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In the Studio: Chris Kallmyer's Furniture Music

On sound, nature, art, and furniture.


In the Studio: Chris Kallmyer's Furniture Music

We crossed paths with Chris through a shared friend. The chance to work on wind-chimes was the perfect opportunity to explore a new sense in the spaces that we create. They are a product of an ongoing conversation with Chris where we explored how to make them in a way that was distinctly us. Made from burly old-growth redwood salvaged from Sea Ranch, and tuned to Joni Mithchell’s “California” they speak to the place that we call home through soothing and atmospheric sound.

How did your interest in music develop? Were you always musically inclined?
Early on, I had a real attraction to music. I don’t come from a line of musicians, but music was easy to find growing up. Family parties with enthusiastic uncles thrummed with records by Bruce Springsteen, Motown, and traditional Irish music. But growing up outside of Washington DC, I quickly became enthralled with the city’s punk scene. In my teenage years, I picked up a guitar and started a group with friends, playing wild and sweaty shows – making our own music – opening for bands on Discord Records. This drew me closer to music as a tool for social good and community cohesion. After this beginning in the heartfelt and politically charged community in DC, I went to school as a trumpet player and was introduced to classical music, and eventually to music from around the world. This music continues to inform my practice today.

Has your taste in music changed over the years?
Oh for sure! I’ve always had an omnivorous appetite, so nothing is constant in the studio. My tastes go like the seasons. When I was at CalArts, I listened to pretty experimental and academic stuff but also was adopted by the visionary improviser, Wadada Leo Smith. As I write this, I’m listening to Ye Vagabonds, an Irish duo with fabulous close harmonies. The turntable is also seeing a lot of Hiroshi Yoshimura, Satsuki Shibano, and Takahashi Ashikawa – quiet pioneers of the Japanese environmental ambient genre.

How did you shift from life as a musician to developing a studio practice as an artist?
The big shift for me was finding out how much music could come alive outside of the concert hall or the LP. After school, I began creating immersive performances that merged music and architecture. These multi-disciplinary projects preempted a decade of showing experimental installations, publications, and performances at museums and symphony halls. I developed deep relationships with art collectives like Machine Project as well as new chamber orchestras, like Wild Up. Working with groups, I found that the divisions between fields are more for the benefit of institutions than artists, and I learned to float freely between music, contemporary art, and design.

In recent years, I wanted to work more directly with architects and organize my sculptural work into the Furniture Music project – a studio where I can develop sounding home goods that bring people into greater communion with the lived moment – their immediate environment like their homes, or the natural world beyond their four walls.

How did you get into making “Furniture Music.” Were there any projects that helped you arrive there?
I’ve always been interested in this idea of Furniture Music, a term coined by the turn-of-the-century French composer, Erik Satie. This concept describes a proto-ambient genre from the early 1900s: music that Satie hoped would furnish the home in atmosphere and aura. I wanted to pick up this banner for my own designs – a project where I might create new sounding works for the home with ambient and breezy tones. The studio concept has helped me to step into a dialogue with architects and clients who believe sound has a role to play in the creation of space. For example, I was brought in to solve a problem for a blind client. He was finding it difficult to locate his home with his dependence on ride-shares and taxis. In response, I carved a fountain for his front garden to effectively locate his home. The fountain is a beautiful addition for the sighted and is an essential piece of wayfinding for the visually impaired.

With your interdisciplinary practice, what does your studio look like?
The studio is a real mix of fabrication tools and musical instruments with big work benches and lots of light. In one corner, I have a 1952 Hammond organ, and in the other is a 1952 Delta bandsaw with a smattering of hand tools. The space is located in a converted agricultural shed on the Silver Penny Farm in Petaluma, CA. It’s an amazing piece of land – a property run by Sue Conley of Cowgirl Creamery, that attempts to put into dialogue agriculture and conservation. Sue is my aunt and mentor - and while I was off touring for many years for commissions, festivals, and concerts, she was a constant in my life. My work rhymes with many of Sue’s interests and soon enough, I hope that we’ll be making bells for the sheep that graze in the surrounding fields on the farm.

There seems to be a connection between music and nature in your work. How does nature influence your music?
I have so much to say about this – we could probably chat for ages. Music and nature are intimately tied. I think that sound is a lens through which we can understand natural spaces. One could say that our ability to sit in nature and observe will be the most critical skill needed during this time of accelerated climate change.

I think that one of music’s great qualities is its ability to contextualize other sounds around it. For instance, a windchime may sound great, but it also invites you to listen to the sounds already present around a home. The birds – the rain – nearby traffic ¬– your neighbors chatting – the wind through the trees – the mower next door. I hope that the chime fosters a quality of attention that you can bring to the garden, your partner, the late afternoon breezes, the setting sun. Music celebrates and ornaments the act of being alive.

Can you tell us about the materiality of your chimes? Are there material choices that you make with sound in mind?
I use aluminum tubing because of its resonant and lightweight qualities. These are then sent off for copper or powder coating, which dampens down on the high-harmonics and makes the tone a bit warmer. I like the copper because they’ll patina over time, taking on the character of the weather present on site. I work with harmonies informed by cultural touch points, in this case, an excerpt of Joni Mitchell’s ode to the west coast, the best coast, and the place we call home, “California.”

The wood for these chimes comes from Evan Shively and Arborica in Marshall, CA. I’ve known Evan for years through a big communal thanksgiving that happens at my Aunt’s. In the past we’ve shucked the oysters together. The current run of redwood comes from a cap of old growth material that Evan sourced from Sea Ranch – its curly burly and is a pleasure to have around the studio. I’ve recently begun using redwood roots for the strikers, which are really hard and make a great sound.

How did this partnership with Commune come to be?
I’m really interested in how we inhabit spaces and so I’ve always admired Commune’s intimate and hand-hewn aesthetic. You design spaces that I wish I could live in – but more than that I’ve secretly wanted to make sound in them; playing guitar at the breakfast table, tea kettle hissing on the stove, a wind chime out the back door. A mutual friend made the introduction to Roman and we hatched plans for our first designs. It turns out after so many years in LA we have shared perspectives and experiences with the city. It’s felt less like something new and more like finding yourself with distant family members; common bookshelves – similar reference points – a shared perspective – near kin and fellow travelers. I’m excited for what we make together.

What’s next?