An avant-garde city?

By HermineBloom

Sure, we’re familiar with the idea that New York City has become the epicenter for provocative, energetic artists who call themselves sound sculptors and spend hours upon hours playing with speaker feedback, as 32-year-old Lesley Flanigan does.

This brand of creativity doesn’t only apply to the musician who resides in a cramped loft with exposed brick in Brooklyn, though. Europeans, specifically in Barcelona, have hosted Sónar Festival of Advanced Music and Multimedia Art since 1994—a three day series of concerts for electronic and experimental musicians. A celebration of all eccentric musical methods, the festival boasts 80,000 to 100,000 in attendance every year. But on Sept. 9–11, Chicago will play host to a smaller-scale version of the prestigious European fest, which is not only an unexpected choice but one that rests on faith alone.

Whether or not the city possesses the same kind of artistic energy that cities such as New York or Barcelona seem to be oozing with isn’t certain. However, the folks behind Sónar Festival were interested in taking a risk, hoping there is a demand for this sort of art in Chicago as well as other similar, less frenetic parts of the United States. Enhancing the festival’s scope and longevity was another factor in the decision.

The Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs is merely facilitating the events, while The Ramon Llull Institute, a Catalonian cultural institution, is footing the bill. The Chicago Cultural Center and Jay Pritzker Pavilion will showcase 15 experimental, electronic musicians from across the globe over the course of three days. Among the performers are

The Slew featuring Kid Koala, Martyn, Ben Frost, Nosaj Thing Visual Show, Oval and Jimmy Edgar.

Brian Keigher, programs coordinator for the Department of Cultural Affairs, was personally invited to the Sónar Festival in Barcelona in 2008. He explained that at that time organizers were looking to bring the festival to the United States.

In May 2009, the Baryshnikov Arts Center in New York City hosted a music showcase under the Sónar umbrella as part of Catalan Days in celebration of Catalonian culture. Keigher’s interest in house music culture led him to attempt to win over the organizers of the festival for Sónar’s next American trial.

“Electronic music is sorely underrepresented within the city culture,” Keigher said. “For the birthplace of house music, there’s definitely not a lot of it programming-wise. In many ways, my mission was to win Chicago as the city. Why should California get another festival?”

But to sum up Sónar as merely an electronic music festival is doing it a disservice.

“Sónar is not really a house music festival,” Keigher said. “It’s more cutting edge, progressive and a lot weirder. Sónar isn’t moving in on their territory so to speak or trying to take over the house music scene. I’ve definitely got some backlash from even people I know personally.”

Flanigan, who is performing at Sónar on Sept. 10 at Preston Bradley Hall in the Chicago Cultural Center, explained that the decision to bring the festival to Chicago seemed like a challenge for the more progressive-minded sound enthusiasts behind the festival.

“I wasn’t surprised that Sónar was traveling or reaching out to new markets, but Chicago is not the first one to pop in my mind,” Flanigan said. “I think I might’ve said that to the main music curator, but I think he kind of liked that. It’s almost like putting Chicago to the test. Is America really ready for this? We’ve done New York, and New York kind of operates on its own playing field. But to come to Chicago is really saying we’re coming to America.”

Flanigan’s bio speaks to the spirit of the festival people might assume—a New York University graduate with a background in sculpture and music, who decided to blend two

interests into one project where she builds her own amplifiers and uses them as instruments.

“The ones I’ve done the most work with are the speaker feedback instruments,” Flanigan said. “It’s a very simple system. Basically every speaker has a different range of sound and different tones of feedback that you hear through feedback. Tiny microphones are suspended over the speaker. How I position those [microphones] gives me a different range of feedback tones. It’s very noisy, incredibly abstract and as each speaker starts to develop its own range of sound, I start to sample the sounds and develop a pattern and coral-like arrangements.”

Having performed at last year’s installment of Sónar in Barcelona, she rather reluctantly accepts Chicago as its newest destination, and is convinced the shows are one-of-a-kind, both in terms of booking unique acts and running smoothly.

“It’s not experimental for the sake of being experimental,” Flanigan said. “They want to discover new things. A lot of festivals say they want to discover new things, but it’s really already been proven that it’s popular. Sónar actually really likes bridging this ‘We’re taking a risk with these new people,’ and ‘We’ve got the street cred[ibility] of these established performers.’ And a lot of them perform year after year.”

The only Chicago act on the bill, Benn Jordan, who performs under the moniker Flashbulb, has been creating electronic, jazz-inspired compositions for both his 2009 album and for TV producers since 1999.

Though it’s his first time performing at the acclaimed festival, Jordan concluded the Windy City was indeed an interesting choice and expressed disdain for what music means to Chicagoans—or what it doesn’t mean to them rather.

“Things like Pitchfork don’t really cater to people who sit at home and listen to music on their headphones,” Jordan said. “It caters more to the people who go out and go to bars and things like that. It’s more about the partying and fashion, and that’s what Chicago has become more famous for. I think they could’ve easily done [Sónar] in Seattle or Portland. A festival like this would’ve done great in Seattle, but I think that they did it in Chicago because Chicago’s been sleeping at the wheel and maybe somebody sensed that.”

Questions were posed such as whether this festival could potentially change the tide or if it’ll possibly make local promoters start paying for similar acts to perform, but ultimately Jordan is unsure of such answers. The so-called stagnant musical climate in terms of festival culture has to do with catering to what’s popular, he said.

“For example, you’ll have The Cool Kids and Flosstradamus playing all the festivals—the same local acts over and over again. Gordan said, “A lot of it just has to do

with ‘cool.’

“It was really interesting for Sónar to come and completely not be interested in that all. Just to be like, ‘These are the artists we want and this will be a good showcase.’”

With Red Bull as its main and only sponsor, the festival doesn’t reek of intense corporate interest either, as The Ramon Llull Institute is paying for the events. Keigher explained that the Department of Cultural Affairs isn’t reaching into the city’s budget whatsoever.

The department hopes to draw at least a couple of thousand people at the Chicago Cultural Center’s of performances and 8,000 people at Millennium Park’s different showcases, Keigher said.

Ultimately, the traffic at the festival remains to be seen. Its success or its downfall will determine whether or not the festival will become a mainstay in the city, or could potentially symbolize much more than that in terms of Chicago’s willingness to appreciate edgier music.

“In a purely textbook way, it makes a lot of sense for an innovative, experimental music festival to be in Chicago and in the United States,” Flanigan said. “It’s just whether or not in our culture and in this decade it actually makes sense or if Chicago has kind of fallen asleep.”