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The Frequency Festival Brings the New-Music Festival Back to Chicago

Chicago used to have zero new-music festivals. This year there will be two, and the first one starts tomorrow.

Photo: Courtesy of Frequency Festival

In the old days of new music in Chicago—that is, pre-2013—the many local ensembles playing the contemporary version of classical music scattered their performances around local churches, university recital halls, and park buildings. And their small-audience, low-overhead ilk hosted concerts, and the dedicated audience would schlep from place to place.

Almost three years ago, Peter Margasak, by day a music critic for the Chicago Reader, started booking new music at the brand-new venue Constellation for his Frequency Series. Immediately Constellation became the center of (and Chicago’s best new-music series) attracting performances with its combination of convenience, cool kid clout (Constellation only recently acquired a sign out front), and a bar. Margasak books Frequency every Sunday night and a few in between.

This week, the frequency of Frequency condenses from every week to every day. The Frequency Festival, running Tuesday through Sunday, features mainstays of the Chicago new-music scene each evening and twice on Sunday. “Let’s create some critical mass and have them all play in a concentrated blast,” Margasak says of the thinking behind the festival. “In one week, you get a real sense of what the Chicago scene is about.”

That scene keeps getting louder and lauded. New groups continue to spawn and spin off—Margasak points to Mocrep, playing February 25, which didn’t exist when he established the series and now will headline a show in March. And existing groups grow stronger. The concert on February 23 features Lisa Kaplan and Matthew Duvall, two members of the group Eighth Blackbird, which just won a Grammy and a Macarthur grant last week.

In fact, the scene has burgeoned to accommodate two new-music festivals. After the Frequency Festival, the well-planned Ear Taxi Festival parks in October. Both festivals celebrate the Chicago new-music community, both its composers and its performers (and composer/performers), with the weight on opposite feet: Ear Taxi’s long lead time allows composers to conceive and compose works specifically for the festival.

And another important difference: Ear Taxi for now is a one-off event; Margasak hopes this marks the first of many annual festivals. Frequency, it turns out, is aptly named, both for the sinusoidal regularity of it and how often it recurs. “I don’t think anyone puts on as much new music as Constellation and Frequency,” Margasak says. “There’s no doubt that anybody comes close.”

Here, three must-see performances in the Frequency Festival:

  • 2/25 at 8:30 Aperiodic specializes in text scores—that is, scores that contain verbal instructions instead of notes—and indeterminacy, the quality of music partially determined by chance at the time of performance. They share the bill with Mocrep, an aesthetic-synthetic group playing a program of pieces that critique things. Also featuring the high-nerd deliciousness of a group called Aperiodic playing a series called Frequency. $15; fest pass $40. Constellation, 3111 N. Western. constellation-chicago.com
  • 2/27 at 8:30 Claire Chase, the make-no-little-plans flutist and lodestar for the Chicago-born International Contemporary Ensemble, plays the third installment in her 22-year project to commission solo flute work. Afterward, the cheeky musicians behind the uncertainly ironic cassette-recording label Parlour Tapes do something wacky. $15; fest pass $40. Constellation, 3111 N. Western. constellation-chicago.com
  • 2/28 at 7:30 Hard Music, Hard Liquor returns, a show put on by Ensemble Dal Niente of virtuosic music performed at a venue with drinks. The program beads together solo instrumental works, always the heart of this music-meets-alcoholic hootenanny, for cello, contrabass clarinet, and electric guitar, alongside chamber pieces by George Lewis. $15; fest pass $40. Constellation, 3111 N. Western. constellation-chicago.com

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