Establishing a thematic throughline for the Frequency Festival – the sprawling panoply of experimental and new music that has sprouted in Chicago each year since 2016 – would be a fool’s errand. But on the last day of the 2020 iteration, curator Peter Margasak noticed a telling one.

“This year, there’s not been one piece of sheet music I’ve seen,” he said. “I wasn’t thinking about that beforehand, but I’ve noticed it over the week.”

That streak wouldn’t last the end of the night, but it’s a notable development for a festival whose previous headliners have included contemporary music powerhouses like Ensemble Dal Niente, Spektral Quartet, International Contemporary Ensemble, and members of Eighth Blackbird. Rather than foreground artists whose bread-and-butter is largely notated music, Frequency Festival 2020 convened sound installations and improvisers, electronic musicians and collaborative performance art.

Not only did this year’s Frequency Festival look beyond sheet music, but it fixed its gaze past Chicago, drawing artists with home bases as far-flung as Germany (multi-instrumentalist Oren Ambarchi and sound artist crys cole, who opened the festival) and Mexico (trumpeter and Chicago native Jacob Wick). Some performers were alums of the Frequency Series, the concerts Margasak has programmed at the bar-venue Constellation since 2013; unlike previous years, all but one was a festival first-timer.

Margasak, who now programs the festival remotely from Berlin, says he mostly gave musicians free rein during their sets, preferring to keep his curatorial touch light. However, he knew from the start that he wanted to make Éliane Radigue and Annea Lockwood – two composers whose stature and influence are widely acknowledged, yet whose music is seldom heard – the pillars of this year’s fete.

“To me, they’re two of the most important figures in contemporary music, and they both existed as females in a male-dominated world,” Margasak said. “Certainly, many institutions have ignored them. They had to develop their own very personal experimental practices.”

Lockwood’s 80th birthday recently sparked a mini-renaissance of her works, including a portrait concert at Miller Theatre in November and a performance of her Thousand Year Dreaming at Bang on a Can’s Loud Weekend last summer. When Radigue reached the same milestone, in 2011, various London venues paid tribute to her. But in Chicago, performances of both composers’ work have been sparing, and certainly never the subject of their own retrospectives.

Annea Lockwood
Frequency Festival, Chicago, IL
Photograph: Julia Dratel

Programming Radigue and Lockwood’s music side by side revealed profound resonances. Not only do both composers gravitate towards collaborative creative processes, often writing for and with specific instrumentalists, but they share an intense preoccupation with the natural world, especially water and its acoustic properties. Like the inexorable movement of a river, too, the output of both composers has gradually shifted: Lockwood from conceptual projects (like her glass concerts and Piano Transplants series) to electroacoustic and aleatoric explorations, and Radigue from expansive, carefully-calibrated synthesizer works to similarly pinpoint acoustic meditations.

On February 26, in a small, dusky chapel on the University of Chicago campus, trumpeter Nate Wooley and violist Julia Eckhardt performed works written for them by Radigue from her Occam Ocean, an ongoing series of solo and ensemble works which take their names and inspiration from bodies of water. Wooley teased the boundary between noise and pitched sound in Occam X (2014), a taxing metamorphosis on an unbroken B-flat that was influenced by his hometown near the mouth of the Columbia River. Eckhardt followed with the equally controlled Occam IV (2016), slowly bowing sul ponticello before progressing all the way up the fingerboard and back; silvery harmonics emerged as the bow traversed the string. The two musicians joined forces in the world premiere of Occam River XXVI, expanding on the same techniques probed in Occams IV and X.

Radigue’s multiphonic forays culminated in a festival highlight the following evening at the Art Institute of Chicago, where Charles Curtis played Naldjorlak I. Like her Occam pieces, Radigue composed the first movement of Naldjorlak (2004–09) specifically with Curtis in mind, and, by extension, his instrument. In a captivating hour-long performance, Curtis experimented with double-stops and harmonics to emphasize his wolf tone, eventually eliciting subwoofer-like beating from his instrument. Then, by varying bow speed on the cello’s tailgut and endpin, like a finger on the rim of a glass, Curtis coaxed a pure, theremin-like sound from the cello, the instrument quivering in his hands from sympathetic resonance.

In a fascinating program note provided at the festival, Radigue observes parallels between her past electronic work and the patient virtuosity demanded in Occam Ocean and Naldjorlak. But during her synthesizer era, there was always something missing, she says. “I do not renounce my electronic work, though I never accomplished anything that completely satisfied me,” she writes.

Experiencing the two works back to back, one can hear what she’s getting at. Mediated by electronics, Radigue’s glacially metamorphosing works are entrancing; witnessed live in the hands of a committed performer, the sonic potential of a single tone or interval becomes enthralling.

Two days later, at the sound-art cranny Experimental Sound Studio, Frequency Festival embarked on a more literal exploration of water with the first local unveiling of Lockwood’s A Sound Map of the Danube (2005). Dedicated to Lockwood’s wife, Ruth Anderson (who died in November), and recorded over a period of about three years, the five-channel sound installation is part composition, part ethnography: Lockwood interspersed sounds from the mighty river and its environs with commentary from those living on its banks. Interviewees describe using the river’s floods and freezes to mark the passage of time; one Austrian furniture-maker says that, if you listen closely for the hissing of gravel moving across the riverbed, you can hear the Danube “singing.” Subtly at first, then resoundingly, listeners hear it too.

A Sound Map of the Danube was Lockwood’s second ode to the sounds of rivers, levying similar aural explorations of the Hudson and Housatonic in 1982 and 2010, respectively. In a public conversation and Q&A with Wooley (himself at the center of Radigue and Lockwood’s Venn diagram of collaborators) at the installation opening, she said all three projects were an attempt to answer the question: What is a river?

Now, in a world besieged by climate change, that question is taking on new meaning. Lockwood is coming to terms with the fact that, in the span of a few short generations, her works may become historical artifacts.

“In my sound maps, I wanted to bring you to be as close to the phenomenon as possible, so that there is no separation between you and the river,” she said. “I’ve thought about returning to the same spots over the course of a few years, as a separate project.”

Other tributaries exist only in Lockwood’s imagination. Her February 27 portrait concert at Constellation included bayou–borne (2016), a birthday-tribute-turned-elegy for Pauline Oliveros. The score includes a list of instructions for six players of variable instrumentation and a simple map of the bayous around Houston, where Oliveros grew up. In an interpretation by Chicago-based ensemble a·pe·ri·od·ic, the lights were dimmed, and the sound of individual instruments – violin, clarinet, horn, flute, slide whistle, and percussion – melted out of the darkness.

Musicians gradually converged in the center, their sounds intensifying, volleying rhythmic extrapolations to and fro. In the piece’s mighty, roaring climax, clarinetist Jeff Kimmel placed his bell against the head of the bass drum manned by percussionist Ryan Packard, filling the room with kaleidoscopic reverberations. It was at once poignant, inquisitive, and rumbustious—a more characteristic tribute to Oliveros could scarcely be imagined.

Julian Otis
Frequency Festival, Chicago, IL
Photograph: Ricardo Adame

Even so, some of Frequency Festival’s most moving performances were programmed outside the frames of the Radigue and Lockwood portraits. Opening for Keith Fullerton Whitman on February 29, Brooklyn-based composer John McCowen continued what Radigue started with a stunning solo work for amplified contrabass clarinet, an extension of his 2017 release on International Anthem. For nearly a half hour, McCowen used ultra-precise changes in embouchure and throat position to envelop listeners in an overtone-rich soundscape.

The Chicago debut of vocalist Ganavya Doraiswamy and mridangam player Rajna Swaminathan – whose music braids Carnatic music with jazz sensibilities – was just as devotional. Currently graduate students in Harvard’s Creative Practice & Critical Inquiry program, Doraiswamy and Swaminathan assembled a duo set of spellbinding, self-written works sourced from the delights of everyday moments. In one particularly memorable segue, a poem by the 16th-century Hindu saint Mirabai melted into Ornette Coleman’s “Lonely Woman,” flowing from Swaminathan’s expansive opening mridangam solo and a simple piano ostinato plunked out by Doraiswamy.

Frequency Festival 2020 may have yawed from its usual Chicago-centric course on the whole, but it concluded with a powerful recentering of the city’s new music scene. In the final March 1 concert at Constellation, Chicago Symphony and ICE cellist Katinka Kleijn served up three world premieres so different that they might have been a microcosm for the festival itself: a grooving duet with synth and found sound (Damon Locks’s Sonic Life), a notated fantasia on the spectral possibilities of the cello, as abetted by electronics (Nathan Davis’s Caveau Phonocamptique), and even a theatrical tussle with 600 feet of mylar (Aliya Ultan’s Residuum).

Yes, Frequency Festival offered its audience new ways of hearing—that alone is a gift. But it wasn’t until collaborative tenor Julian Otis, who performed Julius Eastman’s The Holy Presence of Joan d’Arc during the 2018 festival, took the Constellation stage that it pointedly implored us to listen to one another. In a transformative, raw second half, Otis knit together narrative threads on Black vulnerability, grief, and collective redemption. Indestructible Consciousness – a traditional chant by the Sun Drummers of Chicago, which SuRa Dupart taught to Angel Bat Dawid, who taught it to Otis – caught the performer in the throes of death terror. “I will never die… I am indestructible,” Otis declared tremulously, as though trying to convince himself.

The work made a chilling preface to Empathy I: Diamond Reynolds, which Anthony R. Green composed for Philando Castille’s girlfriend, who witnessed her beloved’s death at the hands of a Minnesota police officer in 2016. In a searing performance, Otis embodied the universe of agony behind the work’s short, gut-wrenching text, taken directly from Reynolds’s live-stream of her beloved’s final moments: “You shot four bullets into him, sir.” With Chicago still reeling from yet another police shooting, on the same day the mayor announced that police presence would increase fourfold on the city’s transit system, Empathy I laid bare the inevitable human toll rent when we cannot bear witness to each other’s pain.

Intercession, collaboratively conceived with multidisciplinary artists Scott Rubin and Margaret Morris, roiled with the same anxieties as Indestructible Consciousness and Empathy I. But by turning to one another, the performers gestured at a possible way forward. “I am indestructible because she is indestructible,” Otis proclaimed. Then, he and Morris motioned for audience members to join them onstage. “Don’t you want to help me, brother? Don’t you want to come in?” Morris asked. “And you? And you?” The message was clear: Away with barriers between audience and stage! Between venue and city, between city and world. Between each other!

And yet, most of the audience remained unmoved. Otis’s and Morris’s calls became more pitched, desperate. “Don’t you want to help? Don’t you? Please!”

Finally, a few brave listeners tentatively joined them. They stood at the fringes of the stage, swaying, at first slowly, then letting themselves melt into the performance. They moved, unself-conscious, free, until – to return to Lockwood’s sentiment the day before – there was no separation between them and the sound.

The rest of the audience watched from their seats.

Hannah Edgar is a Chicago-based writer, editor, and researcher. Their music writing has been published in Chicago magazine, the Chicago Reader, the Miami Herald, on New Sounds’ website, and in New York Philharmonic program books (2018–19 season).

Classical music coverage on National Sawdust Log is supported in part by a grant from the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism, the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and the Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation. The Log makes all editorial decisions.