How a Composer Reimagined a Classical Music Street Festival.

Updated: Jun 17

How one composer turned a classical music festival into an immersive outdoor audio walk.


Sheet music next to a cello.

We’re looking back at some of the ways creators on our platform have combined their artistic vision with audio storytelling. Diving into the world of classical music, let’s take a look at how Seth Boustead created an audio walk for the annual Thirsty Ears Festival in Chicago this past fall.


Seth, a composer and active advocate for new classical music, is the Founder and current Executive Director of Access Contemporary Music (ACM). ACM is a Chicago-based organization dedicated to integrating musical creativity into everyday life through performances from diverse living composers, collaborative events, commissioned projects, and classes that teach musical creativity.


Musician playing a piano in front of a crowd during a previous Thirsty Ears Festival.
Photo by Elliot Mandel.

“Thirsty Ears is normally Chicago's only classical music street festival. We close the street in front of our music school for two days of stellar classical music performances, craft beer, food trucks, local vendors and kid-friendly activities,” says Seth. But with the limitations of 2020, new ideas and creative solutions were needed. “Thirsty Ears is a classical music event but it's also a celebration of the Ravenswood neighborhood where it takes place. As such we wanted to do something that involved the community we serve in some way and we wanted it to involve commissioning music because that's at the heart of our mission.”


With this in mind, Seth wanted to create a hybrid walking tour and live concert experience. “I just had to figure out how the heck this was going to work on the tech end. Enter Gesso. It was perfect for what we needed,” he says.


Promotional image for the 2020 Thirsty Ears Festival in Chicago.

Listeners were invited to go for an audio walk and explore ten geotagged sites in Ravenswood and Lincoln Square that were chosen for their historical and cultural significance. Locations included the house where Carl Sandburg wrote his famous Chicago Poems, Chicago's first wood frame church, and Chicago's first movie theater, among others.


As listeners approached each site, audio stories began to play, giving a brief history of the specific location, a reflection from a composer about the musical inspiration they gained from the site, and a one-minute piece composed especially for the site performed by ACM musicians.


Seth also wanted to involve local businesses, especially since many were vendors in previous years of the festival. “We already have a pretty robust outreach team in place and Chicago has a chamber of commerce or two for every neighborhood so we worked with them as well. For businesses we didn't have a relationship with, we called them and said how could this be good for you? It's a tough time to offer a discount on your product or service but could you reward people if they spend a certain amount? Mostly we wanted to listen to them and find out how this could be good for both of us.” he says.


After listeners finished hearing an audio story at a specific location, they unlocked incentives to support local neighborhood businesses like Hazel, Nomadic Ant, and the Carbon Arc, allowing for a strengthened sense of community and connection between listeners and their city.

Gesso is a platform for creators to share their ideas and stories with the world. If you're a musician, composer, or other creative professional interested in working with us to create location-based audio walks, join our creator community to turn your ideas into immersive, cinematic audio walk experiences.