For her livestreamed concert in the Jefferson Park EXP series last December, Chicago experimental musician Kimberly Sutton trained her camera on a pair of lit candles and several speaker cones of various sizes, resting on their backs like bowls and filled with water or sand. As the vibrations from the speakers increased, liquid and sand and flame started to tremble and flicker, forming restless and intricate interference patterns. Eventually the hums and throbs grew intense enough that the water began to bubble and spatter; you could see the sound leaping free of its cages and making a bid for freedom.
Keith Helt, 42, organizer of Jefferson Park EXP, has been coaxing experimental sounds out of their cones in Chicago for more than a decade. The live series has been running since 2017, and it arose from the work of a netlabel called Pan y Rosas Discos that he started in the late 2000s.
Helt grew up in Woodstock, one of the last stops on the Union Pacific Northwest Metra line. Like many a future experimental musician, he got interested in punk music early and started a band with a friend. “Aside from piano lessons, we didn’t know how to play any instruments, but we played what we had,” he says. “A Casio Rapman, some random pieces of metal, buckets, an old record player-receiver combo, cheap electronic toys, and microphones from Kmart.”
Helt moved to Chicago in 1998 to study writing at Columbia College; he also started playing guitar and putting together other bands. The most stable of these was the Rories, which he began as a one-person recording project in the early 2000s. The album Four in One Combine collects some of the Rories’ early output, which sounds like bedroom pop punk—if the bedroom in question were a hole in the ground lined with corrugated tin.
Helt put out Four in One Combine in 2008, the same year he properly launched Pan y Rosas Discos as a netlabel. It had started informally a couple years before, but at that point it was little more than a name to put on what he calls “slightly fancy” CD-R releases of his band’s music. Around the time of Four in One Combine, he decided CD-Rs were too much trouble and started just releasing Rories tracks as MP3s. It was so easy that he realized he could do the same for his friends.
The first non-Rories release, also in 2008, was an 18-minute live set by Piss Piss Piss Moan Moan Moan, a noise project that included latter-day Rories bandmate Alejandro Morales. Later that year he released a full-length by Black Math, a darkwave punk trio with keyboards and drum machine by Jimmy Lacy, a friend from library school. (Lacy went on to play in Population and currently releases music as Sip.)
All Pan y Rosas Discos downloads have always been free. Originally, that was because Helt didn’t see the Rories as a money-making venture. “We all had regular jobs, and our primary goal was to be heard,” he says. “We wanted people to hear our music and maybe come to our shows sometimes. So just making the music available and accessible was paramount.”
Pan y Rosas has no revenue and provides its artists with no compensation—just a curated platform and Helt’s labor. Over time, as the label expanded, its refusal to put a price on its music became a more intentional act. “The act of releasing music for free and in an organized way is resistance to capitalism, however small,” Helt says. The label, he explains, provides “a means for art to exist outside of capitalist systems. I like to think that in some small way it contributes to the development of envisioning new futures.”
As the label’s politics became more radical, so did its output. The Rories were based in rock and punk, but in the late 2000s, Helt began immersing himself in Chicago’s free jazz, improv, and experimental scenes. “I dreamed of being able to release music by these improv musicians I was getting really inspired by,” he says.
The label’s expanded purview includes the 2012 release String Theory by Chicago composer, cellist, and electronic musician Sarah J. Ritch. “It has some of my traditional tonal acoustic music compositions,” she says. “And then I also had a couple of my electronic pieces and some electroacoustic hybrids.” The album is a marvelous hodgepodge of Ritch’s interests across classical and improv. “Oftentimes when I try to describe my music, some feedback I’ve gotten is that it’s not focused,” she admits, laughing.
Helt immediately found Ritch’s range and eclecticism exciting, though, and since String Theory he’s released several more albums featuring Ritch. Over the past five years or so, the two of them have frequently recorded themselves jamming together, and they’re putting the finishing touches on an edited album of those recordings that they hope to release on Pan y Rosas within the next year.
As the label has evolved, Helt has also developed a commitment to releasing work by women. Many experimental labels, he’s noticed, are very male dominated. “Basically it comes down to, there are lots of women creating music, but because our society’s default is white dude, that is what currently rises up,” he says. “Without taking specific action to counter that inertia, white dude is what will perpetuate itself. It’s not only in experimental music—it’s all music. But experimental music is where I have a platform and where I can try to make a change.” He says he doesn’t have a quota, but he’s aiming for gender parity in the Pan y Rosas catalog.
Lauren Sarah Hayes, a Scottish musician who teaches at the Phoenix campus of Arizona State University, believes that Helt’s concerns about gender bias are well-founded. “There’s still many academic studies that demonstrate gender and also racial bias in the experimental music community and the institutions that support it,” she says. “So I think Keith’s approach is absolutely valid and important.”
Hayes has recorded for Pan y Rosas Discos herself. In 2016 the label released her album Manipulation, whose poptronica improvisations feel almost danceable until the floor collapses and synthetic life-forms start to ooze and flop and skitter in. The electronic instrument she uses on Manipulation (and in much of her music) is of her own design, but she hasn’t named it. “I’m really interested in the idea from queer theory of not overcategorizing things,” she says. “It’s just my instrument, I guess.”
Helt still puts out music through Pan y Rosas Discos: the label’s 301st album, Drop Shadow on Airport Runway by French electronic musician Nicolas Tourney, came out March 15, and a free-jazz release by Argentinian guitarist and sound artist Luciana Bass is in the works. And though Jefferson Park EXP has had to suspend its in-person shows at the Jefferson Park library, it’s continued as a livestream series.
Helt and his family moved to Jefferson Park in the mid-2010s, and he quickly noticed a shortage of entertainment options in the neighborhood. “There are a few things like the mighty Gift Theatre and the awesome Ed Paschke Art Center,” he says. “But my general impression was that the vibe here was largely ‘Live and sleep in Jefferson Park but drive elsewhere for anything else.’ I really wanted to help improve that situation by providing some music activity up here, since that’s what I have experience with.”
Helt was already a regular patron of the Jefferson Park library when he approached its staff about booking live music. He’s a fan of libraries in general, and works as an archivist in his day job. He thought the library would be a perfect venue to provide free concerts to people of all ages, including those not able to get out late on weeknights.
Branch manager Eileen Dohnalek was enthusiastic about the idea too—though she says that a handful of older patrons were initially a little taken aback. Staff have tried to be careful to put up signage so people will know that the library is going to be less quiet than usual.
Many patrons have appreciated the chance to hear something different, though, and Dohnalek has too. “For me, the first performers, in March of 2017, were the most memorable, mostly because the music was so different than what I would define as music,” Dohnalek says. “It opened my mind to the possibilities of what music could be, beyond traditional genres like rock, folk, or classical.”
Sarah J. Ritch gave the first performance on March 18, 2017, playing cello and electronics. Helt uploads video of Jefferson Park EXP concerts to Vimeo, and during Ritch’s set you can occasionally hear a child’s exclamation from off-screen. The space, Ritch says, “is surprisingly great for intimate, quiet sounds, and also can handle the louder feedback.” The audience is typically a mix of experimental music fans who’ve come for the performance and people who just happen to be in the library. “You might think that the people who just wandered in would turn around and leave,” Ritch says. “But they always stick around, which is really nice.”
One of Helt’s favorite entries in the series is a 2018 performance by Chicago video artist and poet Shrine, aka Sara Goodman, assisted by fellow Chicago experimental musicians Jim Jam and Alexander Adams. Goodman’s work involves the projection and manipulation of nostalgic video, and it fits with comfortable eeriness into the library space, evoking school slideshows and educational programming from decades past. Grazing deer roam around the screen, but then the gentle nature-special visuals dissolve into drippy rainbow patterns; meanwhile, ambient throbbing and barely audible voices suggest teachers and PBS narrators gathered for a meeting in a distant boiler room.
Jefferson Park EXP hosted in-person concerts roughly once per month until the library closed for renovations in summer 2018, and it had only just resumed in late 2019 when the pandemic shut it down. Its livestreams, which began in July 2020 via Twitch, have been more irregular—sometimes three in one month, sometimes none for two months. Helt has hated losing neighborhood audiences and face-to-face interactions to COVID restrictions, but moving Jefferson Park EXP online has created possibilities and opportunities too. Kimberly Sutton’s speaker-cone installation probably wouldn’t have worked as a library concert, for example; you need to be up close to see the liquid and sand shaking and trembling.
The shift to livestreams has also made it much easier for Helt to invite performers from beyond Chicago. Lauren Sarah Hayes was back in Phoenix after her first live tour when lockdown arrived in March 2020, and she loved the idea of being able to perform for an audience in some form. Her half-hour Jefferson Park EXP concert in November 2020 takes full advantage of the format to create an audiovisual assault. The screen shifts and segments with colors and effects, through which you can sometimes see Hayes speaking into a microphone or manipulating what looks like a video game controller to create power-electronics squalls and blasts of noise. Even further afield, Mariela Arzadun, aka Florconvenas, contributed a performance from Buenos Aires in August. She soundtracked a series of overlapping abstract visuals and nature videos with minimalist electronic patterns evolving into drones—it’s like watching some ominous extradimensional life cycle.
Helt is still working with Chicago artists too, including one of the newer additions to the Pan y Rosas catalog. Helt found self-taught noise musician Helena Ford on Bandcamp and reached out, and her album Wir Brauchen Angst. Und Schade. came out on the label last November—the same month she appeared on a Jefferson Park EXP livestream.
The album’s 13 drone tracks total more than two hours; the longest is more than 15 minutes. The length, Ford says, is a way to “expose to my listeners what it’s like to be going through the process of becoming transgender, or what it’s like being transgender.” Each track is sometimes crystalline and lovely, sometimes hammering and painful, evoking a process that seems to go on forever.
Ford is relatively new to the Chicago experimental scene. She grew up here but didn’t start creating noise music till she was in college at Lawrence University in Wisconsin. She graduated in 2018 and returned to Chicago, and since then she’s self-released most of her music—so when Helt contacted her through Bandcamp about putting out an album, she was thrilled. “It was a huge, huge honor,” she says. “I really felt like I achieved something by releasing something through an established record label.”
“Experimental music is a really diverse space that allows people to break away from the conventions of academic classical music, and really allows people to get involved in their own thing,” Ford continues. “And I think that’s really wonderful.”
The next livestream is Sunday, April 25—a return engagement by Argentinian artist Mariela Arzadun and a set by Chicago multi-instrumentalist Reid Karris. It’s followed on Sunday, May 2, by performances from two Chicago acts, indie-pop four-piece Impulsive Hearts and guitarist Cinchel. Helt hopes to restart the library concerts when COVID is controlled. He’s already musing about ways to continue including faraway artists, perhaps by projecting streams for library patrons as well as booking in-person performers. Whether that’s possible or not, Pan y Rosas Discos and Jefferson Park EXP will keep going for the foreseeable future, opening minds and splashing unusual sounds around. v