Your NPR news source

Tour Offers New Way to See and Hear Chicago Buildings

SHARE Tour Offers New Way to See and Hear Chicago Buildings
Tour Offers New Way to See and Hear Chicago Buildings

(WBEZ/Lynette Kalsnes)

We have a frame of reference for the way a house speaks to us: a creaky floorboard, wind whistling pass the windows. That’s how you’d normally think of buildings making noise. But a new event allows local artists to be really creative about what they hear in the buildings of Chicago.

NOTE: Songs about Buildings and Moods starts from the Chicago Cultural Center, beginning at 10 a.m. this Saturday. Tours depart every 20 minutes and are guided by the Chicago Architecture Foundation. Tickets are $20.

Composer Seth Boustead’s spent hours in a Chicago landmark just sitting there and listening to it.

BOUSTEAD: The Monadnock Building has a rhythm to it. It will be quiet as a tomb, and all of a sudden the security guy’s radio will start squawking, and then all of a sudden a bunch of people come in, and the elevators are dinging and you can hear doors slamming upstairs and things, and then it’s quiet again.


The Monadnock’s more than a 100 years old, and it feels like it. It’s got walls that are six feet thick and old-fashioned lightbulbs that don’t throw out much light.


BOUSTEAD: It’s a little gloomy. The hallway’s dark. You almost feel like you’re underground. There’s a ponderousness to the building.

Shift music

Boustead captured that mood in a piece he wrote that reflects the building. It’s for a tour he’s organizing called Songs About Buildings and Moods. Participants will hear music by a half dozen composers live in the very buildings that inspired them.

Boustead had a personal reason for picking the Monadnock. Fifteen years ago, he was a temp, dreaming of becoming a composer. He’d come to the Monadnock to pick up his paycheck.He says there’s a certain satisfaction, a sense of completion, in returning as a composer.

BOUSTEAD: Now the building for me takes on a whole different resonance. I’m older, I’m more established, it’s more like a temple now. It’s a place that I go, and I listen to these sounds, and I think about the building almost in a spiritual capacity.

When the Monadnock grows noisy, the musicians will amp up the rhythm. And when it falls quiet, the music will grow more ambient. Boustead says it’s like conducting a building.


Boustead, who’s the head of Accessible Contemporary Music, hopes to create a deeper appreciation for the buildings while increasing the audience for modern-day classical music.

BOUSTEAD: Oftentimes, if there’s visual imagery or something other than just the music to grab onto, people are more willing to hear experimental sounds or to contextualize quote unquote difficult music.

The tour includes the dimly lit Monadnock, and the sparkling Tiffany mosaics in the Chicago Cultural Center and the Marquette Building. It takes in the sinous curves of the Aqua Tower, and the stark white lines of the Aon Center.


At the Aon, there’s a stone plaza where people bustle to their offices….or hail cabs. They rush right past a sculpture tucked to the side. It looks like wheat sprouting from the plaza. The metal rods wave and bounce into each other.

It’s a sounding sculpture by Harry Bertoia, and on a windy day like this, it makes music.


Composer Kyle Vegter wanted to figure out what other music the sculpture made if he got way up close. He set up microphones on the artwork and captured the sounds inside.

VEGTER: I think it’s a really beautiful idea that the sculpture is there, it’s making these light noises all the time, but inside, there’s this whole sound world that no one gets to experience, so I wanted to make sure to bring that out.


Vegter manipulated the sounds electronically to create a trio with cellist Tom Clowes and violinist Rebecca Wilcox. Weather permitting, they’ll perform right next to the sculpture.

VEGTER: It’s just always really interested me the way space can be designed to make you feel a certain way, to influence you, and I think music does a lot of the same things.
WILCOX: I think it’s really fun to take music out of the kind of stuffy performance hall arena.


Rebecca Wilcox says the sound of construction and taxis and buses becomes part of the music.

WILCOX : It’s a change of atmosphere, and you really respond to the colors and textures and smells around you, instead of just playing in a kind of muted box.

It’s not just the musicians responding. People who would normally walk right on by are noticing the sculpture. And they’re lingering to listen to the rehearsal.

The Latest