Part of what makes Omaha Under the Radar seem distinctly Midwestern is a
preoccupation with making contemporary performance accessible to a diverse
audience. People in the United States who work with contemporary performance
outside of major metropolitan centers like the Bay Area, Chicago, and New York find
themselves without an established audience already in town. When I lived in New York,
performers lamented that they performed mainly for other performers. And yet their
venues were often packed to capacity. They needed larger audiences less than more
diverse audiences. The calculus seems to change somewhat as the population of your
city dips below the half-million mark.
Under closer examination, however, the problem seems like one of ethical life rather
than population. More than one of the participants Iʼve interviewed report that theyʼve
chosen to establish a home base in smaller cities because of life circumstances which
go beyond their work as performers. “I live in New Orleans because my wife is from
there, the food is great, and itʼs an awesome place,” explains Ray Evanoff of FOCI
(pronounced FO-SEE). Megan Ihnen of the Seen/Heard Trio says she moved to Des
Moines because it offered her family, a “robust network of actual friends,” and
“sustainability.” Both musicians referred to something like what Ray calls an “underlying
ethos of more than just sound” as they drew connections between their own projects
and that of Amanda DeBoer Bartlett, the chief organizer of OUTR and the object of their
great affection and admiration. What I hear them describing is an ethos which feels the
need to weave professional life through a more rounded life.
Smaller cities seem conducive to the development of that sort of ethos. Amanda,
Megan, and Ray are cosmopolitan, regularly touring artists and vital contributors to
music scenes in major metropolitan centers. Theyʼre used to traveling thousands of
miles every year. When Ray curates a concert in New Orleans, he invites someone from the professional network he developed far outside of Louisiana. If the cities where these artists have set up shop are smaller, thatʼs not a problem. Theyʼve moved to those cities because they present opportunities. Ray points out that OUTR would be an
extraordinary festival presenting enormous logistical hurdles anywhere in the world. Itʼs
not surprising that it appears in a smaller city where thereʼs a greater need for
contemporary performance and where local individuals and institutions are more eager
to sign on for something that wonʼt happen at all otherwise. In smaller cities, the dream
is that something new can be planted in a thick soil. “New Orleans has an eccentricity,”
Ray explains. “People are interested in a new experience, being exposed to something.”
Residents of Omaha and many other medium-sized cities throughout the United States
would report similar conditions.
The openness of the uninitiated is a boon to people who are already deeply rooted in
professional networks. Megan tells an anecdote about a famous New York performer
who reported feeling firmly established in her New York circles until she took a trip
outside of the city. (You probably remember that the distant land where Frank and
Estelle Costanza live is Astoria.) She was alarmed to find that great artists outside of
what turned out to be her relatively parochial circles didnʼt recognize her. As a
consequence, she was no longer sure who she was. This isnʼt to discount the
importance of New York to that famous performer, to Amanda, Megan, and Ray, and
indeed to all of the participants in OUTR. Itʼs to point out that performers who commit to
a base for themselves in a geography like the Midwest have an opportunity to feel a
need that was there all along. Providing access to people outside of our closed
professional circles can be about finding an audience, but it often seems to be more
about finding ourselves.
For both Megan and Ray, access begins with the shape of a program and performance.
Ray talked about programming a thirty-minute set for Project Project on Wednesday
around an abstract, “apocalyptic” piece for speaker and percussionist by his friend, the
composer Steve Takasugi. The score came to Ray and his collaborator Mabel Kwan
with Amazon links to a particular notebook and a particular photo album. As a speaker
reads a text, the percussionist turns pages, bows them, and rubs them together in front
of a microphone connected to an amplifier. Partially inspired by a Japanese tea
ceremony, Ray says that the pieceʼs ritualistic aspects seem larger than life. If the
sound of pages being turned isnʼt the most interesting thing for some listeners, the
theatrical dimensions of the performance might be. The piece has more than one “in,”
as Ray puts it.
This logic of the “in” operates at the level of the complete program as well. To Takasugiʼs composition, Ray added a short toy piano piece—inherently visual in its appeal, he points out—and a series of keyboard pieces heʼs written for Ms. Kwan. All three pieces feature what he calls an “atypical musical component.” He prefers this sort of abstract theme to any kind of “sonic similarity” between pieces because it allows him to reach across fields. Rather than giving people only a “narrow bandwidth” of contemporary performance, he aims to “expose people to the scope of possibility.” If someone doesnʼt like one piece, they might find an “in” somewhere else.
Where Ray speaks of “ins,” Megan speaks of “access points for an audience.” The
name of the Seen/Heard Trio refers to the ensembleʼs efforts to provide both visual and
audile access. Theyʼll be coordinating their performance on Thursday at the Joslyn with
Nic Lovan, a recent high school graduate and a Des Moines mime, in part because his
visual movements can provide one more access point.
The trioʼs selected piece— a song cycle by the the Pulitzer Prize winning composer
Joseph Schwantner (b. 1943) on poetry by the fantasy and science fiction author Ursula
K. Le Guin (b. 1929) entitled Wild Angels of the Open Hills (1977–1980)—has many
musical access points. Schwantnerʼs voice is at home in Le Guinʼs fantastical poetry.
Wild Angels belongs to a relatively small repertoire for soprano, flute, and harp, and the
performers will be busy as well with auxiliary instruments—glass crystals, suspended
triangle, tambourine, wind chimes, Japanese wind chimes (tubular bells), and crotales.