After a COVID gap year, the Frequency Festival returns on February 22. The six-day event is an outgrowth of the Frequency Series, which is programmed by former Chicago Reader staff music critic Peter Margasak and hosted by Constellation. Founded in 2013, shortly after drummer and promoter Mike Reed opened the north-side venue, the series presents new classical and experimental music in a space that more typically hosts jazz and improvised music, with the aim of mingling their respective audiences.
When the fifth festival took place in 2020, it bore comment that Margasak had organized it remotely following a move to Europe in 2018. He now lives in Berlin, where he writes for DownBeat, the Wire, Bandcamp Daily, the Quietus, and Chamber Music. He’s a programming consultant and writer for Jazzfest Berlin, and he also presents a monthly radio show called Nowhere Street and a sporadic concert series of the same name, both supported by Berlin venue KM28.
The past two years have been especially challenging for presenters of live music. But when in-person concerts were impossible, Constellation pivoted to livestreamed programming; when the city permitted in-person concerts to resume, the venue implemented COVID safety policies in order to do so. Frequency Series events have continued, albeit intermittently.
“Mike Reed has kept things humming, and while it was a big disappointment to skip the festival last year, there was no choice apart from presenting a streaming festival,” explains Margasak by email from Berlin. “Personally, I never want to watch a livestreaming concert again. I will say that many musicians were hesitant to play concerts over the last two years for obvious reasons, which has meant less frequent concerts, but it does feel like we’ve turned a corner, as the dates are now filling up for future concerts in the series.”
The 2022 festival’s program strikes a balance between its predecessors’ ambition and current restrictions. In the past the festival has partnered extensively with other presenters for concerts at venues around the city, but this year every event will take place at Constellation save one, a collaboration with the Renaissance Society on the University of Chicago campus. Margasak will be in town for the occasion, and on Monday, February 21, he’ll moderate a conversation between Berlin-based Swedish composer and sound artist Hanna Hartman and Chicago-based composer and sound artist Olivia Block at the Gray Center for Arts and Inquiry (7 PM, 929 E. 60th).
A majority of the festival’s sets feature at least one out-of-town musician, though several of the visitors previously lived or worked in Chicago. As always, the offerings encompass artists rooted in classical practice and repertoire, jazz-fluent improvisers, and musicians from the realms of noise and independent pop.
Bill Nace & Haley Fohr / Lia Kohl & Macie Stewart
Guitarist Bill Nace is best known as Kim Gordon’s foil in Body/Head, but he’s also flown freely in the company of improvisers such as Susan Alcorn, Chris Corsano, and Joe McPhee. He’s a devastating solo performer whose command of extended techniques often pushes his sound into territory so alien that his instrument could give voice to a Hollywood movie monster. He’ll improvise here in a first-time duo with vocalist, guitarist, and electronicist Haley Fohr, who leads art-rock project Circuit des Yeux and performs dissipated pop as her alter ego Jackie Lynn, but has also tested the limits of her imagination and her powerful, resonant voice in more free-form settings. Lia Kohl and Macie Stewart open this concert with their established duo, which has recorded two tapes of spontaneously generated strings-and-vocals chamber music for the Astral Spirits label.
Violinist-vocalist Macie Stewart and cellist-vocalist Lia Kohl released the duo record Pocket Full of Bees in 2019.
Matchess / Jeff Kimmel & Ryan Packard
Matchess is the solo project of multi-instrumentalist Whitney Johnson, who has played or arranged strings for Circuit des Yeux, Sarah Davachi, and Ryley Walker. Her newest album, Sonescent (Drag City), departs from Matchess’s usual motorik, lo-fi songcraft. She mixes intermittently audible songs in and out of a soundscape of sustained electronic tones in a way that echoes how the material first entered her mind during a silent meditation retreat. Local clarinetist Jeff Kimmel and percussionist Ryan Packard, a former Chicagoan now in Sweden, released their debut cassette as a duo, Contrast Shifting (Dinzu Artefacts), in December 2021; it departs from the contemporary classical repertoire they’ve performed with the ensemble Aperiodic to present electronically augmented examinations of subtly shifting timbres.
The Matchess full-length Sonescent comes out two days after this concert.
Jeff Kimmel and Ryan Packard released a duo album this past December.
RSVP for guaranteed entry. Thu 2/24, 8 PM, William Eckhardt Research Center, room 161, 5640 S. Ellis, all-ages, free
If Hanna Hartman can record a sound, no matter how it was made, she’ll bank it for possible use. For decades the Berlin-based Swedish composer has been archiving recordings of the outdoors, human industry, conventional instruments, and more. Her catholic variety of material recalls French composers Luc Ferrari and François Bayle, but unlike them, she avoids any implication of narrative, combining elements without regard for their original context. On “Crush,” from her latest CD, Gattet (Firework Edition), a buzzing fly, distant waves, quavering electronics, and thumping factory racket coexist in a nonrepresentational study of movement and tone. The program for this concert, Hartman’s Chicago debut, will include Solo (for amplified and moving objects) and Fracture.
Susan Alcorn / Jordan Dykstra
The pedal steel guitar is indelibly associated with country-and-western music, but its breadth of tone and ability to continuously slide from note to note give it a positively orchestral potential. Though Susan Alcorn developed her chops playing in honky-tonks, her stylistic reach includes nuanced adaptations of Astor Piazzolla’s tangos (on the 2015 Relative Pitch release Soledad) and adroit improvisational encounters with the likes of Mary Halvorson, Phillip Greenlief, and Ken Vandermark. For this solo set, she’ll play original songs and pieces by Piazzolla and Olivier Messiaen. American composer and multi-instrumentalist Jordan Dykstra, who opens this concert, first realized the album-length piece In Better Shape Than You Found Me (Elsewhere) over the Internet in 2020 with Dutch musician and programmer Koen Nutters. Across its 60 minutes, sounds materialize and fade to silence with a calm deliberation that proves an effective antidote to the disquiet of the times. For his composition’s Chicago debut, Dykstra will be joined by cellist Lia Kohl, percussionist Ryan Packard, and pianist Jonathan Hannau.
Susan Alcorn’s interpretations of Astor Piazzolla on Soledad overlap with the material she’ll play at this concert.
Last year’s release of Jordan Dykstra’s 2020 composition In Better Shape Than You Found Me
Tomeka Reid, Sam Bardfeld, Curtis Stewart, and Stephanie Griffin / Krista Franklin, Ben LaMar Gay, Sam Scranton, and Katherine Young
When Julius Hemphill died in 1995, he was best known for the music he’d devised for reeds-oriented groups, most notably the World Saxophone Quartet. But he also left behind a varied trove of unreleased work, including string-quartet arrangements of pieces by Charles Mingus, which finally came out last year on the box set The Boyé Multi-National Crusade for Harmony (New World). Cellist Tomeka Reid, a bandleader and close collaborator of Roscoe Mitchell and Mike Reed, has assembled a quartet to play those Mingus arrangements, as well as some of Hemphill’s other music for strings. Opening the evening is an improvising quartet that consists of two established duos: percussionist Sam Scranton and bassoonist Katherine Young, who play together as Beautifulish, along with composer and cornetist Ben LaMar Gay and writer and visual artist Krista Franklin. They’ve already encountered one another during a shared Zoom interview in 2021, but this will be their first performance.
Tonight’s set by Tomeka Reid’s ensemble will include Mingus Gold, a string-quartet adaptation of three Charles Mingus pieces by Julius Hemphill. One of those three pieces is performed here by the Daedalus Quartet.
Ensemble dal Niente
This concert will also be livestreamed for $5. Sun 2/27, 8:30 PM, Constellation, 3111 N. Western, $15, 18+
Ensemble dal Niente and the Frequency Series go way back. The Chicago-based chamber group, which selects and commissions new and experimental music, performed at the series’s very first concert in April 2013, and this is its fourth Frequency Festival appearance. The ensemble’s recent recordings, Object/Animal (Sideband) and Confined. Speak. (New Focus), demonstrate their capacity to change size and sound in order to meet the diverse requirements of, say, George Lewis’s imagined encounter between early jazz and modern dance, “Merce and Baby,” and Murat Çolak’s merging of techno abandon and funeral ritual, Swan. The evening’s program consists of three pieces: another by Çolak, called Nefes.Pas.Cira.Isi (2015), Liza Lim’s Garden of Earthly Desire (1989), and Linda Catlin Smith’s New Vine (2021).
This 2021 Ensemble dal Niente release consists of six of the pieces the group has programmed for streaming performances during the pandemic.
Highlights of the 2020 Frequency Festival include a fusion of Carnatic music and jazz, a solo vocal piece for Diamond Reynolds, and programs of work by Eliane Radigue and Annea Lockwood.
Former Reader staff writer Peter Margasak has been programming the Frequency Series at Constellation since 2013, bringing in artists from across the wide spectrum of experimental and new music for weekly…
The concert series booked by the Reader‘s Peter Margasak throws its second annual six-day festival of boundary-erasing music.