OUR Field Guide 5: Making sense together
(photo by Aleksandr Karjaka)
Kat Lessor and Steph Huettner of the tbd. Dance Collective sat down with me on Vinton St. outside of Project Project on a hot Wednesday evening just before the beginning of Omaha Under the Radar. When I asked what they were looking forward to most in the festival, both remarked that in addition to the opportunity to meet potential collaborators, they were excited to hear audience interpretations of their upcoming performance at the Slowdown on Saturday, interpretations no one could forecast. This seemed fitting since they had been describing tbd.ʼs collaborative process as a sense-making process. They werenʼt looking for “the story” behind their collaborations. But they had, for example, ordered a twenty-four foot translucent parachute on Amazon, waited expectantly hoping it would work out, and discovered with glee that there were all kinds of things parachutes and dancers could do together. The dancers could don headlamps and illumine the parachute from within, play with the negative space between a floating parachute and the swinging limbs of a dancer, raise the parachute and allow viewers a glimpse of the dancers beneath it, and be birthed by the womblike fabric. The way Kat and Steph put it to me was not that they could but that they had to do these things. The parachute obliged. For me, the story they were telling was about a parachute and a dance collective. Its conclusion was that parachutes and dancers make sense together. Itʼs only fitting that both women would be delighted to find that dancers and audiences make sense together as well—not simply that they belong together, but that their encounters yield new senses or interpretations.
At noon on Thursday, as I worked on this post, a few performers and composers participated in a library talk on creativity and collaboration that I was sorry to miss. Perhaps they touched on the role of diverse sense-making activities for some of the collaborations which have helped make Omaha Under the Radar possible. Kat and Steph settled on “dreams” as a theme for their performance on Saturday because everyone dreams. Audience members could find a performance based upon dreams “relatable.” Just as importantly, each member of tbd. could work independently on a dream of their own before the group as a constructively critical team sought out the coherent threads which could be used to weave disparate pieces through an aesthetically pleasing whole. All of the pieces featured on the festival opener at Project Project on Wednesday involved contained pieces which somehow needed to be made sensible in this way.
Ray Evanoff and Kate Campbell helped me anticipate this somewhat for my previews of their performances in Field Guides 2 and 4. In Steven Kazuo Takasugiʼs Strange Autumn (2003/2004), this could mean something as simple as seating two performers close enough together on a long side of a wide table as to appear in eery union yet far enough apart that an observer could be watching the man with the amplified pages without noticing that the speaking woman has contorted her face into a silent scream. Mighty Vitamins and Screaming Plastic both put the disparate instruments undergirding their performances on display. When Phil Smith, the performerrunning the electronics for Screaming Plastic, explained his “instrument” to me, he began by talking about what each of its interconnected pieces did: a mixing board fed its outputs into its inputs; an analog/digital converter fed the mixing boardʼs final output into his laptop, where a programming language called SuperCollider allowed him to revise systems in real time; a projector received audio input from the ensemble and shone its subtly changing feedback on the performers. The groupʼs extremely high amplitude—earplugs were distributed (thank you!)—resulted in an extremely thick yet subtlychanging texture. To analyze the performance, to begin making sense of it, Phil broke his instrument down into units.
A modular logic was made explicit in Axamer Folio (2015), described by composer Eric Wubbels (b. 1980) as a “modular network of twenty-four pieces for saxophone and drumset, with no pre-set order, form, or duration.” (Wubbelsʼs notes and excerpts of his score can be seen on his website.) The piece is the result of collaborations occurring on multiple levels. Saxophonist Noa Even organized a consortium to commission the piece by sending out personalized invitations and communicating with potential members about the financial and professional obligations characterizing membership in such an organization. Mr. Wubbels communicated with consortium members to realize distinct versions of the piece suited to diverse duos. Noa, together with percussionist Stephen Klunk, then needed to decide how to put together, in ways which made sense for them, the various “solos,” “duos,” and “duos that can be separated and combined with other pieces.” The “performers trace a path,” writes Wubbels, through “an extremely diverse range of performative and notational contexts, from rigorously specified to indeterminate, graphic, and text scores; from tightly synchronized duo music to phasing loops, list structures, and free improvisation.” (The analogy with the path festival organizers traced for festivalgoers at the Joslyn on Thursday through various galleries and courtyards and across contrasting musical practices presents itself.) The folioʼs structures were more or usually less transparent, and the audience had to patiently wait for the clues they needed to make sense of the piece for themselves. The saxophone part is generally percussive, with complex riffs built out of staccato attacks, leaps across more than two octaves at a time, changing dynamics and timbres, and a wide vocabulary of multiphonics. This austere surface, together with the intense aesthetic focus encouraged by Noa and Stephenʼs placement of themselves face to face, helped clarify for listeners a laborious interlocking of rhythms. Wubbelsʼs phasing loops, in which the rhythmic counterpoint between two repeated parts changes by exactly one tiny subdivision per iteration, was among the pieceʼs most transparent effects. That transparency was important because it provided listeners with knowledge of the structure of the ensemble as Wubbels makes sense of it. The basic rule governing the loop can only be heard if the extremely complex and irregular shapes of the individuated parts appear with rhythmic definition. Rigorously interlocked rhythms can then be contrasted with more free-form, improvisatory, soloistic sections, adding definition to various modules. When Stephen began an almost ritualistic coda for superball mallets gently pulled across drumheads—entirely unlike the staccato figures and rapid scalar runs which had made up the bulk of the piece—listeners were able to round out their experience of a piece that had begun, for the composer and performers, as a smattering of disjointed modules.
Iʼve been thinking about a few of the different ways people made sense of surroundings on the first day of the festival. James Fusik and I struggled for several minutes to open the lock box on his Airbnb apartment (how many contemporary music lovers does it take to open a basic lock box?): we needed the combination, but what we really needed was to figure out where the hinge was. As we left Project Project last night, I told Noa and Stephen that I had tried to think of the warmer venue as a massive sweat lodge where festivalgoers bonded as their evaporated bodily fluids mingled. Noa told me that was a good way to think about it. Not wanting to seem more virtuous than I am, I confessed that I hadnʼt always succeeded in seeing it that way. Things donʼt always work well together: there were at least a couple enthusiastic audience members at Project Project who felt they couldnʼt stand the heat; weʼre all hoping theyʼll be back to bask in the cool glow of some of the mightier institutions hosting other events. But if circumstances donʼt always work well together for everyone, they might still take shape as part of intelligent sense-making activities. Opening at Project Project allowed us to meet in a tight, intense space on one of the most distant reaches of the festival grounds. It allowed us to reach into a scene that is far away from downtown institutions for concrete reasons. One of the reasons why a festival like OUTR is important is that it gives people more and more to work with. Amanda DeBoer Bartlett, director of OUTR, joked in her introductory remarks that you should decide for yourself what “contemporary performance” means and then rigorously stick to that definition throughout the performance, just to see if it works. It was a comic suggestion in that the observer who tries to stick to their guns in this festival is going to feel pretty ridiculous. It was a serious suggestion because none of us can help but make sense of the world by reference to our own bodies of knowledge. Kat and Steph told me that their collectiveʼs process often involved this kind of transition from the funny to the serious: they laugh at the whimsy of an experiment and then labor to revise its results into an experience which will leave observers with a mystery they can consider for themselves. Whether youʼve seen all or any of the first half of the festival or not, youʼll be approaching any upcoming event with an open mind, but not with a blank slate. One way of looking at the festivalʼs events is not as bounded, self-contained works, but as pieces of a puzzle. The more pieces of OUTR you have, the more youʼre going to be able to put them together in a way which makes sense for you.