For the next four weeks, I’ll be contributing a series of articles on fields outside music—from mycology to experimental art—and considering how they may impact music and our process of making and responding to work as performers, composers, listeners, and thinkers. I’d like to delve into other fields in an effort to understand how other disciplines meet the challenges we face.
Writing these posts has come at a self-reflective time for me, having recently relocated to San Francisco from Los Angeles, my home for the last seven years. In trying to meet some new people in my new town, I went to a listening party with some fantastic local composers and performers. The music shared was smart, fun, and diverse: excerpts from new groups like Dawn of Midi, icons of early hip-hop, and just intonation masterworks. But while walking home I had a nagging set of questions about my experience discussing music with a group of musicians: To what end are we sharing these musical works? For growth and development? Is this the best way to nurture our work as post-graduate performers and composers? What experiences evolve our methods and challenge our ideas?
Cage’s perennial question comes to mind: “Which is more musical, a truck passing by a factory or a truck passing by a music school? Are the people inside the school musical, and the ones outside the school unmusical? ” I aim to extend Cage’s comment into the real world of learning and primary experience: Does studying music teach us more than working in a factory would teach us about music? What if my San Francisco friends had gotten together to knead dough and bake loaves of bread rather than listen to recordings? Would learning about and exercising a specialized labor lead us to be more or less musical people? Would it change the way we make our work?
I wonder what unexpected growth and development would arise through a collective study of carpentry, meditation, motherhood, performance art, Japanese architecture, olfaction, butchering, wood chopping, and long-distance running. The potential for discoveries about the self seem palpable, helping to develop our process of making music in form and substance, attitude and approach.
John Cage himself lived this potentiality as an accomplished mushroom hunter. He said in his 1954 essay “Music Lover’s Field Companion” that “much can be learned about music by devoting one’s self to the mushroom.” Cage hunted mushrooms his whole life, for a time supporting himself by selling foraged ‘shrooms to New York restaurants and speaking at mycology conferences. His experiences walking the woods and bearing witness to his environment informed his work as a music-maker and thinker in ways we can never fully appreciate. One may try to say that that finding a mushroom is like discovering a melody, but identifying a mushroom is far more complicated/different/unexpected than we’d expect as outsiders. However, make yourself an insider to a community of mycologists and you will find that the diversity of cultural knowledge accumulated in such a mundane act is deep and varied like our own tradition, going back thousands of years, connecting us to people who have gone before and are here no longer. The activity is simultaneously ancient and strikingly modern, perhaps because of the heightened focus and presence needed to seek out mushrooms.
In sussing out these ideas, I was eager to dump on our community of theorist-composers as possible culprits to a music made in the vacuum of academia. I know that this is harsh and wrong, but in conveying this to Matt Sargent, a professor at Bard College and my longtime friend, he reminded me that a deliberate study of counterpoint and four-part writing is an asset, not something to criticize. A more generative way of learning may lead towards an additive knowledge base that accumulates ideas rather than sheds them. We should live counterpoint and woodworking, orchestration and animal husbandry. We won’t die if we hold two contrary thoughts inside of ourselves, and this dissonance leads to the real interest in our work. I often feel that without a detailed study of our music we become lost but, even worse, with only a detailed study of our music we become boring.
Reflecting on my own experiences, I’ve found much to learn from studying fields beyond music. I originally trained as a trumpet player and moved to making experimental sound works in non-traditional spaces. To support myself through a period after my MFA, I educated myself in wine and cheese, working as a devoted wine merchant and cheese monger for many years in Los Angeles. I think that working in wine deepened my sense of listening and lineage, developing in me a more emotional attachment to the history of the music. I now try to reach into the terroir of the sound, as one seeks to understand the source and cultural lineage of a particular wine or cheese: the land, the weather, the minds of the people making it—what they ate, how they lived, how they carried themselves, how they matured as men and women working in a varied and complicated environment. Wine helped me to allow for complications in my own work, which has become increasingly site-based. Furthermore, selling wine to the uninitiated has deepened my empathy with the audience, helping me to understand how people feel when they walk into a wine shop or are introduced to a new winemaking tradition. It has fundamentally changed the way that I make music, and changed the way I see myself and the experience of making music for others.
Embracing a more complicated visceral living through firsthand experiences and outside fields can lead us to unexpected ends. I hope we use our music to examine these living ideas, adding to our cultural knowledge along the way.
Chris Kallmyer is an artist who works in sound installation, composition, performance, and electronic music. He has presented work at the Walker Art Center, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver, the Hammer Museum, the Getty Center, REDCAT, Machine Project, and other spaces in America and Europe. His work sits on the fringes of music and contemporary art, often engaging sound through touch, taste, participation, and process. Chris works with Machine Project, is a member of wild Up, and earned his MFA in music from the California Institute of the Arts.