A Bunch of People Doing Something

An Interview with Claire Chase about her Density 2036 project and Creating a New Repertoire

Flutist, curator, advocate for new music, collaborator, MacArthur Fellow, cofounder of the International Contemporary Ensemble, Professor of the Practice in the Department of Music at Harvard University, and possible major league shortstop Claire Chase has . . . done a lot of things. It would be, at least mildly, shocking if any reader of this journal hadn’t been affected by her work in one way or another, whether consciously or otherwise.

One of Claire’s most ambitious projects is her 23-year commissioning series, entitled Density 2036 in reference to Edgard Varèse’s groundbreaking flute solo “Density 21.5,” written in 1936 and named after the density of platinum, the metal that makes up most flutes. She recently performed the sixth concert of compositions from this series in New York’s legendary performing venue, The Kitchen.

Excepting millions of her other amazing projects, it is this series that brings her to this issue’s installation of A Bunch of People Doing Something. Our editor, Nate Wooley, in one of his instances of moonlighting, began a commissioning series for trumpet in 2015, entitled For/With, and jumped at the chance to pick Claire’s brain. They spoke over email in early May.

Let’s start with some background before we get to the good stuff. Where did the idea for the Density 2036 commissioning project come from ? And, maybe more to the point of those trying to do something similar, what occurred to make such a wonderfully massive project realizable ?

The idea stemmed from a series of questions, 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 thrusting and 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 experimentalism—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 passed 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 penetrating the deepest parts of our souls
(and eardrums). 

One of my favorite [James] Baldwin quotes, “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, our 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 open 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 player, the body of the player, and the body of work made, forward and down, densely, if you will, into the depths of our most urgent unknowns.

I’ve been putting on the For/With series for the last two years now and, twice already, I’ve decided “never again, it’s too much work !” How do you handle Density 2036, which has a much larger set of needs, knowing it has a set life of 23 years ?

In many ways Density 2036 is just an offshoot—one little strain—of a larger pull that I have always had to create new bodies of work and to take responsibility for the environments in which that work is created. Considered that way, the project feels small, like just one part of me. It’s one line of work for one little tube of metal (or wood, or bone, or signal processing, or robotics, anon), centered around the question, “How far can we push this instrument—and the spirit that runs through it—into the future ?” I know this sounds a little odd, but of all the things I do, the Density is actually the simplest one. I find it very grounding, knowing that each year I will return to these questions and each year, in a sense, I’ll start over. (The only rule of the project is that each piece in the cycle must be a departure from the last.) The other things I do—running an organization, teaching, designing curricula, cultural production, social activism—these are much more difficult, much more unwieldy. Density 2036 is perhaps the one uncomplicated thing in my life. Complex, yes, and certainly demanding, but uncomplicated as long as I follow the “rules” : invent ; invent anew. 

Beyond that, I set up the logistic structure of the project so that each year will yield between 60 to 90 minutes of new music, and every five years I will do a marathon of all the work created to date. I did the first marathon in December 2017 at the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive and played for six hours. It was totally exhilarating, and in an unexpected way I also felt peaceful while doing it. This made me very excited to take the durational aspect farther. I’ll do a 12-hour marathon in 2023, and then of course the full-on, 24- to 30-hour marathon in 2036. 

The point of the durational aspect to the project is not to turn this into some kind of sporting event, or to Marina Abramovićize contemporary flute performance (!) ; it’s much more basic than that. It’s the fullest manifestation of the soul of the project and of my work as an artist, which is to allow my body to be a vessel for a body of work that is much larger, and will last much longer, than the human body will. As wind players, our breath (not the metal or wooden tube or whatever electronic gadget we’ve attached to it) is the instrument. The body houses the breath, but only temporarily. I love to think about what Hildegard of Bingen said in the 12th century, that the soul is not in the body ; the body is in the soul.

Do you have a set of parameters or an aesthetic that guides who you commission ? For example, with For/With, I try to get pieces that are outside of a traditional mode of thinking of the trumpet ; composers that will see the instrument for its timbral and performative value over a kind of historical virtuosity. Part of that has to do with technical limitations that I have that you don’t ! But, wondering if there is a specific shadowy corner of the flute repertoire you’re trying to populate.

First of all, I am the hugest fan of you and your work, your tireless exploration of the trumpet—and also of your sound, how round and resonant it is. I try to make the flute sound like a trumpet in the middle register when I play “Density,” because there’s a way that the trumpet (especially when you play it) can literally drill a hole into the space between your eyes and make your whole head vibrate, and I love this feeling. It’s hard to do this on the flute because we have so little resistance when we play ; we don’t have a reed or anything to work up against, so the tension can’t be in the lips, it’s got to be in the guts or lower if you want to make it work for and not against your sound. But I want you to know that I aspire to make a Wooley sound on my axe ! I aspire, too, to make a clarinet sound like Joshua Rubin’s at the extreme pianissimo range of the flute. No other instrument decays more beautifully than a clarinet. I spent years living with Josh in the early days of ICE and listening to him practice every morning, and his sound is in my ears and in my tissues when I am working on any diminuendo. Hopefully I’ll get it sometime before 2036 ! Rebekah Heller’s bassoon sound, too, is in my imagination whenever I play in the low register. The inimitable warmth of her sound and the way that she vibrates on the bassoon (like a cello or a sultry mezzo-soprano, less like a reed player) are qualities that I aspire to on the flute, too. In all of this, what interests me is not aesthetic parameters but what lies beyond them, and in some cases beneath them, buried underneath them. I think of my job as equal parts invention and excavation in that way. We make music with the totality of our beings, our experiences, all the musics we have heard prior to the moment of making sound—whether we are conscious of doing so or not, we are still doing it.

I’ve often thought that the poet Anne Carson, when she wrote in “Eros the Bittersweet,” “To be running breathlessly, but not yet arrived, is itself delightful, a suspended moment of living hope,” was speaking directly to wind players and to the ruthless experience—I would call it joy—in performance when you know that you are attempting something impossible, often at the end of the rope of your breath, and you know that you are not attaining it, but you’re going for it anyway and in the process you breathlessly discover something else in the phrase, a new height, a new light.

It is in these moments that we lose ourselves and surrender to forces beyond the edges of our bodies, beyond our studious preparation, far beyond the plan. We are alive there as musicians. We are joyful. We are dangerous.

This is, for me, often followed by sadness because I know it will not happen again . . . not in the same way, at least. I will have to find it anew. In the most basic sense, that’s what Density 2036 sets up : an insistence on starting anew, whether I’m inventing or excavating (or both). This goes for just about anything, from tone color to notational practices to improvisation to incorporating new techniques, performance practices, new technologies. 

What do you, as the performer (and administrator) get out of the interactions with the composers and the time spent alone working on the pieces ? Is it different from your past with ICE or the other activities you’re undertaking now as a flutist/bon vivant ?

For me, working with composers is not only the most important part of the process, it is the process. It is deeply challenging. I would say that a bit part of the process, when you’re really doing the work, is being fucking confused and frustrated and lost-feeling—but also deeply fulfilled, usually in direct relationship with how difficult it has been. Going beyond what you know is thrilling, exhilarating ; it’s also painful, disorienting, confronting. You can’t have one without the other. Premiering a piece of music is very much a birth, and it’s as bloody and terrifying each time as it is ecstatic and miraculous. Conveniently, too, we have amnesia after the fact !

There are composers in the Density project who are collaborative partners, but there are other essential collaborative creators, too : the sound engineer Levy Lorenzo, the lighting designer Nick Houfek, and a rotating cast of directors, movement artists, video artists, instrument builders, poets, philosophers . . . and the family is growing ! My relationships with all of these beautiful humans aren’t just part of the work ; they are the work. We do this together. Yes, it’s a solo flute project, but I am never alone. Even when I’m onstage playing by myself, I’m up there with all of their presences, and I’m also up there with all of the combined presences of the other pieces in the cycle, all the past performances. Soon I’ll be up there with all of the performances by other flutists of this evolving body of work, too. That excites me enormously. I don’t want this project to be about me, Claire. I want it to be about the instrument, yes, but more importantly about the spirit that runs through that instrument’s sound. One of the initial inspirations for the project came from reading about Oskar Fischinger, an abstract animator from the early 20th century who imparted some wisdom to a young John Cage about the spirit that is inside each of the objects of this world. Our task is to liberate that spirit by moving past object, drawing forth its sound.

I know that everything you do has a connection to building and enriching a number of musical communities. To that end, was there a goal with the project that you hoped to achieve ? Have you, so far, or has the goal changed ?

Honestly, at year seven I still feel like I am just dipping my toes into this ocean, so it seems slightly premature to talk reflectively about goals just yet, but what I will say is that the project is equal parts creation (commissioning, collaborating, building the body of work) and dissemination (performing, recording, archiving). While the archive part of things is a little young at the moment, it is increasingly an equal partner in the project and I am spending more time thinking about ways to purposefully make this body of work available to anyone who wants to play it, evolve it, make it their own and iterate/create anew from it. To that end, I formed a nonprofit organization called the Pnea Foundation, modeled somewhat after Meredith Monk’s House Foundation, which will be an engine not just for the creation elements but more importantly for the archival elements. We’ll be launching a website in December 2019 with downloadable materials for each of the pieces in the cycle, complete with performance materials, electronic patches, and an online video tutorial that I hope will be approachable and exciting for even the youngest flutists and composers to engage with. Further down the line, I imagine the Pnea library becoming an archive of other flutists’ performances of these works as well, so that many intersecting communities can learn from one another. I want to continue to commission poets, ethnomusicologists, philosophers, to write about the works, too, so that listeners have many possible entry points to the worlds of these composers and the world of this little tube of metal. Pnea will also provide a structure for educational projects connected to Density 2036, including collaborations with youth groups (I’m doing one next week with Face the Music in which six teenagers and I are basically live-remixing and re-composing Vijay Iyer’s fixed media piece for Density 2036—it’s illegal amounts of fun, and the kids are beyond awesome) and a series of prizes and opportunities for very young composers and flutists to start to work together. These educational offshoots of the project are just starting to cook with gas now, and I’m excited to see what will happen over the next few years as Pnea finds its footing and we can, in a sense, open up much more of this project to the public that I’ve been able to do in performance.

Varèse was often described as “the one all alone,” and “Density”—his only solo piece—has also, I think, developed a reputation as kind of a loner. My wish is to give it—and the spirit that runs through it—really, really good company between now and 2036. And then, hopefully, far beyond that.