Something unusual happens when people talk about flutist Claire Chase. Seasoned musicians light up with cheerful optimism. They use superlatives that would seem reckless if they weren’t repeated so often. The most jaded among them seem incapable of negativity.
“It’s so hard to talk about Claire,” said composer Marcos Balter. “She is so much more than a virtuoso flautist or pedagogue. She is a real catalyst for change. But not only that. She makes you think anything is possible.”
Chase’s reputation is all the more remarkable for the level-headedness she maintains as one of the most enterprising and resourceful musicians in her field—that is, one of the busiest fundraisers and dedicated interpreters of new music, and the unconventional gigging she often does. to demand. This, on top of a life commuting between Cambridge, Massachusetts, where she teaches at Harvard University; Brooklyn; and Princeton, NJ, where her partner, the author Kirstin Valdez Quade, works and where they raised their 10-month-old daughter.
This month is one of the biggest stress tests yet on her schedule. Earlier in May, she played Kaija Saariaho’s concert “L’Aile du Songe” with the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra at Carnegie Hall. She then plans a 10-performance marathon in which she looks back over the past decade of her “Density 2036” project, a colossal initiative intended to last 24 years, in which she has commissioned new works for the flute every year, leading up to the centenary of Edgar Varèse’s solo for her instrument “Density 21.5.”
Her upcoming concerts will culminate in two premieres, May 24 at the Kitchen and the following day at Carnegie’s Zankel Hall. She is also releasing a box set of ‘Density’ recordings and starting a fellowship to ensure this music reaches the next generation of flautists.
In an interview at her Brooklyn apartment, Chase, who turns 45 on Wednesday, recalled being told that once you get older, everything else becomes “like miniature golf.” That helped.
“Two weeks into our daughter’s life, I thought, oh, I get it,” she said. “I’ve got these 10 ‘Density’ shows and stuff finally launching, and it’s really mini golf. And it’s such a gift because I can’t possibly take what I do seriously. The only really important thing is feeding and caring for and learning from this little human.”
Much has changed in Chase’s life since “Density” began, but her state of restlessness has been a constant. She was a founding artistic director of the International Contemporary Ensemble – arguably America’s foremost performers of new work – which had emerged in 2001 from her time at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music. With that group she made commissions that put composers like Balter on the map.
But by the time “Density” took off, Chase knew she wasn’t going to be with the ensemble forever. Leaving, she said, “was always in the back of my mind. All artists – we have to be very honest about what we’re afraid of, and I was really scared to hold this thing down. It was one of the hardest things she’s ever done, she added, but also one of the best lessons she’s ever learned.
As the years of “Density” progressed, more developments came. She joined the Harvard faculty and was asked to become one of eight collaborative partners of the San Francisco Symphony under its music director, Esa-Pekka Salonen. She met Quade and started a family. And ever since, she approaches her work with a fresh sense of time.
“I only have so much time to give each day, and so much energy,” Chase said. “If this month of ‘Density’ had happened in any other part of my life, I think I’d practice eight hours a day, and I’d live and eat and break and only see this stuff.”
Even with the limited time she has, Chase is seen by fellow musicians as very dedicated – whether she’s touring Felipe Lara’s Double Concerto with Esperanza Spalding or revisiting the ‘Density’ repertoire. Audiences can also tell from her animated but not over the top movements, staggering technical skill across the entire flute family, and elaborate techniques that branch into vocalization and dramatic lyric recitation.
Composer and scholar George E. Lewis, now artistic director of the International Contemporary Ensemble, said her interpretation of his early “Density” piece “Emergent” has evolved so much that it sounds “like the difference between early and late Coltrane.” Susanna Mälkki, who has led Chase in performances of the Lara concerto, as well as the Saariaho at Carnegie, said she stands out among contemporary music specialists because, while some may be “very scholarly about it,” Chase doesn’t forget that, essentially, the most composers simply reach listeners.
“If we approach this as an intellectual exercise, it won’t work,” Mälkki added. “We have to find a balance, and she’s so generous and involved, it’s fascinating. And from there, her aura just spreads.
It spreads not only to fellow artists, but also to colleagues in the wider classical music field. Lewis said Chase has a knack for seeing “the way things could be, not the way they are now,” and in doing so, she drags you into the excitement and makes you believe you can do anything.
Salonen recalled meeting her as part of a New York University project devoted to the future of classical music. When the inevitable topic of getting young people interested in and on the boards of institutions came up, he recalled, she said “her problem with ICE is that she would really like to see some older board and audience members.”
“The mouth fell open,” he said. “You could hear it. Then I thought, this woman is doing something. She’s got her finger on something we don’t.
Through the ensemble, Chase caught the attention of Matthew Lyons, a curator at the nonprofit experimental art organization The Kitchen. When she introduced the idea of ”Density” before it even started, he quickly got on board. “I have a soft spot for long-term creative projects,” he said, “and Claire just came in with this infectious energy and determination and courage to take it on.”
The Kitchen has been the New York home for “Density,” a space where Chase has been given time to prepare theatrical multimedia presentations for each edition. A program can include just one full piece — such as this month’s two premieres, Craig Taborn’s “Busy Griefs and Endangered Charms” and Anna Thorvaldsdottir’s “Ubique” — or it can be a series of new works. Anyway, an episode is usually about an hour, with the idea that the project can be concluded with a 24-hour performance.
The roster of composers has been diverse in almost every sense of the word: age, race, gender identity, career stage. “It’s not uniform,” Balter said. “Claire is the glue, but there is no aesthetic glue.”
If there’s a defining aesthetic, it’s virtuosity. Lewis said an assignment for her means writing music for “someone who can do just about anything.” “Busy Griefs,” which premieres at the Kitchen on the 24th, calls on the performers to wander through the audience, navigating noted and improvised material; However, ‘Ubique’, at Carnegie Hall on the 25th, is fully noted, a journey in itself, but one that leaves nothing to chance.
Thorvaldsdottir said she “always envisioned Claire in everything I was writing,” but balanced her technique with more abstract ideas of density and ubiquity—”an exploration of colors and timbres and texture nuances between the instruments.” In composing especially for Chase, Thorvaldsdottir is far from alone among the “Density” contributors; it can be hard to imagine anyone other than Chase performing this idiosyncratic, challenging, and sometimes large-scale music.
Chase is aware of how, as ‘Density’ enters its second decade, she must ensure that the new repertoire not only exists, but also spreads beyond her own concert schedule. She’s already a teacher and mentor — young flautists “follow her like little puppies,” Lewis said — and now she’s also created a “Density” community, the first class of which was announced this month.
Ten aspiring flautists will take on one of the project’s pieces and spend a year studying it with Chase, and often the composer, then perform and possibly record it. Future concerts may not have the grand multimedia treatment of a Kitchen program, but, Claire said, that’s always been the plan.
“My dream for all pieces, not just ‘Density’ pieces, but anything I commission,” she added, “is that it could possibly work with me and a Bluetooth speaker on a granny cart in the subway.”
With that philosophy, ‘Density’ is starting to look a lot more like, well, the rest of classical music: endlessly interpreted, with endless possibilities for how it’s presented. All it takes for repertoire to survive is continuous performance, generation after generation. Chase’s communication, she hopes, is a start.
“One little thing at a time,” she said. “It’s such a gift to think about 20 years from now, or even 10 years from now, and then 13 years from now when this is all over. Oh, then I’ll be so sad. What am I going to do?”