MacArthur Genius Chase Played Gigs From Pickup Truck

Claire Chase, 35, is shaking up the music world with her flute and MacArthur grant. To her amusement, this certifies her as a “genius.”

A decade ago, she founded International Contemporary Ensemble, or ICE, which plays new music to audiences everywhere, in venues ranging from the back of a pickup truck and art galleries to Lincoln Center.

Currently, ICE is in residence at New York’s Mostly Mozart Festival with a program of New York-based composers.

We spoke at Bloomberg world headquarters in New York.

Lundborg: How do you pick your instruments?

Chase: It’s a little bit like dating. You develop a relationship with the thing and you have chemistry or not. I happened to try this instrument and I fell in love with it.

Lundborg: How much do flutes cost?

Chase: The one I loved was not that expensive -- at the time it was $9,000 or something. It’s not like buying a fiddle. I think the most you can spend on a flute is probably 40 or 50 grand.

Lundborg: How did you discover the flute in the first place?

Chase: My folks took me to an orchestra concert when I was three, and I have an incredibly vivid memory of sitting in the nosebleed section of the San Diego Symphony balcony and looking down on this sea of instruments.

Golden Instrument

The light was hitting the flute in this particular way, this golden instrument in the middle of the orchestra, and I was just completely enchanted by the sight of it.

Lundborg: The flute has fallen out of favor -- what does the future look like?

Chase: The flute was the hero in the 18th century. In the 19th century it got pushed to the back of the orchestra. Now it’s starting to pick up a bit, and the 21st is going to be the century of the flute comeback.

It’s on par again with the prowess of the violin and keyboard instruments and voice as a real solo force for change in the repertory. The only way to do that is to create new literature for it.

Lundborg: How do you decide what and where ICE should play?

Chase: In the beginning we just performed in any space that would have us and then started staging these festivals that were free in bars and spaces where people weren’t accustomed to hearing classical music, let alone contemporary music.

Training Musicians

Lundborg: Conservatories are not exactly training musicians to be versatile risk-takers.

Chase: Kids are being trained to enter a profession that doesn’t exist. They are being lied to about what is actually available and what it’s going to take. What are we training orchestra musicians to do if there are no orchestra jobs? I think that’s highway robbery.

Lundborg: ICE is a lithe, flexible group -- is that the future of music?

Chase: There is a lot of collective responsibility taken for the artistic direction of each project and things like rehearsal schedules. We have a rotating system of people being in charge.

This whole management-artist thing that symphony orchestras have gotten themselves into with 150 people upstairs, 150 people on stage is not the 21st-century model.

Lundborg: What are you working on?

Chase: A lot of stuff. One project is something about breath with Habib Azar -- he’s a young guy who directs soap operas by day, and by night he’s an experimental theater director.

The piece, called “Gasp,” is about the fragility and athleticism of breath. It’s for solo flute, electronics, with a lot of live video and films that we’re making, with me sitting in a fabric cocoon and the audience surrounded by another layer of fabric.

The hope is that the internal and external chambers will breathe.

(Zinta Lundborg is an editor for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are her own. This interview was adapted from a longer conversation.)

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