Kikù Hibino performing at the MCA on July 9.

To say Chicago-based audio artist Kikù Hibino is having a prolific year is an understatement. With residencies at Experimental Sound Studio (ESS) and Compound Yellow; performances and workshops at both of those venues plus the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago (MCA); and an installation at the Lincoln Park Conservatory, I had trouble keeping this profile to word count. His practice takes many forms—including community organizing—and is an ongoing attempt to “find the meeting points of ambient and beat-based music.”

Hibino debuted a new pair of sound works—a posthumous collaboration with his close friend Gregory Bae—at the MCA on July 9. (Bae passed away in 2021; I initially met Hibino researching his In Memoriam.) The performance coincided with the opening of Bae’s “Chicago Works” exhibition. Curator Nolan Jimbo’s moving remarks about Bae’s work and legacy included an anecdote about a mechanized piece malfunctioning until opening day—adding to the collective sense that Bae was spiritually present for the celebration that afternoon.

Hibino’s MCA set was conceived during his recent ESS Outer Ear residency in Bae’s hometown of Salt Lake City, Utah. In our interviews, the way he spoke about the experience made it clear that this was a residency in grief for Hibino; specifically while camping in Zion National Park, taking field recordings amidst the harsh landscape as he mourned the passing of his friend. These recordings were source material for the two performances: first, “Somatic Tracing” in collaboration with Mitsu Salmon (a Salt Lake City resident who hosted Hibino); and second, “Ex Radios” with Haruhi Kobayashi and Steven Hess.

Gregory Bae (b. 1986, Salt Lake City, UT; d. 2021, Chicago, IL), “Ex Radios” (detail), 2019. Collage in packaging tape and radio antennae, 10 × 720 inches, courtesy of the Bae Family

The latter movement was in response to Bae’s “Ex Radios,” a collage on view at the MCA. Between immersion in the topographical patterns of Zion and examination of the use of systems and lines in “Ex Radios,” Hibino began to see “patterns all over.” He was inspired by Bae’s meticulous collage technique to create a series of micro-beats and mini-loops. Shortly before his death, Bae told Hibino that the  “Ex” series—consisting of collages made out of mechanical instruction manuals meaningful to Bae—were his favorite. Bae said of the series: “Discernible language is removed.” Hibino honored this process of abstraction sonically by cutting and pasting tiny pieces of music, just as Bae did with bits of paper.

Installation view, “Chicago Works: Gregory Bae,” MCA Chicago. June 28-January 29, 2023 /Photo: Nathan Keay © MCA Chicago

Both movements are haunting but not sorrowful ambient works that reverberate throughout the atrium of the museum and into galleries beyond. The repetitive (but not redundant) soundtracks included calming spoken word elements, softly sung passages and grounding beats that sounded almost intentionally binaural. (Hibino confirmed they were not.) The performance ebbed and flowed, at times building momentum like an accelerating train and then gently receding. Standing in certain places, you could hear the mechanical whirr of Bae’s treadmill (“24-7, 365 [#5]”) mixing with Hibino’s audio; this element plus the murmurs of the large crowd gathered to remember and celebrate Bae created a remarkable hybrid aural experience: a soothing fusion of sound art plus mechanical noise punctuated by the din of hushed conversation.

A short distance from the MCA, the Lincoln Park Conservatory is hosting another brand-new work by Hibino: “Fell to Fern.” The composition is inspired by memories of his grandparent’s traditional tea garden in his birthplace of Japan as well as the healing power of plants. This vernal hymnal, presented as part of ESS’s Florasonic series, runs for twenty minutes and plays at the top of every hour. At 12:02, the subtle installation was initially so indistinguishable from the resonance of running waterfalls that I worried there was a malfunction. As with the MCA performance, the soundtrack eventually swelled: serenading the turtles and ferns and leaving me with the distinct impression that the plants were talking (and possibly listening) to me. Despite occasional moments of discord, there was something inherently tranquilizing about the work, compounded by the lulling heat and humidity of the fern room. As the early afternoon light changed in perfect sync with the sound, I fantasized about returning in the night and drifting off to sleep under the trees. Much like the performance at the MCA—I didn’t want it to end. (Erin Toale)

Hibino’s “Florasonic” installation in the Fern Room, 2430 North Cannon, closes September 25 (reservations are free but required). Hibino is organizing a virtual performance series as part of ESS’s Quarantine Concerts. 



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