“Raise your hand if that was the weirdest thing you’ve seen tonight,” requested festival director Amanda DeBoer Bartlett, following a four-song set from flutist Shanna Gutierrez and guitarist Jesse Langen. They’d just played a set of purposefully disjointed music that borrowed from obscure influences, such as ‘80s Asian cinema scores.
Like many of the artists at the inaugural event, Chicago performers Gutierrez and Langen came to the festival with classically-trained backgrounds and a passion for experimental and contemporary compositions.
After only three out of the nearly 45 people raised their hand for Bartlett, the audience was told to prepare to dive into even more strange music as the night progressed. Omaha Under the Radar kicked off with a free festival inauguration at the Joslyn Art Museum last Thursday, and held its next two events on Friday at the Bancroft Street Market and House of Loom.
The mission for the four-day event was to create a desire for the development of unique performances and the fine arts in Nebraska, particularly those of experimental and avant-garde genres. Performances took place at multiple venues in Omaha and featured both national and local artists. Though some of the same artists played in musical projects at both venues, the atmospheres, between the themed “Salty and Sweet Mix” show at Bancroft and “A Night for Adventure & Imagination” show at the House of Loom, varied greatly.
The Bancroft Street Market, with its white walls, hardwood floors and minimalist style, played like a museum art exhibit. People theorized and discussed the music in between sets and listened intently during performances. The first two sets were categorized as “Classical Music Plugged In.” They warped and distorted classical vocal and instrumental selections using electronics. Hannah Mayer and Vicki Olson began the category with bending cello and vocal music. Soprano Liz Pearse and electro-acoustic composer Jon Fielder played next as they created echoing and eerie songs, using Pearse’s voice and Fielder’s electronic software. Their four songs also incorporated other distorted sounds, such as processed bird noises, children’s voices and choruses of human voices that arrived as chaotic whispers.
Next came the “Open Form Music” section that included the Gutierrez and Langen duo and James Fusik, an experimental saxophonist who played music on a minor, microtonal scale and incorporated an outfit made of Indian bells into his performance.
Fredrick Gifford, a composer of numerous songs played by artists at Omaha Under the Radar, was in attendance at the festival and introduced the world premiere of the song “Mobile 2014,” which he had specifically given to Fusik. As Fusik played on at Bancroft Street, the show at the House of Loom began. Trombonist Weston Olencki began with the song “FITTINGinSIDE” and was followed by flutist, Leanna Keith.
Keith, an Omaha musician and founder of UNO’s first modern music ensemble, used her instrument to deconstruct sounds found in popular music and everyday life, including beat-boxing and trains.
The warm environment inside the House of Loom gave way to a relaxed feel, as audience members consumed mixed drinks and mingled with artists between sets. In addition to using instruments and voice to convey experimental sounds, performers at the House of Loom also used incorporated visuals into their sets.
During a set by Pesedjet, a Chicago-based group that included Langen and vocalist Carrie Henneman Shaw keyboardist Mabel Kwan played the solo song “Piano Hero #1” that used the keys on her keyboard to trigger crashing sounds and video from a projection off to her side.
The first full-night of performances for the festival’s debut was purposefully strange and thought-provoking. Performances, such as the one that included Fusik’s jingling outfit and high-pitched sax, combined their seemingly alien concept with an impressive grasp on the traditional instruments at hand. Though non-traditional and oftentimes aurally challenging, artists at the festival played with such conviction that concentration was earned.
The wide variety of music seen and heard at Friday’s shows promised a weekend of weird ahead and set up the audience for the Saturday and concluding Sunday performances.
More photos from Omaha Under The Radar by Randy Edwards
Carrie Henneman Shaw