Claire Chase Breaks Down Barriers in Cutting the Circle of Sounds

Classical music has a not-entirely-undeserved reputation for elitism, which, of course, is rooted in creating divisions. Divisions between art music and popular music. Divisions between professionals and amateurs. Divisions between noise and music. And, of course, the division between the audience and the performers. But what happens if you try to remove some of those divisions? Is it still classical music or art music?

Claire Chase demonstrating the techqnique

Claire Chase demonstrates one of the techniques from Salvatore Sciarrino’s Cutting the Circle of Sounds to the community flute players who will help perform it Wednesday night. Photo courtesy St. Paul Chamber Orchestra

Claire Chase, an Oberlin-trained flutist, is removing those barriers and answering the question with a resounding, “Yes!” She and the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra are collaborating to bring two works for solo flute or flutes with community participation to the Twin Cities on February 1, 2017: Cutting the Circle of Sounds with Claire Chase. That concert is sold out, but on February 4, she will also be performing a concert titled Flights of Fancy, consisting of more traditional works by composers such as Adès, Couperin, and Respighi, as well as contemporary composers Saariaho and Fujikura.

It’s difficult, especially after working with her for long hours over three days, not to refer to her by her first name, and she’d welcome the lack of barrier that eliminating the title and last name formal construction brings. A small, dapper woman who plays instruments bigger than she is, Claire has been a champion of contemporary and experimental classical music since she was 13 years old.

In a story she told to the gathered masses of amateur, semiprofessional, and professional flute players at the rehearsal for Cutting the Circle of Sounds, she related her awakening upon her first hearing of Density 21.5 by Edgard Varèse. That piece was one of the first flute works to make use of the sounds a flute can produce that aren’t the typical pure tone, with a middle section that specifically directs the player to use the percussive effect of the keys as part of the sound. (The title, incidentally, refers to the density of platinum, a material used to make some flutes.) When asked a few months later to play for her junior-high-school graduation, she immediately seized upon playing the Varèse piece, to give everyone else the same experience she’d had. “My parents said no,” Claire said with a chagrined laugh—they didn’t want her to alienate the entire school.

Still, she knew that she wanted to play more contemporary and experimental music. After a stint in the Contemporary Music Ensemble at Oberlin College, she founded the International Contemporary Ensemble and embarked upon a solo career. She has been commissioning new pieces for the flute ever since. In fact, she’s committed to commissioning at least one new work per year from 2013 until 2036, the 100th anniversary of Density 21.5, and every few years she’ll be performing all the works in a single marathon performance. She’s titled this project “Density 2036,” and her latest album, released in 2013, is also titled Density. There’s even a bumper sticker on her flute case—that is, her C flute case—that says, “You are my density.” While it’s of course a reference to that piece and her project, one cannot imagine that she is unaware of the Back to the Future reference.

Indeed, she’s described herself as a geek, and she’s very excited that part of the performance is going to include having what look like lightsabers—fluorescent lights that change colors—strapped to her body. “I look like I got mauled,” she said after the dress rehearsal, inspecting the marks that the straps left on her arms. She sounded oddly pleased.

The concert’s visual design is by Douglas Fitch. Doug is a visual artist who’s been staging classical music, operas, and ballet for the last couple of decades—with increasingly spectacular results. For Cutting the Circle of Sounds, he’s both the instigator of the lightsaber suit and the person who put Mylar on the floor to reflect various lights onto the ceiling. Aside from the light suit, the lighting effects subtle and perfectly effective. The Mylar creates a sort of smoky-water effect on the swooping wooden ceiling of the Ordway, shifting with Claire’s movements and reflecting the music.

Claire Chase during rehearsal at the Ordway, with the Mylar reflecting blue.

Claire Chase during rehearsal at the Ordway, with the Mylar reflecting blue. Photo by Stephanie Cranford

Speaking of the music, the concert Wednesday night consists of three works. The first is the great Bach Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, originally for organ, arranged for solo flute by Salvatore Sciarrino. Claire will perform it with her back to the audience, as if she were indeed playing the organ, and it’s a tour-de-force work of arrangement and technical brilliance that makes use of acoustical properties of the flute to simulate the polyphony possible on an organ.

The second piece is Marcos Balter’s Pan, three movements of what will ultimately be an operatic, 90-minute work. Incorporating five different flutes (pan pipes, piccolo, C or soprano flute, bass flute, and contrabass flute) as well as whistling, singing, chanting, and all sorts of breathing and percussive noises just for the solo part, Claire travels all around the stage to represent different parts of the story of Pan—the Greek god, yes. The community participants play such diverse instruments as ocarinas (of Time, yes, indeed), tuned wine glasses and bottles, metal and bamboo bamboo chimes, and triangles. A group of children chants in Lingua Ignota, a language made up by the 12th-century nun and composer Hildegard von Bingen. The title of the work refers both to the Greek god and also to the word part that means “all,” and reflects the composer’s desire to bring the community together.

Boxes of the most bootleg Ocarinas of time ever.

These are the actual ocarinas being used during the performance. Photo by Stephanie Cranford

Marcos, who traveled to the Twin Cities for this collaboration, has, like Claire, made himself very accessible to the community participants in the concert and welcomes questions of any sort. He is a Brazilian-born composer who Claire considers to be one of the greats, lauding him as an equal to the Baroque composers who wrote what are generally considered to be the greatest works for the flute. When one listens to the phenomenally expressive flute solo from Pan, it is immediately obvious why. The piece opens with Claire on soprano (standard) flute, playing a solo that requires two lines: one for the notes she must play on flute, and one for the vocal sounds she must make at the same time. The first movement describes the death of Pan after he loses the contest with Apollo, and then the community forces—the orchestra, in effect—play a lament.

Marcos Balter, in a black sweater, surrounded by seated people on the floor.

Marcos Balter speaks with the community flute players. Photo by Stephanie Cranford

Next, we travel back in time and hear Pan—Claire—whistling at sheep. Pan then discovers the sound of wind through reeds, and Claire plays all five flutes listed above in one long, ecstatic solo, accompanied by the wine glasses and bottles, who sit on stage in a circle, and the metal chimes, sitting in the balcony. She makes every section of her solo, from the expressive piccolo solo (words that aren’t often written in a review) to the slow, echoing notes of the contrabass flute and the mouth and key percussion that accompanies it, sound as if they make exactly as much sense to her as the Mozart flute concerto, a very standard work, might to another player. One can’t even consider that some of the words she’s singing or the sounds she’s making are strange, because they seem natural in her context.

For point of comparison, here is Claire Chase playing a different work by Marcos Balter, Pessoa, on bass flute.

Pan, as well as the original Sciarrino composition that makes up the entire second half of the concert, isn’t simply a piece in which the performers sit on the stage and bestow their work to the adoring, receiving audience. In addition to using contemporary composition technique, including adding electronic effects (a harmonizer, a pitch-shifter, and delay, among others, and sometimes several at once) and the element of chance (called aleatoric music—at one point the glass players in the center of the circle are holding up short pieces of music and Claire must locate the numbers in order and play them that way, leaving the timing to change with each performance), Pan also uses the room itself as an instrument. Claire moves around the stage as she plays each part of the solo; the wine glasses and bottles are on stage with her, but the triangles are above the stage to the back, and they intentionally span the whole length of the choir loft. The chanting children’s chorus is in the second balcony above the audience, and the chimes and ocarinas are in the first balcony. The sound, especially in the second movement, the “Lament,” envelops Claire, lying in the middle of the circle, and the entire audience.

The third piece, Salvatore Sciarrino’s Cutting the Circle of Sounds, or Il cerchio tagliato dei suoni in the original Italian, was written for four professional flute players—here, Claire Chase, Julia Bogorad-Kogan (principal flute of the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra), Alicia McQuerrey (second flute/piccolo, St. Paul Chamber Orchestra), and Immanuel Davis (associate professor of flute, University of Minnesota)—and a hundred or so flauti migranti. These “migrating flutists,” here, are the community players, who range in age from 10 to 80; some have been playing flute for only months, and others set aside their flutes for a number of years before picking them back up. Still others are currently professional flutists. Again: the barrier between professional and amateur has been cracked, and we’re all performing together.

None of the sounds that the migrating flutists make in the Sciarrino are the typical pure tone that one might expect; the first sound we all make in the piece is effectively the noise one gets when one doesn’t have enough control to make a low note speak. It’s a wistful, airy noise, and it is used later in the piece to simulate a sigh. We also breathe through our head joints to make a sort of Darth Vader noise (the name the children gave it was “Darth Vader Scuba Diving”), and later we use a tongue-stop to make a thunk like a water droplet. The line between noise and musical sound has intentionally been blurred. None of us learned how to do any of these in high-school band, or in flute lessons, but Claire taught us all the sounds, and how to make them musical, which is simpler than one might think. “See what happens when we all listen? We make music!” Claire said, beaming, after a migration (movement) went particularly well.

While the migrating flutes are wandering around the Ordway, Claire, Julia, Alicia, and Immanuel play. The sounds bounce from one flutist to another, and by extension one location to another—migrating, as it were. A lot of the sounds resemble those of birds; not any one bird in particular, but a lot of different idealized bird sounds. Claire and Doug asked us to think of ourselves as a kind of bird, and Doug exhorted us to consider where we were going and why. Once we had those answers, which are of course different for every player, somehow the migrations fall more into place.

Claire and Doug both, at some point, mentioned the parallel between the current political situation banning immigrants and refugees from certain Muslim countries and the fact that we’re performing a piece about migration, about people moving from one place to another. While they downplayed any particular ideology, on Monday Claire was wearing a shirt advertising her participation in Working in America’s Project&, which focuses on the difficulty of working for a living in the United States and collaborates with artists to create “new models of cultural participation with social impact.” Even though the community flute players skew white, female, and middle to upper class, this particular project will hopefully encourage all the participants to consider the implications of art on social impact and vice versa.

Claire Chase, a short woman in a hat and sleeveless t-shirt, with Stephanie Cranford, also short, in a blue sweater.

The author, left, with Claire Chase, right, after the dress rehearsal. Photo by Stephanie Cranford

Will this piece break down all barriers thrown up by classical music and its associated gatekeepers? Undoubtedly not, but any crack in the wall is a place to start. And even the best of the best—which absolutely includes Claire, the two women from the SPCO, and the professor from the U—aren’t as inaccessible as we might think. Their humanity was often on display; Marcos told us upfront that as this is a premiere, sometimes he wouldn’t be sure what he wanted from us yet. The various conductors helping with the different groups of instruments in Pan made mistakes and missed entrances like any of us might do. During Pan, Claire asked a few of the wine-glass players to carry her flutes onto stage and set them on the floor. Most flutists past high school are aghast at the idea of setting a flute directly on the ground where it might be stepped on, but Claire wasn’t worried at all. (I’m lucky enough to be allowed to bring her bass flute onto stage with me.)

As a final anecdote, when asked whether the correct term is “flutist” or “flautist,” Claire and the two SPCO flute players all agreed that “flautist” sounded pretentious. “I’m definitely a flutist, not a flautist,” Alicia McQuerry said, “but I also like to think of myself as a broad, not a lady.” The community flute players all chuckled at that. But whether we think of ourselves as broads or ladies (or none of the above), as flutists or flautists, as professionals or amateurs, as musicians or just people who play sometimes, on February 1 we’ll all come together with the audience and be a community.

As mentioned, Cutting the Circle of Sounds with Claire Chase is sold out, but tickets for the February 4 performance of Flights of Fancy are still available here as of this publication.

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