Lou Mallozzi in front of a sound-diffusion panel in Studio A, the live room where ESS hosts many of its concerts Credit: Carly Ries

For its three decades and counting as a vital outlet for the sonic arts in Chicago, Experimental Sound Studio has been synonymous with artist Lou Mallozzi, who founded it in 1986 with his first wife, Dawn Mallozzi, who died of cancer in August 1999. They ran it together from its inception till her death, with Lou as associate director and Dawn as executive director, and since then he’s served as executive director himself. This summer, though, he’s stepping down, letting go of the reins at a crucial institution he’s spent 30 years nurturing—though after a six-month sabbatical, he’ll return at the start of 2017 as a board member with title of director emeritus.

Formed before Chicago had a coherent sound-art community, ESS began by serving a variety of artists from different milieus united by their interest in experimenting with sound, either as a primary or secondary focus. Performance artists such as Lynn Book, Lawrence Steger, and Brigid Murphy used its recording studio, as did poets such as David Hernandez and Carlos Cumpian. Naturally, many of the city’s important experimental musicians got involved with ESS very early on, including Michael Zerang, Gene Coleman, Douglas Ewart, Laurie Lee Moses, and Jeff Kowalkowski. ESS also partnered with important cultural presenters, among them Lower Links and Randolph Street Gallery. Internationally renowned artists who performed under the aegis of ESS in those years included the likes of Nicolas Collins, George Lewis, and Elliott Sharp.

ESS is a nonprofit, and it not only offers affordable rates to artists interested in using the studio as a tool but also accommodates unusual techniques and ideas. A 1999 Reader story about Dawn mentioned a few, including “arranging microphones in buckets of water or rolling dice to decide how to set up the mixing board.” During its 30-year history, ESS has grown into a multitiered institution, and while its recording facilities remain central to its mission, it also organizes classes in studio practices, provides artist residencies, and houses the steadily expanding Creative Audio Archive—whose historically important collections include the myriad show recordings of activist Malachi Ritscher, a trove of material from Sun Ra and El Saturn Records, and recordings from the Links Hall concert series curated by Zerang.

From ESS’s Creative Audio Archive: Gastr del Sol performs at HotHouse on August 16, 1994.

ESS has also grown into one of the most reliable and consistent presenters of sound art and experimental music in the city, hosting concerts in its cozy studio and partnering with Chicago arts organizations to hold events in more conventional spaces—and in some not-so-conventional spaces. The Fern Room of the Lincoln Park Conservatory has hosted a long-running sound-installation series called Florasonic since 2001, and Pritzker Pavilion has been home to large-scale environmental sound-art works curated by ESS, including Olivia Block’s Sonambient Pavilion, which paid homage to the sound sculpture of Harry Bertoia last fall.

I recently spoke with Mallozzi about his impending departure and the future of ESS. When I asked him why he’s decided to step down, he quipped “age” and laughed heartily—he just turned 59. But he went on to offer a characteristically thoughtful and detailed explanation. Over the past few years, he says, ESS’s capable and reliable staff has coalesced into a vital organization—one that’s fostered the expansion of live performance series such as Oscillations, which invites young artists to perform at the space via open call. He also feels it’s time for him to move on because technology has changed so much, and because the role of a nonprofit arts organization is so different now than it was 30 years ago.

I’ve been thinking about it for a time, simply because I was getting to a point where personally I just didn’t want to have the kind of situation where I felt like you do in an ED position in a small organization—where you’re basically responsible for everything one way or another. It’s a normal thing that I’m sure everybody in this position goes through—nothing dramatic.

But as we started hiring staff, the staff had developed these amazingly synergistic ways of working together. And whenever I would delegate some kind of responsibility, it was never a situation where people just did what they were asked to do—they also always took it and sort of converted it into something more their own. It started to become clear that the team that we had were capable of taking on a lot of stuff, and were really dedicated to what they were doing and interested in really making the organization their own in the best possible way. It was concurrent with the fact that they were extending the organization’s programs and services into a wider and wider range of artists, so that we were starting to work with people from a wider variety of backgrounds and aesthetic sensibilities.

I realized that it was possible for the organization to not only do what it was doing but to expand or change. That made it viable that I could start to step away without there being any danger of it stopping. Because with a small organization, which for a long time is centered on the activity or let’s say the presence of one or one or two people only, the danger is that when one of those persons leaves, all a sudden the whole thing collapses. It depended on that one individual, and it’s associated with their personality. So that’s a very fragile situation if the person leaves, because there’s no glue there.

Mallozzi believes that ESS has its glue, though, provided by the current staff: managing director Adam Vida, marketing and communications director Dan Mohr, technical director and chief engineer Alex Inglizian, development and outreach director Olivia Junell, and archivist Allison Schein. Over the past few years, this crew have learned to work symbiotically, taking on roles much bigger than their titles indicate.

ESS staff: managing director Adam Vida, technical director and chief engineer Alex Inglizian, development and outreaach director Olivia Junell, archivist Allison Schein, and marketing and communications director Dan MohrCredit: Carly Ries; Chris Riha (Inglizian, Junell)

In some ways I feel like a little bit of a dinosaur. So I’m kind of recognizing my own limitations, and I think other kinds of viewpoints coming in and other models for running things might be better in the long run for the organization. The other thing is that for many years the organization was pretty much centered on me or centered on me and Dawn. We basically ran the thing together—maybe not since its inception, but from shortly after its inception forward, it became clear that it was going to be the two of us running this thing. And so we did that until she died in ’99. Then after that I had to make a decision about what to do, and I decided just to continue on.

Because of the dynamics of the situation and who was around when and all of that, a lot of the operation fell to me directly or personally. I had some great people working with me, that’s definitely true, but a lot of it was still centered on the individual. This is not an unusual thing—it’s pretty typical for smaller arts organizations.

Bitchin Bajas play as part of ESS’s outdoor Summersonic series on August 17, 2012.

The whole idea for me over the last seven years or so has been to try to move away from that towards something that wasn’t sustained by an individual or by a personality, but that was going to develop an organizational identity of its own that could transcend the person and operate in a more diverse or diffuse sort of manner and at the same time not lose the sense that there’s still a sort of personal touch to the whole thing. The way we operate with audiences and with artists is very direct and very personal, with—dare I say it—a kind of elegance and something that’s very real at an individual level. That approach could still be maintained even if the organization stopped being attached to a specific individual.

In December, Mallozzi sent an e-mail to friends of ESS announcing that he would depart on June 30, 2016. He wrote that ESS would begin searching for a new executive director in January, but that search never began. By the time ESS made Mallozzi’s impending resignation public on March 8, the organization had decided that the five remaining part-time staffers would spread the former executive dirctor’s responsibilities among themselves. ESS also has a five-member board, where Mallozzi is joined by veteran arts administrators and artists Kate Dumbleton, Ed Herrmann, Drew Roulo, and Darin Walsh.

We talked about the staff already, but the other thing that has happened is that in the past three years the board has really stepped up. We developed the board in some extremely positive ways, and we brought a couple of new people on—that has brought some new energy to it.

The board has been really hands-on in trying to stabilize the finances of the organization, look at what its real capacity is, and to also engage in various kinds of analysis—both with staff and separate from the staff—in terms of thinking about what the strengths of the organization are and what its weaknesses are and what it can try to accomplish in the future. They also really took a good hard look at the finances, and working with the staff, totally revised how we manage [them]. You can look at programming, and it’s sort of the face of the organization—that’s what the public engage with, and that’s what the artists see and engage with—but none of that works unless you have all of this other attention and activity underneath the surface, and that’s what the board has really helped to bring.

Dancer Jessica Cornish and bassist Albert Wildeman duet as part of ESS’s Option series on December 14, 2015

The board and the staff work so well together that it really means that we get a lot done in a short amount of time. We get to dig in on a given issue and work through what all the possibilities are that make sense for the organization, and we look at models that exist—but we always look at that as refracted through the sensibility of the organization itself, in terms of what ESS is really about.

When I decided to announce to the board that I wanted to leave, I said I wanted to do this with a very long transition. It was the fall of 2015, and at that time I told them it would be the summer of 2016 when I would leave—so that was a good eight months, and that was very intentional and extremely important because it gave us a chance to really strategize and think about what that was going to mean and to try to put some processes in place to make the transition work. It was kind of assumed that, “OK, well, I’m leaving my position. That’s a position that exists—it does something in the organization—therefore we will need to fill that position.” What is the cost of doing that? It’s going to cost more than what I’m being paid, because I’ve kind of held my own salary, one might say, unnaturally low—but also just thinking about structurally what it meant.

Among the responsibilities Mallozzi will be leaving behind are designing the budget, writing grants, meeting with funders and donors, overseeing administrative responsibilities, developing new programs and evaluating old ones, and determining spending priorities.

We were thinking that we were going to try to hire someone, which is the logical assumption. When the staff and the board started talking about it more, there was a joint meeting of both parties about a month or so ago. It was brought up, you know, maybe what we’re looking for is not an executive director, but maybe we’re looking for another kind of position that really doesn’t fit that mold in the traditional sense. Instead of hiring a new position to simply take those responsibilities, we could reassign them among the existing staff—who have all of this incredible expertise already, and who already have this kind of chemistry of working collaboratively—and see if that model might make sense. And it was like this strange eureka moment where I think we all, in a kind of pop, we were like, “Oh yeah, maybe we just need to assign this a different kind of structure, a structure that seems to organically grow out of what we are, what our identity is, what we’ve become, what we’re doing, and also that grows out of the direction that we seem to be moving in—looking ahead in a different way.”

That’s when we came up with what some would consider a rather atypical solution—not having an executive director at all, and instead running the organization in this kind of lateral collaborative administrative model. The staff said, OK, we’ll come up with an outline for what we think that will look like. They go away, and then a few days later they present the outline. I have no idea how they did this, because it was so amazingly worked out and it really covered all the bases exceedingly well.

A soundscape from the Creative Audio Archive by instrument inventor Hal Rammel

Then the question comes up: “What’s that going to look like to funders?” There’s this assumption that funders are inherently oriented towards very traditional corporate models. Which is completely untrue, as it turns out—it’s not uniformly the case at all. I tested it out at a meeting with a funder last week and mentioned this idea, and he just looked at me and said, “That sounds great.”

I think it has to be said that that this thing came through a deeply thought-out and well-discussed process. It wasn’t like we all look at it on an e-mail and check a box off or something. It really comes out of a lot of face-to-face discussion. People who know the organization really well and are really committed to it aren’t going to lie. Their agenda is not going to be about of self-­preservation; their agenda is going to be about how to make this thing a creative laboratory. The organization is supposed to be a creative laboratory for artists and for musicians and for audiences, but it also is a creative laboratory at the level of the organization itself—for administration to create a laboratory for programming, to create a laboratory for preservation. That notion that it is a creative laboratory at as many levels as possible is a really important thing, and that’s sort of the root of this organic development.

As if to quiet any fears that this transition will disrupt its programming, ESS already has a full schedule for much of the rest of the year. The Outer Ear concert series at the studio, which runs from April through June, includes performances by British new-music group Distractfold and Chicago’s own Spektral Quartet, and percussionist Tim Daisy’s Florasonic installation at the Lincoln Park Conservatory will be in place till July 10. Hong Kong artist Mark Chung is in residence at ESS from April 14 through May 14 as part of the international exchange program Wavefront. The Monday series Option—curated by Daisy, Ken Vandermark, and Andrew Clinkman—will continue as well, and most of the concerts are now streamed live online. ESS will also present a 30th-­anniversary gala at Constellation on July 2 with performances by Vandermark, Olivia Block, vocal improviser and sound poet Jaap Blonk, and instrument inventor Hal Rammell as well as an exhibit of selections from the Creative Audio Archive.  v