Kali Malone studied farming. Fate brought her to avant-garde music.

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Kali Malone studied farming. Fate brought her to avant-garde music.
Kali Malone at home in Paris in January 2024. The 29-year-old musician grew up in Colorado and ended up in Sweden, where she fell in love with the organ — her latest album, “All Life Long,” is out now. (Sam Hellmann/The New York Times)

by Philip Sherburne

BERLIN.- At the close of an organ concert this month, Kali Malone, performing at Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church in Berlin, did something unusual: She turned off the instrument’s motor while she and Stephen O’Malley of the doom-metal group Sunn 0))) held down the keys. For nearly three minutes, as the air drained from the organ’s 5,000-odd pipes, the pair’s rich chords turned spectral as they faded to silence, wheezing and wavering, like a chorus of sleepy ghosts.

The finale was a striking example of the way that Malone, who turns 30 on Tuesday, is rethinking the pipe organ for a contemporary context. Born in Colorado but based for more than a decade in Stockholm and Paris, she has emerged as an unusually versatile star of the avant-garde.

In a video interview last month, Malone reflected on the path that led to her new album, “All Life Long,” a contemplative 78-minute suite for organ, brass quintet and chamber choir. She thinks of her early work — microtonal software creations that could run for hours — “as my cave man music,” she said. “It’s still exactly what I’m doing now, just my tools have become more sophisticated.”

Malone’s fondness for drones hardly makes her a one-note composer. Before her 2019 breakout album, “The Sacrificial Code” (nearly two hours of minimalist, minutely textured organ studies), she was part of a shoegaze trio, conducted an ensemble playing the work of “deep listening” pioneer Pauline Oliveros, and recorded strings and gongs in a decommissioned nuclear reactor. She flexed her compositional muscles on “Living Torch,” an electroacoustic work created for the Acousmonium, a multichannel setup developed in the 1970s at Groupe de Recherche Musicales, or GRM, in Paris.

“There is something both spiritual and almost tactile in the way that she creates music,” François Bonnet, director of GRM, said in an email. “She charts her own personal and inspired path — a path influenced by almost nothing, and not the product of cultural trends or zeitgeist.”

Malone began blazing her own trail early. Her parents split when she was a child; her father lived in the High Rockies, in Colorado, while Malone moved with her mother to Denver, where she was shuttled to and from choir practice by her grandparents. “I became a teenager when I was 10,” she said. “I grew up so fast, and didn’t have a lot of supervision.”

By day, Malone attended an arts school where all of her friends were older; at night, she hung out at do-it-yourself spaces such as Rhinoceropolis, immersing herself in hardcore, noise and performance art. “I traveled between so many scenes,” she said. With some train-hopper pals, she joined a folk-punk band where she sang and played banjo, “busking and sleeping on beaches and weed farms” up and down the West Coast.

At 16, Malone got her GED diploma and set out for Bard College at Simon’s Rock, a liberal arts school in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, where she became friends with a darkroom attendant about 40 years her senior. They founded a noise duo and performed in college basements and local barns fitted out with scavenged sofas. “I thought it was really important to arrange events and have shows, put something together with your friends,” she said. “That was instilled from a really young age.”

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.

“I wanted to work with instruments that used air as their main energy source and propellant,” Malone said. By concentrating on “human fragilities” — such as the need to pause for breath — she hoped, she said, “to find another life force in the work.”

Recording the album was a protracted process, as Malone sought out unusual organs across Europe. One church, in Lausanne, Switzerland, presented a configuration that suited her fondness for four-handed pieces: two meantone organs, one installed on each side of the nave. To synchronize their playing, she and O’Malley, her partner, facing away from each other, rigged up mirrors in order to maintain eye contact. (In Berlin, where the two sat side by side on the same bench, she used a simpler cuing system: When it was time to make a change, she would sniff.)

Where Malone was once motivated primarily by the music’s formal and even mathematical underpinnings, with “All Life Long” she found herself reconsidering her music’s expressive dimension. “I was writing as a way to connect with myself, to excavate certain emotions,” she said.

“I didn’t really want to ever stop writing the record,” she admitted.

She was still composing one piece on her way to record the brass ensemble in New York, singing into her Voice notes app. “I had started writing it in the airport security line,” she said. “Stephen was holding my arm, like, ‘You have to take off your shoes now!’”

On the plane, Malone scribbled away in the music program Sibelius, trying to capture the sound she heard in her imagination: “There’s just that ecstatic magnetism that happens when I’m in a state of composition, and everything is aligned and singing and dancing.”

The album’s title comes from an Arthur Symons poem, “The Crying of Water,” that Malone discovered as a teenager in W.E.B. Du Bois’ “The Souls of Black Folk”; lyrics to a track called “Slow of Faith” were inspired by James Russell Lowell’s “The Present Crisis,” a poem also found in Du Bois’ book. “They’ve just been on repeat in my head” since she was 16, she said. She was struggling to come up with lyrics when she experienced a eureka moment: The mood and even the cadence of the poems fit her music correctly.

“You can have knowledge about sound,” she said. “You can have knowledge about structure, color, pitch, harmony, rhythm. But none of that means anything if you don’t have knowledge of how to use it emotionally.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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