Enter a Dreamlike State with Kalia Vandever

By Jane Lai

Wednesday, June 14, 2023

When I listen to Kalia Vandever’s music, I’m entering a dream. Diving into her music is like swimming through an unscathed secret. Suspended in space and time, “Mirrored Solitude," a single off her latest album We Fell In Turn, features a slow and minimalist layering of sounds. Vandever’s trombone is clean and strong, voices are sparse and echoing, and the effects sparingly sand the track. Vandever’s work on this new album reminds me of UK duo Group Listening, particularly their album Clarinet and Piano: Selected Works, Vol. 1. A clarinet predominantly leads, piano trails along, and small percussive sounds scatter throughout. There is never too much going on, but there is more than enough.

Vandever and I exchanged comprehensive notes over email. She’s a Brooklyn-based trombonist, composer, and quartet leader with an impressive roster—she’s played with household names like Harry Styles and Japanese Breakfast. 

Education, in any form, is elastic. It’s also cooperative and works best alongside others with something new to offer. In Vandever’s elasticity, musicianship expands beyond what she makes. She cements herself as an educator and a soloist who plays in ensembles, all while valuing the art of solitary practice. To her, solitary practice feels entirely different from performing both as a soloist and in ensembles. “I’ll often practice material and/or approaches for a solo performance at home and then reach the performance and abandon anything I prepared,” she said.

Vandever’s performance roots are multi-disciplinary and integral to her growing musicianship and sensibilities. She’s formally trained in jazz and also plays in many of New York’s music scenes. She finds joy in being part of a few intersecting and distinct communities. “I’ll find myself playing a particular genre of music for months and then I’ll be eager to jump back into a different scene, “ she noted. “Thankfully, living in New York makes that possible.”

Preparation is an art form. Vandever’s notes on awareness feels like an exercise in patience and trust coupled with an understanding of how other musicians take up room they need. Having a set idea of how her group will respond and why that informs the music is a mark of someone who can listen to others more than themselves (particularly in improvisational scenarios). Improvisation redefines a prematurity aspect of music; something that is marked as not quite ready or comprehensive actually bolsters the work as innovative as opposed to lacking. “A majority of the work is improvised and stems from my emotional state and environment that day,” she said. “While emotions and environment affect my playing in group settings, I still have a firmer foundation for how I’m going to sound going into a gig.”

Vandever is also an experienced educator. She recently spoke to a group of students at Penn State University for their Women In Music Day on “Safety and Care in Community,” which is a topic close to home. Instability, uncertainty, and struggle shouldn’t be the backseat conversations of freelancing. Vandever aimed to cultivate a supportive and safe community to turn the tables. “My work in education is not only grounding, but uplifts me in a way that continuously surprises me,” she told me. 

She and the students discussed We Have Voice’s Code of Conduct, an initiative formed by 14 women musicians. Covering consent, abuse of power, safe workplaces, how to define a workplace, and more, Vandever’s mission was to educate a generation of young people with resources that weren’t actively available when she was in school. “My approach to teaching is very holistic and honest because I wish I had access to vulnerability in teaching when I was in college,” she said.

Vandever also talked a lot about the actual process of recording We Fell In Turn and her real-time reactions in a studio. Environments make a huge difference; they permeate all arcs of creative decisions, both big and small. Her approach to these songs centered around melodies and this album certainly highlights it. Compositions in her previous collections In Bloom and Regrowth are linear and form-driven, while songs on We Fell In Turn explore broader landscapes. “You’re meant to get lost in it,” she said.

We Fell In Turn is heavily improvised, sans two pieces. She explores childhood memories, Hawaiian mythology, ancestry, and more. While songs on the album examine and elicit emotions or memories that listeners can find relatable, the work, as a whole, represents grains from her upbringing and how they resurface in dreams. And, interestingly enough, each theme sprouted anew once she immersed herself in a recording process. With help from producer Lee Meadvin, who guided some of the album’s images, Vandever’s music grew.

We Fell In Turn represents a very honest look into my sonic world and the memories that shaped my views on love, loss, and family,” Vandever said.“I believe the work transports you into a dreamlike state and I encourage the listener to lean into memories that come up for them.”

I return to Vandever’s “Mirrored Solitude,” which draws some inspiration from her high school self on late night walks listening to Grouper’s 2008 album Dragging a Dead Deer Up a Hill. This slow moving, contemplative work is a sonic experience comparable to studying snow melting outside through a magnifying glass. Vandever proves herself a malleable musician who skilfully and gracefully underpins a range of sensibilities from past and present while pioneering a process of thoughtful improvisational and dreamlike compositions. 

We Fell In Turn is out now on AKP Recordings.

About Jane Lai

Jane is a community-oriented musician and collaborator based in Brooklyn, NY (who occasionally dabbles in writing).