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
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
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