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Mystery Train: Experimental Sound Studio’s sonic railroad rumbles through Millennium Park

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By Nic Halverson

Consider, for a moment, the sounds of a moving train: the warning squall of an air horn. The steady clangor of bells amidst the red strobe of candy-striped gates. A brute, subterranean rumble vibrating your rib cage. The chitchat of heavy freight coasting over steel rails spiked into wooden planks. A lonely whistle echoing throughout the sleepy valley.

Chances are these sounds elicit a very tangible sense of place, whether you live among a brawling urban mosaic or the environs of a more pastoral, rural setting. Regardless of where you live, rarely are you out of earshot from the sound of a train. They pass across our collective consciousness like noble apostles, evoking in some the soft stroke of nostalgia, perhaps bringing to mind bygone eras when these hulking, steam-powered dinosaurs were the vanguard of our nation’s industry and transportation. For some, the faint horn of a night train summons a more reminiscent strand of nostalgia—of hometowns, mothers in warm kitchens or the safety of doting grandparents.

Yet in others, the sound of a train rouses quite the opposite. Rather than dwell in bucolic memories, some may hear the diesel growl of an engine barreling down the line and be flooded with thoughts of forward-ho progress and new horizons—that independent, freewheeling spirit capable of defining generations, sculpting history and raising cities.

As a salute to this very idea and to Daniel Burnham’s famous “make no little plans” philosophy, the theme of this year’s Chicago Humanities Festival is “Thinking Big.”

“Trains were at the core of Burnham’s plan,” says festival artistic director Lawrence Weschler. “He wanted to make Chicago the hub of a vast rail network.”

It was this thematic vein, a nostalgic homage to municipal innovation and city planning, that served as the impetus for the colossal sonic-art collage heard booming out the Pritzker Pavilion’s sound system in Millennium Park last weekend.

In the tradition of experimental French composer Pierre Schaeffer, who pioneered musique concrete, a form of music expression which sought to use real, “concrete” sounds (such as trains) in abstract compositions, “Train Time: A Sound Installation,” certainly qualifies as a well-equipped bearer of the torch. In fact, the flurry of surround sound raining down from the speakers attached to the Pritzker’s tortoise-shell lattice probably would have made Monsieur Schaeffer’s head spin.

Visitors will have one last chance, from 10am-10pm Saturday and Sunday, to roam the pavilion’s lawn and absorb the dizzying sounds of smoke chuffing from the blast pipes of steam engines, the amphetamine heartbeat of locomotives at full clip and the synapse flybys of bullet trains that sound like well-oiled javelins in flight.

To helm this project, the Chicago Humanities Festival tapped local artist Lou Mallozzi, co-founder and executive director of the Experimental Sound Studio on Chicago’s North Side. Presented in conjunction with the Outer Ear Festival of Sound—Chicago’s only comprehensive annual sonic-arts festival and an entity of the Experimental Sound Studio—“Train Time,” aside from being a sonic, dimension-shattering quilt, is essentially an audible footnote to Burnham’s ideology.

“The way I interpret [Burnham’s philosophy] was his notion of looking at a holistic plan for a large space and large population. His notion of rethinking of what expansiveness means—on a landscape level, a city level, but also on a historical level—is really embedded in the idea of railroad. So this theme of train travel—of thinking about the landscape and the way one traverses this landscape—is one of the operative factors of ‘Train Time,’” Mallozi says.

To help facilitate these factors, Mallozzi commissioned a talented and decorated group of local sound artists versed in the arts of contemporary composition, electronic music and field recordings. Olivia Block, Shawn Decker and Ryan Ingebritsen were each given the task of taking source recordings of trains, “extracting levels of musicality inherent to the recordings themselves,” and finally giving them back to Mallozzi, who was responsible for sewing together the final mix.

“The whole is, of course, the sum of its parts,” says Mallozzi, referring to the collaborative effort, “though each piece has its own integrity, capable of being pulled apart or reconfigured.”

Exclusively using acousmatic sounds—sounds one hears without seeing the causes behind them—Mallozzi says doing this “draws a sonic sensibility and musicality out of the [train sounds themselves] and doesn’t impose anything onto the material or try and unite it with something else. There are no musical instruments at all.” In other words, the tape recorder becomes the instrument.

Besides relying on archived source material, opportunity did arise for the artists to record their own train sounds.

“In Lucerne, Switzerland,” recalls Mallozzi, “I had the opportunity to go into a cargo freight yard and make recordings riding on the outside of a diesel locomotive. Everything is clangy and grimy, but the detail is fantastic because I was standing on the train.”

Drawing on that palpable sensation of encountering a train, Mallozzi says, “I think what captivated the composers was the range of proximities that give you a real variable sense of what it means to experience a train, in the kinds of both memory and physical. You can almost feel your own body position relative to this massive thing, which sometimes feels like a really tiny thing because you position yourself in the landscape, as opposed to being right up close to it.

“‘Train Time’ really reflects that. There are things that are extremely aggressive and thunderous about trains, and there are things that are really ethereal and about distance, almost about the train not being there—just hearing landscape. It’s also about something that’s gone, and that will be coming back. One interesting thing about trains in landscapes is how they disappear—even in train stations this happens. There is something about before and after the arrival and departure—it’s almost like a negative space.”      

Practicing in Pilsen with his electronic band, We Can and We Must, composer Ryan Ingebritsen recalls an evening when he was captivated by the sound of a slow-moving freight train trundling along a curve in the track.

“Every once in a while we’d stop practicing and listen to this beautiful sound. When you hear it, you can’t believe it’s a train. It sounds completely otherworldly and ghostly. It sounds like a metallic choir.”

Capturing this sound for “Train Time” proved to be no easy feat. After losing his original copy of the recording, Ingebritsen spent seven hours, over the course of three separate visits to the train yard, just waiting for something to happen, biding his time recording passing ice-cream trucks and the ranchero band across the street. Eventually, the elusive sound manifested itself, Ingebritsen says, “and it was the most glorious example of it I had ever heard.”

“You could work for hours in a studio with synthesizers and you wouldn’t come up with a sound as eerie, haunting and almost fake-sounding as that one,” he says, explaining his attraction to the sound. “Trains are almost something mythical and exotic in the United States.”

One of the reasons Ingebritsen thinks Americans are so fascinated by trains is because traveling by train—save for metropolitan public transport—is often a distant consideration due to lack of a convenient, reliable rail infrastructure and the popularity of automobiles. Juxtaposed with Europe’s vast international network of efficient railways, Ingebritsen thinks the U.S. has a long way to go before train travel enters the cognizance of the American public.

“It’s hard to argue that we should sink billions of dollars into a train system because our culture is conditioned not to consider trains as a method of regular transportation.”

If the composers of “Train Time” have their way, they believe the installation can provide a relevant social commentary on the perception of trains, or lack thereof, and spark a public discourse and conversation that will, ultimately, make those who lend their ear consider trains.

With a looming energy crisis, rising gas prices and the dependency on foreign oil now gracing the lips of even the most fledgling political neophyte, Mallozzi and his band of sonic wizards just may be onto something, largely because their project exhibits little to no confrontation. Listeners of all political persuasions and flavors, should they happen to stroll across, or near, the lawn are drawn into Pritzker’s web, almost absentmindedly, and ever-so-deftly reminded that the answer to our energy concerns just may be the railroads we so hastily abandoned on our lusty chase after the American Dream and its crowned vehicle of choice—the automobile.

“People are interested in train travel partly because of nostalgia,” Mallozzi says, “but also because it’s actually a good idea—a really good 150-year-old idea. If you travel outside the United States, for example Europe, you will find out there are lots of people who still use trains.

“When I was in Switzerland, which is one of the epicenters of train travel in Europe, when you go there, you look around and realize, ‘oh, this is what we’re capable of,’” Mallozzi laughs as he ponders the potential for well-executed train system on American soil.

Careful not to tread on America’s time-honored tradition of projecting itself as the emblem of gritty, can-do independence, Ingebritsen believes the “new frontier is figuring out a way where we can hold onto our identity and individuality but come up with solutions to problems that require only one solution—we just need to decide on one.

“The rugged individualist attitude of America is, in some way, what made us a strong country—I can’t totally mock that,” says Ingebritsen. “But at the same time, the Hollywood image of the rugged individual, fending for themselves—the frontiersmen…well those days are a hundred years in the past.”

What’s not a hundred years in the past—in fact, it’s managed to flourish—is Chicago retaining its title as the railroad hub of America. Around forty percent of America’s freight passes through Chicago railways. Six out of seven of North America’s largest railroads bottleneck in the Chicago corridor, essentially causing freight-train gridlock. To put this in perspective, it takes a freight train roughly two days to travel from the West Coast to Chicago. However, it may take that same train two days just to get through Chicago.

Ironically, this snarling of train traffic helped contribute to “Train Time”’s source material. Recorded directly from the knot of the problem, Ingebritsen’s metallic-choir sound was made possible by the slow-moving freight trains backed up in the Pilsen train yard.

“If it wasn’t for [the traffic] problem, I wouldn’t have been able to get these beautiful noises.”

Concentrating more on the ethereal sounds, composer Sean Decker’s batch of beautiful recordings relied heavily on the rich, moist sounds of steam and whistles. “I’ve always loved train whistles. I’m totally a train-whistle junkie,” he says. So much, in fact, Decker took some of those whistle sounds and time-stretched them, turning what would normally be five-second clips into succulent, elastic three-minute strands, like taffy being slowly pulled apart.

“Stretching those whistle sounds freezes that moment in time and you’re left hanging there with it,” Decker says.

By funneling the array of sounds into one finished piece, Mallozzi has succeeded in creating what he proposed as a “charged sonic space beneath the gentle slope of the Pavilion’s loudspeaker system and above its lawn which, of course, lies directly above active train tracks.”

But just what is a charged sonic space?

“What I mean by a ‘charged sonic space,’” Mallozzi says, “is the consistent sense of engagement with not only what you’re hearing, but also that the sense of your own body is enhanced, relative to what you’re hearing.”

Heightening this engagement even more, and in some ways, allowing this enhancement to take place is Pritzker’s Pavilion’s 5.1 Dolby surround-sound—a state-of-the-art, beast of a system so well designed that Mallozzi and his composers are reduced to gushing school girls with mouths full of superlatives.

“This is the best outdoor system I’ve ever heard,” beams Mallozzi. “There’s no comparison. The clarity of sound—not the volume—is beautiful. And the best part is, Jonathon Laney—the guy who actually designed the sound system—is working with us to help tweak the system!”

Decker offers similar accolades. “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had my expectations [about sound systems] undershot, but this one totally exceeded my expectations.”

In the hands of these audio savants each individual speaker can be calibrated in such a way that each audio signal is capable of being isolated, creating a fluctuating sonic scaffold that is fluid, and actively mobile. Being so, flashes of sound constantly play peek-a-boo with one’s concept of where spatial boundaries end and audio sorcery takes over. This was quite evident at “Train Time”’s opening last Saturday as the mystified masses tiptoed on the lawn with mouths agape, trying to grasp exactly where their mind was being blown to and from.

In effort to create a sensory dialogue more akin to the way we receive stimuli, Mallozzi wants to remind audiences that he and his composers have created a “sonic architecture that’s within real space—not erased by head phones…We experienced the world in kinesthetic and multidimensional ways all the time—the notion that one sense is totally isolated from other senses is really an abstraction we use in order to describe things.”

Trying to calculate, or internally discern, what you hear in “Train Time” is something Ingebritsen does not recommend doing. He suggests “unfocusing your mind as much as possible. This allows you to experience sound for what it is: a means to communicate an end that is beyond regular modes of expression. The only way to receive the message is to not take anything to it.”

The aim of “Train Time,” adds Mallozzi, “is to exploit the range and variation of perspective and movement that the piece engenders. The idea of constantly placing and displacing the listener is really important.”

Looking stunned, if not enlightenedly dazed, as if he had just taken a ride on Mallozzi’s “malleable sonic architecture” tour, Madison, Wisconsin resident Alex Fahrenbach was positively glowing, standing on Pritzker’s lawn last Saturday, amidst a swirling cocoon of crossing gate bells.

“My dad would be crying right now if he heard this. He used to go down to the train tracks in my hometown with his handheld video camera, record the trains and then play the videos on our TV. He loved trains. Some days he would wake me up early—he’d buy me a pastry and we’d go watch trains all morning.”

So what is the appeal of trains? Fahrenbach replies, “I think it’s the fascination with the power…of something bigger than ourselves.”

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2 Responses to “Mystery Train: Experimental Sound Studio’s sonic railroad rumbles through Millennium Park”

  1. Is Chicago the new leader in sound art? at Experimental Sound Studio Says:

    […] the support (collaborative, if not financial) available to put on presentations the magnitude of Train Time–an installation Gottschalk describes as “almost unprecedented in scale in the history […]

  2. Train Time Encore Presentation October 21 | Newcity Music Says:

    […] final presentation of Experimental Sound Studio’s “Train Time,” the subject of a previous Newcity cover story, is October 21. Details after the […]

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