Beginning on Tuesday, February 21, the Frequency Festival returns for its seventh iteration in eight years. Its seven concerts consist of a diverse array of performances united by a common thread—the thirst for growth and adventure that drives musicians and composers to transcend the boundaries of any genre. The festival is an outgrowth of the Frequency Series, which organizer Peter Margasak, a former staff music critic with the Reader, launched in 2013 in association with the venue Constellation. They were brought together by a common goal: to draw together the audiences of contemporary classical, experimental, and improvised music. Though Margasak left Chicago for Europe in 2018 and currently lives in Berlin, he continues to program the series remotely. 

Over the years Frequency concerts have waxed and waned in number, but the series has never wavered from its founding mission. This year’s festival includes solo piano recitals, improvisation infused with rock energy, and works for acoustic and electronic instruments that delve into the psychoacoustic effects of alternate tunings. Some acts are returnees: Ensemble dal Niente and Aperiodic, two groups dedicated to performing new compositions and key works of the 20th-century avant-garde, have been recurring presences since the series’ earliest days, and guitarist Bill Orcutt played the festival in 2017. Four others are appearing in Chicago for the first time: musicians Julia Reidy and Elias Stemeseder and composers Magnus Granberg and Pascale Criton. All but two of the festival’s concerts, one at the Corbett vs. Dempsey gallery and another at Bond Chapel on the University of Chicago campus (both of them free), will take place at Constellation. 

A black-and-white photo of Bill Orcutt tossing his electric guitar into the air, both his arms extended toward it. Drummer Chris Corsano is partly visible at lower left.
Chris Corsano (lower left) and long-standing duo partner Bill Orcutt Credit: Hans van der Linden

Bill Orcutt & Chris Corsano / Eli Winter

Tue 2/21, 8:30 PM, Constellation, 3111 N. Western, $20, 18+

Bill Orcutt first gained notice in the 1990s as guitarist for Harry Pussy, a noise-punk band whose brief, ferociously mangled songs tricked people into thinking they were seeing spontaneous freak-outs. But both then and now, Orcutt’s musical choices have proceeded from rigorous logic. The San Francisco-based artist’s most recent album, last year’s instrumental Music for Four Guitars (Palilalia), cycles through interlocking quartets that apply the systematic repetition of minimalists such as Philip Glass and Steve Reich to a vocabulary steeped in the jagged blues deconstructions of Captain Beefheart. His long-running duo with drummer Chris Corsano (who lives in upstate New York) is a purely improvisational endeavor, but the two of them share a creative agenda—each is curious about what the other will elicit from his subconscious and reflexes. Their improvisations include compact, convoluted slugfests and raggedly lyrical peregrinations, but the duo’s latest release, the 2021 full-length Made Out of Sound (Palilalia), favors the latter. 

Bill Orcutt and Chris Corsano first played together in 2011, in a trio with Alan Bishop.

Eli Winter sits on a grassy hill against a bare tree, wearing black trousers, a dark red jacket, and a light blue hat.
Chicago guitarist Eli Winter Credit: Julia Dratel

Chicago-based fingerstyle guitarist Eli Winter released a self-titled record last year that employs the distinct and varied styles of several mostly local musicians, including drummer Tyler Damon and late trumpeter Jaimie Branch, to give his rustic travelogues a complex emotional undertow. For this concert, which falls shortly after the initial recording sessions for his next album, he’ll perform solo and stick to electric guitar. 

Other guests on Eli Winter include David Grubbs, Whitney Johnson, and Ryley Walker.

Jennifer Torrence (left) performs in tandem with percussionist Bethany Younge. Credit: Juliana Schutz; Deidre Huckabay

Jennifer Torrence and Bethany Younge / Elias Stemeseder

Wed 2/22, 8:30 PM, Constellation, 3111 N. Western, $15, 18+

Percussionist Jennifer Torrence, an American living in Norway, and composer, percussionist, and singer Bethany Younge, a former Chicagoan who currently teaches at Dartmouth, share a concern with pushing past the perfectionism of classical music. Each courts the precarious and seeks the singular, which means that it’s hard to say exactly how their set will sound—it’s sure to be unique to the moment and space in which it happens. They’ll perform four compositions, including one by Younge, playing together (on a new piece by New York-based drummer and composer Jessie Cox) and separately. 

Jen Torrence performing excerpts of the 2021 piece “From an Imaginary Landscape,” a collaboration with Martin Hirsti-Kvam

New York-based Austrian keyboardist Elias Stemeseder Credit: Szymon Hantkiewicz

Elias Stemeseder is an Austrian keyboardist based in New York City who’s been recording and performing as a sideman for more than a dozen years—he’s played synthesizer and piano with the likes of Anna Webber, Jim Black, Christian Lillinger, and John Zorn. Piano Solo (Intakt), his debut CD, affirms his mastery of the titular instrument, and that’s what he’ll play at his first Chicago appearance. Stemeseder has a quick, precise touch, but he doesn’t design his compositions to showcase virtuosity—instead he creates frameworks for focused improvisations that investigate the sounds and moods obtained by each piece’s defined parameters. 

Elias Stemeseder released his solo debut in April 2022.

Julia Reidy plays a guitar whose frets can be moved in pieces to customize its tuning in tiny increments. Credit: Joe Talia

Julia Reidy

Thu 2/23, 8 PM, Bond Chapel, University of Chicago, 1025 E. 58th St., free, all ages

Upon moving to Berlin from Sydney, Australia, in the mid-2010s, Julia Reidy played mostly in improvisational settings. But since then, on a series of solo LPs, Reidy has used the song format as a platform for increasingly lush sound worlds constructed from swarming guitars, glistening synthesizers, stark beats, and Auto-Tuned vocals. On their latest, World in World (Black Truffle), Reidy strips the arrangements back to expose the unstable core that gives this music its energy—a clash between competing tuning systems. Their voice sticks to the familiar tuning of equal temperament, imposed by the digital straitjacket of Auto-Tune, while their 12-string guitar is customized to play in just intonation. The instrument’s frets aren’t continuous across the neck but instead can be moved in pieces, such that their arrangement can look almost like the holes in a punch card. These frets enable very precise tuning, which can transform the way simultaneous notes influence each other—and the intervals in just intonation are audibly different from those in equal temperament. The haze of overtones generated by the disruptive proximity of two not-quite-equivalent scales gives the listener plenty to savor all by itself, but the album’s austerity also draws out Reidy’s beguiling melodies.

Julia Reidy performed all the layered overdubs of World in World.

Chicago ensemble Aperiodic (left) will appear at the Frequency Festival in an eight-piece lineup, performing the world premiere of a commissioned piece by Stockholm-based composer Magnus Granberg (right). Granberg will be present at Constellation. Credit: Ryan Bourque; Visby International Centre for Composers

Aperiodic / Greg Davis

Fri 2/24, 8:30 PM, Constellation, 3111 N. Western, $15, 18+

Founded in 2010, local ensemble Aperiodic is a tireless advocate for underrecognized contemporary compositions. It favors not just new sounds but also new ways of making and experiencing them—at one memorable performance on the University of Chicago campus in early 2020, musicians and audience walked together from performance hall to loading dock in order to jointly tune into the tones that composer Peter Ablinger sought to tease out of the building. Last year, Aperiodic commissioned a concert-length work from Stockholm-based composer Magnus Granberg. Granberg’s music routinely reconciles the tools and forms of past and present without making their coexistence the point: on How Deep Is the Ocean, How High Is the Sky? (Another Timbre), for example, the warm rasp of a Baroque violin wraps around the tinny ring of a prepared piano as they patiently unspool contrapuntal figures through a sparsely furnished soundscape. At this concert, an eight-piece Aperiodic lineup will present the world premiere of their commission, Aus der Nacht, von den Wehen, which they’re also recording just before the festival. This will be the first time Granberg’s music is played in Chicago, and he’ll be present at Constellation. 

An excerpt from Magnus Granberg’s 2015 composition How Deep Is the Ocean, How High Is the Sky?

A black-and-white photo of Greg Davis in profile, looking down at a laptop that illuminates his face in the darkness
Greg Davis will perform a purely electronic set drawn from his album New Primes. Credit: Phi Centre

Greg Davis is a former Chicagoan, though he hasn’t performed here in more than a decade. He’s settled in Burlington, Vermont, where he runs a record store and continues his investigations into the potentialities of sound. Twenty years ago he made a splash in the so-called folktronica scene, but last year’s New Primes (Greyfade) is a purely electronic record that leaves conventional song structure behind completely. It begins with a fairly academic premise: write a program that turns prime numbers into sine waves, then combine the resulting sounds. Davis’s real-time mixes are anything but academic, though. As pure tones converge, the interference of their waveforms generates pulses and beats (also called “beating tones”), which seem to proliferate and transform the closer you listen to them. Even through a home stereo, these compositions are enveloping, but if Davis gets full access to Constellation’s multichannel speaker rig, this concert could be out of this world. 

“The pieces you hear on the finished record are snapshots of an endless generative music that could last for hours,” says Greg Davis.

Italian violinist Silvia Tarozzi Credit: Massimo Simonini

Sounding Limits: Music of Pascale Criton performed by Silvia Tarozzi and Judith Hamann / Ning Yu

Sat 2/25, 8:30 PM, Constellation, 3111 N. Western, $15, 18+

Pascale Criton 

Criton will deliver a lecture on her music, with accompaniment by Silvia Tarozzi and Judith Hamann. Mon 2/27, 6 PM, Gray Center Lab, Midway Studios, 929 E. 60th St., free, all ages

French composer Pascale Criton Credit: Laurence Prat

The recorded oeuvre of French composer Pascale Criton consists of just two albums and a couple compositions on other releases, but this slender discography belies the breadth and depth of her engagement with sound. Since the late 1970s, she’s pursued ethnomusicological and acoustic research, directed creative workshops and musical-theater productions, advised philosopher Gilles Deleuze on musical matters, and composed microtonal music. Criton’s pieces for stringed instruments use alternate tunings and techniques to elicit ghostly high pitches and coarse textures, and like fellow Frenchwoman Éliane Radigue, she sometimes develops works in collaboration with the musicians who will play them. Violinist Silvia Tarozzi and cellist Deborah Walker, members of the Toulouse-based Ensemble Dedalus, each collaborated with Criton to create the music recorded for the 2017 album Infra (Potlatch) and became part of Sounding Limits, a program of Criton’s work that’s now receiving its first performance in the midwest. The violin on “Circle Process” (2010) has been tuned in increments of sixteenths of a tone (conventional equal temperament divides an octave into 12 semitones), and the score invites the performer to explore in minute detail a series of phenomena, including rustling sounds obtained by drawing the bow across the instrument’s body and harmonic clashes that generate beating tones. The cello is similarly tuned on “Chaoscaccia” (2014), permitting Walker to shape alien sonorities that seem to leave tracers in their arcing wake. “Bothsways” (2014), a duo for violin and cello, juxtaposes whistling tones whose vibrations exert destabilizing effects upon each other. For this American tour of Sounding Limits, Walker was unable to travel overseas, so Austrian cellist Judith Hamann (who’s worked with the likes of Charles Curtis and Tashi Wada) has taken over. 

YouTube video
The 2017 Pascale Criton collection Infra contains much of the same music in Sounding Limits.

Pianist Ning Yu, based in Washington, D.C. Credit: Bobby Fisher

Ning Yu, a Chinese American pianist and former member of new-music quartet Yarn/Wire, will open this concert with a solo set. It will include the quietly rapturous first movement of Klaus Lang’s Sieben Sonnengesichter and the Chicago debut of Prisma Interius II, one of a series of compositions by Catherine Lamb that uses live microphones and filtering software to feed environmental sounds back into the music as it is performed.

This 2020 Ning Yu album doesn’t include the music she’ll perform here, but it’s nonetheless representative of her work.

On Monday evening, Criton will deliver a lecture on her music at the Gray Center Lab on the University of Chicago campus, with accompaniment by Tarozzi and Hamann. 

Austrian cellist Judith Hamann Credit: Olle Holmberg

Judith Hamann / Silvia Tarozzi 

Sun 2/26, 2 PM, Corbett vs. Dempsey, 2156 W. Fulton, free, all ages

Silvia Tarozzi and Judith Hamann are not just interpreters of others’ concepts. In December, Tarozzi came to Chicago with cellist Deborah Walker to present a cycle of traditional songs sung in rural Italy during rice harvests (considered women’s work) that explores their subtexts of injustice, resistance, and liberation. And in a previous Frequency Series concert in 2018, Hamann played music that reveled in the “wolf tones” that most cellists try to suppress. They’ll present a pair of solo sets at the gallery Corbett vs. Dempsey, which is currently showing a splendid exhibit of paintings by AACM cofounder Roscoe Mitchell. Tarozzi will improvise to a graphic score of her own making, inspired by Mitchell; Hamann will draw on their recent work for cello and humming.

Judith Hamann released Music for Cello and Humming in 2020.

Chicago’s Ensemble dal Niente make their fifth Frequency Festival appearance. Credit: Alexander Perrelli

Ensemble dal Niente

Sun 2/26, 8:30 PM, Constellation, 3111 N. Western, $15, 18+

Ensemble dal Niente was on the bill of the first Frequency Series concert in April 2013, and it’s been coming back ever since; this set will also be the group’s fifth Frequency Festival appearance. The program features five pieces, two by composers associated with Chicago, all of them loosely connected by their use of whistle tones and timbral effects: George Lewis’s A Whispered Nine, Rebecca Saunders’s Shades of Crimson: Molly’s Song, Raven Chacon’s Atsiniltlish’ iye, Nicole Mitchell’s Cave of Self-Induction, and Suzanne Farrin’s Prisoner Poems.


A concert-by-concert guide to the Frequency Festival

The 2022 lineup includes the Chicago debut of composer and sound artist Hanna Hartman, the first duo improvisation by Bill Nace and Haley Fohr, and a quartet led by cellist Tomeka Reid performing Julius Hemphill’s music for strings.