By Luke Cimarusti
I remember the date: June 11, 2016. I graduated high school the month prior, and typical of a summer before college, it was quite an emotional moment in my life. I was feeling the malaise with particular intensity that day as I walked south along the lake to meet a friend at the Museum of Contemporary Art. But I had heard about this performance by some artist named Ben Vida at some place called the Graham Foundation, a gallery in the Gold Coast. I asked my friend if she wanted to go, and the rest was history. That evening, I fell in love with Lampo.
Founded in 1997 by Andrew Fenchel, Lampo has spent the last 20 years promoting and supporting local and international artists working within the realm of experimental music and sound art. They strive to give artists a platform to perform and create groundbreaking work, working with venues and art spaces across the city to put on events and performances. Central to the organization is the Lampo Performance Series, which brings musicians to Chicago and offers audiences the rare opportunity to hear these works in person. Each season is limited to a fairly small group of artists. This is by design, as Lampo strives to work with each artist individually to create the most engaging work possible.
Fenchel had no experience in the music world when he decided to form the organization. He was an avid fan of what he describes as “weird music” since high school, and in college he began attending shows as well. “I liked that moment of discovery,” he said in an interview with Bad at Sports, “especially live, with other people around and the artists there. I wanted to make that happen.” He says that outside perspective, combined with the passion he had for the music, allowed him to create a unique platform with its own ambitions and design language. He organized a performance with jazz musicians Ladonna Smith & Davey Williams in 1997, and from there began to develop the connections that have helped Lampo to become one of the premier performance series in the city.
At the heart of every performance is of course the sound piece itself. “Experimental sound” is often used rather than “music” to describe works by Lampo artists, but this is by no means pejorative. The performers are all on the cutting-edge of what it means to create sound, whether digital or analog, synthesized or vocal. Ben Vida, for example, composed a near five-hour long piece for voice and synthesizer titled Reducing the Tempo to Zero. He and three other vocalists sat around a table, each with a microphone. The pace was glacial, but the drones were positively hypnotic. Shifts in tone occurred so subtly as to be near imperceptible. Movement was signaled by the change in the lighting—both in intensity and color—that filled the room. Luckily, audience members were encouraged to come and go as they pleased, but after 20 minutes I was willing to stay forever. There were higher-strung moments, which tended to come at the climax of each movement, where the vocalists sang with a bit more energy. Rhythms appeared out of nowhere, the audience head-bobbing along to what was essentially an ambient piece. And as such, it cleared the biggest hurdle to the genre’s enjoyment: it was never boring.
Other notable performances for me include Mark Fell and Katherine Young, who used the Chicago Cultural Center as a home for dialogue between Young’s bassoon performance and Fell’s 24-channel electronic composition. Utilizing the strange and cavernous rooms of the Cultural Center allowed them to create a site-specific composition both fascinating and uncanny. The most recent Lampo event I attended was once again at the Graham Foundation, where German artists Thomas Lehn and Marcus Schmickler shook the ballroom with their screeching synths. It was an exercise in catharsis and meditation that left all our ears ringing during the post-show wine reception.
What strikes me about Lampo performances is the high level of intimacy and site-specificity. Each artist composes a piece meant to be performed uniquely for this event and works often spill over into the design of the space as well. Lighting is essential to each performance, as are the placement of the audience and performers amid an innovative speaker setup. Rather than being anchored by a stage, Lampo events place artists at the center of the space with the audience surrounding them. The performance space is often the only illuminated area of the room. With Lampo, the concert hall is eschewed for the art gallery, and some of the most forward-thinking in the city at that: The Graham Foundation, the Stony Island Arts Bank on the south side, and the Renaissance Society at the University of Chicago to name a few. As prestigious art exhibition spaces, these are necessarily charged locations. The interaction and activation between the physical art gallery and the sounds emanating through it is a lot of what makes Lampo so compelling.
In some ways, looking back, Lampo was an indicator of things to come. Museums and galleries today are no longer neutral academic spaces. Public opinion has shifted such that art spaces are now seen as entertainment, and they must compete with theaters, concerts, and other venues for consumers’ time. More live programming and increased community engagement are the name of the game for art spaces that want to reach an audience beyond the traditional art school crowd. Lampo provides a chance for galleries to do this all while maintaining their own artistic integrity. The folks they bring in to perform are artists, after all, and their work furthers a long tradition of academic, sonic experimentation brought to a larger audience. Their performances push boundaries without delving into the inaccessible. “Getting it” isn’t part of the Lampo equation—if you’re there, you hear and feel the experiment. Chicago offers nothing else like it.