The Bells of Freedom

By Steven Libowitz   |   May 30, 2019
Chris Kallmyer’s exhibition “Ensemble” can be seen at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art

“Ensemble,” the new multimedia installation by Los Angeles-based sound and performance artist Chris Kallmyer, took over the Preston Morton Gallery at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art earlier this month. But this is no static piece of wall candy, and indeed the fun is just beginning. The exhibition, in place until September 15, centers around a sculpture/musical instrument comprised of raw timber and handmade bells that functions as a communal bell-ringing instrument, or carillon. The instrument, created specifically for the exhibition, is activated by a group of individuals, but you don’t have to be a musician to “play” it. That’s because Ensemble is meant to be a gathering space as well as performance piece, and uses a method of making music that blends collective listening with communal rituals and meditation practice, exploring Kallmyer’s fascination with the relationship between sound and space. In fact, Ensemble itself is not a static work of art at all, according to the artist.

“I create scenarios where people feel engaged with active listening and feel engaged with each other in the setting, in the moment,” Kallmyer explained shortly after the three-hour opening presentation concluded on May 19, when he and several cohorts performed the score to celebrate the installation. “The piece will evolve over the course of the next four months as people find how they like to use it, as a tool of organizing or expression, or however it strikes them… I composed it, but it’s not exactly a score. It’s more like a tool, an empty vessel that can be used over the course of the show.”

Kallmyer completed his MFA at CalArts in 2009 where he studied with improviser Vinny Golia and many experimental musicians, but his deeper inspiration dates back four decades earlier, to the Fluxus movement, the interdisciplinary community of artists, composers, designers and poets who delved into experimental art performances that emphasized the artistic process over the finished product.

“Ensemble” is the natural extension of Kallmyer’s recent series of Fluxus-inspired projects, all of which explore site-based, shared music-making with public audiences, including 2016’s “A Paradise Choir,” a month-long show at the San Francisco Museum of Art in which the artist engaged thousands of volunteer visitor-enactors in creating an impromptu choir that explored the aural architecture of the newly opened Snøhetta-designed expansion as the visitors donned robes to yell, sing and move through the spaces of the museum. In 2015, Kallmyer presented “Commonfield Clay” in St. Louis, employing earthenware bells made out of refined clay from the banks of the Mississippi River to create what he called “a future folk music” in collaboration with visitors. He’s also fashioned more than 100 collaborations with the LA-based art collective Machine Project, and received commissions from the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the San Francisco Symphony.

While a selection of musical scores developed by the artist, related drawings and a video projection documenting the inaugural staging of the instrument are all part of the exhibition, the main thrust requires an audience. “Ensemble is the kind of show that turns the Santa Barbara Museum of Art into a workshop space, a place of art creation, not just exhibition,” Kallmyer said.

As such visitors are encouraged to participate in a series of guided activations of “Ensemble” during a variety of interactive events that begins this week, including free docent tours (three weekly throughout the exhibit) drop-in workshops, and guided sound and meditation sessions. The workshops take place at 6 pm every Thursday from May 30 to August 22, other than on the first week of each month when the 1st Thursday special presentations feature collectively created music and performances by avant-garde and traditional musicians, new age practitioners and surprise guest artists.

The workshops are necessary, Kallmyer explained, to give visitors some context. “It’s not great if people just come in willy nilly because it’s like the way you can’t just hand someone a book if they don’t know what letters are. You have to set people up to succeed, and give them the tools. The workshops are like open scores, and experiences for the public to come in, take a deep breath, do some stretching and then be a part of the creation of the work.”

Gael Belden, of UCLA’s Mindful Awareness Research Center at The Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior, will also lead meditation and mindfulness experiences in the Ensemble space at 10:30 on Saturdays, June 1, July 13 and August 17. “It’s also a tool of spiritual centering or maybe if you need to be woken up it can do that,” Kallmyer said. “Or take a nap if that’s what you need.”

The artist himself will be on hand at several of the events over the exhibit’s duration as Ensemble also serves as an active studio for Kallmyer to further explore the post-Fluxus depths of everyday objects, what happens when an audience turns participant, and what comes of the experience of listening and co-creating.

“The piece itself is the poetics of eight people surrounding a structure making music together,” he said. “It’s not the object. This is just a thing. It’s what people do with it that makes it interesting.”

Lend Them your Ears

Adelfos Ensemble has had a history of presenting themed concerts over the decade-plus since Temmo Korisheli took over direction of the choir from Dr. Michael Eglin back in 2008, four years after its founding. Recent years have seen a concert with a focus on contemporary vocal music featuring marimba with chorus, and another program centering on shipwrecks and adventuring, with a post-Titanic sinking song abutting on that followed the swamping of a ferry in the Baltic 90 years later, both cozying up to sea chanties. The expansion of the Adelfos from all male to mixed voices back in 2010 helped expand the potential repertoire to makes such programs possible.

“I’m not only a fan but impelled to do thematic programming,” Korisheli explained earlier this week. “Which is why even our annual Christmas programs have a theme within the holiday theme, like focusing on a single country, Germany or Latin American holiday music.”

Wordsmiths will likely rejoice at this weekend’s pair of concerts from the ensemble, “The Touches of Sweet Harmony,” featuring words by Williams Shakespeare as the choir takes on settings of some of the Bard’s sonnets (“Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?”) and plays: “O mistress mine, where are you roaming?” (A Midsummer Night’s Dream), “Full fathom five thy father lies” (The Tempest), “Double, double toil and trouble” (Macbeth), “Sigh no more, ladies” (Much Ado About Nothing), and many others.

The magical words will be rendered largely in modern choral settings, with the array of composers including Libby Larsen, Ralph Vaughan Williams, William Mathias, Emma Lou Diemer, George Macfarren, Sven Johanson, and Judith Lang Zaimont. “I originally thought I’d include a lot of period pieces,” said Korisheli, who has a special fondness for medieval, Renaissance, and Baroque vocal music and has enjoyed early-music engagements including singing with Ensemble Ciaramella, the Texas Early Music Project, and the Amherst Early Music Festival of New England, not to mention Santa Barbara’s own Quire of Voyces. “But there turned out to be so much wonderful stuff from the 19th, 20th, and 21st centuries that I pretty much gave up the early stuff in favor of modern settings.”

The performances on June 1-2 at Trinity Episcopal Church will also offer listeners the opportunity to compare composer’s choices as more than one setting of the same lines will be sung. “Making these texts into a three- or four-minute choral piece lets the composer really chew on the words and show different aspects of the lyrics, which can be quite an interesting exercise to observe.”

Adelfos will perform the Schubert setting of “Hark, Hark the Lark” as a solo song that evolves into a 19th century arrangement for three-part women’s chorus. And among the three madrigals by Diemer is “Sigh no more, ladies” that also receives a different approach by Zaimont. “They’re set very differently,” Korisheli said. “It’s an opportunity to compare different ways composers have imagined these words in music.”

The three pieces by Vaughan Williams – “full fathom five,” “the cloud capped towers,” and “over hill, over dale” are not to be missed, Korisheli said. “They were written near the end of his life. They’re just so very rich and beautiful.” 

(Adelfos Ensemble performs 7:30 pm Saturday June 1, and 3 pm Sunday June 2, at Trinity Episcopal Church, 1500 State Street. The Sunday matinée will be followed by an end-of-year celebration on the Trinity Labyrinth. Tickets are available in advance for $18 ($13 students & seniors 65+) at or at the door for $20/15.)


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