The Experimental Sound Studio, which goes by its acronym ESS, is a non-profit organization based in Edgewater dedicated to exploring sound through performance, installation, recordings and artist lectures. As a mostly performance-based space, they quickly adapted to restrictions last year and created their own series, Quarantine Concerts, on the livestream site Twitch. These remote concerts have gained a worldwide audience, as well as hosted international performers, and has allowed ESS to continue their mission as a space for artists to create and engage with sound as a medium.
From August 5 until September 30, the Jay Pritzker Pavilion at Millennium Park hosted ESS’ Sonic Pavilion Festival. Facing the Frank Gehry stage, with the Chicago skyline to the left, the lake breeze coming from the right, and the buzzing cicadas in nearby Lurie Garden, the structure of the pavilion was ideal for a public sound installation.
Newcity spoke with Olivia Junell, development and outreach director of ESS, about accessibility of sound art, plans for future iterations of the festival and how the main mission of ESS has shifted to accommodate the needs of artists today.
Can you talk about your mission as a cultural institution and non-profit organization?
We are fortunate because our mission is centered on being responsive to artists’ needs. We have the facilities and resources and infrastructure set up to help artists at every stage of the creative process, from development to presentation and then documentation and archiving for the future. It depends on the moment in time and what our community really needs, we end up focusing more on different aspects of that. During the pandemic, artists needed a mainstage, so that is where our Quarantine Concerts came in. Now, people are looking to find in-person events again, so the Pavilion was important for that, for people to come together and listen. We are also organizing residencies right now, as well as recording artists in our studio.
I experienced the Sonic Pavilion twice, and both times I was interested in the response from the audience. How do you feel that sound art is accessible to the general public and what does it mean to have sound as public art?
These public spaces that are free, that already have people wandering through, this is the best possible space for us to achieve our mission. I think that the most interesting interactions are through people who have never experienced something like this before. They don’t even have a starting place for seeking it out. This becomes that. I always say, sound art is, in my experience, at least something that is becoming more and more part of the contemporary arts scene, there’s certainly more examples of it popping up. For the most part, it’s still a nascent art form. A lot of people, even people who are into art, haven’t necessarily experienced sound as art in this way, sound outside of a purely musical context. It’s amazing to have this space to be able to introduce them to that experience and I have found that it tends to hit hard.
Will there be future iterations of the Sonic Pavilion?
We hope so. The people who own it are open to using it in ways other than just delivering orchestra concerts. Most multichannel systems are at universities or somewhere that people can’t access, that I know of. To have one that is not only public and huge, but in the middle of a major metropolitan city is incredible! To sit out there for two hours was so great, especially to be away from a computer screen, and be immersed in art and people, so we definitely want to use them again.
Some artists have been proficient at streaming themselves online, while others are getting tired of watching events online. In addition to that, artists have been working on a smaller scale—in their living rooms, in their home studios—we also ideally would like to work on more residencies and more time for the artists to work. For the Pavilion, we had a six-week turnaround from when we found out we could go forward with the event, to when the first date was. The artists were all in during that time, so it became a kind of condensed residency in a way that they were able to take on these ideas that they were working on alone, and expand into this larger space. It’s been a great project for breaking out into the world.