Relearning how to listen

Urban Art House will bring music, art to Madison Street

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By Maria Maxham

It was after 2 in the morning on July 1. A group of artists had just finished painting a rainbow street mural in front of Urban Pioneer Group, a project organized in part by Trevor Toppen.

Toppen is easy to talk to, intelligent and humble. As he spoke about the mural, it was clear this project was important to him. But he was also excited to discuss Tom Kunkel's new Urban Art House, which will host art shows and classes and, with Toppen driving it, music.

Toppen's commitment to, and love for, music was shown when he bailed out Oak Park music store Val's halla in November 2019 to keep it from going out of business. A loyal customer for years, it was Toppen who gave the store its new lease on life. General Manager Shayne Blakely called him a "guardian angel."

Toppen is still involved in the music scene at Val's halla, but he wants to bring a new/old way to experience music in Forest Park. New because there's nothing quite like it. Old because it focuses on vinyl.

The idea is to have listening parties in the Urban Art House for about 15 people at a time. An hour will be spent listening to an entire album. A second hour would be spent listening to albums people bring to share.

"I think it will provide a sense of focus in these days of streaming music. These will be micro-events that allow music losers to scratch that itch to listen to music when concerts aren't readily available," he said.

We talked about how with services like Amazon music and Spotify, people create play lists but seldom sit down to listen to an entire album from beginning to end anymore.

Toppen's goal is to give people that experience again, complemented by invited musical experts on whatever style is being featured on a given evening.

"If we have a blues night, we'll bring in an expert to talk about blues," said Toppen adding that they're planning underage listening parties for a younger audience, and bringing albums to share will be an essential part of the experience for any age.

"Everyone's voice matters," he said.

Kunkel likes to think of the listening events as "listening to learn and learning to listen."

"I think we need to relearn how to really listen to music," he said.

The rainbow mural was finished, and Toppen walked us out back to the Urban Art House.

"There's something awesome about vinyl," Toppen said as we headed through the alley.

Theoretically I understood, although I couldn't remember the last time I'd listened to an actual record. I'm content hearing what I consider a very genre-inclusive playlist of songs through my Alexa device, unconcerned about corporate or governmental groups spying on me. If they need to know, I've listened to "Take a Chance on Me" by Abba three times today. Have at it.

Urban Art House is located inside a carriage house across the alley from Schauer Hardware, 7449 Madison St. Kunkel has been restoring it during quarantine. Underneath the carriage house are garage doors that will be painted with murals, a project that artist Lorie Ranker, founder of Pilsen Art House and coordinator of the rainbow mural on Madison Street, will oversee.

The 1,000-square-foot space was virtually empty. Even in the dim light, the wood floors gleamed. On the back wall, a mural in progress captured the eye with its swirls, designs creating a flow reminiscent of something in motion. No furniture yet — Toppen said seating would be brought in soon. In one corner there was a record player, and speakers had been hung around the room.

Toppen explained that the space was challenging from a sound standpoint. The floors were relatively soft, which can create difficulties, but they experimented with placement of the speakers, finally settling on an arrangement that satisfied.

He slid a LP, The Dark Side of the Moon by Pink Floyd, from the album case and set it on the turntable.

I've heard it before, more than once. The first track, "Speak to me" is more a sound collage than a song.

It starts with a heartbeat. In the Urban Art House space, the beating grew louder and louder as other effects started to blend in. A clock ticking. A cash register. The maniacal laughter. The conversation, barely discernible, about being "mad."

You might have listened to the song before. But that? That was hearing it. That was voices whispering from different corners of the room. That was moving slowly around the space to hear the subtle differences, the nuances specific to each unique location in the room.

It was knowing if you sat still and closed your eyes, you'd be overcome by something that would take you out of yourself, at least until the album was over.

It was hearing, for what felt like the very first time, music you'd listened to a hundred times before.

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