“Claire Chase: Vision, Journey and Crystallization”
by Marc Medwin
The phone rings. “I’m calling on behalf of Claire Chase,” announces the soft, almost laconic voice. “Claire is running a little late, but she’ll call you in a moment.” The call comes from Forrest Wu, Chase’s personal assistant, who has his work cut out for him, especially since the flutist, concert producer, and entrepreneur received a 2012 MacArthur grant. The phone rings again. “Sorry about that, a million things going on; you know how it is. I’m ready now.” The voice is strident, confident and, above all, positive. As we speak, it becomes clear that Chase’s optimism, her boundless enthusiasm in the face of all obstacles, is the dreamer’s prerogative—the domain of all those who step outside of whatever box or frame has been constructed for them and do what they are told is impossible. On the day of our initial phone conversation, Chase is on the way to a rehearsal, or rather several rehearsals, one of which is already in progress as she walks around Sunset Park, Brooklyn. “It’s one of those crazy ICE weeks,” she explains.
ICE, the International Contemporary Ensemble, is the modular organization Chase formed after graduating from Oberlin College in 2001, which Wu calls “a collective of minds wherein artistic and organizational decisions work symbiotically.” It has been a long road to the fruition of that idea, which began to crystallize only a few hours after graduation, when Chase, aboard a Greyhound bus heading toward Chicago, contemplated her future in the world of contemporary classical music. “My situation was rather bleak,” she muses. “There were no jobs. I was entering what at the time could hardly be considered a field. It’s even less of one now in terms of traditional job prospects for a young, classically trained musician with loads of student loan debt, playing an instrument [she doesn’t] quite own.” On that bus, after several years of dreaming as well as learning about commissions and ensemble formation, Chase came to a decision that would bring her employment and afford her public recognition. It would also lead to her MacArthur grant—a culmination of more than 10 years of grueling work, innovative planning, and dedication. “We had no time to qualify the situation,” Chase says of those initial days of formation and strategizing. “I thought, ‘This is what we have to work with. Let’s create opportunities for one another, let’s do things our own way, and let’s make new music incredibly cool.’”
One of the chief objects of Claire’s boundless optimism and energy is the dissemination of “new” music, to which our conversation turns. “I was blown away, there’s really no other way to describe it!” The enthusiasm in Chase’s voice is stronger than the chill February wind that threatens to catch and hurl away every word as she describes her first experience with contemporary music—specifically, Edgard Varèse’s groundbreaking Density 21.5, composed in 1936 for solo flute—a revelatory moment that would become integral to her life and vision as a flutist and an entrepreneur. Varèse’s music emerges almost imperceptibly, rising in slowly expanding gusts, arches, and blustery crescendos before dying back down, only to burst forth again with renewed vigor: now icy breeze, now howling gale—a force of nature in all its Protean unpredictability. The music flies in the face of conventional form, structure, and chronological time, redefining the flute’s role in the process.
“I’d never heard anything like it.” Chase pauses for breath and the murmur of cars, trucks, and scattered pedestrians is just audible over the phone. “You know, at the time, when I was 12 or 13, I was obsessed with the canon. After hearing Density, I didn’t really want to play the other stuff anymore. It got to the point that when I was asked to perform at my junior high school graduation…now imagine a California public junior high school. Not really so interested in music, right?” She laughs breezily. “I thought, of course! I want to play Density! I imagined myself in the middle of the football field, amplified, playing it for thousands of people…” Her voice rises, higher than the concert of winter elements pervading the slushy city street. “You know what? I’m going to do it,” she says. “This summer, in the Jay Pritzker Pavilion in Chicago. I’m doing a July 4 concert there, and I think it’s going to be a wonderful experience.”