Kali Malone: All Life Long Album Review

March 2, 2024 - Music

All Life Long is not all pipe organs. The album rotates through organ, choir, and brass ensemble. The works for voice suggest the 16th-century polyphony of Palestrina. “Passage Through the Spheres” opens with one singer panned all the way to the right; shortly after another singer enters from the left. The voices alternately reflect, presage, and complete each other’s lines. The exaggerated stereo separation signals Malone’s camaraderie with Janet Cardiff’s landmark sound-art installation featuring the music of Renaissance composer Thomas Tallis, 40 Part Motet, which uses individual, freestanding speakers for each of its titular vocal lines, allowing the listener to walk among what is, in effect, a choir of ghosts.

While Malone has employed horns in the past, as on 2018’s Cast of Mind and 2022’s Living Torch, that was in service of drones—chamber instruments as synthesizer modules, in a manner of speaking. On All Life Long, she is truly writing for brass ensemble, yielding a regal quality: less goth, more Sun King (minus the filigree of the Baroque era). In particular, elegant horns on tracks like “Retrograde Cannon” and “Formation Flight” echo the dignified arrangements of David Byrne’s The Knee Plays, music the Talking Heads cofounder composed for Robert Wilson’s opera the CIVIL warS. In Malone’s and Byrne’s pieces alike, you can hear modern sensibilities merging with antiquated techniques.

Malone does inquisitive listeners a favor by repeating two works in different forms. The title piece, first played on organ, appears toward the end of All Life Long in a voice setting that seems quicker, less ethereal. The second version also reveals the source of the album’s title, a mournful poem, “The Crying Water,” by 20th-century Welsh literary figure Arthur Symons. “No Sun to Burn” is performed first by brass, with enthralling high points, and then later on organ, more delicate and tenuous.

Malone is among a cadre of 21st-century musicians breathing new life into organs. Others include Olivia Block, Robert Curgenven, Sarah Davachi, Lawrence English, FUJI​|​|​|​|​|​||​|​|​|​|​TA, and Claire M Singer. They do so coincident with the ongoing deconsecration of many churches. Malone has acknowledged this tension in pieces like “Sacer Profanare,” from 2019’s The Sacrificial Code. It’s a risky endeavor; were her music not so moving, it might invite accusations of purloined gravitas. The addition of vocal polyphony on All Life Long intensifies Malone’s engagement with such liturgical themes, and she nudges the matter further with her text selection for “Passage Through the Spheres.” Sung in Italian, it could be mistaken for a Vatican homily, but it is quite the contrary. The source is an essay by philosopher Giorgio Agamben that quotes Trebatius Testa, a 1st-century BC Roman jurist, on the topic of perceived irreligiosity: “In the strict sense, profane is the term for something that was once sacred or religious and is returned to the use and property of men.” The deeply felt lesson of All Life Long is that secular deployment of such resources can itself be a fount of beauty, reflection, and perhaps even revelation.

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Kali Malone: All Life Long

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