Since 2004 Plastic Crimewave (aka Steve Krakow) has used the Secret History of Chicago Music to shine a light on worthy artists with Chicago ties who’ve been forgotten, underrated, or never noticed in the first place.
Some artists are so far ahead of the curve—or so far up their own tree—that it’s hard to even contextualize and assess their work. Frank Garvey is just such a creator. He hasn’t lived in Chicago in almost 40 years, but his sonic and visual art is so idiosyncratic and brilliant that I’d claim him for Secret History even if he’d only spent an airport layover here.
Garvey was born in Champaign, Illinois, on August 8, 1952. His father, John C. Garvey, had joined the faculty of the UIUC School of Music in 1948, where he taught viola, played in resident ensemble the Walden String Quartet, conducted the chamber orchestra, and founded the jazz band. He remained the school’s main jazz faculty member until he retired in 1991.
Perhaps more important, John also arranged residencies at UIUC for innovative composers of new music such as Harry Partch and John Cage. In 1957, he directed the premiere of Partch’s 1955 dance piece The Bewitched, which helped rewire young Frank’s brain. “When my dad brought world-fusion composer Harry Partch and his ensemble to the U. of I., and they had parties and occasional rehearsals at the round house, it was a perfect storm of progressive influences on my young mind,” he recalls.
The “round house,” as Frank calls it, was designed for the family by avant-garde architect Bruce Alonzo Goff and completed in 1955. “The Garvey house was a surreal oasis,” Frank recalls. “It was an incredible psychedelic environment.” Its layout allowed the Garveys to practice at home or host concerts in the large central space; its bedrooms, bathrooms, kitchen, and dining area were arranged around the circular perimeter.
Frank Garvey never studied music in school, but in his teens he played in blues band Sinners Prayer and for a short spell with famed Champaign-Urbana rockers the Finchley Boys. In the late 60s James Cuomo, a clarinet and keyboard player from the elder Garvey’s jazz program, invited Frank to play drums in a groundbreaking, electronics-addled psychedelic band he’d founded called Spoils of War, named after one of Partch’s invented instruments. Garvey “soaked it all up,” he says.
Garvey started to design his own synthesizers, and in 1975 he moved to Chicago, where he’d soon begin studying video art and computer animation at the School of the Art Institute and launch his first large-scale project. “I founded the Omega Intermedia Center. We created large-scale multimedia performances with laser and lumia light shows and live electronic music performed by my band Megaton,” he says. “Omega was a performance space with a purpose-built 8-by-24-foot curved screen for the light shows . . . and a learning center for electronic arts, video synthesis (I built a Sandin Image Processor), and electronic music (I built an analog modular synthesizer).”
Megaton consisted of Garvey, Pamela Sloan, Michael Markowski, Peter Scheff, and John Smiley. “Like Xenakis meets the Grateful Dead,” Garvey says of their sound. “Psychedelic tonal interspersed with massive industrial soundscapes.” In the late 70s he released two private-press LPs that live up to that bonkers description—they’re billed to Frank Garvey, but he’s backed by Megaton. The first, 1978’s Labyrinth (Prison Walls), came out on Garvey’s own Warp imprint (no relation to the modern dance and electronic label) and scored a multimedia piece also called Labyrinth, developed at the Omega Intermedia Center over the preceding year. The LP is dedicated to Stephen Biko, an anti-apartheid activist killed in 1977 by the South African government (he’s also the subject of an influential 1980 song by Peter Gabriel).
The second album, 1979’s OmniCircus, consists of two side-length tracks, “Kriegspiel” and “Eropoc,” intended to soundtrack “the first two sections of OmniCircus, a theater piece for electronic music, computer graphics, video synthesis, dance, sculpture, architecture, and drama,” in Garvey’s words. Text on the back cover reads: “The danger of nuclear destruction; the enveloping of the embryo by the womb; the enveloping of the womb by the pelvis; the enveloping of the pelvis by the tissue seared by newstar; the enveloping of the carrion crow; the enveloping of the carrion dog; the enveloping of the carrion itself by the primeval light of hellfire newstar.” Heavy stuff! (OmniCircus was reissued on CD-R in 2015 by Keith Fullerton Whitman’s Creel Pone label, which bootlegs early electronic and experimental music that Whitman considers historically important.)
Garvey took classes at SAIC from 1976 till ’82 and at the UIC Chicago Circle campus from 1980 till ’82, at which point he moved to Oakland to attend Laney College. He studied there till 1988, exploring printmaking, surrealist oil painting, and kinetic sculpture. In the Bay Area, he launched the Theatre Concrete, which he calls “a multimedia performance space that took Omega one step further with virtuoso-level collaborations with actors, robotics, and filmmaking professionals.”
Garvey resurrected the OmniCircus concept in 1988, and in 1992 it took the form of a San Francisco theater, gallery, and performance-art space that integrated live acting, music, dance, and film with sophisticated mechanical actors and MIDI-controlled, computer-animated performers. The OmniCircus has also hosted installations of Garvey’s paintings, sculptures, and photographs.
In 1995 Garvey met engineers Aaron Edsinger, Jeff Weber, and Carl Pisaturo, who helped him build the remote-controlled sculptures that made up what he calls OmniCircus’s “robotic red-light district.” To paraphrase Garvey, these machines helped dramatize the needless suffering caused by the slave culture of late capitalism. Imagine gutted creatures from Robocop cast in a Marxist Dark Crystal that’s set in a Mad Max dystopia—or just check out the YouTube footage below.
In the late 90s, Garvey moved to Pittsburgh for a few years to teach at Carnegie Mellon University and launch its short-lived Center for Robotic and Synthetic Performance (CRSP), cosponsored by the school’s Robotics Institute and Entertainment Technology Center. In the early aughts he also released material in two different ensembles, both affiliated with OmniCircus: DeusMachina, which released the CD House of the Deafman via Innova Records in 2001, and Moth Nor Rust.
“DeusMachina evolved from the immense creativity of the collaboration with Diana Trimble, Daniel Berkman, and David Earl,” Garvey says. “And Moth Nor Rust continued with Daniel and David but replaced Diana with a virtual processional of brilliant singers, including Oya, Kyrstyn Pixton, Anne Goldman, and Marya Stark.”
In 2015, illness spelled the end of the OmniCircus space. “I developed throat cancer in 2011,” Garvey explains, “and the treatment—which included radiation and an experimental immunotherapy chemo—not only burned my face off, it also completely destroyed my ability to keep OmniCircus going.”
Since the closure of OmniCircus, Garvey has split his time between the west coast and the midwest. “I’ve been on the road, mostly traveling between San Francisco and a cute little farm town in Clinton, Illinois,” he says. “I’m able to make music here, but so far there’s no sign of collaborators. I can create music and surreal constructions, but not theater so far. . . . COVID makes collaboration hard to impossible anyways these days, no matter where I am, so I’m just dealing with isolation like everyone is.”
When the U.S. finally gets it together to escape the pandemic’s grip, Garvey won’t have to build all his own bandmates anymore—look for him to come roaring back with an explosion of new work. v
The radio version of the Secret History of Chicago Music airs on Outside the Loop on WGN Radio 720 AM, Saturdays at 6 AM with host Mike Stephen. Past shows are archived here.