The Indomitable Optimist
In helping change the definition and perception of classical musical, flutist Claire Chase has come to earn the support of its traditionalists—and bring new music to legions of new audiences.
Claire Chase is an acclaimed flute player and advocate for new and experimental music. She was the first flutist to be awarded a MacArthur “Genius Grant” (in 2012) and the first to be awarded an Avery Fisher Prize for outstanding achievement in classical music.
Born in 1978 in Leucadia, CA, Chase began playing flute as a child, making her debut with the San Diego Symphony at age 14. After graduating from Oberlin College in 2001, she founded the International Contemporary Ensemble and served as artistic director of the celebrated experimental music company until 2017.
As a soloist, Chase has premiered over 100 new works for the flute, appearing in venues across Europe and North America, including the Kennedy Center and Carnegie Hall. In 2013, she launched Density 2036, a 24-year commissioning project to create an entirely new repertoire for flute, with plans to play a 24-hour marathon of the new work in 2036.
She is a professor of the practice of music at Harvard University.
Even when the whole world is telling Claire Chase that she’s wrong, she’ll listen carefully and wait a beat. She seems to understand that a little distance can leave room for contemplation.
Claire Chase: The way we listen creates our life. Listening is the basis of all culture.
Yet Claire Chase has spent much of her own life not listening, at least not listening to the sound of rejection. An extraordinarily accomplished flutist and music pioneer, an educator unbound by conservatory restraints, she is a virtuoso who shares the stage with novices. But in the beginning she heard many more nos than yeses. Yet she played her way through rejection with an indefatigable optimism. Perhaps Chase, who the New York Times has hailed as “the most important flutist of our time,” is listening to something many of us can’t hear.
Chase: We’re always listening in a conditioned way. We are conditioned. And I think if we’re doing our work as human beings, we’re working on de-conditioning ourselves, but to aspire to listen unconditionally to something that is unfamiliar to us is one of the most beautiful things that we can do, to reach out and try to understand another human being.
Born in 1978, Chase was raised near the sounds of the ocean in Southern California. She aspired to become a professional baseball player until a particular piece of flute music changed everything. She was 13 when her teacher played her Edgard Varese’s 1936 work for solo flute, “Density 21.5,” combining two seemingly contrary melodic ideas. The groundbreaking piece ignores the rules and invites experimentation. It would alter the course of Chase’s young life. And decades later, it would again take her down a new path, which to her was no big surprise.
Chase: One of the most beautiful things about classical music, and by classical music, I mean all musical traditions that have outlasted, outlived their makers, is that we can go back to a thing that is very old that we think that we know, and we can unknow it. We can experience it newly. We can experience ourselves newly, and that uncertainty is actually the gateway drug. That’s what keeps us hooked.
And so beginning in her teens, Claire Chase found herself hooked on music. Her formal exploration began at the world-renowned Oberlin Conservatory of Music in Ohio. There, she was immersed in the codes and conventions of classical music, playing by the rules in a relentlessly competitive environment. In time, she felt the need to escape, to experiment, to break some rules.
Chase: My musical dream is to be in a world where no tradition or trend is central or dominant and where musics are free to unfurl and evolve because they’re not in walled off gardens or inaccessible concert halls or locked libraries.
And so upon graduating, Chase sought a world where she could unbridle from convention. She landed in Chicago with $500 and a desire to push the boundaries of concert music. Connecting with like-minded music makers, she slowly evolved into a sort of indie flute punk, with the spirit of a troubadour and the scrappiness of a garage band. This mindset would spark her founding of the International Contemporary Ensemble, an artists’ collective for new and experimental works.
Chase: We weren’t thinking about it in terms of careers. We were thinking about it in terms of the creative trajectories, the work, the beautiful as yet unknown ideas of other artists in our generation. And we wanted to be an incubator and a laboratory and a home, a place of belonging for a generation of composers and musicians who were working at the crossroads of different disciplines.
The ensemble played all over Chicago and then all over New York, performances that were free and open to the public. Musically, they were flourishing as they composed and improvised, but making ends meet was proving evermore difficult.
Chase: The group didn’t make a dime. And a lot of the people in my life were asking, people who cared deeply about me were asking me, “What are you doing? What are you doing?” And even some founding members of the group, like, “What are we… This is insane.”
But even as the ensemble was working to upend traditional concepts of classical music, Chase realized she would need the support of its traditionalists. Yet in the first three years of trying to connect with the establishment, she got enough rejections to last a lifetime.
Chase: I wrote 13 grants the first year, not ever having written a grant before because you don’t learn that when you’re getting a bachelor’s of music in flute performance from a conservatory. Wrote 13 grants the first year, was rejected for all 13. I got some practice writing grants. I wrote 15 the second year, was rejected for all 15. I wrote 17 grants the third year and was rejected for 16.
But Claire Chase kept going. She truly believed the world would one day understand. It was a heady time to be living a creative life in Chicago. She had many fellow travelers.
Chase: Once I got out of classical music, of the classical music mindset and started meeting people from experimental theater and from free jazz, from improvised musics, I realized I had plenty of company and so many examples. And so many people who had tenacity and resilience and generosity and humor. You have to have that audacious dream, however closely you keep it to your chest. I do believe that that’s our human responsibility. And as artists, we have to tend to that dream life.
With Chase at the helm, the International Contemporary Ensemble grew from a scrappy startup to a key player in the music world. The recipe was simple, but not easy. Rather than waiting for audiences to come to them, the ensemble went out into the world, building their audience from the ground up by commissioning and performing hundreds of new works. It took a while, but the world did eventually catch up with Chase and her cohorts. In 2010, she made her Carnegie Hall debut. She invited her fellow ensemble musicians to share the stage and they played to a boisterous audience. Then in 2012, she was awarded a so-called “Genius Grant” by the MacArthur Foundation. The International Contemporary Ensemble had found its groove and its ecosystem of music continued to grow. In a decade when audiences for classical music were declining, theirs were growing. But there was a reckoning on the horizon: 15 years in, Chase faced a painful decision. She had come to the realization that she would either have to leave the organization she had helped create or watch it stagnate. It was a classic case of founder’s dilemma. A theory that proposes that over time, organizations can become too wrapped up in the vision and personality of their founders.
Chase: I realized at a certain point, though, that like the musics that we’re talking about, that we hope will outlast the people who make them, that this organization, like any organization that wants to be more than a collection of people, that wants to be an organization that will continue to be of service to the next generation of musicians. It was going to be necessary for me to remove myself from that. And to give the organization a chance, one has to lovingly leave. It was really, really hard. I would say it was like one of the hardest things I’ve done in my life.
Not everyone can walk away from the fruits of their life’s work, but Chase has never been driven by personal ambition. She’s more interested in her role as one participant in a deeply rooted living tradition.
Chase: This is the beautiful thing about the flute: it’s our oldest identifiable musical instrument. And so that the traditions of flute playing are our oldest classical cultural traditions. And the flute that was found in present day Slovenia, that’s 43,000 years old.
AJC: Do you feel like you are a part of this 43,000 year-long journey?
Chase: I absolutely think of myself and all of the players as part of that tradition. And I think that’s one of the most helpful ways of dislodging this idea of classical music as a Western European construct, because it’s part of a vast and rich and expansive and complex human history of music-making, of classical music-making. I think it’s important to be clear that we are all tiny a speck.
By Claire Chase’s own definition, we don’t know whether or not the music she’s making is classical music, because we don’t know what pieces of music will outlive their makers. It’s a mystery and that’s part of the joy and the risk.
Chase: I feel that while we have no idea what will withstand the test of time, what we do know is that there are ways to nourish and to resource music that is being made in our lifetime that do give it a fighting chance. And so multiple performances, multiple divergent interpretations, and multiple listenings in different environments—all of these things contribute to the evolution of a piece of music.
Not too long ago, Claire Chase was an upstart pushing against traditions. Today, she finds herself peering back at her younger self. In 2017, she became the professor of the practice of music at Harvard University. As she fosters self-direction and peer-to-peer learning, it would seem that Claire Chase is becoming the kind of teacher her younger self craved.
Chase: It’s so healthy to be around young people who are poking at everything that you hold dear. It’s wonderful. So, so much of the energy that I, I think, put into the organization through all of those years has transferred to the energy that I’m putting into teaching. It’s opened up a lot of room for me to, well, to play, and to imagine new projects. Things are brewing.
But teaching is today, but a tiny piece of Claire Chase’s world. She curates, commissions, plays and organizes, and she’s inviting everyone to join in. In 2013, she returned to the life altering piece that had so captured her imagination when she was 13, Varese’s 1936 work for solo flute “Density 21.5.” Typical of Chase, she wasn’t happy merely to play it again. Instead, she pledged to interrogate it and thus launched a 24 year-long commissioning project that will create an entire new body of his repertoire called “Density 2036” for the year in which it will culminate. It will also be the 100th anniversary of Varese’s work, and it’s Chase’s intention to play all the music created by the project in one 24-hour marathon.
Chase: Well, the truth is that I have no idea what these years are gonna look like. The only rule of the project really is that each year I depart from what I knew the previous year. So obviously, a different group of collaborators, different composers, but also to the extent that it’s possible, I don’t ever wanna repeat techniques. I don’t wanna repeat trends, aesthetics. I really want each one to unfurl newly.
Among the now completed works is Pan, a 90-minute piece for solo flute, live electronics and mass community participation, that explores ambiguity and the discomfort it brings.
Chase: The idea of the piece is that it can be done with all ages, all abilities, group of folks in any place that we travel. And being on stage with folks who’ve never been on stage before, who have over the course of the week that we rehearsed this chaotic circus of a piece, have learned to mount, essentially, an entire opera, and who’ve learned to play instruments. They’re all instruments that can be played by anybody. A tuned wineglass chorus, a tuned wine bottle chorus, handheld percussion. We all use our bodies and when I’m on stage with a group of people like that, those are my truly, truly happiest moments. I’m not performing for someone; I’m experiencing with a group of people. It’s the best.
Claire Chase has committed her life to the rich history and present possibilities of music and especially those of our own instrument. And as she works to shape and define the future, she may also be helping us to become a little better at listening unconditionally.