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"Dusty Chestnuts": Liz Pearse doubles down with "Philomel"


Liz Pearse is the kind of musician that intimidates us with her talent, imagination, and virtuosity, all packaged together with a graceful attitude and sharp wit. And, if you're looking for a buddy to share a belgian beer with, she's and expert! This year, she throws down at OUTR on several shows, including a solo set featuring Milton Babbitt's Philomel:

“I just hope that people show up...”

At the inaugural Omaha Under the Radar Festival, I had the privilege of witnessing the birth of what will be one of the great American summer new music festivals in years to come. From the opening museum concert which was so packed with attendees that the docents had to shoo us away from the walls (and the gorgeous paintings on them…) to the performance of Music for 18 Musicians that received an immediate, overwhelming ovation at its close – Omaha was an amazing experience last year, and I am so grateful to be returning. Like last year, 2015’s festival promises several things: Active musical participation for the “audience” (in the form of Tom Bartlett and Dylan Lilla’s theremin-installation, among others; Collaborations between world-class musicians who may or may never have met previously; An atmosphere of happy anticipation – each show is sure to be a unique experience, but new enjoyments present themselves at every turn.

This year’s festival doubles down on last year’s promises – the energy and commitment to excellent music-making LEAPS off every bio on the 2015 artist page. This year also seems to feature an increased number of vocalists and otherwise text-centric projects. Call me biased, but humanity and storytelling is sure to feature in performances by I the Siren, ThingNY, The Witching Hour, Ophelia Forever, Nat Evans/Jeremiah Cawley, and Quince Ensemble (of which two of OUR’s organizers and I are a part…) – in addition to solo sets and group performances of Luciano Berio’s delightful Folk Songs, long-neglected composer Julius Eastman’s Stay On It, and Rzewski’s Coming Together, discussed recently by its interpreter in Omaha, Michael Lewanski.

Though I will be involved in several ensemble performances (on the Berio and Eastman, accompanying the brilliant Kayleigh Butcher, and singing both with Quince and with the excellent Matt Oliphant/Hannah Meyer on an excellent chamber piece by Annie Hui-Hsin Hsieh) I am personally grateful to have a chance this year to present what may seem like a dusty chestnut compared to some of the programming – Milton Babbitt’s 1964 masterwork Philomel.

Written for the inestimable Bethany Beardslee and based on an Ovid story set to text by John Hollander, this 19 minute long piece for voice and four channel tape features live singer, recorded voices (Ms. Beardslee), and the one-of-a-kind RCA Mark II synthesizer, which acted as muse for Babbitt during its lifespan in the ‘60s. When I was first exposed to Philomel, as an undergraduate in music history class, I am ashamed to admit I dismissed it as “too math-y”.

Now, I am just obsessed. The text is so rich - Hollander’s scholarship as a poet is evidence in his sophisticated use of word-play and echo poetry. The unfolding story of Philomel – violated and mutilated at the hands of Tereus - is woven into a tapestry in the story, and musically over the course of this piece. Listening to the tape part in rehearsal (over and over again) – I am in awe of Babbitt’s text painting. I’m mystified at how a synthesizer programmed by paper tape (!) could produce the range of sounds, rhythms, and vocal modifications that one hears over the course of the piece. I have my work cut out for me – performing alongside a rigid (albeit perfect) second performer in the tape.

I am so grateful for the opportunity to perform Philomel at Omaha Under the Radar, and I cannot wait to hear what the other excellent performers bring!

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