Dissolving Barriers: A Q&A with Claire Chase

Photo: David Michalek

Flutist Claire Chase describes herself as “a soloist, collaborative artist, curator, and advocate for new and experimental music.” First Prize winner of the 2008 CAG Competition, Claire was named a MacArthur Fellow in 2012, and became the first flutist to ever win the Avery Fisher Prize in 2017. She is the founder of non-hierarchical artist collective International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE) and currently teaches at Harvard University. In 2013, Claire started working on Density 2036, an ambitious commissioning project that creates a new body of work for solo flute every year through 2036, the hundredth anniversary of Edgard Varèse’s Density 21.5. We caught up with Claire recently to chat about her unique performances, cultural activism, and memories of playing in the 2008 CAG Competition finals.

Over the years, you’ve collaborated with a number of different musicians, composers, visual artists, lighting and sound designers, and creative people of all types. How do you meet people and decide to do projects together? Do you have favorite people you’ve worked with or projects you’ve done in the past?

My ears are always open to new sounds and new collaborations, and I’m always on the lookout for people who are interested in going beyond what they know. That’s the most important thing for me in terms of working with collaborators—that we are fueled by our curiosity about what we don’t yet know, and that we realize that we need each other in order to take the leap toward finding it.

One of my favorite collaborators is the extraordinary, magical, brilliant, luminous, hydra-headed pianist/toy pianist/composer/multimedia artist [and 2007 CAG Competition winner] Phyllis Chen. We’ve been working together for over 20 years now—she was a founding member of International Contemporary Ensemble back in 1999 when we were still students at Oberlin Conservatory—and every time we’ve worked together over that time span, it’s been completely different from the last. We are always finding new portals, new entry points, new guiding questions. Most recently, she wrote a piece for my Density 2036 project called Roots of Interior (2019) for flute and heartbeat. Yes, heartbeat! Samples of my own heart comprise the playback track, and toward the end of the piece a stethoscope is affixed to my chest for a live feed of my heartbeat. We’ll be performing this piece at the CAG gala, and I’m so excited to share it with the CAG family, especially because Phyllis has such an important history with the organization as well. I can’t imagine a more heart-filled (truly! Literally and metaphorically…) tribute to an organization that we both love so much, and that helped us so generously at pivotal points in our careers.

Your performances are always very theatrical, and you’ve said you’re into “uncompromisingly weird music in uncompromisingly weird spaces.” Why do you think it’s important to incorporate theatricality into your concerts? And how do you tailor your performances around unique physical spaces?

I love creating performance environments that challenge or at least playfully disrupt or question the supposed distance between performer and listener. Walking onstage in a ball gown, bowing, tuning the instrument, putting your hand on the piano, pausing and inviting applause between movements, etc.—these conventions are all decisions, whether or not we consciously take responsibility for them as such. Either way, as performers we are responsible—quite literally, “able to respond”—for everything that happens from the moment we walk on stage. Varese sounds and feels very different on a football field than it does on the stage of Carnegie Hall, or under the Williamsburg Bridge, or on a floating raft in the river. Each one of those situations demands a careful consideration of performer and audience placement, lighting, distance. How do I fully inhabit the performance environment so that the music has the best chance to dissolve that barrier between the one playing and the one hearing? I always come back to this question and try to keep myself honest with it.

Performance snippets from the eclectic compositions written for the 4th iteration of Claire’s Density 2036 series in 2016.

What is it about Varèse’s Density 21.5 that is so inspiring to you, and continues to influence your work in such a profound way after so many years? How has your interpretation of the piece (both musical and philosophical) developed over time?

For me, the piece is like an anthem, a song. Forever new and experimental, and forever ancient, somehow primordial. It’s up there in my book with Bach’s Sarabande in A Minor, Bach’s Aus Liebe from the St. Matthew Passion, Debussy’s Syrinx, and the great orchestral flute moments of Ravel, Brahms, and Mahler. These are all very brief snapshots in time—2–5 minutes—but they are emotionally potent moments, moments of music that change you each time you hear them.

Commissioning and creating new music collaboratively with composers has been the through line of my life’s work, and was the impetus behind the formation of ICE nearly 20 years ago, so in many ways Density 2036 is just an offshoot of that larger pull. Considered that way, the project feels small, like just one part of me. It’s one line of work for one little tube of metal, centered around one question, “How far can we push this instrument—and the spirit that runs through it—into the future?” Varese opened up a whole world of possibility in four and a half minutes of music in 1936. What worlds can we open through the lens of this little tube by 2036? I want each piece in the project to be a spark-plug for other pieces and other ideas, which is why it’s very important to me that the project and the repertoire serve to ignite an emerging generation of flutists and composers and audiences working together to imagine and make possible new densities.

Claire performs with percussionist and composer Tyshawn Sorey at Density 2036: part vi on March 1, 2019 (Karen Chester)

How has your Density 2036 project developed and/or changed over time? And can you tell us anything about the upcoming 7th part in 2020?

I’m in year seven now, so in the larger scheme of the project I’ve sort of barely dipped a toe in! The upcoming cycle features a collaboration with the incredible Australian composer Liza Lim for contrabass flute (I call her Big Bertha!) and kinetic percussion. Liza’s work deals with Asian ritual culture, the aesthetics of Aboriginal art and non-Western music performance practice. The new piece will explore an alternative cultural logic of women’s power as encoded in various Indigenous stories. In early research for the project, we were intrigued to read various “myths of matriarchy,” which tell of the original usurpation of women’s power by men. Women’s power in these stories is not primarily focused on their life-giving role as mothers, but rather on women’s ability to synchronize their cycles with each other and with the moon, with many examples of stories that relate this cosmic power to musical instruments, flutes and percussion among them.

Have you composed any of your own works? Or tried your hand at the visual aspects of your performances? Do you want to?

I am very involved in the compositional process, but I would not presume to ever call myself a composer. As far as the visual aspects of productions go, I am even more involved; the latest Density I essentially directed in collaboration with a lighting and sound director.

You mostly play contemporary music, so we have to ask: What’s your favorite pre-1900 piece to play? Or your favorite pre-20th-century composer?

Bach, Bach, Bach! (Did I mention Bach?) I spend more time with Bach than I do with most new music. But it’s private time. I learn so much from this music every day. Maybe in 2037 I’ll finally play all six Bach sonatas in concert…a girl can dream!

You describe yourself as a “cultural activist.” How do you see your role in the world as a musician?

For me, the instinct to create and to curate are part of the same breath of bringing things together that I love and want to share. You could say that one is generative (creation) and the other is responsive (curation), but for me they are even more porous than that. The act of making something has never been separate in my mind from the act of finding a place for it, and that act has also always been integral to the act of finding places for things that my fellow artists make. It’s much more fun, much more difficult—and far more interesting—when we embrace our irrepressible interconnectivity.

As I see it, there have always been extraordinary artists and composers working all around the globe in every era, but the establishment has historically shone a light on a narrowly defined and very privileged few of them. That is changing in the early 21st century, thankfully, but it’s not changing fast enough. We have to keep working even harder to bring underrepresented voices into spaces where they can be heard, seen, and celebrated for who they are, on their own terms. I’m not talking about acting out of charity here; I’m talking about acting in solidarity with these voices. That’s a shift institutions still have to make.

Do you have a favorite CAG memory?

Walking on stage for the finals! I was so nervous, I was afraid I would drop my flute. But then I took a deep breath and started to play, and everything started to flow. I didn’t think I had a chance at winning, so I was very much in touch with my joy that morning, with a sense of “play”—there is a word for this in Sanskrit, lila, which I love. Playing for the love of it, not to achieve anything. It was interesting to me that that joy came just on the other side of extreme fear, but moving through the fear and into a place where I was grounded in my own voice was a transformation for me. I thank CAG for that moment, and for so many others! It’s hard to overstate how transformational this organization’s work is for young musicians at pivotal and often difficult moments of transition early in our careers. I’m so excited to celebrate with everyone on May 13 and to honor the incredibly generous people who have made our journeys possible!

Claire gave her CAG debut performance at Weill Recital Hall in 2010 with pianist Jacob Greenberg (photo: Daniel Barry)