Omaha Under the Radar Field Guide 1
“Omaha Under the Radar” appears as a paradox: it invokes the figure of the artist as outsider (“under the radar”), yet claims the festival as our own—OU(T)R, “ourfestival.” It
names the problem performers and audiences confront today. The fact that the music, dance, and performance art on the festivalʼs program appears under the radar is proof
positive thereʼs something wrong with the radar. A hundred and fifty years ago it might have been enough to enjoy being the outsider, the rebel reveling in art as underworld.
That time has passed, and the festivalʼs website makes this explicit: OUTR is about “uniting progressive performing arts scenes,” making a field of new and disparate experiments contemporary, of our time. That sort of union happens when performers and audiences pick each other up on diverse radars. And that can only happen when each of us finds ways of mapping pathways through varied experiments.
Since 2014, the Gateway to the West has been taking shape each summer as a
gateway to a cartography audiences have been learning to map together. Whether
youʼre an artist traveling to one site in a cosmopolitan network, an inquisitive
suburbanite driving into town for some fun recreation and an opportunity to learn more
about the world of performance today, or someone else altogether, we can all look
forward to learning something new. For that reason alone, I canʼt hope to provide your
map to OUTR. But between my posts and your feedback, I hope we can produce a
guide to this yearʼs field.
Toward that end, I want to begin with a loose summary of the festivalʼs nine main
events. None of us will be able to see everything—two events overlap. Some of you
might be wavering about taking the plunge on even one show. The festivalʼs lineup is
immensely diverse. More information is available on the website, Iʼll be fleshing things
out in greater detail as the days go by, and everyone is welcome to comment on my
posts. But if youʼre diving in cold, this first post might give you an overview of the varied
flavors on display.
Before I begin, I have to thank Amanda DeBoer Bartlett for helping me set up this blog
and for her many insights into the festival and its grounds. Thanks, Amanda!
1 A fun and intimate opener (Project Project, Wednesday, July 6, 7:30 pm)
Opening night looks to be an evening of small ensembles in Project Project, a DIY arts
space and the southernmost post of the festivalʼs grounds. Doses of American popular
music will furnish plenty of saxophone, percussion, and signs of life after blues for
listeners new to new music to grab hold of. But that thoroughgoing, familiar
undercurrent will be filtered, sometimes beyond recognition, through a variety of
experiments in form and instrumentation. I donʼt know whatʼs going to happen. Ambient
music, dance, and flashes of jazz and film music are likely to make appearances. The
concert will be heavier on music than some of the festival, but if KATESʼs performance
in 2015 is any indication, we can expect to see some dramatic and game-like
2 Button down at the art museum (Joslyn Art Museum, Thursday, July 7th, 5:00 pm)
When we reconvene on Thursday, things will be less “poppy” and more “classical,” with
lots of new compositions, including at least one world premiere. The instrumentation will
look more like what youʼd see at a chamber music or orchestra concert—bassoon,
clarinet, flute, harp, piano, voice. There will probably be more scores and less
improvisation. That means listeners wonʼt be able to grab hold of a familiar “mood” as
easily, but it will also allow for some delicate intricacies between players and some
difficult, laboriously prepared passages for soloists. There should be a fair amount of
song. Parts of the evening will be raucous, but I expect a lot of it will be haunting and
pretty. You might find yourself better prepared if you show up early to see the exhibit of
works by Sheila Hicks (b. 1934), an artist famous for her textiles, wallhangings, and
sculptures. Amanda writes that the Joslyn Art Museum is “the friendliest of all the
venues” featured in this yearʼs festival. Admission is free, and performances will be
scattered throughout the museum campus.
3 Let loose at the House of Loom (House of Loom, Thursday, July 7th, 7:30 pm)
If Thursday afternoon offers the friendliest venue, Thursday evening might offer the
most welcoming. A nightclub known for its theme dance nights and LGBT events, the
House of Loom should provide a good counterpoint to the button-down Joslyn.
Electronic music is the name of the game, but it will be played in varied ways productive
of extremely abstract sound sculptures, four-on-the-floor, syncopated, danceable
grooves, and a lot in between. On the more conceptual side of the evening, weʼll be
thinking about our relationship to “technology.” Also, cocktails.
4—5 Tough decisions (KANEKO and Bemis Center for Contemporary Art, Friday, July
8th, 6:00 pm)
Your choice between two very different events on Friday night will have to be made for
personal reasons because thereʼs no good reason for missing either one. Each show
has a definite character, so you can at least know something about what to expect.
The show at KANEKO will be focused on music. More specifically, the program
highlights a composerly practice which uses orchestral instruments, including piano and
plucked instruments, played in sometimes unconventional ways to produce sound as a
timbral, malleable fabric. Listeners will hear a lot of whatʼs to be heard in the range
between transparent polyphony and thick, grating blocks of sound. The program will
include works by two giants in contemporary music, Helmut Lachenmann (b. 1935) and
Annie Gosfield (b. 1960). These works will provide important landmarks as you try to
map new works against the background of contemporary performance. If youʼre going to
OUTR mainly because you want to better understand the ever expanding universe of
contemporary music, Iʼd recommend that you not miss this show.
But thatʼs a tough recommendation to make, because at the same time at the Bemis
Center for Contemporary Art, a very different field of the universal context of
contemporary performance will be under construction. The audience there can expect to
see performers using light, sound, theater, and video to grapple with ethical riddles,
problems, and puzzles. Where the show at KANEKO will focus on serene and
tempestuous experiences of sound as a sensational material, this one will try to cover
more of the mind-body continuum by explicitly asking us to relate diverse sense
experiences to abstract ideas.
6 Reconvene with soloists (Milk Run, Friday, July 8th, 8:00 pm)
The show at Milk Run is devoted to soloists in a very small space. As Amanda points
out, you can expect a “shredding event.” Ensemble pieces usually depend upon highly
controlled relationships between parts; if nothing else, they require restraint on the part
of each player if everything is going to come through. Solos can be introspective, but
usually only on their way to being fast and loose. Think Franz Liszt or Jimi Hendrix.
Think home alone with your stereo but with forty other people and way more bodily
fluids funneled through all manner of electric gadgetry. Rockstar lost in a storage closet
at Circuit City without a backbeat.
7–8 Bring the whole family (KANEKO, Saturday, July 9th, 12:00–3:00 and 3:00)
After a wild night at Milk Run, weʼll return to KANEKOʼs sunny, air-conditioned spaces
for one of the most varied events in the festival. This one will be excellent for the whole
family, and a similar event last year sold out, so donʼt dawdle. The event breaks down
into two programs.
The program on the first floor is free and lasts from 12:00–3:00. Itʼs an exceptionally
varied program, with dance for soloists and for groups, new chamber music, storytelling,
and a sound installation involving bell-like, amplified singing bowls. The event is sure to
be as sunny as the space: there will be a lot of ways into it.
The second program starts in the main Bowtruss at 3:00 and features a performance of
Steve Reichʼs Drumming (1970–1971), written after the composerʼs studies under an
Anlo Ewe master drummer in Ghana. In any given moment, this classic “minimalist”
piece sounds like little more than fast, staccato metrical patterns performed variously by
womenʼs voices, drums, marimbas, glockenspiels, and a piccolo. The point of interest
lies in the continuous variation of the rhythms and ensemble textures. This variation is
effected in two ways: first, by cumulative alterations in sequential iterations of the
patterns—an attack where a rest used to be, for example—and second, by Reichʼs
signature technique, “phasing,” whereby two players playing the same pattern produce
new composite patterns by moving at minutely different tempos. The effect is serene
and repetitive yet constantly fresh. People often say it sounds like a mobile glistening in
the sun. Drumming is an old standby and a welcoming piece for anyone looking for an
enjoyable landmark in their map of contemporary music.
9 Under the big top (Slowdown, Saturday, July 9th, 7:30pm)
The festivalʼs grand finale in the big rock venue Slowdown will be grand indeed, grander
still if you come to it ready to revisit your fresh memories of a wildly varied festival.
There will be ambient sounds, dance, ensemble work, lights, projections, and solo work.
The intoxicating evening concludes with a rendition of another landmark of
contemporary music, this one led by a bassoon ensemble. Les Moutons de Panurge
(1968) by Frederic Rzewski (b. 1938) is one of several works from the sixties and
seventies written for any number and combination of instruments. It works like a game
of follow the flock structured by an angular, modal, metrically irregular melody played in
monophonic fragments, each fragment comprising a slightly different portion of the
complete melody, with plenty of room for sheep who get lost. The piece as a whole
laboriously transitions from a sinister minor to a resplendent major mode and then
concludes with a cacophonous ensemble improvisation—things donʼt end well for the
friends of Panurgeʼs sheep. “Nonmusicians” are invited to join in. “Suggested theme for
nonmusicians,” Rzewski writes: “The left hand doesnʼt know what the right is doing.”
Expect a carnival atmosphere throughout.