The nonprofit Experimental Sound Studio, whose mission is to provide noncommercial artists with a noncommercial recording space, moved into its new digs near Paulina and Foster two months ago. The entrance still smells like wet paint, but inside the isolation booth is finished, the engineer’s bench is in place, and rows of neatly coiled patch cords hang from hooks along one wall. As summer flies buzz through the room, a genial repairman fiddles with the studio’s main workhorse, an Otari half-inch eight-track machine.

By the standards of some technomaniacs, ESS’s new digs are not particularly impressive. Plenty of Chicago musicians would survey the smallish room, the puny eight-channel mixing board, and the second-hand upright piano in the corner, and respond with a snort. However, Dawn and Lou Mallozzi, members of the ESS board of directors who oversee the day-to-day operation of the place, couldn’t care less. “We’re not in competition with any commercial studios,” Dawn explains. “We do a totally different thing. We’re here for the benefit of those who don’t have access to the other studios.”

Potential scoffers might want to read the ESS client list. After they got past the big-name nonprofit organizations–the Art Institute, the Field Museum, and the Great Books Foundation–they’d find a fascinating assortment of local theater companies, performance artists, poets, choreographers, filmmakers–and, yes, musicians, many of them decidedly outside the mainstream, including members of Chicago’s world-renowned Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM).

Since the five-year-old ESS is partly funded by the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs and the Illinois Arts Council, it can offer its Spartan facilities to local artists at sliding-scale hourly rates, which at the low end are, well, unbelievably low. Lou points out that student artists make up an important part of ESS’s clientele. “They may have access to great stuff at school, but they might have really limited access.”

Surprisingly, ESS isn’t stormed by young rock-and-roll musicians looking to make demo tapes. “We aim,” says Lou, “toward trying to serve the arts community as opposed to the entertainment community–whatever that fuzzy line is. We could record rock-and-roll bands, but if they’re not recording demos at home, they usually want to go to 16-track anyway.”

The studio also conducts workshops in instrument building, sound art for radio, and general recording-studio engineering. And ESS’s Eric Leonardson produces Sounds From Chicago, an impressive radio series that’s distributed free to a dozen or so college and small independent stations in the U.S., Canada, and Europe. This one-year-old program–carried locally on WNUR, WZRD, and WHPK–ranges from spoken poetry to audio performance art to string quartets to audio collages that almost defy description. “That’s what we’re interested in,” says Lou. “Allowing these other people to have voices, literally, that they’re not going to get on WXRT or the Loop.”

Tonight at Club Lower Links, 954 W. Newport, seven local musicians associated with ESS–two duos and a trio–will perform in a benefit for the organization, which needs the money to buy new recording equipment. Trombone virtuoso/computer-music specialist George Lewis and reedman/flutist/instrument builder Douglas Ewart both come from the AACM. Hamid Drake and Michael Zerang are percussionists who have been exploring the sonic possibilities of traditional Middle Eastern frame drums, among other things. Gene Coleman, Katherine Hughes, and Jim O’Rourke all slip back and forth across the invisible lines that divide classical music from jazz and rock. Admission costs $10, and the music starts at 8:30 PM; call 248-5238 for details. For more info about ESS, call the studio at 784-0449.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Marc PoKempner.