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Massif Attack: Kali Malone interviewed
Miloš Hroch , January 30th, 2024 10:07

Miloš Hroch talks to composer and pipe organist Kali Malone about her astounding new album All Life Long, her relationship with mountaineering, creativity as athleticism and profanity. Home page portrait by Stephen O'Malley

Kali Malone by Julien Mignot

While working on her sixth album, All Life Long, composer Kali Malone spent several months at her Dad’s house in Colorado. She found herself surrounded by photos of mountaineers and would leaf through magazines dedicated to Alpinism in the living room. “My dad is a paraplegic now, but he used to be a mountaineer, climber, cyclist and big-time athlete", she tells me over a Zoom call, and it seems that the story behind her most ambitious record starts somewhere here. The pair went hiking a lot together in the surrounding mountains as a kid; later in teenage years, after her father’s accident, she went on a mountaineering course in the North Cascades: “I did it for him, to get to know him better. I spent 30 days above the tree line, climbing up glaciers using ice axes, on a rope along with a team of other people. They were all mountaineers; I wasn’t an athlete but an art kid used to hanging around at noise shows. It was so intense but completely sublime.” 

A decade and a half later, the mountaineering memorabilia acted like a Madeleine, triggering a chain reaction of spontaneous memories. “I became inspired by the poeticism of mountaineering”, the composer admits. It deeply affected the album she was working on. “All the contrasting harmonies contained within the sport: a fascination for what makes a person try to achieve something that could really hurt or kill them, but also give them a completely sublime experience; the selfishness of the sport, but also the teamwork." Malone, who is now based between Stockholm and Paris, started to draw analogies between finishing All Life Long and mountaineering, because “it was made over such a long period, ambitions were so strong, and I was not sure how I was going to be able to do it... I needed to have all of my wits and strength sharpened. To be like an athlete in order to achieve the compositions.” 

All Life Long is imposing work, as if complex harmonies of organ drones were mapping different paths of no less complicated life. Vibrating compositions bear pitch darkness and heaviness, but they are illuminated by shafts of light. After a series of electroacoustic releases – such as 2022's Living Torch, where she played Éliane Radigue’s ARP 2500 synthesiser accompanied by trombone and bass clarinet, and the monumental Does Spring Hide Its Joy (2023) with Malone on sine-wave oscillators, Stephen O’Malley on guitar and Lucy Railton on cello – she returns to her main instrument, the pipe organ. On All Life Long, her drone practice is expanded to encompass new emotional zones, with pieces written for a choir and brass ensemble that open up territories of vulnerability. Computational patterns have become ingrained in her work, and All Life Long now demonstrates that Malone can transpose this practice to other realms.

When Malone is playing the organ, time ceases to exist. She must be entirely level-headed and pay attention to every pattern repetition, and variation at once: all thoughts disappear. “Every slight move has a consequence; everything becomes sharpened. It’s very animalistic. There is little room to make a mistake in my compositions because of the counting system.” For instance, if Malone, or an accompanist like Stephen O'Malley – her main collaborator for the last three years – hold the chord too long, she needs to do the math to get it back in place or wait for a reset. Preparations, like organ registration (the rearrangement of compositions for the specific organ she's using, and the assignment of various stops and timbres), take from four to eight hours every concert, followed by 90 further minutes of total concentration. This, of course, can be physically exhausting, but playing the organ is, for Malone, the “clearest state of mind; there is this a type of athleticism that is rewarding.”

Listening to Malone bridging aesthetics and athletics reminds me of the filmmaker Werner Herzog, whose movies were often extreme in their production, putting himself and his crew into life and death situations. “Everyone who makes films has to be an athlete to a certain degree,” he stated in the book A Guide For The Perplexed. There is a link to mountaineering too; it has been the subject of several of his documentaries, as in 1985's The Dark Glow Of Mountains, where he followed Italian Alpinists Reinhold Messner and Hans Kammerlander in their extreme quest to climb two 8,000m peaks back to back. But the director is more interested in the existential aspect revealed by these tough situations rather than their performance. “Aren’t these mountains and peaks like something deep down inside us all?” Herzog asks through the voiceover at one point in the documentary. 

Malone shares a similar existentialism when she discusses All Life Long: “I think that athleticism exists in anything ambitious. There’s an athleticism in the introspection that goes with creating art. You have to commit to go deep and pull out the ugly and the beautiful, which I think these pieces have. The complexity of chord combinations shows the space between emotions: if you think of harmony as the space between two opposing things, there is space between ugly and beautiful, between life and death.”

Kali Malone by Stephen O'Malley

Even though most pipe organs were standardised during the period of the industrial revolution to have 'equal tempered tuning', there are still a handful of functional organs that retain their original historical 'meantone tuning'. To hear one is a rarity. They are only associated with certain strains of folk, renaissance, or baroque music, in the entire Western musical tradition.

“The history of tuning is fascinating”, says Malone. She researched systems of tuning and their cultural contexts during her studies at the Royal College of Music in Stockholm and is enthused by the subject: “Tuning organs used to be a craft. The temperament of the instrument would change based on the village and its elevation, and the humidity of the environment. The implementation of the piano, conservatories and orchestral music, utilizing fretted instruments together with non-fretted instruments, created this need for agreement on pitch, so everyone could collaborate.” Such a shift led to the further development of music in one sense, but something was lost. Technical details become prose when Malone, who as an experimental artist attempts to reinterpret centuries old polyphonic compositional methods, loses herself in a reverie about organs: “I’m trying to find another expression within it, and I’m finding so much. Endless new emotional territories are possible with these harmonies that are different. They’re more periodic, so you have a lot of vibrational textures within them. I’m interested in discovering these periodic relationships within the harmony and not necessarily demonstrating them just as an acoustic phenomenon but using that phenomenon poetically.”

These old machines with their meantone tuning systems which enable archaic harmonic expressions, became like mountains to Malone, and she began to seek them out in various locations. Metaphors can only take you so far though: they were not meant to be conquered but treated with respect. “To listen deeply to these harmonies and become acquainted with an instrument, you must hold the pitch for a long time. While working in early organ music – on albums such as Organ Dirges 2016-2017 (2018) or her breakthrough The Sacrificial Codes (2019) which helped to establish the composer’s reputation as a star in the contemporary drone firmament – she didn’t have access to many of these old machines. She simply used what was available at the school in Stockholm. After The Sacrificial Code, everything changed; Malone started receiving invitations to art residencies in churches around Europe, and it opened many doors. “It feels great to be trusted with the key to the church. I don’t hold that lightly. There’s a very friendly nature often among the church workers. I go there at night when it’s already closed. We say hi to each other – the priest, the custodian or the janitor; I have a coffee in the office; and then I start to compose. Since I’ve been doing so much work tuning organs in churches, it is normal for me now.” All Life Long was recorded on four organs with historical tunings dating from the 15th to 17th centuries, located in Switzerland, Amsterdam, and Sweden.

Malone, who is 30 this year, grew up quickly. Around the age of 13 she started attending DIY shows at warehouse venues in Denver, where she was exposed to experimental music. “I was lucky to have cool, much older friends. All my friends had graduated high school by the time I was 16, and I was a bit bored.” Wanting to escape she graduated two years early. She was 16 when she went to study at a liberal arts college in New England, taking classes in classical music, social sciences, literature, and sustainable agriculture. This is where she began making experimental and improvised music herself, dedicating free time to recording with tape machines and pedals. She bonded with Swedish composer Ellen Arkbro at a house show in NYC after travelling from Western Massachusetts in order to procure a fake ID so she could see a concert, and this chance encounter put twist in her life. After she turned 18 Malone decided to relocate to Sweden: “I was making a lot of big decisions for myself at a young age, and I was making my own money. All of these things spiralled and led to where they are now.”

Singing has been part of Malone’s life since she was a small kid. She trained in classical vocal music and cut her teeth singing in state choirs only stopping due to the move to Stockholm, as this whole new world took up all of her time – learning Swedish, studying electroacoustic music at the Royal College of Music, Elektronmusikstudion and the artist run venue Fylkingen; plus her deepening friendship with Ellen Arkbro, and composers Caterina Barbieri and Maria W Horn. On All Life Long, however she reestablished the link and singing has been part of her compositional process since ever. “It allows me to compose at any time; when on a plane or train, for example, because I can embody the sound within myself. There’s a visceral and physical empathy to it. I can visualise the harmony because of my training as a singer.” 

Drone music often feels like it is coming from a different sphere, one outside of language – and finding words for the choral pieces on All Life Long, which were performed by Nantes’ Macadam Ensemble, was a challenge: “This music was so heavy for me, and I was trying to find the words, that would be able to match this. I was singing the music using open vowels, and these poems, which had been so important for me as a teenager, came back to me.” The title track, 'All Life Long', takes its lyrics from a poem by British critic and poet Arthur Symons, which African American sociologist W.E.B. Du Bois used as a prelude to a chapters in the book The Souls Of Black Folk. Elsewhere, Du Bois quotes folk songs, spirituals and hymns, as they, in his words, “are the articulate message of the slave to the world” and “tell of death and suffering and unvoiced longing toward a truer world, of misty wanderings and hidden ways”. The lines from Du Bois’ book took a full-time residency in the back of Malone’s psyche. “The feeling of these poems: there’s something just so deeply human and relatable to them”, she remembers. “It was just a miracle that the syllables matched up with the music. It felt very personal and vulnerable to look at these texts that inspired me when I was a teenager.”

“The only time I got spooked was when I was recording in Switzerland with the cellist Leila Bordreuil. We had all the lights off, just lit by candles.” Malone was playing the organ, and Bordreuil was doing incredible cello feedback, but suddenly, they stopped. “It was heavy. It sounded like people were throwing stones at the sides of the church. Then we realised that the heating went off, and the building was adjusting to temperature and creaking everywhere." She adds: “As long as I’m playing music, nothing can scare me. There is a sort of brightness that overcomes all the shadows.” There was a different kind of scare – this one more traumatic – last May. Malone’s concert – which was supposed to take place at the Church Saint-Cornély in the French town Carnac – was cancelled due to a demonstration launched by around thirty people affiliated with the Catholic integralists, an extreme far-right religious group. The local newspaper Ouest-France reported that protestors brandished signs with slogans such as “Electro in a church, what are our bishops doing?” and “My house is a house of prayer”. They called her concerts “profanatory” and “sulfurous”. 

It was not an isolated incident but part of a broader undercurrent growing in Europe and beyond during recent years. Catholic integralism wishes to depart radically from modern liberal democracy, and these religious extremists reject liberal principles, such as church-state separation, with intensity and conviction. Anna von Hausswolff had concerts cancelled in Nantes and Paris in December 2021 after pressure by affiliated groups, with members consequently harassing her in other countries and subjecting her to disturbing online harassment. These are not isolated cases though: French weekly magazine Télerama reported about other instances of concert cancellation during the last year.

“After Carnac, there was a lot of national and international press about a situation that was completely out of my control. That was the first time I ever found myself in political cartoons; in a media situation that went outside of music,” Malone says about the aftermath of the Carnac incident. There will be a court case in March which will present the musician as one of the victims of the incident.

The Mayor of Carnac has started legal action, with multiple charges filed against the local leader of the extremist group for the Brittany region, including suppression of the right of freedom of artistic expression under threat of violence (an article of French law that was amended after the Charlie Hebdo attacks), and another related to the fact that a mayor’s deputy was slapped by one of the extremists. “So, it’s an important case. I’m really hoping that this can change something. I still believe it’s so important that we make music in these spaces and have them open to people,” she says. “Whether we want to call it spiritual or not, something is happening during these performances that is very positive and respectful. I just want to keep that going on.”

In light of these events, All Life Long's opening piece, 'Passage Through Spheres', can sound like a statement. The lyrics are in Italian and taken from a 2007 essay, 'In Praise Of Profanation', by Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben. For him, the act of profanation is a crucial political question, which starts with sacred places and concludes with broader thoughts about capitalism as a modern religion. Malone chose a section that translates as: “There is a profane contagion, a touch that disenchants and returns to use what the sacred had separated and petrified.” Agamben distinguishes between secularisation, a form of repression, and profanation, which deactivates power and returns spaces to the use of ordinary people without abolishing it. “'Profane' is not a bad word. The profane is our earthly realm,” comments Malone. “There is something taboo about even saying that word, but I was inspired by how Agamben wrote about these places, which are strict and sacred only for a few people. I saw the connection to what I was trying to do by bringing instruments that were excluded from most of society and used exclusively for liturgical music. Bringing them back to the use of people, not in any way to disrespect or defile the instrument or the spaces.”

With every record Malone makes, she needs to take some moments of solitude before sending it to the label. Contemplation can take several months, and she tries to figure out what the music has taught her. “This album taught me a lot about life,” she confesses, however banal that may sound on first pass. Throughout this process, Malone decided to use a very personal photo for the cover, taken on Tennessee Pass in the Rocky Mountains, Colorado. “After one of his doctor’s appointments, he wanted to go for a drive, guiding me up Battle Mountain. He ended up taking us past the place where a car ran him off the road while he was cycling, paralysing him. He knew the road thoroughly and retraced every aspect of that bike ride. I could tell he had thought about that ride for almost 20 years.” In the photo, Malone is wearing a blue uniform and is standing in the middle of the decaying military ruins from an Alpine warfare mountaineering training centre for World War II soldiers, surrounded by bleak vastness: “The uniform is actually his. He had a stint as a jet instructor in the Air Force. The photo shoot was spontaneous and just a fun thing to do when I found his uniforms. I didn’t conceive any of this being overly serious at the time, but now, with some reflection and in the context of music, it feels very personal and vulnerable to use that picture.”

The idea of vulnerability turns up again and again in our conversation; it exists during moments when Malone is not just another athlete, not a composer executing their job with cold perfection. It is a quality one might not connect with powerful pipe organs – their robust structures and dissonant drones – that have the power to shake the human body. But vulnerability can be heard on All Life Long in pieces such as 'Moving Forward' and 'Prisoned On Watery Shore' with gently quivering organ. As if the listener is being told: the burden we all carry with us may be great and heavy, but somehow, we manage. Drone, for Kali Malone, is not a device to impose power on its audience but a way to connect with oneself and others: “When I am in the music, I can time travel between my memories. That’s also where the title comes from; it’s not just that poem. Music is my lifelong companion. If I’m alone forever, I have this companion within me that has always been there.”

All Life Long will be released by Ideologic Organ on 9 February