5 Questions to Claire Chase (ICE founder and flutist)

Claire Chase is like a nuclear-powered perpetual motion machine. We managed to slow her down long enough to talk about her upcoming keynote at The New Music Gathering, Feldman’s For Philip Guston, OpenICE, and more. 

What are your expectations and plans for The New Music Gathering?

I am enchanted by the promise of this conference, and I can’t believe I’m saying that! I would so much rather be doing the work than talking about doing the work. But this is special. It is artist-organized, artist-run, and it is thoughtfully and courageously programmed with performances by doers both large and small, across a wonderfully wide spectrum. My sense is that its very presence has already opened up a refreshingly porous space for interchange about the state of our art, about the difficulties we face, and most importantly about new ways that we can support each other. Let’s hope it’s the first of an annual tradition of anti-conferences around the subject of new music, true “gatherings.” And I hope we can keep it weird.

At NMG, I’ll be playing selections from Density ii, and delivering the opening keynote. I am excited about exploring, in the context of the contemporary music movement, this marvelously complex and turbulent year 2015. Poet Anne Carson has famously said “It is easier to tell a story of how people wound one another than of what binds them together.” I want to talk about what binds us together.

Claire Chase (photo: Marc Perlish)

Claire Chase (photo: Marc Perlish)

You’ve undertaken a 22-year project with Density 2036. What?

The more I live with this four minute masterpiece the more I love it, 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. I’m reading Liz Lerman’s Hiking the Horizontal, a brilliant collection of essays about making dances, engaging communities, and the relentless process of self-interrogation that informs any artistic practice. She recounts a wonderful story about asking a Nobel laureate what drives his work with fruit flies. “I am fueled by my ignorance,” he responds.  I just love this. This is how I feel about Density, that it fuels my curiosity about all of the things I do not yet know. Will I stumble upon the next great flute solo? How will we even know? What will the ‘newest’ of new flute music sound like next year, in 2018, in 2025? Will we even call it music? Will we call it concert music? What is a concert? Who comes? Who cares? How do we know? And what will happen to my body? I think of this project as a kind of impermanent domicile, an imperfect, aging, fragile and mercilessly temporary home. When I try to play the cumulative repertoire in 2036 over 24 hours, I imagine that event not so much as a marathon but as a kind of long-form poem of the body, a retelling of all the stories I have been trying to tell over all these years.


Rothko Chapel

What was it like to learn and play Feldman’s epic For Philip Guston?

Speaking of marathons! Playing this in Rothko Chapel was a total dream come true. I still can’t believe I got to do that with Steve Schick and Sarah Rothenberg. I am so excited about doing it again in Ojai in a few months, especially for the brave souls who will be there at 5:00 AM to wake up with the birds.

Learning this piece – which I did from my basement bachelor-pad bunker in Chicago every sunrise and every evening during the month of October – felt like learning about music for the first time. It was both demoralizing and exhilarating. I started looking at self-created economies of time (Dickinson calls it “that pathetic pendulum;” Carson calls it “a meaning we impose upon motion”) in completely different ways in daily life, and in my solipsistic practice rituals. On a practical level, as the only wind player in the trio, I was concerned about my endurance. So, a week before the performance, I played a solitary run-through of all five hours, just to make sure I could get through it. Your body goes through a lot of pain in five hours, and so does your mind – you experience anger, fear, unnerving levels of vulnerability, disturbing waves of impassivity, distractedness. The more you let go, you experience wonder, euphoria, and a kind of levity in which you are not the one playing, but the sounds and rhythms are playing you. When I finished, I was reeling, flying, weeping, all at the same time. I was so hungry that I sprinted to the only open restaurant on the block, plopped myself down at the bar, ordered an entire chicken, two sides, two baskets of bread, and a bottle of wine. I ate it all in 15 minutes flat, and I was still ravenous. It’s that kind of piece. I can’t wait to play it again and again.

What can you tell us about the OpenICE initiative?

OpenICE is our new hybrid production model/curatorial platform, an educational initiative, a commissioning engine, an online archive and crowd-sourced open library, and above all, it’s an inquiry into what “community” means for us in 2015. How porous can we make the walls of ICE? How many people might we touch with contemporary music if we remove the velvet rope that surrounds it?

Through OpenICE we are finding new partners in libraries, humanities councils, community centers, public housing developments, artist collectives, all sorts of outfits not typically associated with the contemporary performing arts. The point is to re-think the tired notions of “reach,” “partnership” and “community” and to get new music out of its comfortable myopic bubble and into the wider world. In a way, this is a return to our ICE roots – a group of artists organizing free concerts on shoestring budgets in wacky spaces all over Chicago, creating a scene and getting people to talk about and engage with the work in new ways. As ICE enters its “adulthood,” we are challenging ourselves to self-present uncompromisingly weird music in uncompromisingly weird spaces. And to take that momentum and improvise on it en masse, all over the place, with interesting partners and audiences who challenge our assumptions.

OpenICE will yield more than 150 performances in the next three years, featuring 60 newly commissioned works, in our home cities of Chicago and New York and also in LA, Detroit, rural areas around the US, and other corners of the world like Greenland and the Amazonas region of Brazil that have scant classical, let alone contemporary music programming. OpenICE looks at performance, outreach and education as intrinsically linked – we make no distinction between these gestures within the program. They’re all part of the same breath.

It seems that ICE persists by constantly changing. Is that right?

Every day at ICE is an evolution. We have thousands of new questions and an equal number of problems and we have no idea where to begin. We just start somewhere because someone has an idea and we have the collective muscle to risk and to trust that idea. We are artists and we need to make things. We figure out who we are by making work. One of the most fulfilling projects we made in 2014 was a three-night retrospective of Alvin Lucier’s work at MCA Chicago. After the first concert, where Alvin did a spellbinding performance of I am sitting in a room, he said to us over hot dogs after the show “What people don’t realize is that ideas are not exceptional. We have millions of them. What is exceptional, and what is indeed very difficult, is doing something about them.”

We have a habit at ICE of scrapping programs one they are successful, i.e. “institutional.” Hence the retirement of our beloved ICElab, and its reincarnation from a noun (a lab, a place, a program) into a verb. To “ICElab” something means to fuck with it, turn it inside out, try ridiculous and preposterous variations, and start something new. OpenICE is the next improvisation on this path, and I’m so excited to see what we learn and, more importantly, find out what we don’t know.

Back to Anne Carson: “Nouns name the world. Verbs activate the names.” I guess it’s clear which type of “chase” I am.

Ongoing and Upcoming:

Hear Chase’s in-depth interview about the work Edgard Varèse with his longtime assistant, composer Chou Wen-chung on Q2.

Chase delivers the opening keynote at The New Music Gathering. Register to attend.

Chase and other members of ICE will participate in the 2015 Ojai Music Festival at the invitation of percussionist and conductor Steven Schick, this year’s Music Director.   

The first mini-marathon in Chase’s Density 2036 project, with performances of Density parts i, ii and iii, will take place at The Kitchen in New York during the last week of September 2015.