Interview: Kali Malone

The composer and sound artist on the endurance element of her work and the epiphanies of her new album.

“You get a high from focusing on something for that long,” electroacoustic composer and musician Kali Malone says of performing her fifth album, Does Spring Hide Its Joy. Featuring cellist Lucy Railton, Stephen O’Malley on guitar, and Malone playing sine-wave oscillators, the album was recorded in 2020 at former East German broadcast centre Funkhaus. Over the course of three hours, it coaxes listeners into deep listening by combining microtonal melodies and earthy dissonance.

The trio creates chords together while having the freedom to improvise with octaves and amplitude. Minor adjustments bring about unwieldy ripple effects for the rest of the ensemble, fostering a thrilling group dynamic. Though normally very smiley, when applause rolls in after a performance Malone struggles to come down from a state of hyper-fixation and display emotion. “I can’t really switch into being part of the common metabolism of the room,” she states matter-of-factly, her glossy salt-and-pepper hair catching the winter sun like a Pantene commercial.

Recently, Kali Malone has been thinking about the endurance element of her work. “My father used to be a huge cyclist and a mountaineer and climber, and he always wanted me to be an athlete,” she says. At sixteen, he sent her mountaineering in the Cascades. “I was this smoking, art/music kid with all these jocks, and we were on ropes sleeping in blizzards and living above the alpine line for a month,” she recounts with feigned horror. Now there are parallels between her live performances and the athletic rigour of such expeditions. “Everything [my dad] did was the most rigid and hardcore thing, and no compromise. Now I’m realising I’m really his daughter. We’re very similar,” Malone laughs.

We meet for lunch at Parcelle’s, a cramped bistro in Paris’s third arrondissement with crisp linen tablecloths and broken-edge mosaic flooring, which she has wanted to try since spotting it on Floating Points’s Google Maps. Having woken up just an hour before our interview, Malone, wearing elegant workwear-adjacent basics, orders a glass of natural red alongside her coquilles Saint-Jacques in lieu of morning coffee. Cracking jokes and making candid observations about industry dynamics, like the ethical swamp that is mentorship, her first impression is far from rigid. Malone’s hardcore-ness, however, is immediately clear. When she speaks about music, her prose reaches a level of technicality that turns back on itself and becomes poetry. Her artistic origin story, too, is dotted with acts of extreme commitment.

After meeting Ellen Arkbro at a house show, she moved to Stockholm from Massachusetts, where she had gone to study music. Armed with just her “Fender Blues guitar amp and some pedals,” as she told Tiny Mixtapes in 2018, eighteen-year-old Malone quickly immersed herself in the Swedish capital’s electroacoustic and DIY scenes. She sharpened her compositional skills studying at the Royal College of Music while involvement with spaces like EMS provided access to rare synths and lifelong collaborators (Railton included). Interviewing organ tuner Jan Börjesson for her thesis spiralled into an apprenticeship that required diligently tending to organs in churches nationwide. This gave rise to albums Organ Dirges 2016–17 and 2019’s The Sacrificial Code, a cult favourite that stuns with its emotional depth and use of close miking, recording the organs free from environmental reverb, which they are often associated with.

Just how galaxy-brained Malone’s scores are is revealed to me when she patiently interprets her new sound installation, Matrix Diptyque. Commissioned by curator Agnes Gryczkowska for the exhibition Au-delà, a study in rituals through the lens of contemporary and historical art at Lafayette Anticipations. When I visit the vast former industrial building in February, a few days before Au-delà opens to the public, Malone’s opiate composition for three organs and four percussionists permeates all five floors, adding an unexpected air of calm to the frantic energy of art handling and fire alarm safety tests. After touring the show’s first two chapters—ancestral rituals (including work from producer, DJ, and artist Crystallmess and eternally trending eleventh-century nun Hildegard Von Bingen) and transformation and metamorphosis (replete with a Punic sacrificial stele), I land on the third and final floor, rebirth. Here, a listening space for Malone’s piece lies within a vertically bountiful glass and steel atrium, effusing the atheistic minimalism of an Apple store.

The key to this sound installation is a numerical matrix hanging on the opposing wall. A grid of sans-serif numbers—eight rows down and four across—loom over disintegrating grayscale, denoting the rhythmical score. “This matrix is really interesting because from every direction you have diagonals, so you have the eights, the fours, the sixes, and the threes,” she says, tracing lines down the print, before admitting with a cheeky grin, “which is kind of hard to do.” It is now eight minutes into her explanation of the matrix, and I am secretly relieved to hear “diagonals,” a word and concept I definitively grasp. There lies the beauty of Malone’s work. It can provide an ecstatic, moving experience to someone whose palms start sweating at the very mention of “mathematical alignment,” and others can find a special kind of poetry in how the sausage gets made. On a recent trip home to rural Colorado to care for her dad after a surgery, he asked what she was working on for Au-delà. “I went over and explained how [the matrix] corresponded to the rhythms. His mind was blown. He was like, ‘This is so cool!’ because mathematically he understands it so well.” A physicist who generally viewed his daughter more as the family artist, the pair “spent the rest of the day lying in bed doing matrix operations together.”

Malone’s artistry is hardly sentimental. She was inundated with the music academy way of thinking that deems your emotional and personal life to be separate from the music. “Of course, no one’s saying this outright, but it’s the undercurrent of the culture in Western music education that it can be taboo,” she says, noting that this was her mindset while making The Sacrificial Code. “Then, when I heard the music after I had a lot of space from it, I realised I heard so many messages to my future self in it.” She’s come to think of her pieces as sigils, a symbol used in magic for manifestation, where you write an intention, erase all the repeating letters, and make a picture with what’s left. “[My music] is so non-linearly made. It’s like this puzzle that comes together, and then I have to figure out what the hell it means afterwards,” she says. This led her to describe her work as a sigil in reverse. She has to return much later to uncover her subconscious intentions.

“I don’t think I’ll ever make anything as good as it again,” Malone says, beaming about her next release, composed for a brass ensemble and choir. Where normally she’s interested in creating complex patterns that leave deep impressions over long periods, this new work embraces ephemera. Until she can share it with the world sometime this fall, Malone is basking in where she’s landed. Recording Does Spring Hide Its Joy coincided with being relieved from “so much shitty stuff” in her personal life. “I had been going through a horrible time in early 2020, and then everything just lifted and settled,” she explains.

Coming of age in noise and hardcore scenes that sometimes made her feel invisible or like “just somebody’s girlfriend” has meant many a complex to unlearn. But Malone, who’s not yet thirty, is fortifying her commitment to intuition. Her new work is “full of epiphanies,” stemming from a practice she’s cultivated and articulated over many years and projects. “It’s really easy to kick yourself in the butt and want to re-do things that you made before,” she says. “But you always have to trust your past self.”

WORDS: Maya-Róisín Slater
PICTURES: Nhu Xuan Hua
ART DIRECTION: Nhu Xuan Hua & Laure-Anne Kayser

STYLING: Lisa Jarvis
SET DESIGN: Christian Feltham
SET DESIGN ASSISTANTS: Ugo Legrand, Johan Lartigau HAIR Roger Cho

MAKE UP: Hicham Ababsa
LIGHTING ASSISTANT: Olivia Tran, Thomas Jardin DIGITAL OPERATOR Vittorio Biscaro
PA: Alix Malnati
STUDIO: Le Studio Français

This feature was originally published in Fact’s S/S 2023 issue, which is available to buy here.

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