Place, Space, and Music: Experiments in Context

Place, Space, and Music: Experiments in Context

Last year the Hammer Museum’s coatroom, located in the lobby under a flight of stairs, was transformed into a theater named the Little William. Every weekend during 2010, you could find musicians performing two feet away from a tiny audience in this 9′ by 12′ space, surrounded by coats and cheap florescent lights. It looked awful in there—and I liked it. For whatever it lacked in visual attractiveness, it became a space imbued with the creative visions of composers, puppeteers, poets, and instrumentalists who brought site-specific pieces to the coatroom every week. The context of a coatroom-theater provided an architectural shift to the expected concert platform and enabled audiences to indulge in short, two-minute works as they entered the museum (or when they checked an overcoat).

My attraction to this type of performance was initially inspired by an interest in architecture and design, along with writings by some of my favorite composers and thinkers such as John Cage, James Tenney, R. Murray Schafer, Gaston Bachelard, and Geoffrey Manaugh. My collaboration with Machine Project, an artist-collective based in Echo Park, further encouraged my interest in developing this type of work through residencies at the Hammer Museum, LACMA, MCA Denver, and the Walker Art Center. The residencies have given me a platform on which to conceive and curate projects like the Little William Theater. Ultimately, my year in a coatroom has led me to more carefully consider context and architecture as a tool for the composer; a way to embrace new paradigms for performance and novel listening practices.

Luke Storm and Aubrey Foard in the Little William Theater
Photo by Marianne Williams


The Little William’s Festival of New Music, held from August through the end of November, commissioned 349 short works by 94 composers including new pieces by Christian Wolff, Ben Johnston, Larry Polansky, Peter Ablinger, Anne Lebaron, John Bischoff, Nick Didkovsky, and many others who deserve mention.

The music we received included traditionally notated scores, short text pieces, graphically notated works, pieces in just intonation, complexist to hyper-minimalist, and improvisational to hyper-notated. Some pieces asked the performers to engage in theatrics, move in the space, or give a gift to their stand partner. One of Adam Overton’s text scores could be performed simultaneously alongside other works, as instrumentalists hid quarters from the audience. Peter Ablinger’s piece was a live rehearsal of a work he wrote for the festival. G Douglas Barrett’s incorporated field recordings of a coatroom in the Nationalgalerie Berlin. The experimental nature of the works added to the fantastical quality of the space. You simply didn’t know what was going to happen next.

Furthermore, hearing these works within such a small, enclosed space proved to be one of the most exciting aspects of the project. The clarinetists could play at the edge of possible sound, teasing the audience with subtones so quiet they could only be felt, not heard. In opposition to this, the tubas were so viscerally loud that powerful beatings consumed every interval. The internal resonances of the violin were present, as if you were sitting within the duo. For the accordions, the creaking and crinkling of the bellows proved to be a serendipitous addition to most works. Pieces that asked for long, quiet tones were inevitably accompanied by the perpetual aleatoric nature of the bellows.

Visitors included local composers and performers with a vested interest in the festival, but mostly patrons whom had never experienced new or experimental music. Parents were welcome to bring children, and often wheeled a stroller right into the space. Performers wore street clothes and sat very close to the audience. The proximity to the instrumentalists, the context of a coatroom, as well as the performers’ casual dress created an accessible, easygoing environment in which to experience difficult music. Laughter was common, scores were shared and discussed, and questions were often asked of the performers. By shifting the context from a concert hall to a coatroom, it opened up new possibilities of audience engagement. This has led me to consider that perhaps new music is not inaccessible, but the concert hall is.


Without the thick, impermeable walls of the concert hall, our contemporary music would not exist in its current form. We have developed a private, silent, concentrated listening space that has enabled the music of Beethoven, Mahler, Feldman, and beyond.

Cultures that have different architectural practices have developed music in accordance with their structures. In the case of the Anlo-Ewe in Ghana and Togo, their music is held in outdoor communal spaces and uses a battery of loud percussion instruments to accompany dance and song. The social architecture of the space has a great influence on form: Drumming does not exist alone, but in tandem with singing and dancing. Each piece has elements that tie into one another, and there is no complete work without all three components. If this music was held in private spaces, it would not have developed into such a communal, complex, and social form. Conversely, Western music’s traversal into private spaces has de-emphasized potential interactivity between audience and performer. There are many things that have influenced the development of music in different cultures, but architecture and context are essential factors in the formation of a music.

The great revolutions in art history are changes of context rather than style. The first big contextual change in Western music occurred when music left the outdoors and entered the cathedral; the second occurred with the appearance of the concert hall and opera house; the broadcasting and recording studio is responsible for the third. Each context produced a plethora of styles but all were governed by the laws of the container in which they were generated. The music of the cathedral is unseen; it rises vapor-like to fill a large resonant space, restricting harmonic and melodic mobility to produce a hazy wash of sound blending with the mystique of Christianity’s invisible God. The music of the concert hall and opera house is both seen and heard. Dryer acoustics favor faster-paced music with greater harmonic daring. It is the music of the soloist and the quick-tempered virtuoso. The broadcasting and recording studio introduced the world to schizophrenia, or split sound, in which any sonic environment could, by means of loudspeakers, be substituted for any other. It pushed music into new places—in fact, any place—and prepared the way for the coalescence we are now experiencing.

—R. Murray Schafer, Music and the Soundscape

Once we realize the emergent potential with architecture and context, we open ourselves to alternative spaces and fresh perspectives on sound. What about music for a long corridor, a rail yard, a flight of stairs, a dense forest, a bank of cubicles, a vast plain, an igloo, a shoreline, a bathroom?

Recently, I curated music on the Santa Monica Pier Carousel as part of the Glow Festival. A carousel is imbued with all kinds of qualities that you would never have in a concert hall: like rotation! Among the group commissioned to create works for our carousel concert, Daniel Corral, a Los Angeles-based composer wrote a particularly effective piece for six accordions. The piece didn’t have a unified ictus and was organized on a time scale, asking the performers to play at different speeds (but generally fast). The stochastic nature of the piece was enhanced by the rotation of the carousel, which created further acts of chance as it spun. One can hear this in two distinct videos of the piece; the first performed on the carousel, and the second as part of the Pasadena Creative Music Series. In comparing these two performances, I believe that the architecture and context of a carousel acted as a catalyst for this piece, changing the nature of the work and enhancing its effectiveness.


As a percussionist I had been directly involved in the gradual insertion of everyday sound into the concert hall, from Russolo through Varèse and finally to Cage who brought live street sounds directly into the hall. I saw these activities as a way of giving aesthetic credence to these sounds—something I was all for—but I began to question the effectiveness of the method. Most members of the audience seemed more impressed with the scandal than the sounds, and few were able to carry the experience over to a new perspective on the sounds of their daily lives. I became interested in going a step further. Why limit listening to the concert hall? Instead of bringing these sounds into the hall, why not simply take the audience outside—a demonstration in situ?

—Max Neuhaus, LISTEN

There is a long tradition of orchestral composers who use off-stage musicians to create a sense of depth and environment in the orchestral hall. My favorite uses of this technique appear in the music of Mahler, Respighi, Strauss, Wagner, and Ives, creating complex sensations of nostalgia (the Posthorn Solo in Mahler’s Symphony No. 3 and Respighi’s Pines of Rome), building excitement (Wagner’s Lohengrin and Strauss’s Ein Heldenleben), and feelings too delicate to articulate with words (Ives’s Unanswered Question). Henry Brant, David Dunn, R. Murray Schafer, and Max Neuhaus have further developed these ideas with environmental, site-specific, and outdoor music since the 1950s. (I would also like to note the presence of countless composers and sound artists who have developed these ideas and explored projects in outdoor spaces such as Iannis Xenakis, Karkheinz Stockhausen, Stuart Marshall, Gordon Monahan, Leif Brush, Bill and Mary Buchen, John Luther Adams, Bill Fontana, Doug Hollis, Hildegarde Westerkamp, and many others too countless to mention here.)

Ibrahim Duqum, oud in the Hammer Museum courtyard
Photo by Anne Hadlock

This is a mode of working that I find inspiring, and through immersing myself in the writings of Cage, Tenney, and Schafer, I began to compose dispersed works in 2007. The pieces incorporate instrumentalists set outdoors at a distance from a stationary audience, placing brass instruments, car horns, and percussion instruments at an equal “mix” to the surrounding soundscape in hopes to set a frame around our sonic environment.

Going outside of the concert hall opened up more contextual explorations in my work including site-specific pieces for elevators, an igloo, and the Amargosa Desert. I want to be aware of the space we all share, so although the medium may change between projects (from amplified tea kettles to trombone choir to Max/MSP ), I do so with the intent of creating something that serves the space; thereby serving those who inhabit it, and encouraging them to wake up to the present moment.

In 2010 I was invited by Mark Allen, the director of Machine Project, to curate sound works for their 2010 residency at the Hammer Museum. The collaboration yielded programming of incidental performances involving chance encounter and multiple independent events happening in one space. Improvising groups, folk quartets, oud players, and experimental choirs were asked to perform for a coincidental audience, and for unconventionally long amounts of time. The musicians became part of the fabric of the space; much like Erik Satie’s Vexations or Furniture Music.

Before radio, the live musician provided background music for royalty and peasants alike. This mode could be considered opulent in the age of the iPod, but having live musicians in a space plays with our expectations and alters the social contract between musician and audience. Furthermore, by placing musicians in transitional spaces, such as hallways or lobbies, we give permission for the patron to pass through the space without stopping. If they decide to stay and listen, they do so in a genuine and organic manner.


Many of Machine Project’s sound programming choices come down to a design prompt: The experience of listening has been reconfigured, and performers are given permission to create music in a different way. One of my favorite examples was a Nap-In I helped curate at the Hammer Museum. A nap area was created with blankets, and musicians were asked to create “music to nap to”. Although the design prompt was non-traditional, the piece was very simple and intuitive for patrons to engage with. Folks felt free to lay down and use the space as they wished; to read a book, or take a nap, etc… I invited soothing, gentle, and quiet performers including solo tampura, an ambient music trio, a keyboard duo, and a singer who brought electronics and her own bed. Most of the music was improvised, and unhurried; perfect for napping. Additionally, there were several layers of engagement for listeners—from sleeping to focused listening, or ignoring the project altogether.

Ultimately, the piece became about permission; giving the audience permission to nap during a performance, but also releasing the performers from the obligation to be interesting or entertaining. The piece is successful if the audience falls asleep, providing an inversion of expectation that is sweet and intimate. Because the event changes the way that you listen as well as perform, the audience and performers take the ride together. It becomes a communal experience that yields new music that wouldn’t otherwise have a reason to be created.

Architecture and context define how music functions. Contextual exploration has the potential to create new forms and directives in contemporary music. This work has the possibility to yield new sounds, new audience, and new ways to listen to music. The imaginative ways in which to play with space, context, and architecture become a discourse on possibility, and I look forward to continuing the conversation.


Chris Kallmyer performing on a bison horn for a bison dinner at the Museum of Contemprary Art Denver.
Photo by Alex Stephens

Chris Kallmyer is a performer, composer, and sound artist living in Los Angeles, CA and is the Curator of Sound Programming for Machine Project. He earned his MFA in music from the California Institute of the Arts, and has presented his work at LACMA, the Walker Art Center, REDCAT, the Hammer Museum, the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver, and small galleries in America and Europe. Chris is thankful to be a member of the vibrant community of musicians and artists living in and around Los Angeles, CA.

Thank you to Mark Allen & Machine Project, Alfred Ladzekpo, and Katie Tate for their support in working on this piece.

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