Photographer Richard Nickel died in 1972 in the ruins of architect Louis Sullivan’s 1893 stock exchange building, crushed when the floor of its famous trading room collapsed. Decades before, a photography class assignment had led Nickel to fall in love with the architect’s intricate ornamentation, and had made it his life’s work to document every surviving Sullivan building.

A similar enthusiasm for Sullivan’s work has fueled the development of Steven Tod’s group the Richard Nickel Transaction Ensemble, which presents its multimedia improvisations twice next week.

A bassist and guitarist, Tod has been active in Chicago’s experimental film and music scenes for the last five years. He launched the new ensemble in 2001, after percussionist Josh Dumas approached him at a show by one of Tod’s other projects, the Silver Measure, and suggested they collaborate. The two brought in four other musicians and put together a list of six sources the group might be able to mine for inspiration. After a vote, the architecture of Louis Sullivan won, and the ensemble members went out into the city to each shoot a reel of eight-millimeter film documenting one of Sullivan’s buildings.

None of the six, all of whom are originally from Michigan, had heard of Nickel when they started exploring Sullivan’s architecture, but shortly after they shot the films clarinetist and percussionist Allison Stanley caught a documentary about Nickel on WTTW. “As we researched him and learned more,” says Tod, “it just rang true, like a church bell,” and they soon took the photographer as their namesake.

The ensemble–which ranges from four to fourteen musicians–operates in round-robin style, sitting in a circle. One player explores an idea and then passes the thematic baton to the person on his or her left with a nod. “I designed the form of the improvisation to reflect Sullivan’s ornamental design concepts and the structural elements of his buildings,” says Tod. “He wouldn’t try to conceal them. His ornament would emerge from those structural elements, and that parallels how we’re actually composing symphonies live. They’re improvisational symphonies. Nothing is written out ahead of time.” The players communicate through hand signals and sometimes even conferences, as when electric pianist Elena Potapova got up from her keyboard at a recent performance and sang into the ears of other players.

The results change from concert to concert. A recent performance on WNUR was “a whisper piece,” says Tod. “We had three separate circles, and everyone played no louder than a whisper, and the three circles functioned independently, with three microphones, one in each circle.” At another show, the music was reminiscent of Steve Reich or Terry Riley, built on a series of ostinatos that evolved as they passed from player to player.

Brian Wyrick, a filmmaker who creates the videos the ensemble uses in its performances, is currently working on one for next week’s concert at HotHouse that will draw on images of Sullivan’s Holy Trinity Orthodox Cathedral in Ukrainian Village–the white stucco church at Leavitt and Haddon with the little gold onion domes. Lindsey Bowman, the group’s publicist, contributed an audio recording of a service during which a priest hidden behind the iconostasis prays in a near-drone while another priest, at the pulpit, sings lines echoing the prayers.

“It gives you a reference tonality,” says Thomas Mejer, who plays contrabass saxophone. “And even a spatial reference,” adds keyboardist Paul Giallorenzo. “If you use your imagination, you can imagine you’re in the church.”

At HotHouse, the taped liturgy will be playing in the gallery. Tod hopes the sound will spill out into the main room, where the ensemble will perform accompanied by Wyrick’s video.

“I’m kind of the obvious link between the music and the architecture,” says Wyrick. “The structure that they’ve built, I will then represent. Since they’re improvising, they’ll make changes on it when they play it finally, but the elements that everyone starts out with stay there. In a way, I’m like the video metronome.”

The Richard Nickel Transaction Ensemble performs at 8 PM Wednesday, May 26, at HotHouse, 31 E. Balbo. Tickets are $8; call 312-362-9707. The group also performs at 9 PM Saturday, May 29, at Candlestick Maker, 4432 N. Kedzie. Admission is $10 or whatever you can afford; call 773-463-0158.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Joeff Davis.