News 2 days ago

Scientist of sound: Walkersville artist uses found sounds to compose material

The Frederick News-Post — Lauren LaRocca The Frederick News-Post, Md.

Feb. 16--Kai Orion Keefe's basement studio in Walkersville is filled with instruments: guitar, keyboard, flute, an antique telephone circa 1893.

A huge fan of The National, Keefe entered their contest in 2013 that asked people to cover their song "I Need My Girl." Keefe had been experimenting with using everyday objects as instruments and created his entry that way -- the song composed entirely with miscellaneous found sounds, like wine glasses filled to various heights and buckets, with his vocals over it.

He took first place.

And this is also the story of how seemingly random objects made their way into Keefe's music for the long run and became a staple to his sound. That win was the encouragement he needed to keep going.

Two years later, the 22-year-old sound artist and filmmaker would release his first solo album, "Pots and Pans," under the name Kai Orion. In it, he uses household objects to create layered, textured music. The album is made up entirely of these objects alongside the human voice.

"I wanted to make something I hadn't heard before," he said during a recent interview at his home.

He admits he had a fear of it being too gimmicky, and he didn't want novelty to be the reason people listened -- trap doors he was very conscious about avoiding. It was the sounds of the wine glasses that were beautiful to him, and the other objects he'd toyed with. The sounds themselves. They had an enchanting yet familiar quality that he wanted to explore.

He'd only ever heard everyday objects used as instruments in two contexts: as percussion and as experimental elements. He wanted to actually write music with them -- find the tones these objects made and figure out how to make melodies and harmoneis from them.

For instance, have you ever listened to the dial tone of a landline phone? Like really listened? He did, and it's not pretty. The chord is made up of notes that aren't even half steps apart but more like a vibratory noise, a "really ugly, dissonant kind of sound," as he put it.

He used it.

He found a way to pull the notes apart and put them back together. He used the ring tone and busy signal, too.

Each group of objects in a particular song creates a setting, almost as if Keefe builds a theatrical set to create changing scenery, and the lyrics loosely coincide with the feelings evoked from the chosen places.

For example, he filmed a music video of his song "Quiet Love," a Tiny Desk Concert submission, in a kitchen and included, well, wine glasses of course, but also a doorbell, a microwave, a wooden spoon, and a kitchen timer that acted as a sort of metronome. A more recent Tiny Desk video submission, "Beautiful Darkness," was filmed live in a front yard using the sounds of a lawnmower, tools, a garbage can.

To say recording one of his songs live requires a serious attention to details is an understatement. He uses a tiny dropper to fill glasses and bottles to achieve the exact notes he needs ("you can put a drop in it and it raises it two notes," he attested). For this reason, he's mostly used samples and loops in live solo shows, but you can see the magic of bringing it all together in his videos.

Keefe's primary instrument is the flute, though he knows his way around quite a few. He started playing flute in middle school and was 13 when he began playing open mics around Frederick, at Frederick Coffee Co. and Joanie's Carroll Street Cafe (the building that now houses Gravel and Grind).

"I was like, the definition of shy, quiet and awkward ... but I knew performing was a necessary thing," he said, "even though I'd be shaking so bad, I couldn't even barely play."

As a Walkersville High School student, he found his way to the school's jazz band, organized by Marc Musser, which introduced Keefe to improv. "That was awesome. We'd all get up and solo [at concerts]. ... It was probably horrible for parents listening. I just remember one time he [Musser] said, 'Everyone solo!' And we all got up at the same time," he said, laughing. "We just all improved on top of each other."

When Keefe started at University of Maryland, he lived in an arts dorm and linked up with musicians there to form the band Bare Left as its vocalist and flutist (the rest of the band was made up of music students; he studied film). This came after he asked to play in the school's jazz class and was rejected, being told there was no such thing as jazz flute.

Though Bare Left never disbanded, Kai Orion, the solo project, eventually became his main focus.

"I think working with a band is kind of constricting at times," he said. "A lot of times, my ideas are really specific ... and if you have a very specific vision, it's hard to translate that."

When he started experimenting with the sounds of everyday objects, did it make him more aware of ambient sounds throughout the day? Did it change his entire way of hearing, and therefore experiencing, the world?

"Yes," he said -- "that's something I remember laughing about at the time." He spent almost an entire year collecting sounds to use for "Pots and Pans." He brought a handheld field recorder with him everywhere he went and "was constantly trying to listen for different sounds that I might be able to work with. It became almost like a subconscious reflex after a while," he said, "and by the end of that period, I felt like I was perceiving sound completely differently. I would walk past something ordinary like an idling bus ... and immediately get excited thinking, 'Ah, this is the perfect bass part I've been looking for!'"

More recently, Keefe has been working with traditional instruments again, which took some adjustment. "Now it's just like, this is amazing! I can do so many things with this guitar! I can do so many things with this flute!"

He's working on a project that reverses the traditional roles of instruments, in part because he is seeing them so differently now. For example, he'll beat-box on flute while playing a melody line on a deep, more understated instrument like the organ, which is typically reserved for backdrop chords. It's this new thinking -- or, more accurately, this evolution of thinking -- that he is exploring at solo shows this year, the next of which will be at his old stomping grounds, the Frederick Coffee Co., on Feb. 17.

He's also working with a band on this same set of new material to see how different instrumentation can take the songs in new directions, how it can evolve them.

What the audience hears, then, is one sliver of an ongoing experiment with sound.

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