“A home is a place that’s full of people,” says Chicago guitarist, composer, and improviser Daniel Wyche. “I’ve been inspired by my grandparents’ hospitality. They had this need to welcome tons of people into their home. That’s cultivating what family means.”

The first track on Earthwork, Wyche’s new album on local label American Dreams Records, is a collaborative exercise in turning strangers into guests and the people where you are into a family. “This Was Home” was recorded live in 2015 by Wyche and Andrew Clinkman on guitar, Lia Kohl on cello, and Ryan Packard on vibraphone at Experimental Sound Studio in Chicago. (Wyche and Michael Nicosia added more guitar a few months later.) Wyche has been involved with ESS for at least a decade, and he remembers that the studio’s tiny performance space—which holds around two dozen people—was packed.

The band passed out controllers—“little boxes with knobs on them, basically,” Wyche says—to allow the audience to manipulate the musicians’ expression pedals, including delay effects, modulators, and filters. “I said, think of this as a meditation and not a video game—be very gentle,” Wyche recalls, laughing. “And so nobody listened to that. Everybody acted like they were playing Space Invaders. But that’s fine, right?”

Daniel Wyche, Norman Long, Lake Mary
This is a release show for Earthwork. Face mask and proof of vaccination required. Fri 11/12, 8:30 PM, Elastic Arts, 3429 W. Diversey #208, $10, all ages

The controllers still blurred the line between listeners and performers, so in that sense they were a success. Wyche says that when audience members adjusted the filter levels, his guitar made a high whistle, while Clinkman’s guitar sounded more like a buzz saw. 

The result is a 17-minute piece of crystalline ambience shot through with feedback spikes and galactic fuzz, held together by a collective pulse. “There’s a point right in the middle where it gets really quiet. And you’re actually only hearing the audience manipulating the resonant sound through the filter of Lia’s cello, because she had stopped playing at that point,” Wyche says, taking obvious pride in his industrious, unherdable, and anonymous collaborators.

The single edit of “This Was Home,” shortened dramatically to six minutes and 45 seconds

Wyche’s vision of music as an expression of hospitality and community hasn’t just influenced how he performs; it’s also led him to organize concerts. He started cocurating Paul Giallorenzo’s long-running Elastro series at Elastic Arts in 2014, and last year he helped launch and organize ESS’s Quarantine Concerts

When his own tour was canceled in March 2020, Wyche was living at the Shape Shoppe, a south-side recording studio with a few apartments attached. Like most musicians at the beginning of COVID, he found himself scrambling to figure out what to do next, and decided that maybe he could use the Shape Shoppe’s facilities to mount a virtual tour. He asked for advice on social media. Before he knew it he was working with ESS development and outreach director Olivia Junell, ESS chief engineer Alex Inglizian, and experimental drummer and synth player Ben Billington (who’s also assistant director of the Elastic Arts Foundation) to curate an ongoing series of events in collaboration with different venues, presenters, artists, and labels. At first the Quarantine Concerts streamed a new free show nearly every day, and all audience donations have gone straight to the musicians.

“It kind of just took off,” Wyche says incredulously. “We had this crazy week where we just learned how to do this. We had a test show on the first real day that everything got shut down—on, I think, March 20. And then we had the first real show the next day.” (You can see Wyche’s test show here.)

Daniel Wyche performs at Twisted Hippo during ESS’s Experimental Holiday Market on December 8, 2019. Credit: Ricardo Adame

ESS initially planned to stream on YouTube, but the video kept glitching. Inglizian had to create a Twitch account in the middle of the first performances (by Arizona artist Alejandro Acierto, who manipulated a microphone with his hands to create feedback buzz and blare, and Chicago improviser Molly Jones, who created noises by crumpling fabric and blowing up a rubber glove). “It was like moving the venue across town in the middle of the show,” Wyche says. Since then, the Quarantine Concerts have streamed on Twitch, and most shows are archived on YouTube. Performers have included a who’s who of the Chicago, U.S., and global experimental communities, including Ken Vandermark, Claire Rousay, and Ahmedou Ahmed Lowla.

Wyche started teaching at a small college in Michigan in fall 2020, so recently he hasn’t been as involved in the day-to-day of the series. But his sense of discovery and community is evident in his new album’s title track. Recorded before the pandemic, “Earthwork” is a tribute to his relatives, and especially to his uncle, who worked in construction in New Jersey as a foreman. He was diagnosed with cancer while Wyche was working on the album.

More tracks from Earthwork will become streamable via Bandcamp as the album’s November 12 release date arrives.

The piece was inspired in part, Wyche says, by an idea of “organic machinery . . . where all the cogs and machines are made of wood or plants or stone; it’s a weird parallel-universe organic kind of industrial—a vision of a machinery that isn’t gross.” Sure enough, “Earthwork” sidesteps the dystopian pistoning of the industrial genre. Instead, it’s comforting and rambling, with Wyche drawing gentle clangs and clicks and taps from his guitar to build an experimental technology of intimacy.

The intimacy is specifically that of home. For Wyche, the piece makes him think of the color of earth exposed while digging a foundation for a house in New Jersey. “You get down to a certain kind of dirt that, at least where I’m from, was really red and really orange, and it looked nothing like the rest of it. The color was always really vivid to me,” he says. The soundscape has that kind of warmth and texture, lived-in and evocative enough for listeners to build on.