scores into their own everyday. These inherent contradictions are perhaps summarized best by Hannah Higgins (academic and daughter of Allison Knowles and Dick Higgins) as she begins her book Fluxus Experience. “Since Fluxus artists never seem to agree on anything,” she acknowledges, “Fluxus has become ‘a pain in art’s ass,’ in the words of Fluxus artist Ben Vautier.” Now, I believe that we can hold two contradictory ideas in our heads without passing out, but it does become difficult to explain exactly what Fluxus is and isn’t. If you were to say one true thing about Fluxus, you could say that Fluxus is about the primary experience itself. The vehicle for exploring the now moment in Fluxus is through the Event Score or the Fluxkit.

Event Scores involve simple actions, ideas, and objects from everyday life re-contextualized as performance. Event Scores are texts that can be seen as proposal pieces or instructions for actions. The idea of the score suggests musicality. Like a musical score, Event Scores can be realized by artists other than the original creator and are open to variation and interpretation.
– Allison Knowles

I consider Fluxus a shared cousin between the music and visual art world. It is fascinating to see how treatment of the scores differs because they are kept by private collectors or at art institutions like the Walker. The scores here are handled with gloves, cautiously maneuvered with a small stainless steel spatula (so as to not bend the corners), and kept in a humidity and temperature-controlled space. When I think about the thousands of scores kept by orchestras, or the ones I have at my studio, I can see a real contrast in both treatment and use. What if Fluxus scores were kept by orchestras, lent out to groups that needed them, rented, and written on?

Although I’ve researched the scores through books, it was grounding to visit the scores in person. (Primary experience wins again!) Fluxus scores were released in editions like Brecht’s Water Yam, Ono’s Grapefruit, and Kosugi’s Events. The scores themselves are casual and airy. Easy and smart. They seem a bit haphazard in a lovely way that feels comfortable and domestic. In looking at Water Yam, a collection of 98 scores by George Brecht, you can imagine George picking up his scores from the printer and sitting down to cut them out with a pair of scissors, all different sizes from tiny to quite large. The pieces are kept atop one another in no particular order inside a small plastic box with a sticker on top. Seeing the scores in person helped me to envision the score as a more dynamic object and imagine why a score is held so central in Fluxus works.

<i>Water Yam</i> by George Brecht

Water Yam by George Brecht

Creating a score is a labor. To create a score, we have to envision ourselves as someone uninitiated with our ideas. We put ourselves in the shoes of another person—an act of empathy—and we offer an experience to anybody who would invest time to decode the document and act it out in real time and space. A score is a set of rules for engagement. It is the same for a recipe, a manual, or a blueprint. Scores come with a contract between the composer and the performer—a contract that could be understood as rules for interpretation or etiquette for the creation of a performance. This is a vernacular that has changed over time in music, different for each generation, although it feels as though the door was blown wide open in the 20th century.
To the Fluxus composers, a score is a narrative experience that exists in the mind.

from <i>Water Yam</i> by George Brecht

from Water Yam by George Brecht

A score is an instigator that weasels its way into your life, as in Milan Knizak’s Cat (1965) which reads, “Get a cat.”  A score is a document of a poetic event already past, a connection to something immensely human.

From Yoko Ono’s 1971 edition of <i>Grapefruit</i>

From Yoko Ono’s 1971 edition of Grapefruit

A score is a tool, multi-faceted and evolving over time. A score invites performance, a presence, and/or goofing off.

‘Goofing off’ is a quality that Fluxus artists certainly honed in performance, and…there are positive qualities to goofing off. Goofing off requires developing a fine-tuned sense of what it means to pause long enough and distance oneself far enough from worldly objects and events to recognize their illusory dimension and thereby reinvest the world with wonder. In order to really goof off well, the instrumental sense of purpose so deeply ingrained in Western ego and epistemology must be abandoned.
– Kristine Stiles “Between Water and Stone” from the Walker’s 1993 catalog In the Spirit of Fluxus

This is the thing that surprised me about the Event Scores: the works are a direct invitation to play, as well as an invitation to presence. Serious focus and purposeless play are both intensely human and increasingly rare. Goofing off is another form of presence, or rather a complete lack of presence when we abandon our veneer to embrace a purposeless sense of wonder. We goof off and are human. In this way, Fluxus and their Event Scores point to our human condition in a way that is wildly dynamic. The score is an invitation, a call to action, and first-hand study and performance of these scores would be healthy for any of us.

On the Purpose of Art in 700 Words or Less

Moving to a new town has triggered something inside of me that makes me question everything I do. In trying to analyze the elements of music—Where does it take place? With whom? In what notation? With what instruments?—I’ve been pulled back to a central question: What is our music for? For that matter, what is our art for? There is a lot of pop-science writing these days focused on the inevitability of music—the human soul’s yearning to make art, to create, to play. However, I’m going to lean away from that and over the next, errrrr, 600 words, attempt to explain what ALL ART is for, really. This is not a holistic survey, but is representative of my own musings of late.

1. The writer Dorthe Nors put together this fantastic piece on Ingmar Bergman and his creative solitude for the Atlantic which articulates the core job of the artist. Bergman, reflecting on his relative isolation living on a rural island off Sweden, noted, “Here, in my solitude, I have the feeling that I contain too much humanity.”—literally too much human being inside of him, too much of the human experience. Nors goes on to give a clear and thoughtful analysis of generating and making work:

Everyone feels this, but artists try to capture the feeling through art, contain it within some permanent form of expression.  And when I read a good text or see a good movie or enjoy a good piece of art—it is the humanity, this poured-out human experience, that I detect.

You should really read the whole article. I’ll wait.

It’s an essential idea: a temporary feeling of humanness articulated and made permanent in an object or composition. This is where the value lies in a system of notation that prizes concrete elements of harmony and rhythm. Works can be performed and re-performed over time. This is why we can share Bach and revisit times long gone. This is our first job.
2. Marcel Duchamp characterized art as a “game played between all people of all periods.” This frees us from the obligation of manifesting a sensibility of greater humanity inside one of our permanent (or less-than-permanent) works. Our humanness becomes a characteristic imprinted on the action, the play, the game of making things. Cage took this to heart in his lecture “Experimental Music” (1957):

What is the purpose of writing music? One is, of course, not dealing with purposes but dealing with sounds. Or the answer must take the form of a paradox: a purposeful purposelessness or a purposeless play. This play, however, is an affirmation of life—not an attempt to bring order out of chaos nor to suggest improvements in creation, but simply a way of waking up to the very life we’re living, which is so excellent once one gets one’s mind and one’s desires out of its way and lets it act of its own accord.

Our humanness is enough, and naturally imprints onto the work. All facets of our humanness are welcome, especially chance and indeterminacy, which I think are the core ethos of games (along with pleasure and failure). This is our second job: to play.
3. In his essay “Relational Aesthetics,” Nicolas Bourriaud vainly attempts to put all of Western art history into a production of relationships between humanity and art. His broad overview begins,  “Let us say that artworks were first situated in a transcendent world, within which art aimed at introducing ways of communicating with the deity….” All Western devotional music acted in this function for generations before art and music began exploring the relations between man and the physical world beginning around the Renaissance. Paraphrasing from Bourriaud, consider the anatomical realism that came about in visual art and the eventual rise of unnamed symphonies and pastoral music, which doesn’t explore the divine but relates music to the land itself. Bourriaud suggests that the third relationship is one that developed in the latter 20th century with the rise of relational art, or art that is “focused on the sphere of inter-human relations.” The funny thing is that music has always pointed to our social relationships as a collaborative activity taking place in real time and space. However, Bourriaud is talking about something quite different: art projects that exist as social works.


Francis Alÿs attempting to move a mountain outside Lima, Peru is a perfect example. The work invites hundreds of locals to move a mountain, to shovel and work. The group bands together, becoming a community through the work. When the piece is over, they disband and go back to Lima carrying with them the story and memory of that visceral experience. Music works this way in particularly memorable concerts—they live as stories we tell again and again. While visual art has just discovered relational work, music has been living it for generations. This might be our third call: to be social.

Conclusion I.
In searching for a source for our music, I only find more questions. How do these ideas become manifest in the work? Which archaic ideas resonate with our modes of composition, experimentation, and creation? From what future perspectives will we create from? How are old ideas made new, and new ideas made engaging? How will we use music to investigate these futures? How will these large answers impact the way that I make: my process, my everyday?

Conclusion II.
After reflecting on these thinkers and their personal answers, I see a collective call for humanness, play, and social delight. In determining the answer for yourself, it might point you to different tools, notations, instruments, or actions that lead you outside the traditional bounds of music making, but in attempting to answer such a large question we become more considered in our approach to making it.

Tilting the Frame: Notes on an Alternative Education

In looking at our community of musicians, I see a lot of folks freshly graduated from school and flailing wildly (socially, financially, artistically). This is happening in the art world as well, but I’ve seen the art community react more quickly to create support for these post-graduates (is this the right term?) than our own musical commune. (As a note, I’m for the dissolution of the boundaries between the two communities and surround myself with thinkers and makers from both.) I’ve found more support from the experimental art community than the musical community in terms of performance opportunities as well as in the critique of my work. Why is this? One of the reasons is that my work is fairly unconventional, but the other is that the visual art world has thought about this issue and developed ways to cope, to grow, and to invite people into the conversation of reckless making at the intersection of art, music, and performance.

If our aim is to become smart and savvy makers of sound and performance, what models can be adopted from other fields to encourage the development of new works, new ideas, and new musics hitherto unknown? How can we best support the newest generation of composers, performers, sound artists, and thinkers?

We already have a few key models of post-graduate support: the residency, mentorship, the peer-to-peer relationship, and the community surrounding a performance venue. But how can we do better for our graduates? In what ways can we encourage an environment where musicians can extend the self through experimentation, focused critique, and social support? With this question in mind, I’ve collected as examples three of my favorite art and food groups that have successfully incubated new ways of thinking about collaboration and making work in a dynamic way.

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Machine Project
Form: Storefront // Collective // Alternative Space
Location: Echo Park, Los Angeles, CA
Founded in 2003 by Mark Allen
Full disclosure: I’ve worked closely with Machine Project since 2008 as an artist and curator, collaborating with Mark Allen and Elizabeth Cline on projects at their storefront location and at neighboring museums. The thing that I find interesting about Machine Project is how it encourages our community of artists, musicians, scientists, designers, and makers to create works in a highly permissible environment where failure is embraced as part of the process. In contrast to our typical practice in music where the composition is finished before the concert, Machine Project would be more interested in finishing the piece with the public at the concert. At Machine, my work is often critiqued by a group of my peers, and curated into performances that yield surprising and exciting results. Works at Machine often elicit a reaction that is a mixture of surprise, intrigue, and awkwardness. It offers artists the chance to make experimental works with the public, or experiment with the public on art itself. And on a personal level, in dispersing a sense of authorship and folding my name into the Machine Project heading, I’ve acquired anonymity in which to experiment and try new things that I wouldn’t normally take on myself.


Description of an event at Machine Project
Infantcore: Experimental music by babies for adults. Mark Allen came up with this idea to have babies perform experimental music, and in conversation I thought that this would be best accomplished with video tracking, by someone like Scott Cazan (a tech genius and experimental musician). For this event, Scott created motion tracking software that converts the baby’s movement into sound. The music is really dense, beautiful, and rigorous, and created by unknowing toddlers crawling across a “Storefront Plaza” created by the artist, Nate Page.
Infantcore was a technically and logistically complex idea that needed to be implemented in a matter of weeks,” Cazan explains. Coming from a what if question about experimental music by babies, he had to create a musical solution for the work that correlated to babies and their movement. “In the end perhaps the most interesting outcome was the relation between the intense music indoors being created by the infants and the infants themselves unassumingly peering back at their parents through the glass.
“The babies were called and the software was written in the course of a few days, and then more babies than we had imagined showed up and made some bleak music.”

The Main House at Mildred’s Lane.

The Main House at Mildred’s Lane.
Photo by Fritz Haeg

Mildred’s Lane
Form: artists’ residence, pedagogical summer program, radical experiment in living, and site for creative exchange and learning deep in the woods.
Location: on 96 Acres in Northeast Pennsylvania
If Machine Project operates a bit like a hyperactive, open-source think tank for ideas and events, Mildred’s Lane works from a meditative set of aesthetics that govern their communal living in rural Pennsylvania. Mildred’s Lane is an ongoing collaboration between J. Morgan Puett, Mark Dion, their son Grey Rabbit Puett, and their friends and colleagues. In an attempt to sidestep the omnipresent debates about what art/design/architecture is, the group works deep in the woods of northeastern Pennsylvania to create a collaborative artist colony that investigates a complex mashup of art-making and life-making. The work manifests as installations, a small-run press, and private and collective performances set deep in the woods.
What I find so interesting about Mildred’s Lane is that the space operates a bit like some of the established musical retreats in the Northeast, but with a more experimental ethos: They are focused on the everyday and allowing time and space for experimentation–much like a traditional residency, but I get the sense (having never been there) that there is something very special about the place in the way it’s able to captivate the imagination of the artist. They have created an antiquated and highly curated environment that lets life into the work through a kind of farmstead commune that cooks together, binds books, makes art, writes music, takes walks, and breathes. By offering this alternative present they have found a unique way of asking questions such as: Where is the future of art and society going? What do we really need in our 21st century?

A Bookbinding workshop at Mildred’s Lane.

A Bookbinding workshop at Mildred’s Lane.
Photo by Fritz Haeg

Cook it Raw
Form: Annual Chef Retreat and Meal
Location: International, site-based
Created in 2009 by Rene Redzepi and Alessandro Porcelli
In the Japanese prefecture of Ishikawa in 2012, 15 chefs from around the world were invited to meet for the fourth installment of Cook it Raw. Over the course of a few days, the chefs researched local sake at a distillery, went foraging in the forest (for mushrooms, wild wasabi, sorrel, yams, and parsley), went to a fish market to observe the seafood industry, and finally hunted ducks using traditional Japanese nets. On the final day, each chef then prepared a plate in a multi-course meal for an audience of 50, using the materials foraged and collected over the course of the week.

“You don’t come here to learn, but you learn. You don’t come to teach, but you teach.” – Quique Dacosta, chef

What makes it unique?
Cook it Raw is a peer-to-peer model that takes a group of chefs through firsthand experiences with food that reach into the ancient rituals of eating and embrace the modern avant-garde of microgastronomy. A group of equals is collectively put into new and possibly uncomfortable positions, during which they learn about local practices in food production, foraging, and cooking. This model disarms the avant-garde chefs, stripping away their established egos and inviting them to re-evaluate their culinary instincts. A big part of Cook it Raw seems to be the lasting impact that this three-day intensive leaves on the chefs, encouraging them to be mindful of their own local food culture.

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Missing from this particular article are all of the alternative spaces that continue to do more for the musician, helping the work to grow in new and unexpected ways. I often wonder what incubators are yet to be created, however. What spaces are yet to pop up and serve the community in a new way that engenders new work, new ideas, new forms? Each one of the groups above have answered this question in a different way, seating themselves on the fringes of their respective worlds and engaging young artists in fresh ideas. The learning that arises through actually making work is invaluable to those looking to learn, grow, and evolve their process (compositional, performative, or other). For now, I hope each musician can act as an amplifier for their community, organizing platforms to help evolve the work through sharing both publicly and privately.

Towards a More Visceral Living

For the next four weeks, I’ll be contributing a series of articles on fields outside music—from mycology to experimental art—and considering how they may impact music and our process of making and responding to work as performers, composers, listeners, and thinkers. I’d like to delve into other fields in an effort to understand how other disciplines meet the challenges we face.
Writing these posts has come at a self-reflective time for me, having recently relocated to San Francisco from Los Angeles, my home for the last seven years. In trying to meet some new people in my new town, I went to a listening party with some fantastic local composers and performers. The music shared was smart, fun, and diverse: excerpts from new groups like Dawn of Midi, icons of early hip-hop, and just intonation masterworks. But while walking home I had a nagging set of questions about my experience discussing music with a group of musicians: To what end are we sharing these musical works? For growth and development? Is this the best way to nurture our work as post-graduate performers and composers? What experiences evolve our methods and challenge our ideas?

John Cage

A man and his mushrooms.
Photo by James Klosty

Cage’s perennial question comes to mind: “Which is more musical, a truck passing by a factory or a truck passing by a music school? Are the people inside the school musical, and the ones outside the school unmusical? ” I aim to extend Cage’s comment into the real world of learning and primary experience: Does studying music teach us more than working in a factory would teach us about music? What if my San Francisco friends had gotten together to knead dough and bake loaves of bread rather than listen to recordings? Would learning about and exercising a specialized labor lead us to be more or less musical people? Would it change the way we make our work?

I wonder what unexpected growth and development would arise through a collective study of carpentry, meditation, motherhood, performance art, Japanese architecture, olfaction, butchering, wood chopping, and long-distance running. The potential for discoveries about the self seem palpable, helping to develop our process of making music in form and substance, attitude and approach.

John Cage himself lived this potentiality as an accomplished mushroom hunter. He said in his 1954 essay “Music Lover’s Field Companion” that “much can be learned about music by devoting one’s self to the mushroom.” Cage hunted mushrooms his whole life, for a time supporting himself by selling foraged ‘shrooms to New York restaurants and speaking at mycology conferences. His experiences walking the woods and bearing witness to his environment informed his work as a music-maker and thinker in ways we can never fully appreciate. One may try to say that that finding a mushroom is like discovering a melody, but identifying a mushroom is far more complicated/different/unexpected than we’d expect as outsiders. However, make yourself an insider to a community of mycologists and you will find that the diversity of cultural knowledge accumulated in such a mundane act is deep and varied like our own tradition, going back thousands of years, connecting us to people who have gone before and are here no longer. The activity is simultaneously ancient and strikingly modern, perhaps because of the heightened focus and presence needed to seek out mushrooms.

In sussing out these ideas, I was eager to dump on our community of theorist-composers as possible culprits to a music made in the vacuum of academia. I know that this is harsh and wrong, but in conveying this to Matt Sargent, a professor at Bard College and my longtime friend, he reminded me that a deliberate study of counterpoint and four-part writing is an asset, not something to criticize. A more generative way of learning may lead towards an additive knowledge base that accumulates ideas rather than sheds them. We should live counterpoint and woodworking, orchestration and animal husbandry. We won’t die if we hold two contrary thoughts inside of ourselves, and this dissonance leads to the real interest in our work. I often feel that without a detailed study of our music we become lost but, even worse, with only a detailed study of our music we become boring.

Reflecting on my own experiences, I’ve found much to learn from studying fields beyond music. I originally trained as a trumpet player and moved to making experimental sound works in non-traditional spaces. To support myself through a period after my MFA, I educated myself in wine and cheese, working as a devoted wine merchant and cheese monger for many years in Los Angeles. I think that working in wine deepened my sense of listening and lineage, developing in me a more emotional attachment to the history of the music. I now try to reach into the terroir of the sound, as one seeks to understand the source and cultural lineage of a particular wine or cheese: the land, the weather, the minds of the people making it—what they ate, how they lived, how they carried themselves, how they matured as men and women working in a varied and complicated environment. Wine helped me to allow for complications in my own work, which has become increasingly site-based. Furthermore, selling wine to the uninitiated has deepened my empathy with the audience, helping me to understand how people feel when they walk into a wine shop or are introduced to a new winemaking tradition. It has fundamentally changed the way that I make music, and changed the way I see myself and the experience of making music for others.

Embracing a more complicated visceral living through firsthand experiences and outside fields can lead us to unexpected ends. I hope we use our music to examine these living ideas, adding to our cultural knowledge along the way.

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Chris Kallmyer

Chris Kallmyer
Rasers Photography

Chris Kallmyer is an artist who works in sound installation, composition, performance, and electronic music. He has presented work at the Walker Art Center, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver, the Hammer Museum, the Getty Center, REDCAT, Machine Project, and other spaces in America and Europe. His work sits on the fringes of music and contemporary art, often engaging sound through touch, taste, participation, and process. Chris works with Machine Project, is a member of wild Up, and earned his MFA in music from the California Institute of the Arts.

Sonic Cartography and the Perception of Place

I found myself driving halfway across Los Angeles from the slowly gentrifying Northeast to the already gentrified Culver City.  When I arrived at the local park, I ditched the car and entered on foot—not knowing that the event I was covering would ultimately be held in a parking lot. So in a way, my experience of Nat Evans’s Assemblage (for sunset) started with a hike.

Evans is a composer from Seattle who has been creating a series of pieces for sunrise and sunset. The music—made from field recordings, bells, and traditional instruments—is coordinated with the changing light of the sky at dawn or dusk and is inspired by his studies in Zen meditation. Evans also cites the time-specific characteristic of Indian Ragas and site-specific pieces by Robert Moran and Stuart Dempster as strong influences.  Naturally, the works have to be experienced outside and at a precise time of day.  This is how I found myself on a tiny, trashy pad of asphalt on top of a hill in Culver City.  There I met Evans and a small group of listeners with media players in hand.  At Evans’s signal, we all sat on a retaining wall facing the Los Angeles basin, donned our headphones, and hit play at the same time, just ten minutes before sunset.

Nat Evans's Assemblage (for sunset)

Crowd gathered for Nat Evans’s Assemblage (for sunset)

These actions set in motion a change in our sense of the parking lot as a non-place to a special kind of focus on our humble hillside.  This began with the set up to Evans’s piece, which required a pause in movement; listeners sat down, turning off phones and committing themselves to the experience for the duration of the work. The group’s stillness and Evans’s sounds enclosed the space, transforming it into an intimate environment and giving it a rooted sense of place.  Listening on headphones rather than loudspeakers made the broad vista before us seem close at hand, even intimate.  Headphones also allowed the urban din to seep into the piece, effectively filling “silences” with the prevalent external soundscape. The co-production of site and sound made this piece work and created a focused sensibility you might expect to find in a church, but Evans produced it in a parking lot.  Outdoor works tend to frame the more mundane aspects of our everyday existence.  In Evans’s piece, small things took on weight and gravity.  Never have planes seemed so stunning and ponderous, or the counterpoint of city lights so poignant. The event’s locale was impermanent–not a brick and mortar building, but a transitional place: a parking lot.  So when the piece was over, the sense of place floated away, slowly removing itself as I walked back to my car and drove home.

This experience of Evans’s work dovetails with a recent interest of mine in human geography. As it is related to the subject of music performance, such study creates an awareness of our spaces, and the relative effect that they can have on a listener’s presence in that space.  It has led me to believe that the reason people enjoy music is not for the sonic aspects alone, but for its ability to create an environment where we feel closer to one another. Sound in space creates a platform of increased intimacy and connectedness. A consideration of human geography can help us understand how we can best engender effective concert programming and create a strong sense of place with the presentation of new and experimental works in new or traditional contexts.

Sunset

HUMAN GEOGRAPHY, A PRIMER

There are two main branches of geography: physical geography which studies the processes found in the natural environment, and human geography which studies the world, people, and cultures in the built environment. Physical geography is a natural science while human geography is a social science.  The knowledge set found in human geography has broad-ranging applications in analyzing the way people experience the performing arts. Furthermore, our performances and installations serve as living realizations of long-held theories in the field.  If we could organize geographers on a spectrum from deterministic to poetic, we would be dealing here with the poetic ones.

“Until the 1970’s most human geographers considered space to be a neutral container, a blank canvas which is filled in by human activity.”—Phil Hubbard and Rob Kitchin [1]

Before the mid-20th century, human geographers would comprehend space much like the physical geographers: as a concrete measure of Euclidean geometry (with an x, y, and z axis).  Spaces were viewed as static containers where human activity transpired, but thinkers like Henri Lefebvre began to see geographical space as fundamentally social.  Geographers (specifically the humanists and Marxists) now understand that people construct their own sensibilities of space based on events, memories, and experience—and that spaces are defined and understood by lived experience.

I think we comprehend this pretty well in music: We know our concert halls are fundamentally social, with the rules of engagement built into the architecture and ethos of the space.  For as much as we see spaces as dynamic and social, however, we tend to falsely understand our halls as blank canvases for the focused presentation of sound. To alter this assumption, I would like to stretch Lefebvre’s sentiment to the concert experience via John Cage and his landmark “silent” piece, 4’33” (1952).  The work unveiled the concert hall (supposedly a neutral container) as a discrete sonic environment.  With Cage’s 4’33” we change our relationship to the concert space—in recognizing the existence of a music already present over which we perform works.  Put another way, a human geographer like Lefebvre might look at the concert experience as a co-production of the social experience (social space) and the music presented in that environment.

Sunset

PLACE AND SPACE

Space and place are often regarded as synonyms in referring to landscape, region, or other distinct areas.  For geographers, however, these terms have more nuanced definitions.  Their meanings and surrounding theories can be employed to make sense of our performance environments; identifying the qualities of our concert spaces, and helping to establish platforms for new and experimental works.

“Space” and “place” are familiar words denoting common experiences. We live in space. There is no space for another building on the lot.  The Great Plains look spacious.  Place is security, space is freedom: we are attached to the one and long for the other. There is no place like home. What is home?  It is the old homestead, the old neighborhood, hometown, or motherland. . . Space and Place are basic components of the lived world; we take them for granted.” —Yi-Fu Tuan [2]

Space is a more abstract concept than place. Space is undifferentiated, open, and potentially vast.  In contrast, place is enclosed and humanized space—space with value.  Anyone who experiences the limitless horizon of the sea can feel its spaciousness.  We establish place when we stop to make a fire for warmth, or share a tent with our partner on the sands overlooking this expanse. We feel the stability of this encampment (place), yet sit on the cusp of freedom and threatening openness (space).  They are not concrete terms, but poetic concepts that perhaps ring truer to artists than to cartographers.  As Yi-Fu Tuan says, we long for spaciousness and the unhindered movement that it affords us. It is this movement that we surrender to achieve the comfort and safety of place.

“Place is a pause in movement. . . The pause makes it possible for a locality to become a center of felt value.” —Yi-Fu Tuan [3]

If we experience space by moving through it, then we experience place by ceding this freedom and resting our body and mind.  Consider the arrival to an event such as a traditional orchestra concert; the movement from a busy street bustling with urban activity to a stationary seat in an enclosed and quiet concert hall is an exercise in two dynamically different environments.  One calls you to be aware of your peripheries and the sounds around you, while the other asks you to surrender movement and focus on the organized sounds in front of you. Our halls are set up like this for a reason; we take refuge in their comfort and value their stillness.  There was a presumption in human geography that we could only “take place” as humans, but more recently the field theorizes that we actively participate in creating place with memory, experience, and actions like a pause in movement.

“Immensity is within ourselves. . . As soon as we become motionless, we are elsewhere; we are dreaming in a world that is immense.  Indeed immensity is the movement of the motionless man.” —Gaston Bachelard [4]

Our spaces do not have to be immense to conjure deep and reverberant sentiments in a listener.  We carry immensity within us, and it is accessed while daydreaming, experiencing art, listening to music, etc. Bachelard goes on to explain that thisinner immensity” is what gives meaning to our experiences.  We can engender this “sense of the terrific” in listeners with volume and close proximity.  Unfortunately, this is why the orchestral environment often doesn’t capture visceral sensations of immensity in all listeners: the distance is too great, the volume too ineffectual. Although the performances are beautiful, the vast spaces of Avery Fisher, Disney Hall, and their ilk can drain the immediacy from a performance leaving some in the audience untouched.

“Permanence is an important element in the idea of place. Things and objects endure and are dependable in ways that human beings, with our biological weaknesses and shifting moods do not endure and are not dependable.” —Yi-Fu Tuan [3]

Our brick and mortar concert halls, clubs, and galleries are the principal places for our musical community.  Avery Fisher Hall, which has stood since 1962, holds a weight that a more temporary structure would not have.  This permanence makes it a guarantor of meaning and a locus for identity.  We see ourselves as belonging to these places and linked to those people who have gone before.  The same could be said for an institution like an art museum, a house of worship, or a dusty oft-frequented pub. Repeat visits to a place create memories that resonate and expresses the same attitude and environment with each return.  These permanent structures allow us to discover and rediscover with each visit; perhaps our first time in a space yields delight, the second comfort, the third contentment. 

In contrast, an event held in a temporary place, like a parking lot or stretch of desert, creates a different experience for the listener. Because the environment is ephemeral, you can’t visit and revisit the place because the place will be gone.  After a momentary structure is dismantled, all that is left is an open space, the memory of the event and the human warmth felt during that time.  These temporal structures (both social and physical – public and private) should not be considered “less-than” a more permanent structure; they can be created more casually, more idiosyncratically, and are therefore more strongly affixed to a particular time and place.

Darkness

“Intimacy between persons does not require knowing the details of each other’s life; it glows in moments of true awareness and exchange.  Each intimate exchange has a locale which partakes in the quality of the human encounter.” —Yi-Fu Tuan [3]

We all hope to have intimate and genuine encounters with those around us, and in our best moments as musicians we encourage an intimate experience either between the audience and performers, or amongst the audience members themselves. The locale of our performance plays a large roll in the nature of this closeness. If we are sitting in a recital hall watching a great pianist perform Chopin’s preludes, it is possible that we could have a warm and human experience with the pianist. Empathizing with Chopin’s sense of nostalgic loss, we can have an intimate (indescribable) moment with a long-dead composer.  Entering a dispersed, environmental sound installation, or a work like Nat Evans’s, the interactions are more social, dynamic, and serendipitous.  A piece with many focal points (or none at all) creates a dense web of exchanges that are not controlled by sound, but made available by the platform or context of the event.  Yi-Fu Tuan offers another gem of advice regarding intimacy and the potential arena for human interaction.  He says that “one can no more deliberately design such places than one can plan, with any guarantee of success, the occasions of genuine human exchange.” [3] There is no science to composition, performance, or curation.  However, considering the relationship between sound and space can help us in framing poignant experiences, which will happen by accident and happy chance over the duration of a work.  As musicians, we can merely fill this time with sound and silence in the hope of dressing up intimate moments that would otherwise escape our attention.

Perhaps this is our humble aspiration: to create platforms for potential warm human encounters. When creating places and events for the presentation of sound in space, we can design environments of heightened intimacy and exchange by sonically framing an environment.  No one system for doing this is superior, but different contexts inspire disparate experiences for the concertgoer. They offer different kinds of intimacy, or a complete lack thereof. I often wonder in what ways can we make art music more real to people, providing a potential for true awareness and exchange.  I believe that we have to draw our own conclusions and might do well to look to our peers in relevant fields like design, urban planning, food, aesthetics, visual art, and human geography for guidance toward discovering new answers.

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Footnotes:

1. Hubbard, Phil, and Rob Kitchin, eds. Key Thinkers on Place and Space. 2nd ed. Los Angeles: Sage Publications, 2004. 4.

2. Tuan, Yi-Fu. Space and Place: The Perspective of Experience. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1977. 3.

3. Tuan, Yi-Fu. Space and Place: The Perspective of Experience. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1977. 138-41.

4. Bachelard, Gaston. The Poetics of Space. Boston: Beacon Press, 1958. 184.

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Chris Kallmyer

Chris Kallmyer performing on a bison horn for a bison dinner at the Museum of Contemprary Art Denver. Photo by Alex Stephens

Chris Kallmyer is a performer, composer, and sound artist living in Los Angeles, California, who works in sound installation, composition, trumpet, and electronic music. He has presented work at the Walker Art Center, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver, the Hammer Museum, the Getty Center, REDCAT, and other spaces in America and Europe. His work is influenced by a sense of place, architecture, field recordings, and outdoor listening.

Thanks to Andrew McIntosh, Ken Ehrlich, Mark Allen, Katie Tate, and Chris Rountree for their time, energies, and ideas about this piece.

Place, Space, and Music: Experiments in Context

Last year the Hammer Museum’s coatroom, located in the lobby under a flight of stairs, was transformed into a theater named the Little William. Every weekend during 2010, you could find musicians performing two feet away from a tiny audience in this 9′ by 12′ space, surrounded by coats and cheap florescent lights. It looked awful in there—and I liked it. For whatever it lacked in visual attractiveness, it became a space imbued with the creative visions of composers, puppeteers, poets, and instrumentalists who brought site-specific pieces to the coatroom every week. The context of a coatroom-theater provided an architectural shift to the expected concert platform and enabled audiences to indulge in short, two-minute works as they entered the museum (or when they checked an overcoat).

My attraction to this type of performance was initially inspired by an interest in architecture and design, along with writings by some of my favorite composers and thinkers such as John Cage, James Tenney, R. Murray Schafer, Gaston Bachelard, and Geoffrey Manaugh. My collaboration with Machine Project, an artist-collective based in Echo Park, further encouraged my interest in developing this type of work through residencies at the Hammer Museum, LACMA, MCA Denver, and the Walker Art Center. The residencies have given me a platform on which to conceive and curate projects like the Little William Theater. Ultimately, my year in a coatroom has led me to more carefully consider context and architecture as a tool for the composer; a way to embrace new paradigms for performance and novel listening practices.

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Luke Storm and Aubrey Foard in the Little William Theater
Photo by Marianne Williams

THE LITTLE WILLIAM THEATER // FESTIVAL OF NEW MUSIC

The Little William’s Festival of New Music, held from August through the end of November, commissioned 349 short works by 94 composers including new pieces by Christian Wolff, Ben Johnston, Larry Polansky, Peter Ablinger, Anne Lebaron, John Bischoff, Nick Didkovsky, and many others who deserve mention.

The music we received included traditionally notated scores, short text pieces, graphically notated works, pieces in just intonation, complexist to hyper-minimalist, and improvisational to hyper-notated. Some pieces asked the performers to engage in theatrics, move in the space, or give a gift to their stand partner. One of Adam Overton’s text scores could be performed simultaneously alongside other works, as instrumentalists hid quarters from the audience. Peter Ablinger’s piece was a live rehearsal of a work he wrote for the festival. G Douglas Barrett’s incorporated field recordings of a coatroom in the Nationalgalerie Berlin. The experimental nature of the works added to the fantastical quality of the space. You simply didn’t know what was going to happen next.

Furthermore, hearing these works within such a small, enclosed space proved to be one of the most exciting aspects of the project. The clarinetists could play at the edge of possible sound, teasing the audience with subtones so quiet they could only be felt, not heard. In opposition to this, the tubas were so viscerally loud that powerful beatings consumed every interval. The internal resonances of the violin were present, as if you were sitting within the duo. For the accordions, the creaking and crinkling of the bellows proved to be a serendipitous addition to most works. Pieces that asked for long, quiet tones were inevitably accompanied by the perpetual aleatoric nature of the bellows.

Visitors included local composers and performers with a vested interest in the festival, but mostly patrons whom had never experienced new or experimental music. Parents were welcome to bring children, and often wheeled a stroller right into the space. Performers wore street clothes and sat very close to the audience. The proximity to the instrumentalists, the context of a coatroom, as well as the performers’ casual dress created an accessible, easygoing environment in which to experience difficult music. Laughter was common, scores were shared and discussed, and questions were often asked of the performers. By shifting the context from a concert hall to a coatroom, it opened up new possibilities of audience engagement. This has led me to consider that perhaps new music is not inaccessible, but the concert hall is.

ARCHITECTURE // MUSIC

Without the thick, impermeable walls of the concert hall, our contemporary music would not exist in its current form. We have developed a private, silent, concentrated listening space that has enabled the music of Beethoven, Mahler, Feldman, and beyond.

Cultures that have different architectural practices have developed music in accordance with their structures. In the case of the Anlo-Ewe in Ghana and Togo, their music is held in outdoor communal spaces and uses a battery of loud percussion instruments to accompany dance and song. The social architecture of the space has a great influence on form: Drumming does not exist alone, but in tandem with singing and dancing. Each piece has elements that tie into one another, and there is no complete work without all three components. If this music was held in private spaces, it would not have developed into such a communal, complex, and social form. Conversely, Western music’s traversal into private spaces has de-emphasized potential interactivity between audience and performer. There are many things that have influenced the development of music in different cultures, but architecture and context are essential factors in the formation of a music.

The great revolutions in art history are changes of context rather than style. The first big contextual change in Western music occurred when music left the outdoors and entered the cathedral; the second occurred with the appearance of the concert hall and opera house; the broadcasting and recording studio is responsible for the third. Each context produced a plethora of styles but all were governed by the laws of the container in which they were generated. The music of the cathedral is unseen; it rises vapor-like to fill a large resonant space, restricting harmonic and melodic mobility to produce a hazy wash of sound blending with the mystique of Christianity’s invisible God. The music of the concert hall and opera house is both seen and heard. Dryer acoustics favor faster-paced music with greater harmonic daring. It is the music of the soloist and the quick-tempered virtuoso. The broadcasting and recording studio introduced the world to schizophrenia, or split sound, in which any sonic environment could, by means of loudspeakers, be substituted for any other. It pushed music into new places—in fact, any place—and prepared the way for the coalescence we are now experiencing.

—R. Murray Schafer, Music and the Soundscape

Once we realize the emergent potential with architecture and context, we open ourselves to alternative spaces and fresh perspectives on sound. What about music for a long corridor, a rail yard, a flight of stairs, a dense forest, a bank of cubicles, a vast plain, an igloo, a shoreline, a bathroom?

Recently, I curated music on the Santa Monica Pier Carousel as part of the Glow Festival. A carousel is imbued with all kinds of qualities that you would never have in a concert hall: like rotation! Among the group commissioned to create works for our carousel concert, Daniel Corral, a Los Angeles-based composer wrote a particularly effective piece for six accordions. The piece didn’t have a unified ictus and was organized on a time scale, asking the performers to play at different speeds (but generally fast). The stochastic nature of the piece was enhanced by the rotation of the carousel, which created further acts of chance as it spun. One can hear this in two distinct videos of the piece; the first performed on the carousel, and the second as part of the Pasadena Creative Music Series. In comparing these two performances, I believe that the architecture and context of a carousel acted as a catalyst for this piece, changing the nature of the work and enhancing its effectiveness.

 

INCIDENTAL, AMBULATORY, AND DISPERSED

As a percussionist I had been directly involved in the gradual insertion of everyday sound into the concert hall, from Russolo through Varèse and finally to Cage who brought live street sounds directly into the hall. I saw these activities as a way of giving aesthetic credence to these sounds—something I was all for—but I began to question the effectiveness of the method. Most members of the audience seemed more impressed with the scandal than the sounds, and few were able to carry the experience over to a new perspective on the sounds of their daily lives. I became interested in going a step further. Why limit listening to the concert hall? Instead of bringing these sounds into the hall, why not simply take the audience outside—a demonstration in situ?

—Max Neuhaus, LISTEN

There is a long tradition of orchestral composers who use off-stage musicians to create a sense of depth and environment in the orchestral hall. My favorite uses of this technique appear in the music of Mahler, Respighi, Strauss, Wagner, and Ives, creating complex sensations of nostalgia (the Posthorn Solo in Mahler’s Symphony No. 3 and Respighi’s Pines of Rome), building excitement (Wagner’s Lohengrin and Strauss’s Ein Heldenleben), and feelings too delicate to articulate with words (Ives’s Unanswered Question). Henry Brant, David Dunn, R. Murray Schafer, and Max Neuhaus have further developed these ideas with environmental, site-specific, and outdoor music since the 1950s. (I would also like to note the presence of countless composers and sound artists who have developed these ideas and explored projects in outdoor spaces such as Iannis Xenakis, Karkheinz Stockhausen, Stuart Marshall, Gordon Monahan, Leif Brush, Bill and Mary Buchen, John Luther Adams, Bill Fontana, Doug Hollis, Hildegarde Westerkamp, and many others too countless to mention here.)

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Ibrahim Duqum, oud in the Hammer Museum courtyard
Photo by Anne Hadlock

This is a mode of working that I find inspiring, and through immersing myself in the writings of Cage, Tenney, and Schafer, I began to compose dispersed works in 2007. The pieces incorporate instrumentalists set outdoors at a distance from a stationary audience, placing brass instruments, car horns, and percussion instruments at an equal “mix” to the surrounding soundscape in hopes to set a frame around our sonic environment.

Going outside of the concert hall opened up more contextual explorations in my work including site-specific pieces for elevators, an igloo, and the Amargosa Desert. I want to be aware of the space we all share, so although the medium may change between projects (from amplified tea kettles to trombone choir to Max/MSP ), I do so with the intent of creating something that serves the space; thereby serving those who inhabit it, and encouraging them to wake up to the present moment.

In 2010 I was invited by Mark Allen, the director of Machine Project, to curate sound works for their 2010 residency at the Hammer Museum. The collaboration yielded programming of incidental performances involving chance encounter and multiple independent events happening in one space. Improvising groups, folk quartets, oud players, and experimental choirs were asked to perform for a coincidental audience, and for unconventionally long amounts of time. The musicians became part of the fabric of the space; much like Erik Satie’s Vexations or Furniture Music.

Before radio, the live musician provided background music for royalty and peasants alike. This mode could be considered opulent in the age of the iPod, but having live musicians in a space plays with our expectations and alters the social contract between musician and audience. Furthermore, by placing musicians in transitional spaces, such as hallways or lobbies, we give permission for the patron to pass through the space without stopping. If they decide to stay and listen, they do so in a genuine and organic manner.

COMPOSER AS DESIGNER

Many of Machine Project’s sound programming choices come down to a design prompt: The experience of listening has been reconfigured, and performers are given permission to create music in a different way. One of my favorite examples was a Nap-In I helped curate at the Hammer Museum. A nap area was created with blankets, and musicians were asked to create “music to nap to”. Although the design prompt was non-traditional, the piece was very simple and intuitive for patrons to engage with. Folks felt free to lay down and use the space as they wished; to read a book, or take a nap, etc… I invited soothing, gentle, and quiet performers including solo tampura, an ambient music trio, a keyboard duo, and a singer who brought electronics and her own bed. Most of the music was improvised, and unhurried; perfect for napping. Additionally, there were several layers of engagement for listeners—from sleeping to focused listening, or ignoring the project altogether.

Ultimately, the piece became about permission; giving the audience permission to nap during a performance, but also releasing the performers from the obligation to be interesting or entertaining. The piece is successful if the audience falls asleep, providing an inversion of expectation that is sweet and intimate. Because the event changes the way that you listen as well as perform, the audience and performers take the ride together. It becomes a communal experience that yields new music that wouldn’t otherwise have a reason to be created.

Architecture and context define how music functions. Contextual exploration has the potential to create new forms and directives in contemporary music. This work has the possibility to yield new sounds, new audience, and new ways to listen to music. The imaginative ways in which to play with space, context, and architecture become a discourse on possibility, and I look forward to continuing the conversation.

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Chris Kallmyer performing on a bison horn for a bison dinner at the Museum of Contemprary Art Denver.
Photo by Alex Stephens

Chris Kallmyer is a performer, composer, and sound artist living in Los Angeles, CA and is the Curator of Sound Programming for Machine Project. He earned his MFA in music from the California Institute of the Arts, and has presented his work at LACMA, the Walker Art Center, REDCAT, the Hammer Museum, the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver, and small galleries in America and Europe. Chris is thankful to be a member of the vibrant community of musicians and artists living in and around Los Angeles, CA.

Thank you to Mark Allen & Machine Project, Alfred Ladzekpo, and Katie Tate for their support in working on this piece.