Sensitive States of Perception: Kali Malone in conversation with François Bonnet
François Bonnet: You’re from Colorado, but you moved to Sweden. Stockholm’s scene seems particularly vibrant nowadays. What attracted you there?
Kali Malone: Stockholm’s a very productive place for me, and I’m grateful to be living and working here. How this came about was I went to see Katt Hernandez play a house show in NYC and met Swedish musician Ellen Arkbro. She invited me to visit when I was 17, and I’ve been here ever since. I’m involved in the DIY community and academic music institutions here, so I’ve engaged with talented artists from multiple spheres. As well as spending lots of time at Elektronmusikstudion, I’ve also been a sound technician at the legendary Fylkingen venue for about five years. So I’ve observed a lot of developments happening in Swedish experimental music and become versed in its rich electro-acoustic music history. I don’t think it’s by chance that so many of Sweden’s artists excel given the access to free education and healthcare, artist grants and state-funded studios.
FB: You’re a classically trained singer but stopped singing. Does singing still influence your music?
KM: My experience of vocal music is forever within me, and I still enjoy singing casually. Compositionally, I’m inspired by the structures of early polyphonic vocal music and intrigued by the interplay of multiple voices harmonically coordinating simultaneously. I used this as the main compositional and recording framework for my album The Sacrificial Code. I separately recorded each voice of the four-part harmony as if in an SATB format, then reassembled the voices in a multichannel acousmatic environment. Even though all four voices can conjoin and be smoothly played by two or four hands at once, the process of isolating the four voices aided in my conception of a woven contrapuntal network in which autonomous moving voices may convene at any moment. This element doesn’t necessarily need to be observed by the listener, but it’s fundamental for my conception of the music and its technical inspiration.
FB: Since living in Sweden, you have ‘discovered’ the organ. What attracted you to this instrument?
KM: During the first and only organ lesson I had, we spent all but 5 minutes at the console before I insisted we go inside of the organ. All of my questions where either about the acoustic properties of the pipes or their tuning possibilities. The teacher didn’t answer many of my questions but was kind and gave me a stack of sheet music and arranged a date for me to meet with an organ tuner. We met and immediately bonded over our shared passion for tuning. He quickly became an important mentor to me. For a couple of years, I accompanied him on tuning jobs in Stockholm and small villages in the Swedish countryside. I learned an incredible amount about organ maintenance and repair, tuning practices, acoustics, and how to deeply listen to and comprehend dimensional harmonic space. During these tuning trips, I didn’t have much time to freely play the organs, but it inspired me to compose with the smaller pipe organs at the music conservatory in Stockholm.
FB: What musical purpose does exploring tuning have in your work?
KM: For me, tuning is a deeply focused and perceptually challenging process that leads to a lot of sensory growth. My creative process uses tuning as a catalyst for composing, leading me to seek intervallic relationships that provoke profound sensory and emotional resonances.
FB: Do you feel close to someone like Eliane Radigue? I mention her because of the continuity in both of your work and the often-overlooked ‘tuning’ component in Eliane’s music.
KM: Eliane Radigue’s work has been very edifying for me. Among the qualities of her music I admire, her commitment to long-form stasis is particularly courageous and affective. There’s another level of tuning occurring when actively listening to her work. Her music tunes the listener’s attention to a place somewhere between committed focus and surrendered consciousness. It’s within this state of mind that one can attempt objective observation of her layered textural tundra. Her work has helped to train this sensitive state of perception I aim for while tuning and listening.
FB: Your music has an ‘anti-romantic’ approach. Its expression is not a musical gesture summoned by a genius but by rules and structure that help build a ‘selfless expressivity’. Had you already explored this legacy of Cage and Feldman in the US or is it something you developed in Sweden?
KM: Thanks for that interpretation, I’d say it’s a fair evaluation of some of my work. This approach grew over time while in Sweden. It’s not something I’m entirely bound to, although the more I commit to it the more difficult it is to transition to other forms of expressivity. Applying a rational and generative structure to the organisation of sound challenges my willpower and ego. It submits my chaotic nature to a discipline based on concept rather than emotion. Interestingly, the music ends up projecting something much more emotional and personal than if it had been composed without a predetermined structure.
FB: You create acoustic and electronic music. What are the differences, if any, in the approach to these two modalities?
KM: I love to combine synthesis and acoustic instruments in my work. There’s an incalculable beauty to an acoustic timbre’s organic quality and the human sensibility’s delicate obscurity. There’s also a component in the process of recording acoustic instruments that demands more commitment and clarity from my part, making the whole thing feel more humbling and significant. The idea of ‘the recording’ is quite different when I’ve set up the studio, borrowed microphones, and reserved time with live musicians than when I’m spending hours at my leisure on a new synth patch. There’s an implied scarcity and urgency in the former recorded sound, which might be why my latest works use so much acoustic material.
FB: You’re creating a new work in the context of the Re-Imagine Europe project, which you’ll present at the Sonic Acts Academy and INA GRM’s The Focus Concert Series with a loudspeaker orchestra. Will you develop something specifically for a 360-degree diffusion of your music?
American composer and musician Kali Malone (1994) is based in Stockholm, where she implements unique tuning systems within minimalist forms in a digital-analogue synthesis. Using synthetic and acoustic instrumentation (such as the pipe organ, string and wind instruments), Malone’s rich harmonic textures emit an emotive hue both static and captivating. Her recent releases, The Sacrificial Code (2019, iDEAL Recordings), Cast of Mind (2018, Hallow Ground) and Organ Dirges 2016—2017 (2018, Ascetic House), were described in The Wire as ‘rich with the kind of divinity only discovered alone, in an inner wilderness; a holy modal communion with sound and space itself’ and by Boomkat as ‘slowly unfolding electro-acoustic landscapes that externalise a highly personalised form of emotive topography’.
This interview is part of Sonic Acts Magazine 2020.
Photo Victoria Loeb / John Snyder