Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Interviews with Young People #4: Claire Chase

The International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE) has been making a splash in the new music circles of Chicago and New York City. An ensemble comprised of a disproportionately large number of young people, ICE programs music by living composers of all career levels, some shamefully under-established and some shamelessly over-established (and doubly tenured). Recently, ICE performed a two-set marathon concert in New York City called “New Voices from Around the World,” focusing on so-called emerging composers. On October 27, ICE will respond to non-composer artist Alexandra Loewe's exhibition at the Flatfile Galleries in Chicago. On October 29, the ensemble will present a concert as part of New Music Chicago’s Sonic Impact Festival at the Museum of Contemporary Art. Rather than travel to Chicago or New York City to see ICE’s October concerts, I thought I’d spend a few moments on the phone with the Artistic Director and flutist of ICE, Claire Chase. The following is a fair and balanced transcription of our conversation:
Prof. McJeebie: These October concerts feature music by the winners of ICE's 21st Century Young Composers Project competition. I find that young people are naturally competitive and sometimes very aggressive. What do you think these 21st-century composers are trying to prove?
Claire Chase: I should clarify and mention that it's not really a competition - at least, we don't like to think of it that way. We just put a call out there, get a bunch of material in response. This year we received well over three hundred submissions from young composers in thirty-one different countries. We pick music that interests us. We also hang on to, on average, about forty scores that aren't picked for the project, but that we really like and want to have in our library for other programming purposes.
As far as the competitiveness goes, I know what you mean, Professor. However, here at ICE we do our best to make it friendly and collegial and mutually supportive. There isn't a particular style or aesthetic niche that the composers we pick fall into. In fact, this year the six composers chosen could not be more different from each other. There's everything from pop-influenced music to neo-complexity to electronic music to serialism and back again. So we try to encourage them to be non-judgmental and open-eared about things. For the most part, I think this works. The ones who misbehave are locked up in a room and forced to listen to Satie.
Prof. McJeebie: ICE has taken up residence in both Chicago and New York City. How would you compare the new-music scenes in Chicago and New York City?
Claire Chase: They're very different cities, and we really like the challenges that come with these differences. In Chicago, we had to build an audience from the ground up; it took a lot of work on the grassroots level, but the plus side is that we now have a very loyal family, of sorts, and they're down to hear anything. There isn't this sense of an uptown/downtown division, and in general we can program extremely experimental stuff in Chi-town and get a consistent audience. We can also program things in very unusual spaces, and people will venture out to hear us.
This is harder to do in New York, probably because New Yorkers know what they want; they know where they like to go; they know how they want to spend the little free time they have. We run around like rats in this city, because we have to. Chicago is more laid back, more slowly paced. I can call up a bunch of friends and say hey, let's have a beer right now, and it will happen spontaneously. My closest friends in New York generally schedule a beer three weeks in advance. It's just a different pace. I think that the two audiences and the two "scenes" follow suit.
In New York, there's already such an established new-music audience; all you really have to do is put a couple listings out there and you'll get an audience in this city. We are trying, however, to do what we did in Chicago with grassroots marketing so that we can build a younger audience, and an audience full of people who aren't necessarily new-music types. We don't think you have to be an expert in the kind of music we play in order to enjoy it. And we don't even think that you have to enjoy everything that you hear.
Prof. McJeebie: As a Professor, I've found that the more expertise I acquire, the less I enjoy what I hear. I'm especially impatient when I find myself in an audience in which the new-music establishment is not represented. Aren't you worried that the established new-music audience won't get along with "people who aren't necessarily new music types?"
Claire Chase: No, not really. People need each other. In New York more than anywhere because we're all so hysterical about our space, and because there's simply so little of it. I think we really need each other, and I think we're all capable of getting along.
I mean, it's not that big of a deal to have a row of seats at a concert that goes something like this: a Professor sitting next to a carpenter sitting next to a gallery owner sitting next to a kid with pink hair sitting next to an elderly lady who goes to the opera sitting next to a member of "the established new-music audience." With a good show, a good conversation, and a relaxed vibe, the not-so-miraculous situation in which people from different walks of life can share something small and meaningful can emerge quite effortlessly. It happens in other situations all the time - at the movies, in the subway, at a bar, in a bookstore. Why not at a concert? This is also why we like to keep our concerts free or very low-cost, because we find that we get much, much more interesting audiences. Who wants to drop twenty bucks to hear a bunch of freaky bleep-blop music, anyway? What would happen if it cost twenty bucks to take a book of modern literature out of the library? No one would ever read anything. Ever! Unless they were in school. Look at the world of contemporary music. It's still pretty embedded in the academic institution.
Prof. McJeebie: Yes, well… I like to think so.
Claire Chase: I'm not sure how I get so side-tracked, Professor, with all this populist idealism. The answer to your question about co-habitation at concerts is really just this: we should all avoid shitting in the swimming pool. Especially the new music swimming pool, 'cause it's real small.
Prof. McJeebie: I would venture to say that the new-music establishment is constantly changing. It’s in a constant state of flux due to the lack of tenured Professors.
Claire Chase: The scene in Chicago has certainly changed in the past five years. There are dozens of new groups, many interesting new concert series, and a great deal of new momentum for contemporary music that didn't exist before. I also believe that New York is changing, too, even though there's such a history of contemporary music here already. There are so many kick-ass, young, innovative new-music groups sprouting up everywhere in the city. I'm optimistic that we are actually in the beginning of a major movement in this country, and that in our lifetimes we are going to find the kind of institutional support for new-music ensembles that Europe has had for the past two decades. It's time. The climate is ripe. There are so many talented young people who are willing to give up their lives for this and make it happen.
Prof. McJeebie: Many people have suggested that Rochester, NY, is the happy median between Chicago and New York City. Have you thought about setting up shop in Rochester?
Claire Chase: ICE is hoping to position ourselves in three locations, ultimately. Chicago, San Francisco and New York. Right now the two chapters, Midwest and East Coast ICE, are enough for us. But we're aiming for 2008-09 to launch West Coast ICE.
Prof. McJeebie: The October concerts are subtitled "New Voices from Around the World," and ICE is indeed performing music by a wide variety of foreigners. Which country do you think has the best music?
Claire Chase: Until we've gotten submissions from every country in the world, it's impossible to say. But if I had to say which country is most exciting to me in terms of the young composers that we've worked with, I would say that just about everything that's come out of kids in Mexico has blown my mind. There are so many phenomenally gifted young people studying and working in Mexico right now. ICE goes down to the conservatory in Morelia a couple times a year to give concerts and master classes and work with student composers, and we are always completely floored by what even the most beginning level comp students are able to do. Currently there's virtually no way of getting this music heard and performed outside of Mexico, so ICE is trying to raise money right now to get some exchange programs started.
Prof. McJeebie: Every time I go to the Mexican restaurant in Rochester, Plato Para Comer, I am subjected to Mexican music for Mariachi band. Aside from the food, I’m not particularly interested in Mexican culture.
Claire Chase: [silence]
Prof. McJeebie: As you know, many composers are interested in writing a piece of music that will challenge the ensemble and really push the players beyond their physical and intellectual capacities. In order to give hopeful young composers out there an idea of where ICE's threshold lies, can you tell us what was the most difficult piece ICE has ever played and why?
Claire Chase: Oh, golly. I have no idea. I'd have to ask the guys. I think, in terms of technical difficulty, that Lindberg's "Linea D'Ombra" was the hardest thing we've ever had to do. About a hundred hours of rehearsal went into it before we could even start to feel comfortable. Apart from the sheer technical difficulty of the playing required, we also didn't have a score (it was currently out of print) so we had to figure out the incredibly intricate rhythmic exchanges with only the parts as a guide, which felt kind of like herding cats.
As far as our threshold goes, I don't know that we have one. We're pretty willing to try anything...
Prof. McJeebie: Your open-mindedness is commendably juvenile. As you know, many composers and Professors like me have taken to having our compositions performed via MIDI realizations, which are always correct. What can ICE do that a MIDI realization cannot?
Claire Chase: Sweat! ICE can sweat. MIDI can't. I think that's the difference.
For more about ICE, visit www.iceorg.org

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