19 min read

Marathon for One

Dynamic flutist Claire Chase hits the internet on May 14 for a four-hour solo show, celebrating individuality, ingenuity, and inventive collaboration—all to support a vital fund for artists in need.
Marathon for One

Streaming Highlights

  • SO​⅃​OS is the memorable (if unpronounceable) name of a new live performing arts series jointly produced by Fridman Live and CT::SWaM (Contemporary Temporary:: Sound Works and Music). The series features performances held in an empty Fridman Gallery, with audio and video mixing enacted remotely. Starting tonight (May 14 at 6pm EDT) with Daniel Neumann, the series will run every Thursday evening, offering artists like Luke Stewart, C. Lavender, Leila Bordreuil, Mendi and Keith Obadike, and Lea Bertucci, culminating on July 23 with Diamanda Galás. A $5 admission charge includes live “attendance” and unlimited playback, and a discounted season pass costs $35. Details here.
  • Also tonight (May 14 at 8pm EDT), The Brick Theater hosts the online premiere of The Blurring Test, a new music-theater work-in-progress by Varispeed – Gelsey Bell, Brian McCorkle, Paul Pinto, Dave Ruder, and Aliza Simons – with a concept and libretto by media artist Peggy Weil. The performance, filmed live on January 19 of this year (imagine that?), involves 16 years of online conversations conducted by a chatbot called MrMind, whose conversational gambit seemed simple enough: “Can you convince me that you are human?” The performance streams, free of charge, on the Brick Theater YouTube Channel, here.
  • Object Collection, the New York new-music/performance-art troupe whose stage adaptation of Robert Ashley’s Automatic Writing at the Brick Theatre this month had to be postponed, presents an adjusted version of its most recent show, You Are Under Our Space Control, during the next Twitch livestream by California concert presenter Indexical. Live from Santa Cruz on Saturday night (May 16 at 8pm EDT), the program also includes performances by Ma'ayan Tsadka & Dani Williamson (beaming in from Haifa at sunrise) and Kirschner Computing. Details here.
  • Third Coast Percussion celebrates its upcoming Carnegie Hall debut – whenever that event might come to pass, now – with an online gala this Sunday (May 17 at 5pm EDT). The Grammy award-winning group, well seasoned and proficient in presenting its work online, will host a pay-what-you-will gathering that will include a custom cocktail offering, a virtual red carpet reception, exclusive auction items, and a complete performance of a new piece composed by the exhilarating electronic producer Jlin (Jerrilynn Patton) for the quartet’s Carnegie Hall debut program. Details here.
  • Also on Sunday (May 17 at 6pm EDT), The Shed presents the latest in its Up Close series, meant to generate new works for the web during a time of separation and isolation. Passing Notes, described by creators Troy Anthony and Jerome Ellis as “a live virtual music-ritual for mourning, communion, and healing,” was developed following the death of Ellis’s grandfather in April. Participants who register by 5pm on Sunday will receive a link to the event, which will be hosted on Zoom, along with instructions for how to prepare. Details and RSVP here.
  • Highlights among this week’s Quarantine Concerts from Experimental Sound Studio, profiled in Night After Night earlier this week, and prominent in the interview with Claire Chase below, include a powerhouse Chicago bill on Friday (May 15 at 8pm EDT) featuring Nina Dante, Katinka Kleijn, and the duo of Olivia Block and Julia Holter, among others; an Elastic set curated by Erica Miller on Saturday (May 16 at 9pm EDT) with solo sets by Kelley Sheehan (also mentioned in the Claire Chase interview) and Katherine Young; and a stacked bill curated by Shinkoyo/Artist Pool on Tuesday (May 19 at 8pm EDT), including Skeletons, Diamond Terrifier, Deradoorian, and Excepter. Further ahead, the third Corbett vs. Dempsey Sequesterfest, on Saturday, May 23 at 2pm EDT, includes live sets from Steve Beresford, Peter Brötzmann, Rebekah Heller, Rob Mazurek, Hamid Drake, and more. And New Yorkers will see some familiar names among the curators newly enlisted for June, including Pioneer Works, Roulette, and the Ende Tymes festival. All shows are free, but donations are urged; details here.

Video Spotlight

On Tuesday, May 12, the BMI Foundation announced the winners of its 68th annual BMI Student Composers Awards—and the music world was set on its ear by Maya Miro Johnson, who was awarded both the William Schuman Prize for most outstanding score and the Carlos Surinach Prize, presented to the competition’s youngest winner. Johnson, 18, is a student at the Curtis Institute of Music, where this recording of her winning piece – when Icarus fell, was there a splash? was made in December with Johnson conducting. The arresting piece is described as “approximately the 1st of 15 movements which will ultimately comprise an evening-length work commissioned by Toby Thatcher for Zeitgeist.”

Interview: Claire Chase

Claire Chase
Photograph courtesy of DigitICE

Claire Chase has never been known for half measures or small gestures. A world-renowned flutist, Chase founded the groundbreaking International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE) in 2001, and was named a MacArthur Fellow in 2012. Her signature project, Density 2036, is nothing less ambitious than a 23-year commissioning project, meant to to foster an extraordinary new repertoire for the flute.

As usual, Chase had a full slate of remarkable undertakings in store for the spring and summer, including prestigious engagements, multiple premieres on different continents, and a multidisciplinary collaboration inspired by the work of her formidable mentor, the composer and improviser Pauline Oliveros. This month would have brought the newest installment of her Density 2036 series – featuring the world premiere of Sex Magic, an evening-length work by the Australian composer Liza Lim – presented by The Kitchen at Queenslab, in Ridgewood. Summer would have found her at Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity in Alberta, Canada, for the Summer Music Series she jointly directs with Steven Schick.

Then came COVID-19, and suddenly all of those engagements were gone. But with characteristic ingenuity and industriousness, Chase sprang into action for a series of projects with collaborators old and new. First and foremost among these was the New Music Solidarity Fund, an artist-led initiative formed to provide emergency funding to musicians whose livelihoods have been impacted by COVID-19. After starting with an initial goal of $100,000, the Fund has raised more than $430,000, and so far has delivered some 700 grants.

And, like many other artists, Chase quickly recognized the potential to reach both devoted listeners and new audiences through the internet. Working together with the newly launched organization Music on the Rebound, the writer and performance artist Ione, and members of ICE, Chase helped to organize a series of performances of Oliveros’s Tuning Meditation featuring artists and audience members linked together via video conferencing.

Unaccompanied, Chase participated in an all-star evening of live performances curated by the Chicago gallery and venue Corbett vs. Dempsey for The Quarantine Concerts, a nearly nightly series produced by Experimental Sound Studio (subject of a Night After Night profile earlier this week). Soon afterward, she participated in the first-ever online Bang on a Can Marathon.

Both of those initiatives set the stage for what Chase will present on Thursday, May 14, from 6 to 10pm EDT—which is to say, tonight. Working again with Music on the Rebound, Chase offers her own New Music Solidarity Marathon, a four-hour solo concert streaming to the world from her apartment in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, to raise money for the New Music Solidarity Fund. Along with selections from Density 2036 and other selections from her extensive repertoire, Chase will present no fewer than five world premieres during event.

To find out more, I booked a Zoom conference with Chase late last week. (The interview is edited for length and clarity.)

Claire Chase performing in Density 2036, part ii
Photograph courtesy of the artist

STEVE SMITH: This period was going to be particularly busy in terms of your major projects, including the latest Density 2036 installment this spring and the Banff sessions in the summer. It has to be incredibly hard to have had that much activity lined up, and then to see it all evaporate.

CLAIRE CHASE: It is, I think, for all of us. The week after the shutdown was supposed to be the world premiere of this Double Concerto with me and Esperanza Spalding that Felipe Lara wrote. We were going to premiere it in Helsinki, with Susanna Mälkki and the Helsinki Phil, and then do it again in L.A. a few weeks later. That was the first loss. And then, all the concerts… I was going to go to Portugal and play my first show in Porto. I was going to do this massive project with the Swiss artist Julie Beauvais in Berlin around Pauline’s work. And then the L.A. performances, and then I was gearing up for the premiere of Liza Lim’s gorgeous evening-length work for contrabass flute and kinetic percussion.

Like all of us, I’m mourning the loss of these projects. I’m mourning the loss of life around us, and the loss of livelihoods of so many of my musician friends. Like a lot of musicians, I’ve lost half my income for the year. But I’m incredibly privileged that I have a half-time teaching job, so I’m in a position to help fellow artists who have far greater vulnerabilities than I do. And it was that spirit that inspired the New Music Solidarity Fund. It was improvised very quickly by this group of artists, and the initial idea was to give $500 emergency assistance grants to folks in our field who had projects involving living composers canceled.

That was the prompt, in the beginning, and it was important to us that this fund was about solidarity and not about charity. It was also very important to the group that an applicants artist’s profile or accomplishments were not taken into consideration in funding, and what was taken into consideration was need and, very simply, a demonstration that that artist was involved with contemporary creative music.

We set out to raise $50,000 the first week of the shutdown, by asking peers, professors, folks who do enjoy the privilege of a steady paycheck to give $500 contributions, so that we could give out what at the time was a goal of one hundred $500 grants. And we were just totally overwhelmed by the response. There was something direct about if you give $500, it goes directly to an artist who needs $500. We weren’t asking people to contribute to a Kickstarter; we were asking for a specific amount that’s a significant amount for people—$500 is a drop in the bucket for these people who can’t pay their rent, but it’s still significant.

The position we’re in now with the fund is that we’re aiming to reach this $500,000 goal by May 15th—which is ambitious, but it would enable us to give out 1,000 of these $500 grants. And even that… I mean, it guts me to say this, but there were 1,500 applications in the first five hours of the portal being open. So even if we reach this goal, we’re not even going to be able to fund more than two-thirds of the applications that came in in one day: that’s how great the need is.

So I feel like with this initiative – but also just more broadly, with everything that we're dealing with right now – the charge is to be slow and act quickly at the same time—to be strategic, and also be improvisatory. We have to recognize how much we have to act, and how much we have to help. But we also have to recognize how dire things are, and how very much is at stake. We also have to be wary of disaster capitalism and the rhetoric of turning catastrophes into opportunities. And this is what artists do: we will make with whatever we have.

That’s maybe too much information about all of it, but that’s for me where the impetus of the fund came from. And this thing that I’m doing next Thursday is a little crazy, but look: I play the flute all day, everyday, in my apartment, anyway. So I might as well just do that in front of hundreds of people, and see if we can inch closer to this goal.

A little crazy in a creative sense is nothing new for you, in terms of wild ambition and noble audacity. Before we go into specifics, I wonder if I might ask whether you think an artist has an obligation to serve in some kind of manner during a time like this? Many artists have expressed an inability to get in touch with their individual muses right this minute, but it appears that you feel driven to act.

It’s really important that we honor everybody’s response to this. I don't believe in being prescriptive. In fact, some of my most profound conversations in the past two months have been with beloved artist friends – poets, musicians, theater makers, ecologists – whose response right now is silence, introspection, grief, stillness. We very much need those responses too. They will metabolize into important art that will emerge down the road, with different alchemical properties and different perspectives and senses of time and scale than things that are being made right now. We need all of it.

I think what’s really important that artists do right now is listen. We need to listen to what's going on. We need to listen to ourselves. We need to listen to the sadness and the grief and the rage—and then we need to do whatever it is we are moved to do. If that means to write an opera, great. If it means to garden, great. If it means to volunteer, great. I know that for myself, I need to balance this complexity: I need to be able to hold the forced stillness at the same time that I am holding my need to metabolize all of this rage and all of this grief into new work, and specifically into sound. I have to play; I'll go stark raving mad if I don’t.

But there’s a difference between playing, and playing for the new kinds of audiences that are being developed now. As you said, you play for yourself in your apartment all day long. But it seems like recently you have been reaching out and trying to perform for others as much as you’re capable of doing. I say this, having seen you pop up in the Corbett vs Dempsey Sequesterfest – which was my introduction to the online work of Experimental Sound Studio – and in the Bang on a Can Marathon, and obviously you’ve been doing quite a lot of outreach with Music on the Rebound. You’ve been keeping very busy, connecting to others. Is that something you’ve felt a genuine need to do?

Yes, for me personally it nourishes a need to connect. I also feel a responsibility in the essential definition of that word: the ability to respond. I can respond in that way. Working with people – and specifically working with this extraordinary young woman, Raquel Acevedo Klein, who is behind Music on the Rebound – working in this intergenerational team that was Raquel and me and some folks from ICE and Ione on the Oliveros Tuning Meditation project was spiritually extraordinarily rich.

That was a project we just decided was going to be one month long. I think we all miss it now, but there’s something nice about these projects that have an end date, and that can give energy to other projects. And we’ll find a way to revisit that; we’re talking right now about if and when things reopen, even partially, having a Tuning Meditation that’s both worldwide and also local, both in the flesh and virtual. It’ll be one of the very first things that we do to call people together.

It’s funny, my perception is that I haven’t been active enough! But I’ve been doing what I can, and I’ve been doing what I’m really moved to do. I’ve been really inspired by these improvisatory gestures that friends of mine I actually haven’t heard from in a really long time have invited me to take part in. I got a text message a few weeks ago from Rand Steiger at UCSD: I’m working on this project, any time you want to, just send me a little file, something you’re working on. So we’ve been sending things back and forth. And he’s been doing signal processing on everything from my rendition of “Danny Boy” to the Telemann Fantasies I’ve been relearning and recording just for giggles.

I have this little ritual: I climb out on my fire escape… it’s the only outdoor time I get. And I’m an outdoors person, so it’s really, really hard for me to be indoors. But I have a little fire escape, I take a beer out there, I take my flute, I take a little little microphone, and I escape into the 17th and 18th centuries, and I play Couperin and Rameau and Telemann with the birds. So I’ve been sending recordings to Rand, and then he signal-processes them and sends them back. We turned the Telemann into this thing that’s like the 18th century goes into outer space.

And now we’re working on a sort of sonic “exquisite corpse” letter thing, where I send a 10-second improvisation, he puts his signal processing on it, and he sends it to Wilfrido Terrazas, this amazing flutist who’s now at  UCSD, who’s a childhood friend of mine and has always been one of my flute-playing heroes. And then Wilfrido does an improvisation based on that, then Rand signal-processes that and sends it back to me. And we’re going to build pieces that way.

That’s the closest I can get to collaborating right now, and I feed off of collaboration. Any project, even if it’s a solo product, is a collaborative project, so I really need even the approximation of that kind of interaction. I was asked to do this concert – well, “concert” in quotes –  for Princeton Livestock Exchange, something that’s happening in a couple of weeks. And I was like, well, I’m playing half my repertoire on Thursday of next week. Even in this virtual world, I don’t like the idea of repeating repertoire. As somebody who does contemporary music, I want each concert to really be new and thoughtful. And we’re all kind of over-saturated with online content, so I don’t want to just repeat a bunch of stuff that I’m doing; I want to generate new material. And even just that charge has been really activating for me: just this morning I came up with a whole new project that I’m going to do for that.

I was supposed to be up at Mount Tremper Arts this week, getting ready to move into Queenslab, and I would have done a huge Density reprise concert and premiered Liza’s piece. And I could sit around and weep about that—or I could just put on a pair of pants and play for four hours in my living room for a little green dot that’ll make me feel slightly more connected to the composers and to the music and to the people that I had hoped to be sharing this live experience with, and partying after the premiere.

I think we’ve learned, in this day and age, that the pants are kind of optional.

I’m telling you, though, you’ve got to be careful with that. [laughs] The frame is slightly larger than what we see on the screen! So there will be pants on Thursday.

There will be pants. So then let’s talk about the logistics of the Density project that you’re putting together. I’m not going to ask you to reveal any of the five surprise world premieres that you’re dotting throughout the program. But I do want to ask about the nature of what they are—by which I mean, have you generated new repertory just for this concert? Or are these things that you were working on, that maybe you were going to be doing in some different context?

It’s sort of all of the above. Some of them are stray things that will now have a home. Some of them will be very spontaneous. Some will be excerpts of things in process, and some of them are just lovely things that people have written for me in this wrenching period of isolation, and that I think should have a celebratory first outing.

As far as the rest of the problem goes, I mean, look, we’re all just making this up, so I have no idea how it’s going to work. But I was intrigued by the half-hour set format that I felt worked really beautifully in the ESS concerts, and I think it’s the right amount of music when you are home. It’s the right amount of concentration, looking at a screen for 30 minutes, for the people who actually want to listen for 30 minutes. Certainly, the beautiful thing about a marathon that’s online is that you can come and go, you can watch the entire thing—you can be hardcore about it, you can be softcore.

In many ways, I think a longer concert is more conducive to this bizarre environment that we’re in. It’s more celebratory. It gives people more agency to come and go. I like the 30-minute set, for those who really do want to pay attention for 30 minutes. So I’ve conceived of these 30-minute sets the same way that I would if I had a 30-minute live set. I want it to be thoughtful, I want there to be contrast, I want it to tell some kind of story. I organized it somewhat chronologically through the cycle, mostly just to organize my brain around it. It’s helpful for me, because these pieces live differently in my body memory and mind.

You certainly must have been limited, though, in terms of which pieces you could choose, simply because some are much more interactive than others.

Yes, there’s a lot of stuff that I just couldn’t do right now. I’d love to do George Lewis’s piece; right now, there’s just no way to pull that off, technologically, even with all of the telematic geniuses that we have out there. We can’t do justice to that. So a lot of it was, what music could really sound good in this format? The last thing in the world I want to do is give a compromised rendition of someone’s piece. So a lot of decisions made themselves that way, but you know what? There’s a lot of repertoire to choose from, right now. It’s almost eight hours of music that I have to choose from, and I’m only doing a small portion of that—pieces I can do with tape, without live electronics.

Dealing with latency and with click tracks and with all of the different effects required in these pieces, it’s really, really tricky. I’m spending most of my time this week sound-checking and practicing. And I’m working with a wonderful grad student at Harvard, Kelley Sheehan, whose music you’ve probably heard before—she’s incredible. We’re together navigating OBS, the Open Broadcaster Software that ESS used for their shows. I got a little test run and crash course with the amazing engineers at ESS, and I find that platform so much better for music than Zoom.

Formatwise, though, to answer your question: the 30-minute set, plus a 15-minute break. The screen won’t just go dark during those 15 minutes; I’ll probably share some of the other long-distance collaboration stuff that I’ve been doing over video, we’ll plug other people’s projects, we’re going to plug fundraising for the New Music Solidarity Fund.

So then, potentially you could incorporate video from some of the more collaborative works in past Density programs?

Totally. We’ve got that video content. We’ll probably show some of the Tuning Meditation stuff. And then, little surprises. So if somebody really wanted to sit and watch the whole thing for four hours, I hope they’d be entertained the entire time.

It’s amazing how engaged I’ve felt, “attending” some of these online events, whether it’s the Bang on a Can Marathon – where you had the same endearingly geeky interviews and occasionally awkward set changes that always happened during marathons, only this time in separate little Zoom windows – or in the ESS concert setting, with the really animated and invigorating chat box running alongside the concert window. A purist would say you shouldn’t be chatting during a concert, but honestly the enthusiasm there gave a real sense of being in a space for an event, alongside other people, and then the tip jar gets passed around unobtrusively. I found it genuinely compelling, and I’ve gone back for a lot more programming there. I’ll get a notification that they’ve gone on the air, and I don’t even check to see who’s playing; I’ll just click it and see what’s happening. I did that one evening a few weeks ago and realized that I was watching a percussionist improvising live in Hong Kong, where technically it was the next morning already, and I realized: we’re living now in the wired-up world that Pauline Oliveros envisioned.

I’m so glad that you had a good experience with ESS, because I think what they’re doing is exceptional. They were one of the first responders, and also, the quality of sound… they’ve got incredible engineers there who really care about this. We don’t have those engineers on our team, but we’re going to attempt to do the show with that same platform, to Twitch.

And I have to say, I was a convert with the chat. I’ve always been chat-averse. I don’t enjoy it on social media, and I’m definitely a “don’t read the comments” kind of artist. But when the concerts are as thoughtfully curated as ESS shows are, and when the audience is so interested and so diverse and so engaged, I have actually found myself not just enjoying the chats, but learning so much from them—and just getting a shot of humor and levity in these chats is also really, really welcome.

So that’ll be a big component to Thursday’s show, too, and I hope, especially during the breaks, that people can go nuts on the chat.

Thinking about the chats and about context, one exciting thing about witnessing your participation in the Sequesterfest is that it was clear a lot of the audience was there for Joe McPhee, Ken Vandermark, the more jazz-oriented participants. Watching those people newly discovering your work, in real time, was an absolute treat. It pointed to one more feature in this online world we’re inhabiting: we tend to fixate on drawbacks and liabilities, but the potential for contact and crosspollination is real, too. It really does make me think about the work Pauline was doing with telematic performance, so long before most of the rest of us were really paying attention.

She was getting us prepared for this moment.

She was so deeply attuned to the idea of linking people in different places, and in different times. I mean, when you really think about it, even the notion of Anthony Braxton writing works for performers on different planets suddenly doesn’t seem so far-fetched anymore.

No, not at all.

It’s great that in this time of crisis and need and fear, there also is still a joy in discovery available, if you’re open to it.

Amen to that. And it’s true that Pauline tilled the soil, right? She prepared us. It’s no wonder that so many people are turning to her writings and to her scores right now, because they are so open, and they’re so inclusive. I mean… she is just with us.

Claire Chase presents her New Music Solidarity Marathon on Thursday, May 14, from 6 to 10pm EDT; musicrebound.com/marathon.

Coming Soon…

Missy Mazzoli
Photograph: Marylene May

Composer Missy Mazzoli talks about the milestones that got away in Chicago, productions of Breaking the Waves lost onstage and found online, and how Luna Composition Lab is addressing collaboration in a time of isolation…