Chicago: A scavenger hunt of world premieres

Chicago: A scavenger hunt of world premieres

It was Open House Chicago this weekend. Open House is, apparently, a worldwide celebratory architectural free-for-all phenomenon that started in London. But I’ve only ever experienced it in Chicago. Here, it usually falls in late October, when each rainstorm is a tender rite of passage that strips the city of a bit more color. I have a strong memory of spending one Open House weekend in Hyde Park, ducking out of the rain to explore hidden gems in Hyde Park. For me, that’s what Open House is about: it’s about what’s indoors. It’s about the time of year that we start to go inside. The season when we start to hurry a bit from doorway to doorway, putting our heads down, bracing ourselves a little as we go. On Saturday, the cold felt refreshing and energizing. Probably because I bundled up.

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For several years running, Access Contemporary Music has “occupied” some of the featured spaces with little ensembles performing a new piece of music, written expressly for the space and occasion, every fifteen minutes. For three hours! With tens of thousands of people attending Open House, these mini-marathon pop-up concerts mean that world premieres by ACM composers receive a large and constantly rotating audience. It’s an exciting concept absolutely worth venturing across the gray, gray Chicago River for. On Saturday, the river was decidedly out of tourist mode: sidewalk closures on the west side of Wacker; crews tearing up something or other; more grit than sparkle.

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I was headed to the DIRTT building — which, like so many spots one can explore during Open House, I’d never heard of before. Turns out it’s a high-end green architectural firm that had opened its 10th floor luxury “client lounge” to visitors. In residence between noon and 3 p.m. were cellist Nora Barton and violinist Myra Hinrichs, performing translucence by Romanian composer Gabriel Mălăncioiu. I watched them perform the work — a delicate and effective four-minute piece filled with fluttering false harmonics, passed-off long tones, and a brisk, rhythmic middle section that seemed to suit the earthiness of the surroundings — and then watched them chat with audience members.

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One man in particular seemed new to contemporary music, and was open-minded and interested as he chatted with them about the challenges of performing the work. I personally just wanted to ask them what it was like to play a new piece so many times in a row:

Before I left, I visited the DIRTT roof deck and grabbed a cup of coffee from the decidedly modern coffee station opposite the musicians.

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Sunday was not a fur-lined-hood day, not a day to hurry from doorway to doorway. It was the opposite: a perfect fall day, a day for a lighter jacket, a day to linger on the walk and enjoy whatever the wind might be doing to your hair.

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Sunday’s only ACM Open House spot was at Union Station, where a duo by Tim Corpus was performed in Union Station. Ah, Union Station: the permanent home of chaos, confusion, and disorientation. It is so damn cavernous and never-ending. I wasn’t sure exactly where to go. The track boarding area where I’ve headed to the suburbs many times was deserted, which gave me the opportunity to record one of the strangest sounds in the whole city. Each numbered boarding track announces its track number, over and over again. Supposedly this is to help blind people find the correct track, but it makes for very disorienting ambient noise.

I headed to the overwhelmingly large Great Hall.

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In a long-abandoned, paint-peeling room off the Great Hall — formerly the Women’s Lounge, and closed to the public for the past seventy years — is where I found clarinetist Christie Miller and cellist Desiree Miller performing music of Tim Corpus. The Union Station site, and its music, was particularly rich with Chicago history: Corpus chose to write his piece to accompany a letter written by Gertrude Adler in 1934, in which she mentions a visit to Union Station and Macy’s department store. The music was lovingly written and played, with a sense of nostalgia and tenderness in the mellow instrumentation and lyrical lines. And there were, rather inexplicably, giant Christmas ornaments in the corner.

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Composer Tim Corpus chatted with an audience member about the space:

Seth Boustead was in the former Women’s Lounge, too, chatting with people in between the six-minute performances. Seth told me that the Open House performances are precisely the kind of thing he’d like to be ACM’s trademark: high-impact, scalable, and portable. The intimate duos mean that no performance gets unwieldy; the enormity of Open House means that composers are reaching larger numbers of people than they could otherwise. In fact, ACM will be a part of Open House New York this year, too.

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Cheers from a city full of hidden corners, perfect for holding a bit of music on a fall weekend.

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