Image: Michael Lewanski rehearsing in Omaha. Photo by Aleksandr Karjaka.
This past Wednesday, since it was the relatively calm day before the Omaha Under the Radar festival actually began, I went for a bike ride in Bellevue, Nebraska. Living in Chicago for the past 10 years, I am a very avid biker, probably out of a sense of a maniacal desperation to enjoy the few months there that have weather tolerable for a transplanted southerner. Looking at my GPS at the end of my ride, I saw that I had gone 30-ish miles; but I could not have told you that based on my own intuition. Moving past endless rows of cornfields on the Keystone Trail, the only punctuation mark being what had or had not been plowed, I had no sense of how far I had gone. This is certainly never the case in Chicago, where everything feels endlessly landmarked; and while it is unquestionably beautiful on a nice day, and the Lake Shore Trail a marvel of civil engineering; and while it affords one a very a particular experience of the richness a large city has to offer, there is never a sense of fluidity between oneself and the landscape. That sense is inescapable in a cornfield in Nebraska. Many of the other Chicago dwellers I’ve spoken to here in Omaha have (independently of each other) remarked on the bigness of the sky, and I don’t think that’s a coincidence.
I’m not going to talk about Romantic-era landscapes, Caspar David Friedrich, the sublime, the sensation of one’s own mortality, etc. That was not the feeling I had. Nor will I present a precious, purple vision of a rural location unstained by the big city civilization’s corruption. That would be reductive and fictitious. And in any case, mainly what I experienced was my own smallness and insignificance. What did strike me though, zipping along on my Giant Escape, listening to Beethoven Op. 95, early works by Muhal Richard Abrams, Chaya Czernowin’s The Quiet, was a sense of possibility. You might view the furiously arranged rows of cornfields as confining; one of an infinity of ways that capitalism attempts to dominate nature. For every ordered line, though, I see a growing plant; while there are many things you can do to try to control that, the plant still grows. And in the end, who knows what’s going to happen to that cornfield. A slightly eccentric artist listening to European/Israeli/American music from multiple centuries in it is certainly among the mildest of possibilities.
Thursday at noon, we rehearsed John Zorn’s Cobra with a truly unlikely collection of instruments and players that actually (not in mere lip service) was representative of both coasts of the US as well as its various middles. As for the work itself -- Cobra is an open-instrumentation piece that doesn’t merely thematize possibility, but insists on it, by making the players and prompter (not “conductor”) react to each other in real time and try to win a hard-to-define-and-completely-rewardless game. Before that, we had done the Berio Folk Songs with some combination of musicians from Ensemble Dal Niente, Quince Contemporary Vocal Ensemble, and the University of Nebraska Omaha’s Ensemble 768 (run by the tirelessly energetic Christine Beard) -- a collection of musicians that have never come together in the history of the universe. And speaking of coming together; after Berio we rehearsed Rzewski’s Coming Together -- musically, nothing but 5 pitch classes successively recombined in ways you continually realize you could not have imagined as they go past. All is possibility.
There’s way more possibility where that came from, and I promise I’m not making up any of what follows: Wednesday night, there was a party at Commonwealth Studio, a recording venue transformed from its origins as a pet project for rich kid into a state-of-the-art space serving Omaha’s musical community. Thursday night (afternoon? evening?) saw performances at the Joslyn Art Museum (what it sounds like), Bancroft Street Market (“a do it yourself venue for art exhibitions, specialty markets, music, performance and bicycle rides”), and House of Loom (a bar/live music venue). Nothing felt out of place; everything was perfectly at home in its environment. Quince Vocal Ensemble (each of whose members lives in a different American city) performed music on an ancient Christian text by a living French composer in a fountain court, itself an American revision of a European model. Liz Pearse gave as committed a performance of Milton Babbitt’s thorny, serialized Philomel as you’ll ever see; the work is one in which the narrative subject gradually gains the power of self-expression. Three players of the University of Nebraska Omaha’s Xylotheque absolutely threw down with unhinged commitment on Mauricio Kagel’s Dressur, in which everything is viewed as a percussion instrument -- furniture, shoes, the players’ bodies, the very interactions of the players themselves. Ellen McSweeney and Sam Scranton performed a new collaborative piece of theirs in which repetitions and rituals of various kinds -- contemporary, religious, musical, electronic -- are presented in a work that feels possible only as the result of their particular and uniquely wonderful personalities and sets of experiences. I probably saw 4 hours of music and probably missed at least 2; Jesse Langen and I had to, like, eat at some point. The only limit on possibility was, say, metabolic necessity.
Having been born and raised in Savannah, Georgia, a town with certain analogous characteristics to Omaha, I am, perhaps, predisposed to brizzle at the straw man that we will all hastily admit is exaggerated -- that something called “culture” is possible only in large urban centers. But it’s not simply that this straw man isn’t true. It’s that it presupposes a definition of culture that we don’t have to accept, and a mode of reception with which we don’t have to accord. Omaha Under the Radar so far has helped me see, on a multiplicity of levels, just how many others are possible.