Downtown Chicago is quiet on the weekends, but the three hundred–seat theater in the Cultural Center was comfortably filled on a cold Sunday afternoon in early November, where experimental music fans and curious listeners assembled for a free performance by sound sculptor Olivia Block and instrument maker Hal Rammel. It was an impressive turnout, at least to a jaded New Yorker used to performances in small, half-empty rooms: a proper theater in a beautifully restored 1897 Beaux Arts building, the original home of the Chicago Public Library.
From the Cultural Center, it’s a short walk toward Lake Michigan to the Jay Pritzker Pavillion in Millennium Park. The park’s centerpiece, a Frank Gehry–designed amphitheater with four thousand seats and room for seven thousand more on the lawn, was rumbling with recordings of trains emanating from speakers hanging from the brushed-steel lattice overhead. The soundscape is the work of Block, Shawn Decker, Ryan Ingebritsen, and Lou Mallozzi, and the massive sound installation is almost unprecedented in scale in the history of sound art; drawing allusions to the Philips Pavilion at the 1958 World’s Fair, where Edgar Varèse premiered his electronic tape piece Poème électronique, would not be overstating the scope of the piece.
Two events, both parts of the eighth annual Outer Ear Festival: impressive venues and free tickets, with aficionados and the uninitiated alike experiencing sound in new ways. This begs the question: Is the Second City kicking New York’s ass?
That could be the skewed question of an airdropping cultural tourist. Mallozzi—who was commissioned by the Chicago Humanities Festival to curate, produce, and design the Pritzker piece—noted that the project was unusual for Chicago, and the city’s participation had more to do with facilities than financial support.
“This is not something that has spontaneously appeared,” he said. “It has been built by many of us over a long period with much hard work. And these various streams of labor and history are dovetailing in a particularly fruitful way right now. There’s as little financial support for these efforts here as anywhere else in the U.S. There is, however, a lot of organizing going on at this moment, especially at the grassroots level, and there’s some interest from larger organizations and institutions.”
Mallozzi performs and presents work four or five times a year in Chicago, at such venues as the Empty Bottle, Elastic, Hideout, and the Cultural Center. Directing the Experimental Sound Studio and teaching in the Sound Department at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, rather than a lack of opportunity, prevent him from performing more, he said.
The SAIC Sound Department has been a strong force in creating opportunities for presenting sound art, according to Block, who joined the faculty in September. Decker is also on staff there, as is former New Yorker Nic Collins, a fixture in electronic and experimental music circles for more than twenty years.
“Chicago is very healthy in terms of sound art,” Block said. “There are a few organizers who curate sound art regularly. Some are nonprofit organizations with the ability to bring artists from Europe and elsewhere. Most performance spaces I frequent are used specifically for sound art, experimental, or improvised music. They usually don’t serve alcohol, and sometimes have visual art on display.
“I don’t perform very often in Chicago because I do a lot of shows out of town,” Block added. “I perform here around three or four times per year, generally. I probably wouldn’t perform more than that even if I stayed in town. There is ample opportunity to perform here, but my process is pretty slow and I like to present new material at each event if I can.”
The real-estate crunch in New York might make it harder for spaces to stay open here than in Chicago. A non-drinking crowd can kill a commercial space (witness Tonic); others, such as Issue Project Room and Diapason in Brooklyn, rely on grants to keep their doors open. But Alan Licht—who has created installations and performed at all of those venues, and booked shows at Tonic—defends New York as a home for audio presentation, at least in relation to the rest of the country.
“Considering that Diapason is the only regular space for sound installations in the entire country, I wouldn’t say New York lags behind,” he said, “although the U.S. is definitely behind Europe, especially Germany, in terms of overall awareness and presentation of sound art.”
Licht literally wrote the book on audio aesthetics—he’s the author of Sound Art: Beyond Music, Between Catagories, an impressive, illustrated catalogue of the history of the field, and is involved in forging ways to present in the city. He curated The Headphones Show at Abrons Arts Center, which runs through January ninth. The ubiquity of the iPod is taken as a jumping–off point for presenting works by Vito Acconci, Christina Kubisch, Tristan Perich, and others. The listening stations are decidedly more intimate than the 95,000 square feet of the Pritzker Pavillion, but maybe that’s just New York, alone in a crowd.
KURT GOTTSCHALK writes about music for various publications, hosts the Miniature Minotaurs show on WFMU, and struggles with a variety of stringed instruments.