Acoustics, queer identity collide in Sexing Sound

By May Huang

A three-day citywide event, Sexing Sound: Gender Sound Music, was an innovative collaboration between the Goethe-Institut, the University of Chicago, the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC), Northwestern University, and Experimental Sound Studio (ESS), a non-profit organization dedicated to the production and exhibition of sound as a cultural medium. True to ESS’ goal to promote the “creative dimensions” of sound, Sexing Sound explored the intersectionality between gender and sound art in creative yet accessible ways.

 “[An event like this] has yet to be produced in the U.S.,” said ESS audio artist and executive director Lou Mallozzi at the event launch last Thursday. As Mallozzi noted, it is fitting that Sexing Sound is taking place in this city, as the intersectionality between gender and sound “is something that has a really deep history in Chicago.”

Sexing Sound officially kicked off at Logan Center with a joint performance by vocalist Lynn Book and pianist Katharina Klement, whose multimedia piece “Plot” combined visual and acoustic elements. It speaks to the creativity of the performance that Klement not only played the keys, but also created unconventional noises by experimenting with the interior of the Steinway, tapping its case and manipulating the piano strings. 

On Friday, October 23, performances were held at the ESS headquarters on the North Side of Chicago. It featured a sound installation by Mark Barden titled Dark Room, as well as a performance by Alex Temple called The Travels of E.C. Dumonde. The former portrayed the intimacy of gay relationships through sound and the latter was a haunting, multi-section “radio drama” tracing a woman’s journey through eerie American towns. Influenced by Temple’s own gender transition, Travels combined synth with the composer’s own electronicized narration, drawing a link to the way sexuality informs sound art.

The event culminated at SAIC on Saturday with two panel discussions moderated by Ryan Dohoney, a musicologist at Northwestern. Artists from Thursday and Friday’s performances participated alongside experts including art historian Seth Kim-Cohen, composer Katherine Young, and musicologist Meg Orita, whose work examines how gender theories inform local contemporary music. The first discussion, Is New Music a Feminism?, focused on Kim-Cohen’s area of expertise, while the second, Sound’s Queer Pasts and Futures, sheds further light on how queer theories and history have influenced contemporary art.

Although Sexing Sounds showcased some ways in which gender and sexuality have informed Chicago’s contemporary sound art, there is no doubt that gender and sexuality have also greatly informed work in the past and will continue to be a significant part of the art of the future regardless of the forms it takes, the places in which it is set, and the audience that receives it.