How did Omaha Under the Radar get started and who all is involved behind the scenes?
After graduating from BGSU, I moved back to Omaha to be with my husband, who has a job here. I had organized a couple festival-like events before Omaha Under the Radar that were basically beta OUTR, so I had a little bit of experience before I decided to move operations here. What I learned from my previous events is that it is infinitely easier and more meaningful (for me, at least) to organize this event in the city where I live and have roots.
The organizing team is really the heart of this event. All three of us are from Omaha, so we’re very much pretty tied to this place and have a stake in contributing to the cultural landscape. In general, we’re all equally in charge of programming and managing applications, venue selection and artistic direction.
Stacey Barelos is a composer and pianist who grew up and currently lives in Omaha. She runs our outreach and education branch, including SOUNDRY Workshop, she manages rehearsals and logistics for our large ensemble pieces, and is developing our new, year-round concert series presented by KANEKO.
Aubrey Byerly is a composer and bassoonist based in California. She spent her childhood in Omaha and returns every year for the festival. She runs financials and does a lot of contracting and personnel logistics, and is also helping with programming for our concert series at KANEKO.
What would you say is the primary goal of this festival, and what are some things you would like to plan for future festivals?
I could quote our mission statement...but basically, we want to present artists who are taking risks and challenging the status quo (both their own and others’), and who are seeking deep connection with the people and communities around them. We want to be an inviting presence in the Midwest that encourages audiences to think deeply about art and form strong opinions about this work. We want to be eclectic, and to create complex programs that offer divergent experiences within a single event. Basically, we want to challenge people and bring people together! And we want to be challenged! The best moments are when we, the organizers, are completely taken aback and surprised by an artist. I mean, we planned it, we should be ready for it all, but we never are!
Long-winded questions here, but as a composer (and former OUR festival attendee), I’ve always loved that Omaha seems to be focused more toward the performative/performance related aspects of the music. For example, conferences like SCI, the BGSU New Music Festival, June In Buffalo, the ACF Festival of Contemporary Music, etc. are all very composer-centric. Composers submit pieces or are invited to attend, the concerts are organized around presenting the composers’ music, there is often a featured composer, the list goes on. Omaha seems to take a different approach and asks artists (of all kinds) to submit projects or full 30-minute sets of music, sometimes by various composers or a single composer. The focus is shifted to make the performer as important as the composer. Is there a reason you took this approach to programming and curating?
I think we originally conceived of it more as a “fringe” like festival, so those are really geared toward the performer. Every year, however, composers and creators who are not performing do attend, which is fantastic. We love that.
The events you mention are “conferences” in my mind, and are really geared toward helping the people attending to learn new skills or research, network and build their resume. There is plenty of that happening at Omaha Under the Radar, but the primary focus is getting these artists in front of Omaha audiences and building connections between audience and artist. If artists network with each other, that’s great! But the public performance side of this is the most essential element.
I have found, in attending and participating in plenty of conference situations, that I have definitely enjoyed them and benefited greatly from them, but that they often feel pretty disconnected from the cities and communities where they are held. We try to integrate the event into the city as much as possible, and for us, that’s all about building the local audience.
Every year I’ve attended OUR it seems the festival grows and spreads across the city with more events and more venues. Is that trend continuing this year?
We actually cut back a little! Our most common critique is that people didn’t like that events overlapped in the schedule. They didn’t want to have to choose between acts. We didn’t want to add a day to the schedule, so we cut a couple events. We went from about 40 acts to about 30, and we spaced things out a little more. Honestly, it’s for the best. By the time you watch that many performances, your brain is totally fried! If we had it in us, we would cut it down to 20 acts and be even more selective, but we just love these artists so damn much. It’s heart-wrenching having to turn people away every year. I wish we could accept 100 artists! So no, we aren’t expanding, but we are becoming more and more selective every year.
Is there any kind of theme to this year’s festival?
Not really. We don’t want to impose that strong of a curatorial presence. All of the artists have complete control over their individual programs, and we want to keep it that way. We basically just tell them how long their set is, and then let them to it. We obviously have to choose which artists to put together on which events, and that often comes down to schedules, tech, logistics, boring stuff.
Will there be any large or special events for this year’s festival?
Yup! We’re presenting “Eight Songs for a Mad King” by Peter Maxwell Davies. John Pearse is singing the role of King George III, and we have an ensemble of fantastic musicians filling out the ensemble. I can’t wait for this one. It’s our first time hiring a costumer/designer and stage director, and it’s going to be bonkers.
So much time, effort and money goes into planning an event like Omaha Under the Radar. What do you find to be the most rewarding takeaway from organizing an event like this?
Dang. So much. Seeing audiences return year after year, and watching them become more critical, discerning, and inspired at each festival. The fact that my mom is developing strong opinions about contemporary performance work. Seeing the national network of contemporary performers come together in my hometown. Hearing from Omaha artists that this festival inspired them to start a project or group, encouraged them to take a risk, or helped them take themselves seriously as an artist...it’s actually pretty overwhelming and I’m tearing up writing this. Sorry not sorry.
Will any portion of the festival be live-streamed so that people who can’t attend the festival in person can at least see some portion of it?
Hmm...maybe...I’ll get back to you!
And if there is anything else you would like to say about the festival, its history, what can be expected this year, etc. please feel free to share.
There is a massive amount of love put into this festival, for the artists, for Omaha, and for this work. Thanks to everyone who supports us, both at the festival and from afar! And major love to anyone who is doing similar work in parallel, non-coastal locations <3
For more information about the Omaha Under the Radar festival, checkout their website and Facebook page for this year's festival.
Below is a video compilation of last year's festival (video by Philip Kolbo), as well as some images from previous festivals (all photography by Karjaka Studios).