Soft Structure #1 at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art as a part of A Paradise Choir by Chris KallmyerEXPAND
Soft Structure #1 at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art as a part of A Paradise Choir by Chris Kallmyer
Ian Byers-Gamber

A Former D.C. Punk Created a Sound Experience for People Who Feel Out of Place at the Symphony

Chris Kallmyer is an artist. Or a musician. Or both, really. On his website he calls himself a “sound artist and performer.” In conversation he says he has “never had an easy time keeping within the boundaries [between disciplines].” And anyway, he says, those boundaries are artificial to begin with.

On Saturday, Nov. 18, Kallmyer is participating in the L.A. Philharmonic’s second annual Noon to Midnight event, a 12-hour celebration of experimental and new music. It’s the sort of setting Kallmyer seems born to thrive in, and one in which he has participated before. (Audiences may remember his work from last year’s Noon to Midnight, for which he brought 1,000 live crickets, gently amplified with high-fidelity microphones, into the concert hall.)

This year he’s taking over Walt Disney Concert Hall’s large, airy BP Hall. He’s using the space to install three amorphous “speculative concert halls” made out of fabric and steel. One of them is tiny, modeled after a Japanese teahouse and designed to accommodate just six audience members. Another is more than 30 feet high. All of them are flexible. None of them is soundproof. The music –– which Kallmyer curated and which includes solo cello, handcrafted glass bells, computer music and his own guitar playing –– will be performed simultaneously in all three spaces and will bleed freely from one to the next.

“I tried to pick music that will be porous socially and sonically,” he says, “just as the structures are also porous.”

Kallmyer grew up in the D.C. area, where he went to see punk bands and fell in love with the smelly, messy, communal atmosphere of those shows. He plays guitar, but he also plays classical trumpet. When he was in his late teens, he started going to the symphony.

“[At the symphony] I found myself feeling a little more than out of place,” he recalls. “It’s not the fault of the music or the musicians, but largely I just had this feeling that these spaces weren’t always for me. Later in life I’ve found out that other people feel like that as well.”

Kallmyer went to CalArts on a scholarship to study trumpet performance, but when he arrived on campus, he got sick. Sitting in bed unable to play his instrument, he had time to read and think about music and sound as art.

As an artist, Kallmyer’s work regularly deals with how, when and in what spaces listening occurs. “I’m interested in how the context around music changes its meaning or changes how we value it,” he says.

In collaboration with the Echo Park collective Machine Project, Kallmyer once put on a series of 19 micro-concerts inside the Hammer Museum coat check closet. “Experimental music is the most groan-inducing music,” he says. “So I wanted to see what would happen if you locked people in a closet with it.” The result? The coat closet served as an “intimacy amplifier” and “pieces that were quite serious in larger halls turned out to be quite funny in smaller spaces.”

A Former D.C. Punk Created a Sound Experience for People Who Feel Out of Place at the SymphonyEXPAND
Ian Byers-Gamber

Kallmyer currently has a piece at SFMOMA called Live Personal Soundtrack. Four days a week, museumgoers have the option to tether themselves to a guitarist via headphones. The guitarist then follows them around the museum as they explore the collection, providing a live, personalized soundtrack to the visual art they are viewing.

Ultimately, Kallmyer sees any concert as a strange sort of co-decision or contract between an artist and a listener. It’s an odd ritual: We gather together in a space and agree to shut up and listen for a set period of time.

At Noon to Midnight, there’s a lot going on and audiences have a plethora of choices when it comes to how to spend time and what to listen to. In Kallmyer’s piece alone there will be multiple artists performing in multiple spaces simultaneously. “The onus is on the audience to perform the act of listening,” Kallmyer explains.

In these sonic spaces, audience members get to choose their own adventure: They can focus on one performer, wander freely from one to the next, or step back and try to take them all in at once.

It's the sort of experience that makes L.A. Phil special. They give us grand, formal performances of the music of Mahler and Beethoven in Disney Hall. But just as important,they dedicate 12 back-to-back hours to programming only new works.

And that dedicated time allows artists like Kallmyer, who don’t really fit into any one box or present music that may not work as well in traditional, European-style concert halls, to play with sound in their own creative ways.

“This is my way of kicking the tires,” Kallmyer says.

Noon to Midnight, Walt Disney Concert Hall, 111 S. Grand Ave., downtown; Sat., Nov., 18, noon-mid.; from $25. (323) 850-2000, laphil.com.

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