Purifying the CalmDome through Art and Music
We lay, bodies on bodies, nestled inside the shell of a giant ovary called CalmDome, bass trickling down our spines. This is not the concert I had in mind.
But it’s exactly why I should go to the Bemis more often. Not only to see art, but to be a part of it.
Monday, August 30, was the Purification of the CalmDome, a joining of forces to send the hulking, ovoid dome, created by art collective Carnal Torpor, off packing towards its next destination. In support were Daniel Higgs (Baltimore, MD), Ember Schrag (Lincoln, NE), and the Chiara String Quartet (Lincoln, NE).
The CalmDome is a Brobdingnaggian egg fitted with speakers and a ominous video screen. The first time I visited the Hopey Changey exhibit, I’ll admit that I didn’t have an overly positive reaction to it: crawl in, sit, crawl out. Alone.
Tonight was different.
Folded upon each other like autumn leaves, the CalmDome is the type of exhibit that causes you to confront humanity. Inside I felt remarkably comfortable, surrounded by the kind of warm pressure you might get squeezing too many people into the back seat of the car. This elicits the same response: at first, everyone jokes and glances furtively. Then you settle into the stasis, the feeling of co-human protection, the pleasure of touch.
And then the music starts.
At first it is just sound, hummed by the girl next to you, harmonized by the boy across, and picked up by the CalmDome’s microphones, reflected back at you through its many speakers as waves. If you can let go—which is hard—but if you truly can, it only gets more fun, bellowing at the top of your lungs, an animal collective imbricated in sound. Together, you will find the point of maximum vibration, falling in love with each murmur, whistle, and call.
The acoustics of the CalmDome reminded me of a throat singer I saw in Mongolia—but you bring your own experience—eyes, closed, floating away from Omaha, NE, and deeply, and for once honestly, reconnecting with your past.
The best part is that the CalmDome remained open all night. Like teenagers at a family party slipping off for clandestine rounds of spiked eggnog, throughout the evening people would get up, wander over to the dome, and become lost to the world, only to stumble back smiling.
The Chiara String Quartet are a fiendishly talented group of musicians who remind you that classical music was once the rock of its day: edgy, avant-garde, and full of life. Violinists Rebecca Fischer and Julie Yoon, cellist Gregory Beaver, and violist Jonah Sirota are Lincoln based, but have residencies as far afield as Harvard University. The group’s energy was deftly balanced with the intimacy of the Bemis space: every breath seemed timed, every foot tap rhythmically accounted for, and on this evening of musical interactivity, I was reminded how exciting it can be to see performers without the barrier of a stage. A string quartet at full bore is as animated as any group of musicians, all the more so at arm’s length.
The list of non-pop female singer/songwriters is not as long as the 60s might have portended. Aside from a brief Lilith Fair revival period, history doesn’t reveal as many female artists as you’d hope. Well, add Ember Schrag to the list. Her astute lyrics (she references the Old Testament on “In the Desert” and opened up “Mosaic” with the delicious line, “I hung out with Allen Ginsberg last night”) and breathy vocals are not entirely dissimilar from All Young Girls Are Machine Guns, an Omaha-based artist who makes her bones on the ukulele. Pressed for a guitar driven comparison, I might offer up Laura Veirs, which is healthy praise in my book.
Ember Schrag’s pairing with Chiara—their first ever—was pitch perfect, and will hopefully will be repeated despite hectic touring schedules. Amidst a solid 2 1/2 months on the road, the singer swings by the Slowdown on September 17th.
Rarely will you will more spiritually infused assault on the Bible than the throbbing vibrato of Daniel Higgs. His warm baritone intones, “Let’s go insane / Oh, so sane”, and it’s hard to see if Higgs’ tongue is placed firmly in cheek.
Surviving somehow on the strength of his voice, a captivating charisma, and the hum of a instrument that defies my attempts to Google it (it’s a free-reed aerophone of sorts, a buzz-creating box, similar to a one note accordian), Higgs is another preacher posing as a musician. Wryly funny, and extremely capable on banjo, he’s carved out a career spanning two full decades in the Baltimore hardcore scene as part of the band Lungfish. Tonight he offered up the pulpit to any who wanted to join him. In his presence, none felt capable.
videos courtesy of Jaime OBradovich