Believer it or not, there's more to Chicago than Michael Jordan, Barack Obama and ER. Contemporary composer and sound artist Olivia Block shows us around her city, calling in at galleries, public installations and demolition sites on the way.
Enemy / Heaven Gallery
Location: 1550 N. Milwaukee Avenue, Chicago
Enemy and Heaven Gallery are two non-profit music venues located on different floors of an old loft building in Wicker Park. Heaven Gallery features visual art exhibits, and performances by local and touring improvisers and electronic musicians. Enemy leans more towards power electronics and noise shows. Both venues are run by artists and have been in operation for many years. Enemy also serves as the living quarters for local artists Brent Gutzeit (from T.V. Pow) and Jason Soliday, among others. Enemy has a particularly excellent junktastic quality to it. I like playing in these venues because the spaces are very modular, so setting speakers in different configurations for shows is not a problem. I also like rooms where I can drag objects on the floors for sound. Watching shows in these spaces is always a very casual experience. You have to get used to the rumbling of the elevated train, which is audible when it passes the back of the building.
Museum of Contemporary Art / Sound-Friendly Curators Tricia Van Eck and Michael Green
Location: 220 E. Chicago Avenue, Chicago
The MCA has a small (21x12 ft) space dedicated to new work by local artists each month. Curators Tricia Van Eck and Michael Green have been excellent about inviting local sound artists to present installations and performances in the series. They also include sound pieces in the larger museum collection.
The Multi-Speaker Configuration in the Field in Front of the Jay Pritzker Bandshell
Location: Millennium Park, 55 N. Michigan Ave., Chicago
The Jay Pritzker Bandshell, designed by Frank Gehry, is one of the main attractions in Millennium Park. My interest in the bandshell is not in the architectural design, rather in the trellis, the lattice-like grid structure with attached speakers that arches over the Great Lawn in front of the auditorium. The numerous, widely spaced speakers are conventionally used to process and diffuse the sounds from performers onstage for the audience outside. However, people are beginning to recognize the staggering possibilities this place holds for multi-speaker sound works. I was fortunate to participate in a collaborative sound installation using the multi-speaker system. The enormous scale of the space, the excellent acoustic quality of the speakers, and the ability to program the diffusion of sounds in various ways were awesome. I dream of a day when audiences will sit on the grass underneath those speakers, listening to a composition by Parmegiani or the like.
The School of the Art Institute Sound Department and Lampo Performance Series
Location: AIC - 112 S. Michigan Avenue, Chicago; Lampo - Previously located on 216 W. Chicago Ave, currently operating out of various locations
The SAIC sound department and the Lampo non-profit organization have a symbiotic relationship, in that visiting SAIC sound artists/musicians like Alessandro Bosetti and David Behrman often perform in the Lampo series while they are in town. I took classes at SAIC years ago, and taught there recently. It is one of the few programs that approaches sound within the context of contemporary art, instead of restricting it to the realm of electroacoustic music, as is usually the case in most music schools. Composer Nic Collins heads the program.
Lampo is a non-profit organization founded by Andrew Fenchel, featuring mostly international touring experimental music and electronic music performers. I have seen many memorable shows at the old Lampo space, Odum, in Ukrainian Village, and the more recent loft space, in the Near North area. Most memorably, I saw the early films and later videos of Phill Niblock with accompanying multispeaker sounds blasting. Difficult economic times have forced Lampo to become more nomadic, hosting events in several different venues.
Experimental Sound Studio (ESS)
Location: 5925 N. Ravenswood, Chicago
ESS is a non-profit organization run by artist Lou Mallozzi, one of the most prolific curators of experimental music and sound art in the city. The ESS space, located in Edgewater, has a recording studio/performance space, and a one-room gallery featuring visual and sound installations. The Outer Ear festival, hosted by ESS, brings in international artists to present work in the space. Much like Lampo, the Outer Ear fest often works with the School of the Art Institute in bringing the artists to Chicago. I record and rehearse a lot in the ESS studio, using the piano to test sound preparations. The room sounds beautiful for acoustic instruments. I recently had a recording session at ESS where all I did was drop handfuls of beans over and over on a bass drum, and I didn’t have to explain to anyone why I wanted to do that. ESS recently hosted an event called Vinsonic, where electronic music pieces were paired with wines in a tasting/listening combination.
The Harry Bertoia Sound Sculpture at Aon Center
Location: 200 E. Randolph Street, Chicago
Bertoia’s “sounding sculpture,” was commissioned by the Amaco corporation, and installed in the plaza outside of the Amaco building. The building is now the Aon Center, but the sculpture is still there. Long copper rods sway in the wind, gently bumping into each other, creating ethereal, resonating metallic sounds. Stunning.
Location: All over the show, Chicago
The short warm season of Chicago is the time for construction and demolition. I love the sounds of buildings in the process of destruction—the huge tumbling sounds of rubble, the cracking of framework, glass breaking, and the strange collection of associated anthropomorphic cranes and bulldozers.
The Empty Bottle
Location: 1035 N. Western Chicago
This Wicker Park bar is pretty well known by now, as it has been an important spot for touring indie rock bands for many years. When I moved to Chicago I remember how impressed I was that the Empty Bottle hosted a lot of experimental, electroacoustic and improv stuff. They continue to have great shows there. That is all.
Olivia Block is a contemporary composer and sound artist who combines field recordings, scored segments for acoustic instruments, and electronically generated sound. Block works with recorded media, chamber ensembles, video, and site-specific sound installations.
She has performed throughout Europe, America, and Japan in tours and festivals including Sonic Light, Dissonanze, Archipel, Angelica, Sunoni per il Popolo, Outer Ear, and many others. Her works have premiered at La Biennale di Venezia 52nd International Festival of Contemporary Music, and she has completed residencies and premiered works at Mills College of Music and The Berklee College of Music. She has taught master classes at several additional universities.
Block has created sound installations for public sites and exhibition spaces including the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, the library at Wesleyan University in Connecticut, the Lincoln Conservatory Fern Room in Chicago, and at the “Echoes Through the Mountains” exhibit at the 2006 Winter Olympics in Turin, Italy.
Her 2008 DVD release with video artists Sandra Leah Gibson and Luis Recoder, Untitled, on SOS editions, has been screened at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival and the Expanded Cinema symposium at the Tate Modern in London. Her release Mobius Fuse was voted one of the best albums of the decade by Pitchfork.
Block has published recordings through Sedimental, either/OAR, and Cut, among other labels.