Omaha Under the Radar 2018: New Music Meets Midwestern Sensibility

A new music festival possesses a certain Midwestern sensibility to begin with, really. Smart and terribly determined. Its heart right on its sleeve. A can-do attitude, a willingness to learn through practice, and a sense of generosity that flows right through the core of it. Omaha Under the Radar (OUTR) took place from July 25-28, 2018 with over thirty-five performers across eight venues and it is a festival that wears its Midwestern-ness well. I mean, the first line of the program reads, “Welcome to our fifth attempt at making the world microscopically better with art.” This particular festival isn’t an out-for-blood competition or beauty pageant. It’s more like a potluck that just happens to feature an abundance of hyper-skilled chefs and gratifying dishes.

A potluck is significantly better when there is someone in charge making sure that they end up with the right number of main dishes or salads. That is to say, there is a craft to curation. The festival organizers Amanda DeBoer Bartlett, Stacey Barelos, and Aubrey Byerly (along with technical and production personnel) are putting their vision as a festival right where it belongs — in the programming. This year they encouraged their audiences to “beef up their listening muscles…to listen deeply, to listen to each other, and to especially listen to those who have been silenced.”

OUTR provided audiences with an opportunity to “beef up” their listening skills with the works of two featured composers, Kate Soper and George Lewis. Soper’s Voices from the Killing Jar was an arresting moment in the festival–the work is a tour de force of different musical influences such as bel canto in the “Mad Scene: Emma Bovary” and folk in “The Owl and the Wren: Lady Macduff.” Singers Liz Pearse, Amanda DeBoer Bartlett, Grace Manley, and conductor John J. Pearse demonstrated intense presence and commitment to character and vocalism, although the performance suffered, at times, from some sound balance issues. The piece truly demands deeper listening to the voices of these female protagonists who are captive in their own various killing jars. Conversely, the intention of George Lewis’ Artificial Life isn’t demanding but rather offering and answering. Lewis’ work is an improvisation system that featured a legion of festival participants some of whom were also part of the SOUNDRY workshop. To perform Artificial Life, the participants must derive their material by listening to each other. This ethos of listening to and reacting to stimulus was an interesting through-line to follow in the festival as a whole.

Dereck Higgins and Anthony Green at KANEKO performing George Lewis

Omaha Under the Radar 2018: Dereck Higgins and Anthony Green at KANEKO performing George Lewis–Photo by Matt DeBoer

One of the most evocative examples of reacting to stimulus was provided by Femalevolent Gods. The improvisational music and sound project, A Touch of You, relies on touch from audience members to the performer to inspire the musical sounds created. Eris Koleszar introduced the piece to the audience by saying, “don’t necessarily imagine my body as a keyboard,” and “what does touch that isn’t sexual or violent look like?” Another performance that necessitated audience participation and stimulus was Jeffrey Young and Paul Pinto‘s “Patriots.” Young and Pinto collaboratively created the text, music, and staging, scoring the piece for their own voices, violin, percussion, and lots of cardboard boxes as a parody of contemporary politics and politicians. Before the performance, they solicited written questions from the audience, which they humorously and poignantly answered as part of the excerpt they presented during the festival’s final event.

There were performances that overtly and obliquely drew on themes such as racism, othering, guns, and violence. Anthony R. Green‘s performance of We Cannot Be Afraid/Kindness Recitation and RAGE by Renee C. Baker and Empathy I: Diamond Reynolds by Green floored the audience. His keen and powerful performance included text, extended vocal techniques, piano, electronic and video components. In other performances during the festival, Omaha-based spoken word artists Devel (Developing) Crisp and Olivia Johnson focused on themes of racial and gender stereotyping, partner violence, and verbal aggression with works such as Crisp’s Hip Hop’s Exorcism and Johnson’s Dumb Bitch. Both artists used pacing, skillful vocal inflection, surprise, and rhythmic development to drive home the poignancy of their poems with humor and seriousness. Crisp and Johnson’s respective sets also provided a welcome counterpoint to the musical acts with which they shared their programs.

Ian Dicke at OutrSpaces

Omaha Under the Radar 2018: Ian Dicke at OutrSpaces–Photo by Matt DeBoer

The breadth of styles and genres that were available during the festival was a particular highlight. Ian Dicke shared his song cycle for piano/vocalist and live electronic processing, Cowboy Rounds. The remixing of files in the Library of Congress John and Ruby Lomax 1939 Southern States Recording Trip field collection provided the ear with fascinating familiar as well as unusual sounds. His simply sweet singing voice often contrasted against the divergent harmonies in the piano. Soprano Bonnie Lander‘s performance of Kurt Schwitter’s Ur Sonata (“Movement 1”) provided a contrast and further exploration of the voice. Her signature ability to embody a seemingly endless supply of vocal timbres and personalities was on full display. In yet another variation of vocalism, Edem Soul Music with percussionist/multi-instrumentalist Jason Horacek, performed an expressive set to which audience members instinctively found themselves tapping their toes. Their final piece, Hewaleh, showed Edem at her most deeply engaging while singing in her native tongue, “Ga,” which originates from the Ga Tribe of Ghana, West Africa.

In addition to different vocal styles, there was much to like about the instrumental music. ∼Nois Saxophone Quartet‘s performance of Phil Taylor‘s Foursquare and Dave Reminick‘s Consort for Four Detuned Soprano Saxophones and tubist Aaron Hynds‘ performance of Lori Reckling‘s Lament gave masterclass-level demonstrations of precise articulations and glowing legatos. Amanda Sealock and Scott Shinbara‘s performances of Minoru Miki’s Time and Dave Molk‘s Glow were hypnotic.

Amanda Sealock at OutrSpaces

Omaha Under the Radar 2018: Amanda Sealock at OutrSpaces–Photo by Matt DeBoer

Omaha Under the Radar also featured multiple performers who are gifted in their use of electronic components to their compositions, performances, or improvisations. Jeff Kaiser‘s ZEITNOT II for trumpet and laptop plumbed the possibilities of jazz and classically-inspired trumpet playing augmented by the use of hardware and software. While Alexa Dexa‘s Categories for toy records and toy piano sounded as though one was listening to a whimsically pre-destined wind chime, it is actually a sequence of nightmares fascinatingly interpreted into music. Michael Wittgraf also delighted audiences with his performance of Date Night which features improvised club dance music augmented by his various tools to change the pulse and characteristic sounds such as adding a ravishing sax solo.

There’s so much more than one could possibly cover available during the course of Omaha Under the Radar. This festival is a true example of the absolute buffet of musical expressions one can experience in new and experimental music. The artists, organizers, and volunteers are intrepid and steadfast in their work though the generosity and humility remains intact. Audience members can almost imagine a voice calling out to them as they get in their cars to drive home, “did you all get enough to eat?”