Claire Chase often tells the story of her first teenage encounter with German-American composer Edgard Varese’s haunting 20th century classic Density 21.5. The brief, elusive solo composition for flute utterly transfixed her, setting her on a course to find more moments like that one. Its hold on her remains undiminished. “The more I live with this four minute masterpiece the more I love it,” she said in an interview with the new music magazine I Care if You Listen last year, “and the more astounded I am at how timeless it is, how it teaches me every time I play it, and how many burning questions it leaves unanswered.”
Many classical musicians would have been content to just keep endlessly recycling such a favorite old chestnut, along with other hoary classics. But Chase, who grew up in Chicago and is now based in Brooklyn, wanted something more: more Densities, more transfixing moments, more timeless music, more unanswered questions.
And she was able to make that happen because, unlike so many play-what-they’re-told, stick-to-the-classics musicians, Chase is a creator. Not of compositions, but of creative opportunities. Just as George Crumb’s searing Black Angels inspired David Harrington to start Kronos Quartet, Density is Chase’s Rosebud, inspiring her to create projects and ensembles — including her well known International Contemporary Ensemble — that make more creative leaps like Varese’s possible. She’ll showcase some of the results of her latest, the hugely ambitious Density 2036 commissioning project, at two solo performances in Third Angle New Music’s Studio Series this Thursday and Friday, February 18-19, at southeast Portland’s intimate Zoomtopia studios.
The shows will feature music Chase has been commissioning from contemporary composers since 2014 in the project, which will continue with commissions each year until the centennial of Varese’s Density 21.5. Each year, she’ll premiere a new hour long program of solo flute work commissioned that year, and tour it as she’s doing in Portland, releasing recordings annually with scores and other performance notes and materials made freely available online to flutists everywhere. Every three years, she plans to give a progressively longer cumulative performance of all the works commissioned to that point, culminating in a 24 hour marathon in 2036 that will no doubt leave her lips and lungs in need of futuristic medical treatment.
Chase’s Portland programs distill the three existing Density programs into two, with Friday night’s show being all new (played only at its debut at New York’s famed The Kitchen last fall), and Thursday night’s show combining compositions from the first two cycles. “I’ve grown a lot with this material over the last few years,” she muses. “It’s changed, I’ve changed, the way we listen has changed. And that’s one of the many joys of this project — it’s a process.” Her solo shows are hardly monochromatic, involving electronics, percussion, vocalization and various flutes.
Chase’s quest to rethink and remake the models for making contemporary classical music is also a work in process. Her initial splash came with ICE, which she founded in 2001 on a $500 budget and still co-directs and performs in an average of a concert a week. The group has premiered more than 650 new works and appears on a dozen or so albums (Chase has also made three solo recordings) but it might even be more influential for its artist-driven business model.
While Chase’s flute chops are unquestioned (among her many honors is a first prize in a major 2008 competition), it’s her entrepreneurialism that’s really won her attention and other awards including a the American music Center’s 2010 Trailblazer Award, a Crain’s award for young (she’s still under 40) business leaders in 2013, and she’s racked up various other honors including a 2012 MacArthur “genius” fellowship, in part for creating new models for artistic development, outreach, and education. Bringing the same energetic charm to her business achievements as to her riveting concert performances, she’s forging fruitful new paths for 21st century creative musicians.
Beyond commissioning and performing new music, Chase makes opportunities for its creation. In 2013, she founded the nonprofit Pnea Foundation “dedicated to the advancement of the flute and its repertoire in the 21st century through commissions, community engagement, cross-cultural and interdisciplinary collaborations and advocacy.” It’s a model for what she calls the “inside out” movement that’s revolutionizing contemporary classical music.
“Every interesting movement in music history has been shaped by artists,” the impossibly irrepressible Chase told ArtsWatch. “This era feels like it’s being made inside out rather than from leading institutions and ‘the industry.’ I happen to be one of the optimists that think we’re embarking on a Renaissance era. Not in any way to paint a rosy picture of our financial, political situation now — it’s wretched. But the amount of excitement being driven from the inside out is so energizing.”
Chase’s and ICE’s touring schedules, and her efforts to encourage groups around the country to create their own models — not just imitate ICE’s — mean that she’s not just limited to the perspective of the Brooklyn bubble. The news is promising out in the hinterlands — including Oregon.
“This assumption that New York and LA and Chicago are the only places where there’s interesting experimental art just isn’t so,” Chase says. “The more work that we do in the field and the more places we go — including places that aren’t big cities, rural communities — the more we’re inspired by what’s being done at the local grassroots level. Record labels, concert series… it’s tremendously exciting and inspiring.”
Chase cites Kansas City’s Black House Collective, run by a young “composer/curator/impresario, hydra headed saxophonist,” Hunter Long, that’s doing everything from workshops to producing festivals to composition competitions to concerts to chamber operas. “They’re creating a scene,” she says. “Their funding is modest funding but their artistic ambitions are not. Montreal, San Francisco, Morelia Mexico — there are dozens and dozens of groups I hadn’t heard of before that did not come from major cities” and creating their own models for fostering new music.
In her work with other groups, Chase is careful not to be too prescriptive. “The ‘here’s what you need to do’ approach is not only not successful but also misleading,” she explains. “Institutions point to Kronos quartet or eighth blackbird or ICE and say that’s what people should become. That’s very dangerous. The right message to send to people starting is ‘Let’s work together to find a way to be yourselves.’ Organizations that are emerging now are gonna look different than those 15 years ago. What we need to do is create a community where artists can share resources and nourish each other through these difficult periods. Not just office spaces and resources and databases — yes, that’s really important. But it’s also about creating a noncompetitive community on a much larger scale. We all work together. So when an organization gets a grant, that’s not in competition with another organization. Creativity and generosity inspires more generosity and we need to create that truly porous community. We can do that technologically and through smart practices, and more and more, we’re seeing that shift.”
For example, one problem new music performers encounter is finding enough music that suits their own style and and their audience’s preferences. With so many scattered new music scenes, it can be difficult for a successful piece to find a broader audience. So ICE is creating a score database called ICE Commons that will allow performers and presenters to find music by instrumentation (including “plucked cactus”), length, and other fields. Crucially, it will include not just scores but also high quality HD audio and video of previous performances, composer interviews and program notes, techniques (“how did you suspend those cymbals?” “What kind of trash can makes the best sound?”) and financial info (“bass drum rental costs”) — everything a group would need to decide whether to consider performing a piece.
“We’re making high quality documentation of this stuff and getting it out there on the web is really important,” she explains. “It’s essential that live performance is shared with not just the 30 people that come to that concert but also the thousands who’ll see it later online.
“It’s so ridiculous that this info lives in walled off areas,” Chase continues. The commons is “in line with our larger philosophy of community building and also our belief that this is a new renaissance. We want to make sure the entire community is nurtured.” She wants such projects to be crowdsources, with legal protections for investors, buy in from publishers and others who stand to benefit from greater dissemination of new music.
One possible drawback of an artist driven model: prioritizing the artists’ needs above listeners’, and settling for niche audiences. Chase is working hard to make the music more inviting.
”Another thing ICE has done is commit to giving free concerts in strange places,” she says. “So we started this Open ICE program where we make a growing number of concerts free and open to the public in enviroments that are not associated with new music or classical music or even live music, with a combination of digital and live performance.”
ICE also refuses to separate the idea of performing for audiences from educating them. “We think of education K-12 as inseparable from our other work like commissioning and performing,” she declares. “Connecting these three dots — committing to public access, committing to digital dissemination and connecting all that to educational programs and making sure reaching as many kids as adults — that’s our best three feet forward. We already are seeing a big change in audience demographic” as a result.
Chase’s work marks the next step beyond the indie classical notion of playing classical music in non-“classical” places. “In the early days of ICE, we did a concert in this tiny gallery downtown where 30 people would show up,” she recalls. “Radical shit! Then we’d play uptown at Lincoln Center and see this cross pollination. The idea of alternative venues is no longer novel. It’s not news.
“What is news, what large institutions are not doing, is opening up programming, making it free. So again, it’s up to small organizations to lead from inside out and show large organizations what they can do to bring this music to wider audiences.”
It’s a challenge many musicians have taken on over the decades, but as she’s demonstrated with her persistent exploration of Varese’s four-minute musical journey, and her Density 2036 project, Chase continues to seek answers to the unanswerable questions.
Claire Chase performs Thursday and Friday, February 18 and 19 at Zoomtopia, Portland. Tickets and program info are available online.