Tag Archives: aetherplough

Required Listening

June 11, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

For years, Chelsea Balzer and Matt Walker ran in the same circles, but somehow didn’t cross paths until Balzer joined the art performance group aetherplough in 2010 and was suddenly thrust into a musical relationship with Walker. Their undeniable compatibility was too much to ignore, and the duo soon formed their own outfit—Vital Organs—a band that fosters Walker’s unquenchable thirst for bold melodies and cinematic qualities, but is danceable at the same time. 

“Back in the day, I was exclusively into hard rock music,” Walker says. “In recent years, I had been dying to write something that made me want to dance.”

Balzer, on the other hand, gravitated toward country artists like Reba McEntire and early LeAnn Rimes because of her father, a loyal country music fan. 

“I would perform for our neighbors and their friends, which I think helped me develop that frontwoman identity from early on,” Balzer says. “But once I hit middle school, I was pretty into Alanis Morissette and Fiona Apple, and then soon after I got into stuff like Nine Inch Nails, P.J. Harvey, and The Cure. I’ve always loved vocalists who are brave and provocative—from Christina Aguilera to Zach de la Rocha.” 

Fortunately, Vital Organs isn’t their first endeavor, as aetherplough thoroughly prepared them for what they would do in the future. The collective was built on collaborative creativity and taught them how to compromise.

“It always felt a little like we had no idea what we were doing at the beginning of a project,” Walker says. “As more people threw in their ideas and questions, it would start to take on a life of its own, and suddenly you’re rehearsing a full piece that you all helped bring into being. It was magical.

“I would say our whole philosophy for creating and collaborating is informed by that experience,” he continues. “aetherplough taught us to say, ‘Yes,’ to go all in, to be flexible, and also to listen to each other in a dasdrtist, and I’m so grateful to have been encouraged to play and explore in that community.”

“I personally feel that it taught me to think of all art and performance as ritual that has the power to change its players,” Balzer adds. 

Officially established in 2015, Vital Organs dove right in and pulled from Omaha’s rich musical community, including Make Believe Recordings’ CEO/engineer Rick Carson. The Grammy Award-nominated producer worked on the group’s debut album, The Hysterical Hunger, a decision they didn’t hesitate to make once they fully realized Carson’s “rare combination of expertise, intuition, and top-notch gear.” The album itself gave Balzer and Walker opportunities to explore feminist ideals and the theme of honoring inner desires. 

“We were both going through some real loss, and we needed to rediscover some kind of inner guidance toward true north,” Balzer explains. “For us, that feels like a hunger. We liked the idea of reclaiming the word ‘hysteria,’ which has previously been used as a weapon against women and as a form of gaslighting, but ultimately implies that emotion itself is untrustworthy and that giving yourself over to an experience is dangerous and even insane. We feel that this message is really prevalent in society today and continues to cause harm. We wanted the album to be a way of proclaiming to ourselves and others that we are taking the leap and giving in to that hunger.” 

Drawn to synthesizers and soaring melodies, Vital Organs is actively honing in on its distinctive sound. However, they’re admittedly still trying to figure out how to navigate the rough waters as an indie band. 

“It’s a lot of work and also a lot of head-scratching,” Walker says. “We have been both discouraged and really honored by the process of getting our work ‘out there.’ Some aspects of it are much harder than we anticipated, and yet there are these people who seem to appear from thin air and develop this relationship with your music, and really want to help you succeed. That has been a beautiful experience.”

Vital Organs plans on hitting the road this summer, despite Balzer being in grad school in Boston and Walker busy working at Omaha Children’s Museum. They managed to carve out a few weeks to play some new cities and share the bill with other bands. 

“We know that the music will always mean something different to us than it means to others,” Walker says. “Every song reflects a time in our lives and a message we felt we needed to express. At the same time, we hear the songs and sort of forget that we wrote them. There is a kind of energetic release that comes from finishing songs and letting them exist in the world. It feels simultaneously intimate and mysterious.” 

facebook.com/vitalorgansband

This article was printed in the May/June 2017 edition of Encounter.

 

The Allegorical April Faith-Slaker

December 18, 2015 by
Photography by Amy Lynn Straub

Classically trained cellist April Faith-Slaker is a composer and multi-instrumentalist. In fact, one could simply call her multi. She has played locally and internationally with various orchestras, performance groups, and rock bands. Andy Miles of Chicago music and art shop Transistor recently asked her to contribute a composition to their webcast. She’s worked with Omaha’s contemporary performance group Aetherplough since 2010, and by day, she is a lawyer and a data scientist who analyzes research to inform social policy in the legal world.

Rather than compartmentalize these seemingly disparate aspects of her personality, Faith-Slaker found a way to bring all of herself to bear on a challenging project: translating social data into music.

“I’d seen someone doing it with weather data,” Faith-Slaker says. “That planted the seed.”

The concept of making music from data is not new. Former LCD Soundsystem frontman James Murphy once worked with IBM to translate tennis data into music. But that was tennis.

With her demonstrable passion for the human side of data—she has advanced degrees in law, research methods, and social policy—Faith-Slaker set her sights higher than racquet sports.

“I started poking around the Internet and couldn’t find anyone that had done it with social data, specifically,” she says. “I was curious about what that process would look like.”

The result of her data music composition is by turns ominous and dissonant, lyrical and shimmering—giving aesthetic weight to statistical trends in child immigration, gun violence in Nebraska, access to justice, gender inequality, and housing segregation.

She didn’t need help from IBM either. She calculated the shape of the music based on her own insights. For instance, according to slides from a presentation she gave at the annual experimental performance festival Omaha Under the Radar, Faith-Slaker calculated pitch and rhythm using 2013-2014 Nebraska gun violence victims’ life expectancies, ages, genders, and date of death. It was a haunting way to visualize a horrific issue.

“Right now I’m looking for the next step with the data music project,” Faith-Slaker says. “Some people feel I should present this information back to either the community I got the data from, or to people who can actually do something with it in terms of policy. I’m seeing if there’s any way to push it out in a more meaningful way.”

The music and presentation slides from the data music project can be experienced at vimeo.com/ datacompositions.

Faith-Slaker’s “non-data” solo music is more rhythmic than algorithmic. For these compositions, she involves an electric cello and a looper pedal, a type of electronic effects box that lets her build a polyphonic composition from a single instrument. She records a snippet of music, loops it in the background, and layers more sounds and passages or subtracts them, all while accompanying herself in real time like someone unbound by the laws of the universe.

The resulting compositions are stunning, exuberant, lyrical, and hypnotically recursive.

Listen to her via her Soundcloud page at soundcloud.com/aprilfs

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Hitting the High Cs

October 25, 2013 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann, Aetherplough, and Scott Bookman

The winter solstice seems the ideal date for a mittens-and-music caroling party. However, when the Aethertones gather for a performance in the Old Market Passageway on December 21st, expect a decidedly “anti-caroling” caroling event.

The musical ensemble is an offshoot of the performance company Aetherplough and, like a certain team of eight tiny reindeer, they do their thing for only one magical evening each year. At press time, this year’s playlist was still double-super-secret, but the repertoire from previous Contemporary Caroling gigs—this will be the sixth annual event—sports such eclectic oddities as a campy homage to Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance,” an appropriately raspy rendition of Tom Waits’ “I Don’t Wanna Grow Up,” and a humorously cloying version of Katy Perry’s sugar-coated “Firework.”

“It’s about the simple joy of singing on the longest, darkest night of the year,” says Aetherplough co-founder Susann Suprenant, who recently retired as Dean of Communications and Humanities at Metro Community College. It’s also Aetherplough’s way of perhaps countering prevailing culture. “Our intent is building community through singing,” she adds before pointing to the “potentially crass, commercialized music piped incessantly throughout the holidays.”

The Aethertones’ formula is a simple one. The program is secular. The voices are a cappella. Sometimes they toss in an acoustic guitar.

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“Contemporary caroling is a reboot of the traditional folk form,” says Thom Sibbitt. He’s the education coordinator at The Kent Bellows Studio and Center for Visual Art who, along with Suprenant, founded Aetherplough. “People have always come together to sing. It’s something that’s just natural, something we’re drawn to. Communal song has a power that is central to who we are. It’s an important part of being human.”

Aetherplough, which took home an Omaha Entertainment and Arts Award for best original script with their 2009 performance of Knives Out at the Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts, has carved out a niche sometimes far beyond the fringes of the local theater scene. The company is known for work that is often of the heady, intoxicating, and deliciously noggin-scratchin’ variety. They’re the kind of artists who believe that if a scene is good, it’d probably be even better if the actor performed it perched atop a ladder.

So it should come as no surprise that the boundary-busting Aetherplough has now added an operatic voice to its talented ensemble of actors, dancers, poets, composers, musicians, and visual artists.

Credit-Scott-Bookman

Hitting the high Cs on caroling night will be soprano Amanda DeBoer Bartlett. An Omaha native, she recently returned home after launching a career that found her floodlit on stages across three continents.

“I started out as a straight-ahead opera singer, but met a lot of really interesting people along the way,” DeBoer says of the contemporary composers and other artists who helped fuel her interest in new, often experimental modes of creativity. “I can talk to the composer about the music being made. I can talk to the poet about the lyrics. You can’t do that with dead guys like Mozart and Beethoven. It becomes music of my time, music about all of us.”

Specializing in contemporary vocal literature and project-based performances that integrate classical music into modern social contexts, DeBoer has performed with such disparate names as minimal music legend Phillip Glass and the idiomatic noise pop band Deerhoof. Earlier this year DeBoer released her first solo album, I Vapor Breath, and will record a full album with Quince Contemporary Vocal Ensemble in 2014.

DeBoer also performed in August at Omaha Fashion Week. And, yes, that’s her on the cover of this issue of The Encounter wearing some of the dramatic Omaha Fashion Week pieces created by local designer Jenny Pool.

The 28-year-old artist is a member of Chicago’s Ensemble Dal Niente and a co-founder of the Color Field Ensemble and Quince Contemporary Vocal Ensemble—both based in New York City. She is also a co-founder of Omaha’s Ars Cantus Antiquitas, which is known for its modern interpretations and unique presentations of early music.

“When I came back to Omaha I looked for opportunities for collaborative experiences,” says DeBoer. “At first I felt like I was shouting into a void. It was like, ‘Is there anyone out there?’ Susann and Thom’s voices were the first to echo back. So I sat in on a rehearsal of theirs, and my head just began swirling.

“Aetherplough allows artists to bring their own experiences to create something completely new and completely personal,” she continues, “but it’s all rooted in a shared tradition that makes it universal and accessible to all.”

Even when it comes to opera?

“Especially opera.”

The Aethertones will perform their 2013 Contemporary Caroling program Dec. 21 at 7:30 p.m. in the Old Market Passageway; 417 S 11th St. The event is free.