Although she’s steadily been building a reputation as one of contemporary classical music’s finest interpreters and ambitious organizers, 2012 was an auspicious time for flutist Claire Chase. Her work with International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE),both on record and in concert, garnered frequent acclaim. She released Terrestre, her second solo CD for the New Focus imprint. Accompanied on the recording by pianist Jacob Greenberg, clarinetist Joshua Rubin, and other members of ICE, Chase assays works by Pierre Boulez (Sonatine), Kaija Saariaho (Terrestre), Elliott Carter (Esprit rude/esprit doux), Franco Donatoni (Fili), and Dai Fujikura (Glacier). These range widely in style and demeanor. Hyperactive melismatic writing, microtonal bends and use of vocalizations are found on Terrestre; intricate ensemble interactions populate both this work and Esprit Rude/esprit Doux. Sonatine is an early example of postwar modernism, rife with angularity and reveling in syncopation. Equally impressive is her rendition of Fili, a breathless piece filled with myriad utterances and a kaleidoscope of rhythmically charge motifs. Chase is equally at home playing the soulful and gradually unfolding utterances of Fujikura’s Glacier, a bass flute work that combines simplicity – quasi-modal melodies – with complexity – multiphonics and other effects – in a convincing amalgam.
On October 1, 2012, it was announced that Chase had been awarded a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship. Nicknamed “genius grants,” these awards are designed to give some of the most prominent practitioners and thinkers in their respective field monetary support and time to more fully explore their goals. Upon hearing the announcement, my sense was the Chase was the first flutist to receive a MacArthur Fellowship. When contacted for comment, the MacArthur Foundation indicated that they don’t keep an accounting of which instruments their musician fellows play. But after digging around their website and newspaper archives, it appears to me that Chase is the first flutist they’ve made a fellow. Back in October, shortly after the awards were announced, I interviewed Claire. Our exchange follows below.
Christian Carey: Where were you and when did you find out about the MacArthur?
Claire Chase: I was in the middle of a sound-check, and I had my phone sitting on the music stand (on silent) when it started blowing up with calls, one after the other, from a 312 number…I thought, what ever is SO urgent? I couldn’t pick up, but was concerned that it was some kind of ICE emergency so I checked my email discretely and there was a message from the director of the MacArthur Fellows Program saying that he needed to speak with me immediately about a confidential “matter of grave importance” – naturally, my heart leapt several beats, but I tried to quiet the butterflies and said “Don’t get ahead of yourself, Chase. This is probably about a recommendation for someone else.” Let me tell you, that was the longest sound-check of my life … 15 minutes seemed like 15 hours! When I was finally released I darted outside to try to find a decent spot to make the call, but was surrounded by Williamsburg construction noise everywhere I turned – I could make out about every third word from the other end of the line, and I tried variously to find a perch on a stoop (was ousted by an old lady), a corner of a Cuban restaurant (was shuttled out by a disgruntled hostess), all the way through this surreal conversation. I did my best to stay collected, but between the surrounding mishegas and the total disbelief that this was, in fact, happening, and it was in fact happening to me, I could hardly find my head. There was a lot of information in the call – things to do next, things not to do, scheduling the video interview, how to handle the media, when to expect calls, who I could tell (one person, and that person couldn’t tell anyone) – and I was struggling to process all of it, to express my gratitude, to understand what was expected of me, and all the while trying to not get arrested before the end of the call! Thankfully I had a concert later that night, which gave me somewhere focused to put this insane excitement and energy temporarily.
You are the first flutist to be award a MacArthur Award. How does that feel?
I am humbled to say that yes, sheepishly, I am. And that I plan to work my tail off to try to earn it over the next five years!
Who are some “flute geniuses” with whom you’ve studied?
I have been blessed to have the greatest teachers in the world, starting with John Fonville when I was ten – I wrote an article recently for John Zorn’s ARCANA series (Volume 12) about my formative experience with John and Density 21.5. John taught me that everything was possible. He was my hero when I was ten and he is still my hero to this day. I studied later in my adolescence with Damian Bursill-Hall, an extraordinarily brilliant artist, thinker, philosopher … he plays not just like a great flutist but like the great violinists and pianists, and he phrases like the great singers. His standards are so incredibly high and the responsibility that he taught me to take for every musical decision informs just about everything I do to this day, inside and outside of the flute. And then there is Michel Debost, my beloved conservatory teacher at Oberlin, who is a genius in every imaginable way – as a flutist, as a teacher, as a human being. I am so indebted to these people and cannot imagine my life without them.
I am also hugely indebted to my other mentors who have permanently changed the way that I think about music and the possibility of our contribution as musicians – John Zorn, whose brilliance and generosity are continual sources of inspiration and light for me; Pauline Oliveros, a transformative artist who was the first advisory board member of ICE, and who is a kind of grandmother figure for me and so many other young musicians; Andreas Waldburg, ICE’s board president, who is the smartest and kindest human being I’ve ever had the privilege of knowing, and who has so selflessly made so many things possible for me and for ICE; and my big brother Darren, who is and always has been my beacon of light in music and in life.
On learning the news, were there any projects that leaped out, that you thought “Yes! Now I can do this!”
Only about 2,000 of them! Seriously, my mind is buzzing dizzily with all the possibilities. But I am somewhat uncharacteristically forcing myself to take time with the decision about how to use the award money and when to announce my plans. What I will say is that it is very important to me that this money stays in the artistic community, and that it is used as a platform and springboard for all kinds of radical projects, ideas and initiatives that absolutely wouldn’t happen otherwise. I also want to find ways for it to self-generate, both creatively and financially, for the community of artists of which I am so fortunate to be a part. This will take some time to figure out but I am deeply excited about it, and am indescribably grateful for the opportunity to think in this way about what is possible not just for the next five years, but for the future far beyond that.
ICE has championed a number of composers who aren’t yet well known enough to audiences in the United States. Who are a few you haven’t yet programmed that we should seek out right now?
There are so many! I am wild about the work of a young Greek-born woman who is now living in Germany, Marianthi Papalexandri-Alexandri. I am also very, very excited about a young Chicagoan named Daniel Dehaan, with whom we haven’t yet started working but plan on starting soon. There are so many others whom I’m following and whose work I greatly admire – Jeremiah Cymerman, Tsuda Schuyler, Rick Burkardt, Lu Wang …the list goes on! I wish I had more time in the day to commission all of them.
CC: The other performer awarded a MacArthur this year is mandolinist Chris Thile. Any chance for a MacArthur jam session?
Funnily enough, Chris and I both grew up in San Diego, but for whatever reason our paths never crossed. Still, I’ve been a great admirer of his work since we were teenagers – I love the sheer joy that he embodies when he plays, and the way that he can transform that little instrument, chameleon-like, into so many colors and possibilities. I’d absolutely – and humbly – embrace the chance to make music with him if that happened!