Art of Noise

Sound art has only existed as a distinct genre for the last few decades, but the desire to distinguish the presentation of sound from conventional notions of music goes back as least as far as the advent of recording technology. The “noise” projects of futurist Luigi Russolo, the antimusic of Marcel Duchamp, the dadaist utterances of Kurt Schwitters, the musique concr�te of Pierre Schaeffer, the environment-inclusive work of John Cage, and the cut-up experiments of William Burroughs and Brion Gysin are among the better-known examples of what’s now generally termed sound art–although Cage’s work also has been classified as music and Schwitters’s Ursonate as poetry. Sound art borrows from music, theater, performance art, sculpture, conceptual art, and cinema, but though it often overlaps with one or more of these, it isn’t the same as any of them.

Like performance art, which has evolved into a category separate from theater, sound art is “usually defined by what it isn’t,” says Lou Mallozzi, who cofounded Chicago’s Experimental Sound Studio with his wife, Dawn, more than a decade ago to explore this very issue. (Lou’s own work investigates language and meaning: on his recent Radiophagy he uses overlapping voices and fragments of stories to build serendipitous readings of his texts.) “I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing,” he says, “but I don’t think it will ever help us to come up with a satisfactory definition.”

Actually, if anything defines sound art in Chicago, it’s the Experimental Sound Studio. From a series of three locations (currently it inhabits an old bakery at 5150 N. Paulina) the nonprofit has become the creative hub of the city’s sound-art scene. The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, the only university in the country that offers an undergraduate sound curriculum, is certainly a factor as well, but ESS provides a sanctuary for artists who continue in the field after their formal education ends. Lou, who teaches at SAIC part-time, notes that ESS is one of only three such studios in the country. And ESS has earned something of an international reputation, thanks largely to Sounds From Chicago, a public-radio series developed by another cofounder, Eric Leonardson; 30 half-hour episodes ran on about 40 stations in the U.S., Canada, and Europe between 1988 and 1995.

A membership to ESS costs $35 ($20 for students) and buys access to the full-service recording facilities. ESS also offers a variety of technical and artistic classes that anyone can sign up for, from dry, intensive workshops on mixing and microphones to “Soundtrack Design for Film & Video” and “Invented Instrument/Composition.” In a workshop that starts Saturday, conducted by performance artist Joan Dickinson, participants will collaborate on a piece incorporating “the physical experience” of the Pistakee bog, about an hour and a half west of Chicago.

Back in 1986 the Mallozzis celebrated the launch of ESS with the Sound Show, a well-received month-long presentation at Randolph Street Gallery. But since then the Mallozzis have not made it a point to organize regular showcases. While they’ve been responsible for bringing important sound artists like Jaap Blonk and Gregory Whitehead to town–both performed during residencies at ESS–Lou says “ESS is ideally a catalyst rather than an arbiter.”

Fortunately for curious outsiders, in the last few years ESS affiliates Steve Barsotti and Tod Szewczyk have taken on the job of showcasing Chicago sound art through their In the Eye of the Ear festivals, the third of which begins this weekend at Link’s Hall. The event becomes even more important to the local scene with the recent closing of Urbus Orbis and the temporary cessation of bookings by Salon Zwerge (under Logan Beach Cafe), which emerged as the two most consistent presenters of sound art after Randolph Street Gallery faded in 1996.

Barsotti, who interned at ESS while at the Art Institute and since then has worked there as studio manager, freelance engineer, and instructor, programmed the first In the Eye of the Ear as part of the Nights of the Blue Rider performing arts festival. The following year he and Szewczyk decided that it could stand on its own, and presented 27 artists, including several from Europe, over six nights at the Blue Rider theater. Although Barsotti says he and Szewczyk didn’t lose money, they felt the need to pare down the event, which previously had found a nook for any artist who expressed an interest in performing.

“We wanted it to be more manageable this year, and we wanted to be more deliberate about who we picked,” says Barsotti. “We chose artists that we felt represented different types of work, but we don’t want anyone to assume these artists cover everything that is audio art.” Whatever it is.

This Friday and Saturday In the Eye of the Ear presents Lou Mallozzi, Mark Booth, Eric Leonardson, and Carol Genetti; next weekend Olivia Block, Robbie Hunsinger, Jack the Dog, and Lucky Pierre perform. Expect anything from Hunsinger’s austere oboe improvisations to Leonardson thwacking his “springboard”–basically an amplified walker he’s outfitted with a two-by-six board, rubber bands, and a metal spring. Call 773-281-0824 or see for more info.


Country singer and hit songwriter Jim Lauderdale, whose superb new Whisper comes out Tuesday, will be one of the special guests at the latest Milly’s Orchid Show, Saturday at the Park West.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Lou and Dawn Mallozzi, Steve Barsotti and Tod Szewczyk photo by Dorothy Perry.