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The whey is over: Get cheesy in Echo Park

Cheese-making will be backdrop for an L.A. art collective Machine Project event that is part concert, part lecture and all cheese.

May 13, 2010|By Samantha Page

The sizzle of bacon. The crunch of an apple. The mellifluous sound of ... cheese?

Unlike other foods, cheese is generally not thought of as noisy, but on Sunday an Echo Park art group will be taking Angelenos through the process of making cheese, from cows to curds, using the sounds of cheese as a guide.

By recording natural sounds from each stage of the process and combining the sounds with music, L.A. art collective Machine Project has created an unusual backdrop for a cheese-tasting and lecture by a Northern California cheese-maker.

The event, called Ferment [cheese], will be a multi-sensory introduction to the world of artisan cheeses.

"We wanted to bring people closer to the process of making cheese," said Chris Kallmyer, a member of Machine Project, a nonprofit that frequently puts on events bridging art, science and craft.

An exhibit about cheese-making was a natural fit for Machine Project's objectives. "It's about finding how practices that aren't usually related to each other can relate to each other," said Michele Yu, the group's operations manager.

They also try to make hidden processes more accessible. "People can see an electronic piece of art or a piece of clothing but not have any idea how it was made," Yu explained. "Cheese is another one of those things. It's very simple to make, but a lot of people don't know how to do it."

For Kallmyer, it's a craft he knows well. Before he became a sound artist with Machine Project, Kallmyer put himself through college as cheese monger for his aunt at Cowgirl Creamery, in Pt. Reyes Station, north of San Francisco.

His experience inspired him to create "music to eat cheese by," although not everyone would call this music. During one piece, there is the sound of Jersey cows munching on alfalfa, while a metal gate clanks somewhere in the distance. Layered over those noises are musical tracks — light strings that make the natural sound seem even more melodious.

Still, Kallmyer admits that the sound of cheese is not always the draw. "The most interesting part to me is the tasting process," he said.

His aunt, Sue Conley, will explain the agriculture of cheese, as well as draining, storage and aging, letting the audience taste the product at every stage. The sound and music will follow along.

"I'm really excited to have this sound environment that is expressing the cheese-making process — it's a process where you use all your senses," said Conley, who founded Cowgirl Creamery.

Conley started making cheese in 1994 when a nearby dairy farm became the first certified organic farm west of the Mississippi. Conley, who had been in the restaurant business, decided to go into cheese-making full-time, using the organic milk.

She is not the only one who has been inspired by the age-old art. Cheese and cheese-making have been on the rise in the U.S. since the 1980s, particularly the making of artisan cheese.

Now, her offerings are featured at upscale Los Angeles restaurants such as Lucques and A.O.C., as well as shops like the Cheese Store of Silverlake. "Americans are making cheeses now that are as good or better than imported cheese, which is new," Conley said.

It's a booming industry. Membership in the American Cheese Society has doubled since 2002, largely through the addition of small producers like Conley.

"So many people are interested in slow food or farm-to-table, and they understand how artisan cheese fits in there," said Nora Weiser, executive director of the society. "The quality and the caliber of the cheeses has gotten so much higher, similar to the wine movement," she added.

Like epicures of wine or chocolate, cheese connoisseurs can distinguish flavors depending on where the cheese is from and when it was made. So although Machine Project is billing the event as a concert as well as a tasting and lecture, there is no question who the star of the show will be.

As Conley said, "The cheese can speak for itself."

Ferment [cheese]

Where: Machine Project, 1200 N. Alvarado St., Los Angeles

When: 3 p.m. Sunday

Price: $5

Info: (213) 483-8761;

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