Listen: This is what bells made of St. Louis-area clay sound like | St. Louis Public Radio

Listen: This is what bells made of St. Louis-area clay sound like

Dec 9, 2015

Updated 11:34 a.m., Dec. 9 with release of recording from live event - Los Angeles composer Chris Kallmyer released a recording of music produced by bells made from St. Louis area clay today.The recording was made during a live performance before 250 people at the Pulitzer Arts Foundation.

The piece features local musicians and artists who met during the composer's Pulitzer residency to experiment with the bells and discuss current events and their effect on the arts.

Original Story - Classically trained Los Angeles composer and sound artist Chris Kallmyer is more interested in making music for inside an igloo, coat-check room, or elevator than he’s interested in writing the next great string quartet or symphonic masterpiece.

The musician is using this interest to fuel a new project, one he hopes will answer one specific question: “What is it like to make hyper-regional music, not just music that can occur anywhere, but specifically here in St. Louis?” he said.

The perpetually up-beat Kallmyer wants to answer that question by digging into what the city is made of. His project was commissioned by The Pulitzer Arts Foundation as part of its Press Play performance series. The artist worked to create a set of bells from the very clay used to make St. Louis’ multitude of brick buildings. He hoped that focusing on locally sourced materials would highlight parts of the city’s history while addressing its current cultural upheaval. For Kallmyer, the act of turning over the earth to get raw material mimics turning over cultural norms to rebuild social practices.

“In the last year, with Ferguson and the unbelievable turmoil the city’s gone through there’s been an up-churning,” he says of the events that have brought to light issues of discrimination some believe have long been a part of the city’s foundation.

To actually get at the clay, Kallmyer and a number of Pulitzer helpers went to the site of the proposed new St. Louis Rams stadium and dug a few feet down. The material was taken to local sculptor Dan Barnett’s studio where test bells were fired and the artists encountered a problem.

Chris Kallmyer and local artist Dan Barnett harvest clay for their first attempt at making bells
Credit Willis Ryder Arnold | St. Louis Public Radio

The initial clay harvested by Kallymyer and his team had so many problems he was forced to acquire a purer material from just outside the city.

Kallmyer and Barnett also had a struggle because clay is not the most resonant substance. Kallmyer and Barnett had to try different shapes to achieve instruments that would be both structurally sound and tonal.

Still, the artist believes the project highlights how local materials shape creativity.

“If you’re in a place that has a lot of good clay you’re going to have ceramics, but if you grow up in an area that has a lot of palm fronds you’re going to use that thatch,” he said.

After the bells were re-cast from uncontaminated clay, Kallmyer gathered St. Louisans involved in the arts at the Pulitzer to discuss current events and play with sound. They spent time in different spaces just listening, to orient themselves to their surroundings.

Participants in Kallmyer's Commonfield Clay performance experiment with making sound while lying in the middle of the Pulitzer floor
Credit Willis Ryder Arnold | St. Louis Public Radio

Printmaker and designer Kevin McCoy said the experience had a profound effect on his perception of sound.

“We hear so much on a day to day basis that we kind of take these noises for granted, and how soothing and how calming they are. I got a chance to spiritually enjoy that noise that I normally am like ‘I don’t want to ... hear that,” he said.

The group also explored making vocal sounds, while lying beneath Alexander Calder's sculptures, and eventually graduated to creating sounds with instruments. Each person learned the difference in sound depending on where the bell was struck and explored arrangements and rhythms. They played with sound games inspired by famed experimental musicians Pauline Oliveros and Meredith Monk.

These shared experiences helped Kallmyer and his collaborator Andrew Tholl create a more formal piece that will be performed this weekend.

For Kallmyer, the project relates to the art inside the Pulitzer as well as the history of the city outside its walls. The three artists on display all used easily available items and craft materials to create fine art seen throughout the world. Alexander Calder created sculptures from salvaged metal after WW II. Richard Tuttle used florist wire for his sculptures. Fred Sandback drew lines through space with yarn. Kallmyer views his use of clay as a similar embrace of unrefined materials.

Throughout the week Kallmyer and his collaborators continued refining and honing their composition for the Sept. 5 performance.

The Luminary's Brea McAnally walks through the Pulitizer listening to how the bell sounds in different environments
Credit Willis Ryder Arnold | St. Louis Public Radio