Imagine that you are one of eight, part of an ensemble gathered to play a single instrument together. Maybe you’re a musician; maybe you’re not.
It doesn’t matter either way, because the instrument in front of you – a bare timber, aluminum, and steel A-frame carillon – was not designed to facilitate virtuosity or expression. You can’t take a lesson in how to play it, or play on it as a soloist. The point here is not to perfect or perform, but to come together: to experience sound as a community, in which performer and listener are one.
In his work as a multimedia sound and performance artist, Chris Kallmyer thinks a great deal about how people and sound interact in space. His in-depth study of musical and artistic relationships – between sound and space, performer and listener, artist and viewer – influences every corner of Ensemble, on view at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art through Sept. 15.
That focus is apparent in the cozy lounge area that occupies one corner of the show’s back room, and the natural light that filters down through its ceiling from an invisible skylight. Pillows and books are inviting, and people tend to spend more time in a room that features a giant daybed. On a recent Sunday afternoon, museum visitors lingered, taking advantage of the space. One little boy sprawled on his back on the floor underneath a dangling mobile of handcrafted bells, legs splayed and head resting in interlocked hands.
At the center of the room, not far from that inviting couch, is a tall A-frame structure supporting a set of eight bells. Throughout the run of the show, this instrument/sculpture is activated during organized happenings, in which local musicians facilitate an interactive musical experience. Each happening is unique, and there is no wrong or right way for the instrument to be played, or any set program performed.
Visitors are invited to pull the long, thin black ropes attached to each striker, sounding the bells and releasing their resonant vibrations throughout the space. Depending on the day, they might play these bells as part of an improvisation alongside a local musician playing drums or singing, or they might invent their own way to play together on the instrument—like attempting to strike all eight bells at once to produce a single bloom of sound.
For those seeking a bit of structure, Kallmyer has wrapped the back walls of the gallery space with a colorful calendar of 365 possible melodies. Designed to be repeated indefinitely, these melodies are depicted using what Kallmyer playfully calls “shape notes”: a set of red, yellow, and blue circles, triangles, and squares that correspond to a matching symbol on each bell. Each “shape note score” corresponds to a day of the year, and moon cycles are indicated on some of the dates. Other dates feature names of musicians who influenced Kallmyer’s aesthetic, like Whitney Houston, Muddy Waters, and Pauline Oliveros, whose names appear on the scores that corresponds to their birthdays.
If you find yourself in the museum when there is no happening scheduled, you might be tempted to ring one of the bells surreptitiously. Go for it. Feel the rush that comes from doing something that feels illicit: touching artwork in a museum gallery. Surprisingly, a docent won’t scold you here. In this museum show, interaction with sound and sculpture is the point.
Kallmyer’s work often defies traditional museum and concert hall etiquette. Growing up in Washington, D.C., Kallmyer was a regular at punk concerts, played the guitar, and studied classical trumpet. In graduate school at CalArts, he switched his major from trumpet performance to fine art. Since then, he’s carved out a career as a Fluxus-inspired artist and musician, who lives comfortably at the intersection of both fields.
If you’ve attended new music concerts over the last decade, you’ve likely encountered Kallmyer. He was a longtime member of the new music ensemble Wild Up, and performed at National Sawdust with that group.
In Los Angeles, where he is based, Kallmyer often works closely with the Los Angeles Philharmonic as an artistic advisor, most recently contributing several new works to that orchestra’s centennial anniversary Fluxus Festival. During that festival he hammered nails into piano keys alongside Esa-Pekka Salonen as part of a performance of George Maciunas’ Piano Piece No. 13 (for Nam June Paik) and published a free artist-designed newsprint journal that featured contributions from festival artists like Ragnar Kjartansson, David Lang, and Alison Knowles. Titled JELLY (short for “Journal of Ecstatic LListening Ya’ll”), the journal was available free of charge in the Walt Disney Concert Hall lobby throughout the Fluxus Festival.
Come across them at Disney Hall, and Kallmyer’s pieces feel like unexpected acts of performance art. In a museum setting, Kallmyer’s work also feels radical. Rather than sauntering past sculptures and paintings, you might find yourself boldly making noise, touching a sculpture or taking a nap.
Regardless of the setting, Kallmyer’s works regularly inspire unique, memorable sound experiences. In Ensemble, he also fundamentally alters the museum-going experience.
Often when he’s planning a performance or installation, Kallmyer creates diagrams on paper to work out relationships between sound and people in a given space. Little dots represent people performing or listening, furiously scribbled marks stand in for music and musical energy, and straight lines emanating from the dots represent connection.
For Ensemble, the artist created a series of four paintings inspired by those sketches. Termed “Rough Energy Maps,” they are simple diagrams of the ways in which music connects us, or not.
In one of these paintings, which contains the description, “a sentimental performance that touches some but not all,” energetic blue scribbles shoot out from a big red dot, like music from a performer on a stage. Red lines reach out from that same point of origin, connecting to some but not all of the smaller dots that represent the audience. It’s a simple visual representation of a universally familiar experience. Another piece in this series imagines Celine Dion as a red dot, singing in three different landscapes: a visual image that evokes a vivid musical one.
I found myself spending extra time in front of these drawings. As the gentle sounds of bells and vocalizations flowed from a nearby video piece of the activated bell structure, I visualized the sounds of the bells as little red lines launched from one point to another. Suddenly, the entire room felt less like a gallery in a museum, and more like a sanctuary for sound connection.
During a recent studio visit, Kallmyer explained the tuning system behind the carillon instrument in Ensemble—something he says nobody really needs to know about to experience, understand, or enjoy the piece. Still, I found this background information fascinating.
“You’re getting all the pitches of the B-flat Major scale here, but through harmonics, and there are multiple pitch centers within the system,” he explained. “One of the things about Pythagoras that I admire [that] makes me return to these microtonal systems is that Pythagoras himself was a utopian. I also like that it’s non-western. So if you want to get into the philosophy of the piece, we can talk about how the piece is one that can accept a multiplicity of intentions. And so do the harmonics have a multiplicity of centers to them, so there is not one pure center, but many.”
Human harmony, embedded in harmonics. If you feel at peace in this space, like a member of an ensemble intimately connected to sound or to others, it’s not an illusion. It’s embedded in the very vibrations that fill the room.
Chris Kallmyer’s Ensemble is on exhibit at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art through Sept. 15; sbma.net
Catherine Womack is an L.A.-based arts and culture journalist who regularly contributes to the Los Angeles Times. Follow her on Twitter: @cewomackwrites
Classical music coverage on National Sawdust Log is supported in part by a grant from the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism, the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and the Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation. The Log makes all editorial decisions.
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