05.08.2021 DENSITY 2036
Concert by New York flutist Claire Chase
What was the primary motivation to initiate the Density 2036 project?
Claire Chase: The idea stemmed from a question, really. What might the Density 21.5 of the 21st century be? What might it sound like? When the piece turns 100 in 2036, what will it be like to look back on a century of solo flute work written in its wake? How far will we have taken the ideas unfurled by Varèse in 1936 and how courageous will we be about evolving these ideas further as players, composers and listeners between now and then? The original piece – four and a half minutes in duration, just two pages in length, but monolithic in its intensity and uncompromising in its urgency – sort of drop-kicked the flute and its players into new terrain when it was premiered. It was, I like to say, a before-and-after-moment for the history of the flute and also more broadly for the history of music for a solo performer – one of the most powerful and vulnerable acts, a body wordlessly baring its soul through an object. Density is a kind of song, an anthem, and one that grabs you by your innards and doesn’t let go. Suddenly passé were the days of the flute as an incidental instrument whose default mode was pure, pleasing lyricism and suddenly unleashed was the flute as an agent of power, raw and wild and capable of penetra- ting the deepest parts of our souls (and ear-drums!).
The general project text on the website speaks of a “new program of flute music that seeks to expand the boundaries of the instrument”? Which are these boundaries?
One of my favorite James Baldwin quotes, that “the purpose of art is to lay bare the questions that have been hidden by the answers”, has been a guiding principle for this project. We think we know what the flute, humankind’s most ancient instrument, can sound like. We think we know, in the early 21st century, what the solo performer is capable of. But we have no idea! We are just beginning. So, in a sense the project proposes no answer, and although it ends in 2036 that is by no means a finish line; it only offers questions, and if anything the “finish line” will be another departure point, one even less defined and (I hope!) more capacious than the one I started out with. It is a commitment over these decades to do everything that I can to propel the instrument, its players and the bodies of work made, densely, if you will, into the depths of our most burning unknowns. This is what I live for.
Do the new works have a direct musical connection to Edgard Varèse’s Density 21.5? If yes: what is it?
I don’t prescribe anything for the composers I work with in terms of direct or indirect connections to the Varèse – and all the composers have a very different relationship with the piece to begin with. Generally, I don’t like prescribing anything for collaborators. What interests me is how far an artist is willing to go to move beyond what they know, how curious they are about abandoning what is comfortable in the service of discovery – how serious they are about ‘play’, in other words! Of course, the three-note opening gesture of the Varèse is so classic as to almost be unavoidable, so many of the pieces end up referencing the original intentionally or unintentionally. But the pieces so far (I’m in year eight now…) are all so different in scope, aesthetic, notation, performance practice. We have evening-length pieces, miniatures, entirely improvised works, entirely notated works, works that are co-created between me and the composer in real time, works conceived in collaboration with sound designers, opera directors, visual artists. The only ‘rule’ of the project, if there is one, is that I depart each year from what I’ve done before.
How did the program of the Darmstadt concert turn out? How did you choose the composers?
First, let me say how honored I am to present this program and these composers in this historic place! I am very excited to share this music with the Darmstadt community this week. It’s always a bit tricky to program Density programs simply because there is already so much repertoire – about ten hours so far… and that’s a lot to choose from! I wanted to pick a balance of pieces by composers that are currently on the Summer Course faculty (George Lewis, Du Yun), composers that have had a history with the organization (Liza Lim, and more recently Marcos Balter) and emerging composers that might be new to audiences here (Felipe Lara and Suzanne Farrin). I always like to present a mix of electroacoustic and acoustic works, introspective works and more in-your-face works, and I like to think about crafting a cohesive story over the course of an hour – I always play these pieces continuously, so that the flow isn’t interrupted by applause. I know this sounds strange, but as a performer I really don’t like applause. I’d like very much to run away after the piece and sit quietly with the composer. That would be ungracious on stage of course, and the convention is beautiful and means so much to so many, so I compromise and have applause at the end, but not in between pieces.
What’s special/unique about it? And what challenges does it present?
The pieces on this program are intensely physically demanding. Even the more introspective pieces ask a lot of the flutist in terms of stamina in a range of registers, dynamics and on various instruments that each have their own challenges (flute, bass flute, ocarina, glissando-flute), so it’s always a bit of a high wire act to play them in succession. But I must say that it has been wonderful and very rich to teach some of these pieces this week and to discover them newly in the hands of a younger generation of flutists. I feel like the student here, in the best possible way. I tell my students that I am best as a teacher when I am teaching what I myself most want to learn, so we have been learning together, and that’s the greatest fun. In a sense, I think about this program as being for them. They’ll play all of these pieces in their careers, they’ll teach them, and they’ll be the ones to take them to new places. I just get the party started!
If you had to choose a single sound to describe the Density 2036 project, what would that be?
I think it would be a wailing siren, calling across generations.
From April to June 2014, I was fortunate to take part in a residency at Civitella Ranieri, a 15th-century castle turned foundation and residency in Umbria/Italy. One former fellow, G. Mend-Ooyo, a Mongolian poet and calligrapher particularly called my attention. He was born and raised by a nomadic herding family, in the Mongolian steppe; his work has been translated in forty languages.
I asked him to show me some of his work and he invited me to visit his studio in order to see the work he had produced during the residency at Civitella. Mend-Ooyo’s calligraphy particularly impressed me. The bold gestures, elemental lyricism and minute details were astounding to me. The following afternoon Mend-Ooyo presented me with two wonderful calligraphies, both in black, red, pencil, over a yellow and gold paper; one with the Mongolian symbol for music, the other with fire and water symbols. I asked Mend-Ooyo: “How do you create such incredible calligraphies?” He replied: “Meditation, meditation, meditation for a very long time… then calligraphy with one quick gesture.” I found the approach extremely poetic.
The following week Claire Chase arrived at the castle to work with me on Parábolas na Caverna and to play a solo concert. I decided to present Mend-Ooyo with a small piece, as a gesture of my gratitude. I decided that I would ‘meditate’ or imagine the general character of a solo bass flute work for an entire evening, then wake up and write it in less than 30 minutes.
The work uses the letters of G. Mend-Ooyo’s name as a starting point for the pitch material: G (sol), Me (E-flat, from solfege), D (re), Do (C) The vowel sounds from his name are also used to modulate the flute when singing and playing simultaneously is required.
A friend introduced me to the idea of Emily Dickson’s letters. He quoted a phrase in a talk that I found astounding (“to multiply the harbors does not diminish the sea”). As I went searching for that phrase, I began to read others along the way, each with its own sparkling revelation of her genius.
Emergent is the first work in my Recombinant Trilogy, three works for solo instrument and electronics that use interactive digital delays, spatialization and timbre transformation to transform the acoustic sounds of the instrument into multiple digitally created sonic personalities that follow diverse yet intersecting spatial trajectories. Advancing a conversational aesthetic, albeit in non-improvised music, in these works foreground and background deliberately conflate. Doppelgängers are created that blur the boundaries between original and copy, while shrouding their origin in processes of repetition. As non-linearity is invoked and uncertainty is assured, the electronics and the solo instrument blend, intersect, diverge, or they suddenly converge into unified ensembles. The software for these works was written by Damon Holzborn, using the Max platform, and the spatial and timbral treatments were composed by me, using the software.
Emergent was commissioned by the Pnea Foundation and written for flutist Claire Chase. The work addresses Edgard Varèse’s avowed preference for sound-producing machines over sound-reproducing ones by addressing the composer’s 1936 introduction of a fourth dimension – “sound projection” – to music. Varèse’s statement seems to obliquely invoke the notion of spacetime, an interpretation supported by a 1968 account of one of the composer’s dreams that suggests the related notion of quantum teleportation as well as the sound of my piece. Varèse was in a telephone booth talking to his wife, who was at the time in Paris. According to his account, “his body became so light, so immaterial, so evanescent that suddenly, limb by limb, he disintegrated and flew away toward Paris, where he was reconstructed, as though all his being had become spirit.” (Fernand Ouellette, A Biography of Edgard Varèse, translated by Derek Coltman, New York: Orion Press 1968, p. 74.)
Sex Magic is a 45-minute piece for contrabass flute (with alto ocarina, Aztec death whistle, bell, pedal bass drum), live electronics and installation of kinetic percussion written for and dedicated to Claire Chase.
This is a work about the sacred erotic in women’s history.
This is a work about an alternative cultural logic of women’s power as connected to cycles of the womb – the life-making powers of childbirth, the ‘skin-changing’, world-synchronizing temporalities of the body and the womb center as a site of divinatory wisdom and utterance.
The music was very much prompted by Claire’s connection to her contrabass flute named ‘Bertha’ which then suggested kinships to particular blown instruments, to drums and other percussion. The work is dedicated to Claire and to the voices, sentience and wisdom energies of these instruments. The work is divided into four major stages (with part 2 divided into 6 subsections):
I. Salutations to the cowrie shells
III. Vermillion – on Rage
IV. Throat Song
V. Moss – on the Sacred Erotic
VI. Telepathy (silent meditation)
The Slow Moon Climbs
Over the years, I have written quite a few pieces for Claire, each of them reflects who we were at the time, as well as our evolving understanding of each other…
As of late, I have been going back to relearn the classical forms. Growing up, playing any Sarabandes from Bach’s Suites was one of my favorite things to do. The playing always accompanied a sense of meditation, grief, bereavement and transcendence.
Historically however, the Sarabande had a rather provocative and coquettish beginning. It was said to have received its name at Seville from a fiend in the form of a woman. It was a group dance mainly done by women and was considered wild in manner and a highly sexual pantomime in nature, with undulations of the body, massive hip movements, flirtations, indecent song lyrics and women using castanets. When it was introduced to France, the dance included men who would dance it as well. They would occasionally use the tambourine, which was considered effeminate in those days. People who sang it were arrested, lashed and exiled in its younger days.
In the piece, I also looked into the orthodox chant, sung on the 24th of January: Xenia of Rome and Her Two Female Slaves (from the 5th century). In the hinted scents of Bach’s Sarabande you would hear from the beginning and ever so present throughout the piece, is a story behold between Claire and our beloved friend who passed away.
I often wonder about bereavement. When and how it pauses, recharges, morphs and restarts. Along the way, we possibly also hold bereavement reserved for ourselves too.
I am so close to you I am distant, I am so mingled with you I am apart, I am so open I am hidden, I am so strong I totter.
This is a fruit of life to me: intoxicating, in exile and always at home.
In memoriam of Elise Mann.
Pan is an evening-length musical drama for flute, live electronics and a large ensemble of community performers. It tells the story of the mythological goat-god Pan (one of only two Greek deities said to have been put to death) in a series of staged episodes exploring the contradictions and betrayals in Pan’s relationships. Members of the community in which the work is performed are collaborators alongside flutist Claire Chase, director Douglas Fitch and sound engineer Levy Lorenzo. Tonight’s performance is a concert presentation of three musical excerpts from the larger work: Death of Pan, Echo and Soliloquy.
Pan Creative Team