Tag: experience

Do it right or do it right now?

Still from Infoxication

Arguments in favor of quality and procrastination

Several years ago, I shared a bill with a musician who spent the entirety of his 45-minute set improvising with what can only be described as an arsenal of toneless extended techniques interspersed with episodes of heavy breathing. Setting aside my own proclivities for melody and my firm position on the ‘downtown’ side of any remaining stylistic divide, the show was objectively monotonous, self-indulgent, and under-baked—the equivalent of a musician jamming alone in his living room with his eyes closed, except in this case for a paying, open-eyed audience. One that grew increasingly restless.

The catchall advice that we are given as composers and musicians, and to which I can only assume this man had pegged his creative philosophy, is to just “do it right now.” Just get up. Just perform. Just write. Get it done. Throw it down on the page and move on to the next one. Don’t over think. Don’t look back. What matters is that it’s finished. And that you are “staying busy.” In many ways I agree with this advice and think a great deal can be learned by generating in sheer volume, getting up on any stage we can, producing continuously and seeing where the road winds. Improving by rote practice while throwing as many darts as possible and hoping that some hit the bull’s-eye. It’s a legitimate approach. Especially early on.

After a certain point, however, this advice starts feeling too much like a reductive sound-byte for my liking and I think it’s prudent to take a step back, focusing instead on “doing it right” rather than “doing it right now,” and avoiding the inevitable feeling of running in circles that arises when saying yes to every single opportunity that comes along. The evening with that improviser still lingers in my mind because, while I respect the chutzpah it takes to get up and perform a show off the cuff, it is so antithetical to everything that I have been working towards in recent years.

Waiting for perfection to come knocking ensures that you will never act, yet conversely, not striving to get close to it guarantees that you will produce mediocre work.

“Doing it right” likely means different things to different people, but for me it has meant taking on fewer projects so that I can do them better, pursuing larger, long-term undertakings as both a composer/musician and producer, and being deliberate about how what I do choose to do fits in with how I hope to shape the arc of my career. “Doing it right” is trying to do everything to the absolute best of my abilities at all times, pushing everyone I am surrounded by to do the same, and being detail-oriented. The stage, literal or digital, is after all a privilege, and I think you owe your audience the respect of trying to make that show as good as it can possibly be. “Doing it right” is empowering.

In this quest for quality, however, the question of when exactly to pull the trigger and launch big, self-driven projects comes up often, and I think about the “do it right” vs. “right now” duality constantly in relation to my own work. Sitting on material or ideas until they are “perfect” is, after all, a dangerous game. Waiting for perfection to come knocking ensures that you will never act, yet conversely, not striving to get close to it guarantees that you will produce mediocre work. Icarus should get close to the sun, yet never quite touch it. The hard part is in determining how close one should attempt to fly, while balancing both thoughts in one’s head and making smart decisions regarding when it’s time to say “go.”

Sadly I don’t have any revelatory answers to this problem. However for me, the guiding principle is always “what will serve the art best,” the answer to which is not always “doing it right now.” Projects where other entities are setting the deadlines, there are commercial interests and complex timelines involved, or jobs are structured on a “for hire” basis are obviously a different conversation (honor those commitments “right now!”), but for my own self-driven creative projects, the obstacles that come up along the road to making “good art” always wind up orbiting this fundamental question. They arise on the creative side (ex. “this song needs a better guitar sound”), as well as the logistical one (“I only received partial funding for this project” or “the engineer I like is busy”), as well as a murky-waters conflation of the two (“how do I pay for the studio and the good engineer so I can get a better guitar sound”). Case-by-case solutions don’t always reveal themselves immediately, and, in trying to “serve the art best,” sometimes I think it’s a good thing to take one’s time, letting big projects marinate and giving them space to bloom into their optimally realized form.

For me, the guiding principle is always “what will serve the art best.”

One such instance in my own career, which I include not as a universal flag-bearer for “doing art right” so much as an example of patience (and persistence) eventually proving a virtue, was an immersive multimedia performance project called Infoxication that I made with Roya Sachs, Ashley Jackson, and a team of about 40 people. Infoxication took us a few years to realize, went through more creative iterations than I care to count, switched presenters, and lost and regained its funding. It was almost a centerpiece of Google’s Pixel launch. Then it wasn’t. It was going to run for a while. Then not quite so long. We thought people might quit. (Fortunately, they didn’t.) And along the way, we had many conversations about scaling the project down to a small concert that could fall within our immediate reach.

Yet something in our gut told us that our original idea deserved better, and we persevered. Eventually the project wound up at Spring Place in New York City, with generous financial support from their team as well as Google and New Music USA, and collaborators including PUBLIQuartet, Dušan Týnek, Heather Hansen, Inbal Segev, and Bentley Meeker. The end result was something we are all proud of: a sci-fi Sleep No More meets The Office performance ‘installation’ inspired by the information age, replete with dancers on Chromebooks dressed as office drones climbing on the walls, and devastatingly good performances. It. Was. Awesome. Sold out beyond capacity. And one of my favorite things I’ve done. Our team still reminisces about how special it was. Not bad for a little project that almost went into the garbage.

There have, of course, been countless instances along the way in which “doing it right now” was the right decision, wherein projects less belabored in their development quickly coalesced into something special. Another collaboration with Ashley springs to mind, in which I wrote a piece for her in a few weeks, she premiered it, played it again at BRIC Celebrate Brooklyn!, and I insisted she record it for an album right away despite her hesitation. In that instance, I simply knew she could pull it off and that we had the right recording circumstances to do it.

For me, the hard part is always in determining which projects are which, and when the stars are close enough in alignment that it’s best to just jump off the proverbial diving board (not to mention when to mix your metaphors). Personally, the answers I try to seek for myself when steering my own projects are very simple:

  • If the project has real potential and you will regret not taking time to elevate it, wait and “do it right”
  • If the project is close enough that it can be completed now without significant sacrifices in quality, and the imminent opportunity is something that you will regret passing up, “do it right now.”

Ultimately, however, there is no one-size-fits-all guideline, the argument over whether less or more is more and how best to strategize your way to a successful career isn’t one that can be resolved, and there are examples of great creators who adhere to both philosophies. It’s also something that shifts project by project as well as over time. And, as noted, it’s a conversation that only applies to those fortuitous circumstances in which we are calling all the shots.

Overall, I believe that quality, however and whenever it’s possible to attain, will always speak for itself, that there is value in taking one’s time, and that what some might flippantly dismiss as procrastination is often actually meaningful development—though obviously the line between the two requires thoughtful navigation. “Doing it right now” can be equally slippery, since a carpe diem attitude is essential to finishing any project, yet in itself can be an excuse and means of self-sabotage. Simply not trying that hard or not taking the time to do something well can make it easier to feel like you didn’t really fail. Immediate action and constant activity permit that figurative shoulder shrug: “Well, at least I tried.”

In the end, perhaps really, truly “trying” is all we should ever stake our bets on: attacking projects decisively, aiming high, holding ourselves and our collaborators to a lofty standard, and being sure of what we want to say. The “right” vs. “right now” pendulum will swing back and forth indefinitely, and it’s only through developing intuition, self-awareness, familiarity with the people you are working with, and sheer trial and error that anyone can reliably decide when is the “right time” to take action. Maybe all we can say definitively is that “now is the time to do it right.”

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.



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.



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.


“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.



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.


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.