Kali Malone Studied Farming. Fate Brought Her to Avant-Garde Music.


At the time, Malone was studying sustainable agriculture and experimenting with barter systems — “I thought I was going to become a farmer” — but a chance meeting scuttled those plans. Visiting New York City to secure a fake ID in order to catch her bandmate’s solo performance at an over-21 venue, she needed a place to stay. A classmate gave her an address that turned out to be a house show by a free-jazz violinist. “I was 16 or 17 years old, coming in with my backpack, and everyone there’s a cultured 30-year-old,” she recalled.

Malone struck up a conversation with a Swedish woman sporting a buzz cut: Ellen Arkbro, an experimental musician visiting the United States to play South by Southwest. “She just sort of invited me to come visit her in Stockholm, probably thinking I never would,” Malone said. “But then I did.” She spent her winter break sleeping on Arkbro’s floor and soaking up the Stockholm experimental scene. Upon returning to Massachusetts, she saved up her money, packed her Fender Blues amp and bought a one-way ticket back to Sweden.

In 2014, after being accepted to Sweden’s Royal College of Music, she began studying the social, spiritual and emotional effects of historical tuning systems. As part of her research, she contacted a Stockholm organ tuner, Jan Börjeson. What was supposed to be a 15-minute chat during Börjeson’s coffee break turned into a full day’s immersion in the intricacies of the instrument.

“I will never forget my first meeting with Kali,” Börjeson, who has been tuning and repairing organs for 44 years, said in a video interview. Malone came with her notebook at the ready and a list of relevant, probing questions about esoteric temperaments. Soon, she was apprenticing with him, traveling around Sweden and climbing inside the throbbing behemoths. “You don’t do that if you’re not crazy,” Börjeson said, laughing. “That’s something quite deep.”

At the church in Berlin this month, Malone led a visitor behind the mammoth pipe organ and beckoned to a ladder ascending into a darkened crawl space with a note of caution: “I hope you’re not afraid of heights?” With a small, arrow-shaped hammer in hand, she pointed to different mechanisms for fine-tuning the instrument, tiny details to be tapped, twisted or folded. “If you lose your balance, whatever you do, don’t grab the pipes,” she warned.

Despite its seemingly traditional underpinnings, “All Life Long” is Malone’s most ambitious work to date. The organ pieces achieve a new degree of harmonic complexity and emotional resonance, while her canons for brass and voice have the meditative elegance of medieval music.



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