Kali Malone – Mind Wandering

Cast Of Mind, Kali Malone’s masterful drone record, represents one of the musical highlights of 2018. The album features a Buchla 200 synthesizer alongside a selection of acoustic woodwind and brass instruments, all in just intonation tuning. Malone first explored her fascination for this tonal system in the experimental scene in Stockholm, particularly in the context of a group a friends and collaborators interested in microtonal studies and alternatives to equal-temperament tuning. Malone grew up in Denver, Colorado, but has been living, studying, and working in the Swedish city since 2012. 

Besides this release on the Lucerne-based imprint, Malone has also published music on her own label Xkatedral and Ascetic House, the label which released Organ Dirges 2016 – 2017 at the beginning of 2018, which features another important musical reference point for Malone: the pipe organ. On the one hand, she keeps returning to the instrument in her musical practice. On the other hand, it also has become part of Malone’s professional life, as she has begun working as an organ tuner in Sweden alongside Jan Börjeson.

At the end of March 2019, Malone performed an organ concert—playing both solo and with Erik Enocksson—at an event organized by OOR Saloon and Hallow Ground at the St. Jakob’s church in Zurich. Alexandra Baumgartner met Malone before the concert to interview her for Lucerne-based magazine zweikommasieben. The interview was initially published in issue #19 of their print magazine and we use the opportunity to publish it again in the lead-up to Graveyard Shift on the 18th November, where Malone will be playing live together with Stephen O'Malley and Lucy Railton. The interview focuses on Malone's work with the organ, and it's worth reading as an introduction to a practice that has, of course, evolved since then, but still relies on many similar reference points. 

by Alexandra Baumgartner
published on 02. November 2021

Alexandra Baumgartner: Your live concerts, like the one you played in Zurich with Erik Enocksson, differ strongly from your recording practice in the studio. In the latter, you usually record every pitch one by one to the beat of a metronome. In what ways does the setting affect your music?

Kali Malone: One thing that differs between the record and the live concert is that I perform the pieces for much longer—for as long as I can; basically until I lose concentration. The way Erik and I play is a kind of the biggest exercise: how long can I concentrate and not fuck it up? We read from number matrices with metronomes flashing in our faces. In this process, it’s so easy to get lost, because there are so many different sounds going on at the same time. So the second musician (like Erik) and I are reading from different number matrices, but we’re in the same octaves and registers, playing very similar timbres of the organ’s pipes. Therefore, it’s easy to wonder, “Is that my sound or is it yours?” And the minute something else catches your attention, like becoming conscious of being in a room with people behind you—even if you start thinking too much about counting itself—you’ll mess up. So, when I start realizing that my mind is wandering, I will nod at the second musician and let them know that we have to finish on this progression, and then it’s over. On Organ Dirges 2016-2017, the lengths of the pieces were the longest I could concentrate at that time. Those were my first attempts at making this type of music, and my concentration period was much shorter than it is now. I’ve been able to train myself to play the pieces for up to 20 minutes.

AB: Your practice highlights the role of the human element present in music: the decision to consciously challenge yourself changes a piece during a concert, but it will also allow it to evolve in time since you’re growing with the process, too.

KM: Yes, completely. Playing live evolves the musical process. For the show in Zurich, we close-microphoned the the specific pipe registers I was using and spatially arranged it amongst four speakers, which completely changed the sound. To me, the result felt closer to the record. When I play my music acoustically in a church, it can also feel like I’m just playing church music. It’s kind of hard to identify what this music is to me if I’m just playing it normally, the way a church’s cantor or organ player in general would do. An element of obscurity is erased when I take away the amplification component. Also, I’m really excited about this new process of putting microphones inside the organ… And you get really insane delays! Today we’ve been trying to calibrate the microphones to delay them in time with the acoustics of the room. But then, when you’re up at the organ, you have strange phasing things happening. It can be distracting or inspiring. [laughs] So yeah, that’s how this live perfomance develops…

AB: You mentioned that you don’t want to have the feeling of playing “church music.” Yet, the organ is culturally and physically bound to the church. For some, the church might be a place they rather avoid for various and understandable reasons. How do you deal with the circumstances in which you perform your music?

KM: Well, I come from a background of a lot of repressed tensions towards Catholicism from my childhood. I never thought I would be in a church again after years of Catholic school. Now, I frequently find myself in churches as the apprentice to the organ tuner. So doing that work, it’s not like a live show where I get to do my own thing while being around people with similar mindsets. It’s about working with the cantor, the priest, and often elderly Christian people. It’s about being careful with what I wear and what I say and how I present myself—you know, just trying to be being a typical “pleasant” person. And that’s hard. I’m used to being much more erratic and spontaneous than that. I love tuning organs, but the cultural element attached to a church is almost damping the idea that I’m profaning its structure—which is what I originally was so inspired by. I used to be like, “wow, I’m allowed into these churches, I have different beliefs, how can I subtly profane this experience, tune the pipes pure.” Now, however, I am actually spending more time there, and trying to do it for a living. Therefore, it is somewhat damaging to constantly think mischievously like that. I’ve been trying to find a middle ground of respect and kind of being there out of utility rather than anything else.

AB: How did your job as an organ tuner influence the way you play the instrument?

KM: For example, the piece “Fifth Worship” on Organ Dirges 2016-2017 features the harmonic progression that you use to check the tuning of the pipes. You put this remote-controlled pressure pad on top of the keys and control it via a remote while you’re inside the organ. You can program it to go up by whole steps in 4th and 5th intervals. This way, you’re able to check which intervals are beating equally and which ones are too pure. If you’re tuning an organ in equal temperament, then its pipes should all be beating equally, and if you have 5ths that are too pure, it’s not good—even though they sound incredible. So, the first time I took part in tuning an organ, that was the way we did it. And I was like: “This is music!” These beating interference patterns have definitely affected the way I play the organ, and I’m very interested in holding chords for a long time to understand their beating relationships. The tuning fluctuates so incredibly because of the room’s constant temperature changes. You have things falling into pure tuning, which is really amazing. That’s what’s so exciting about going around to different organs because you’ll find purities and extreme beatings in certain keys.

AB: The organ sounds like a real creature to me: it lives in the church, breathes its air, and that affects its characteristics and the way its pipes beat.

KM: They’re so alive and so fragile. I’m constantly surprised at how a little moth, a fly, or a dead spider can seemingly put them out of working order. I took a train for four hours into the countryside of Sweden once to help tune and repair an organ. The church’s staff had issues with several pipes that for months wouldn’t sound. We just took the pipe out, blew in it, and out came a dead spider. Organs are these giant, majestic things that symbolize power—and just a little insect can make them not work.

AB: You already mentioned the differences between equal temperament and just intonation, as well as the characteristics of beating interference patterns. Since you’ve started studying tonal systems outside of the western standardized twelve-tone system, tuning has become a very important element in your music. Do you remember what kindled your interest in the first place?

KM: I have been part of a small group of friends in Stockholm who all have been interested in just intonation. We started learning together, working with guitars, and use more of a Pythagorean-style tuning. Some people in that group, Ellen Arkbro and Markus Paul, later went to study with La Monte Young. But before all of this, a friend showed me a record by Kushal Das where he plays a surbahar, an Indian bass sitar. It totally wrecked me and so I ended up learning about the 22 Indian Shruti scale. And after that I was just obsessed! When I listened to these scales, I had emotional experiences I had never felt before. Harmonic experiences totally inform our emotional experiences, and emotional experiences inform our idea of the world. It sounds corny, but it can totally change how you identify with things via music. That’s obviously why music is so important in the first place.

AB: So how do we get around the twelve-tone system? Do we need to re-shift something in our heads in the first place?

KM: Yes and no. My brain definitely has been re-shifted. I mean, thinking proportionally, as you do with just intonation, is difficult but once it snaps it interferes with other things, for instance, I’m having a hard time counting. Like if your counting between one and three, is it two or is it three? Do you start from zero or do you start from one? With these things, I feel like I’ve lost it in some way. I’ve been trying to re-organize my brain so much with proportional values and making sense out of... Well, I come from a system of equal temperament that doesn’t make any sense. Nothing is proportionate or rational in that system. Coming from a system that does not make any sense and then trying to go towards something that is rational and sensible confuses a lot of other things for you. Because it is also the time were living in. It doesn’t make sense. Equal temperament is also connected to economy and modernisation. It was primarily formed because of economic reasons, so different groups of instruments could be played with each other, modulate together, form factory style orchestras, crank out tunes for the conert hall, standardize instrument designs.... Once things—in this case instruments—become standardized, it’s more difficult to break them. It’s like the perfect code for music and economy to keep on being productive and locked in a feedback cycle where nothing new can happen.

AB: To me—as a non-musician—this sounds like a hidden, fascinating world! And I’m very interested in the impact it has in our society. But what should we do with this knowledge?

KM: I don’t think it has to be this radical break with equal temperament or that sort of thing, it‘s just that it can be so inspiring and really liberating to know that there are more ways of doing things than what we’ve been told. Now, there are a lot of opportunities to explore just intonation and other temperaments; plenty of open source programs and other tools.

AB: Above all musical aspects, harmony holds a special position in your music. What does your composition process look like? Do you have a feeling that guides you towards a certain harmony or do you create your progressions by working on the instrument?

KM: It depends what the instrument is that I am working with and what its actual capabilities are. For example, there is this organ in Stockholm that is tuned in a late meantone temperament called “Kirnberger Three .” It has a fair amount of pure intervals in it, but it’s only known for its pure 3rds in C major. I discovered these other pure intervals, but I couldn’t modulate them to create similar types of harmonic progressions that I had done in Organ Dirges 2016-2017 in equal temperament. I actually couldn’t change cords at all. So, I just started doing octave inversions of these three pure intervals . Afterwards I wanted to be able to add a pure 7th so I calculated what frequency the organ’s A was and then used the Hayward tuning vine to find the exact ratio. I worked with some clarinet recordings that I’ve taken before and tried to pitch and pitch them until I got there. It’s a lot of web-like thinking, trying to figure out what intervals you’re searching for and with which harmonic primes you’re dealing with, and then from that deducting the ratios...

AB: So, there is no fixed script for how to go about these just intonations?

KM: Yeah, that’s the thing. I have my own method but I often get lost. I try to talk to people about the process in their brains and whether they have a more convenient way of thinking. But you discover so much through your carving out your own process.

AB: Although there is no fixed way and go-to strategy, the whole process sounds very much rule-based. I was wondering how that impacts your work. On the one hand, structure provides a sense of security. On the other hand, it seems like a very conscious strategy for building something new. How would you describe it?

KM: By using these strict parameters and generative structures, it’s also a way of stepping back and letting another part of the mind be active. I come from a background of improvised music, and therefore I know a form of complete expression, and how to indulge in this emotional realm. Playing this kind of improvised music, that’s not so necessary anymore to me. I have tried going into something that’s more thought through, determined, and that doesn’t only exist for me to feel cathartic and good after the experience. It’s difficult, maybe that’s why I like it. It’s rewarding to persevere through a predetermined structure and then finally hear the results of something I have composed but couldn’t really have imagined what it was going to sound or feel like beforehand. I used to program everything in Pure Data, so I would immediately hear the generative elements of the music, and just the possibility of creating an infinite amount of variations started to make the process feel less precious. But now, with the organ, it takes much more time and focus, and then the process becomes charged with a specific intention. After playing it enough times, you kind of understand when the repetition is happening, but you don’t really know at what time it’s going to happen—and when it happens it’s the thing that makes the most sense. It’s this sort of feeling that there is a prophecy in the music beyond my control. I’ve been reading this book called Noise: the Political Economy of Music by Jaques Attali and he has a really nice approach to thinking about prophecy in music and how it’s the first inkling of what is going to happen in a society. And that fuels my interest in working in this way.