Can Claire Chase Make Portland Fall in Love with the Flute?

The MacArthur Fellow—praised in the New York Times for her "extravagant technique" and "penetrating musicality"—gives Portlanders a taste of her 23-year new music project.

By Fiona McCann February 18, 2016

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Image: Third Angle

The world is not awash with celebrity flutists, but Claire Chase is a rare breed: a gifted musician, collaborator, and a charming and energetic activist for new and experimental music. She’s in Portland this week as part of Third Angle's Studio Series to showcase two different programs from her Density 2036 project, a 23-year commitment to envision a new body of work for the flute. We caught up with the Brooklyn-based musician after her PDX touchdown to hear about why new music needs advocates, and what contemporary musicians can learn from David Bowie. 

Three years ago, you kicked off Density 2036, a sampling of which Portland audiences get to hear this week. Tell us about it. 

It’s a 23-year project to create and envision a whole new body of work for this little tube of metal that is the flute. It started officially in 2013, but I like to think it started when I fell in love with contemporary music for the first time.

When was that?

I was 13 and my teacher came into a lesson and plopped down these two pieces of music in front of me that comprised Edgard Varèse’s [flute solo] Density 21.5. It was a transformative moment in my life. I’d never heard music that way, it blew the roof off of my imagination. I fell completely madly in love with this piece, and with what it represented, and the visceral power that it asked of the flute. I’ve been in search of music like that—that has that effect on listeners, and that has that kind of transformative power for the instrument itself—ever since then. So in a sense this project is just a formalization of a search that has been going on since my first moment of love.

How does it work?

2036 is the 100th anniversary of the piece Density 21.5. So each year I commission an entirely new program. For the first three years the program has been loosely defined as a collection of piece by composers, with different styles, very different voices, different aesthetics, from different areas in the world, and in the future programs will be defined in different ways. I’m working on a piece right now that will involve mass numbers of flutists—possibly thousands—coming together, and completely blowing up the form of what a flute recital could be. Some of the projects in future years will also involve the construction of new instruments. I’ll be working with installation artists, with architects, directors, filmmakers—the project is very open. The only rule I have is that every year I do something completely different, that’s a departure from what I did last year. And in 2036 I’ll do a 24-hour marathon for the entire cycle.

And all with the flute taking center stage. 

That’s really the only parameter. I think of it as a very open project, and its only parameter is this little tube of metal, that happens to be humankind’s oldest musical instrument. The question of what we can do in the 21st century to advance humankind’s oldest instrument is very interesting for me. 

What is it about the flute that has held your attention for so long?

I think everybody who falls in love with an instrument has a moment they can identify in their childhoods when that falling in love took place. In my case, I was three. My parents took me to a symphony orchestra concert, and we were sitting in the balcony and looking down onto a bunch of men in tuxedos who looked like penguins to me. In the middle of this sea of penguins, I saw a flute. I was transfixed with the shape of it at first, and then when it played, I thought, “That’s what I have to play, that’s what I have to do.”

So I kept asking for the flute—I asked for one for my fourth birthday, my fifth birthday, sixth birthday, seventh birthday and then finally on my eighth birthday I got a flute. And after five years of wanting it, once I finally got it, I literally have not put it down since. I was the happiest little girl in the world. And I still am when I have it in my hands.

You’re often described as an activist for new music, an advocate for contemporary composition and performance. Do you think that kind of music needs advocates?

I do think we have to mobilize and get people’s attention. Like any new thing, and any fringe movement, we need advocates, we need each other. We need to build communities around what we do, we need to build resources. Large institutions have not traditionally been places where this kind of music can flourish. That is changing—it’s changing very slowly, but it’s changing because of the work that artists, and the small communities that they assemble together, are creating. And so, as challenging as this time is—and it’s an extremely challenging time, financially, politically, in so may ways—it’s also a tremendously hopeful time for me, because there’s so much incredible music being written right now. There’s so much incredible advocacy on the part of performers, curators, composers and members of these communities that are self organized. That’s a very, very exciting and hopeful thing, I think.

So you’re optimistic?

I am. There’s a lot of work to be done always, but I do think attitudes are changing. Even speaking with Ron [Blessinger, Third Angle’s Artistic Director] this morning, and he was talking about the number of new “new music” groups in Portland—it’s skyrocketing! And the idea that every town, large and small, not just large metropolises but every place, have not just a contemporary music ensemble, but many different types of ensembles that promote different types of music, is a sign of the cultural richness that we’re in.

 You’re being awarded an Honorary Doctorate from the Cleveland Institute of Music this May, and will be giving a commencement ceremony speech. What will you tell aspiring young musicians? What’s your message for them?

The message is really simple, but it’s not often delivered and it’s something that I wish had been delivered to me. I really, really want to encourage and empower them to be themselves. Because there’s so much pressure on young people, especially in the study of the arts and the classical arts, to become somebody else—to become the model of somebody else—whether you are filling an orchestra seat or aspiring to a solo career, or trying to build an organization or ensemble, or an enterprise of some sort that looks like something that came before it. There’s so much pressure on young people to follow some sort of mold. Of course we learn from existing structures and molds, we have to study them and respect them, but also we have to interrogate them.

We have to be ourselves, and the only way to become ourselves is by exercising those muscles—those very, very difficult muscles that nurture who we are uniquely—and we learn that by doing it together too. I know that’s really simple but that’s actually not the dominant message in the field. Was David Bowie trying to be anybody else? He was just committed to being himself, and he did it generously. He discovered who he was over and over again, and dismantled who he had discovered and created something new and he did it joyfully and he did it generously. I would just really love for the young people to be invited into a world where they can do that and they can do that together. 

Claire Chase plays at Studio [email protected] at 7:30 pm Thursday-Friday, Feb 18-19, as part of Third Angle's Studio Series. 

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