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OUR Field Guide 2: A is for Access

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.

Schwantner likes sustained pitches, entrancing pulses, mystical bells, heavenly plucked

instruments, ghostly harmonics and tremolos, uncanny doublings, and repetitive

arpeggios on harmonies with a transparently regular intervallic content—thirds, for

example, whether in sweet harmonies or in strident arpeggios, are right in his

wheelhouse (call them 048 pitch class sets if you must, but in the context of this music,

they sound to me more like augmented chords). Wild Angels tends to move from one

hovering homophonic section on a definite pitch set or folk-song fragment to another.

Itʼs not averse to using dissonance as menacing dissonance. In the end, everything

vanishes upward into a wispy, overtone-like ether. Even a listener without any

knowledge of contemporary music would have no difficulty recognizing Schwantnerʼs

special effects.

In Meganʼs work as an adjunct at a nearby university and as a teacher with her own

private voice and piano studio, a piece like Wild Angels fills a gap between the music

she came to treasure in a world crowded with twenty-something graduate students and

the more sustainable networks she found in a region where there is a great need for

contemporary music, even if there isnʼt yet a great knowledge about what contemporary

music can be. Audiences who hear new music almost as film music often look for a

story; Le Guinʼs English texts loosely furnish a kind of cosmic coming-of-age narrative

making things more relatable. Parents who can afford to pay for private lessons usually

want their children to learn to “read music”; the disciplines leading to a difficult piece like

Wild Angels can already be imagined by young musicians at work in the codified studio

environment. Administrators who preside over departments devoted to music of the

nineteenth century want to know what new music has to do with anything; the harmonic

language of Wild Angels may be inflected by serialism, but it makes sense to listeners

who already feel comfortable with Debussy.

OUTR as a festival makes use of similar strategies. Events are staged in different sorts

of places at different times of day. Diverse performance practices are represented.

These have been thoughtfully paired with each other and situated in appropriate

venues. Some people might not yet be ready to attend every event, but everyone can

find something they expect will reward them personally (see the Field Guide 1). There

are a lot of access points or ins.

And yet there are many things which could be done beyond the program and the

performance and outside the studio setting to provide an even fuller sort of access. The

challenge is in helping diverse audiences feel the need not merely for “a new

experience” in general, but for the particular experiences contemporary performers are

exploring. If particular performances matter to us, itʼs because of their particular aspects

as these appear for us. Just because one of those aspects might provide people with an

“in” doesnʼt mean that theyʼll be able to share in what gives a piece the particularity we

claim matters when we program or perform it. Of course contemporary performance can

be enjoyed in diverse ways. It doesnʼt follow that every way of enjoying something

shows that thing to be part of a fuller life. People need a way in, but a way into what?

What do we do when an access point serves as nothing more than an entrance to a

woefully narrow access point? What does it mean to “expose people to the scope of

possibility” when weʼre scoping things out in unrelated or seemingly unrelated ways? If

we want to provide people with access to what we find important, we need to share

some of the varied ways we ourselves make sense of complex phenomena perceptually

and historically.

I bring this up because we can and sometimes do. Blogs, concert talks, what are

referred to in some European festivals as “debates,” program notes, and Q&A sessions

are all efficient ways of sharing background information. Childrenʼs events,

masterclasses, and workshops take more effort, but the reward is proportional. Ray told

me that he thought we needed “education” less than “communication”—new audiences

come with their own modes and bodies of knowledge, and they may have their own

opinions about the ways we make sense of the world. Iʼd like to concur. But when we

travel to OUTR, how much communication do we have outside of our closed

professional circles? I donʼt know yet; this is my first year at the festival. What I do know

is that the kind of communication Iʼm advocating for is facilitated by educational settings.

We have at our disposal many proven strategies not just for making our music

accessible, but for making it engaging. Iʼll be interested to see how consistently and

creatively those strategies are utilized in the coming week.

In large measure, providing fuller access is the responsibility of writers. But the division

of labor isnʼt of much use unless the framework is there for an exchange. By inviting me

to write about the festival and by providing me with critical feedback on materials Iʼve

drafted for this blog, Amanda has quietly shown how committed she is to providing that

sort of access. A destination conference for people in a relatively closed professional

network is important, but “uniting progressive performing arts scenes” can be about

spreading that network through a broader world. The geography of the Midwest

suggests that it should be.

OUR Field Guide 2" 4

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