Mar 14, 2016
by RICKY O'BANNON

Certainty is an outdated concept for those looking to work in the classical music business.

The institutions — storied symphonies, opera companies and music conservatories — operate on largely the same models as they did 60 years ago. Meanwhile there are far from enough orchestra gigs to go around for the conservatory graduates that will enter the field, and ensembles both large and small are grappling with big questions about changing audiences and maintaining an artistic and financial footing.

That was the landscape flutist Claire Chase graduated into from Oberlin Conservatory in the early 2000s, and it’s very much the world awaiting students at the Peabody Institute who heard Chase speak at the Dean’s Symposium forum on Friday.

Chase is the founder, artistic director and musician member of the Chicago-based International Contemporary Ensemble. ICE is a collection of 33 musicians who have performed nearly 700 world premieres since its founding in 2002. One of the ensemble’s core values is modularity and flexibility, which means that it takes on everything from concerts at a library with a solo violinist to larger ensemble projects that draw on a number of its member musicians.

ICE has received critical acclaim, and Chase was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship (the so-called “genius grant”) in 2012 for her work. However, the California-born flutist told the crowd at Peabody there was never a long-term plan when ICE was coming together.

“I started a contemporary music ensemble that plays weird music. Nobody knew who we were, we were playing music by composers that nobody had ever heard of in venues they had never heard of, and we had a start up budget of $605 that I amassed from my holiday catering tips,” said Chase. “There was not a business plan going into this. It was just I had these friends and an idea. It really was that simple.”

The strategy early on for the group was just to try finding audiences and see what worked. That meant free concerts in venues Chase unintentionally scouted while catering Bar Mitzvahs or weddings across Chicago, and then spending what little money they had to rent chairs.

“I was so interested to see what will happen if we play a totally obtuse program of pieces by composers that nobody has ever heard of in a Unitarian church basement in the south side of Chicago,” Chase said. “Who shows up?”

If students in the audience were hoping that Chase and ICE have created a new business and artistic model that should guide them in their own pursuits, Chase was quick to disabuse them of the idea that there is any more of a set path for them in 2016 than in 2002.

“We can not live in a world that has been interpreted for us by others,” Chase said, citing the words of Hildegard von Bingen. “The world that I have interpreted is going to be very, very different from the one that you are interpreting for yourselves and one another.”

ICE’s organizational model, she said, involves making it up every day. Much in the same way musicians approach a new piece and have to work on new extended techniques or skills, they should take that same flexible and curious mindset to the business side of things.

“We’re not doing our job [as musicians] if we’re just applying 10 skills that we learned last week on a new piece of music today. A new piece of music is asking us to develop a whole bunch of new skills that we're going to learn together,” Chase said. “We also approach our organization that way.”

Chase joked that they often quit doing a project after it proves successful, but there is both a top-down and bottom-up culture that is driven by a need to change and try new things — whether that is allowing any musician to bring a new composer to the group for a commission or getting behind a digital platform to show off all past performances or building an open database for sheet music.

As with all of the guest speakers in the forum series, Peabody Dean Fred Bronstein asked Chase how she felt about the future of classical and contemporary classical music.

“I think it is both disastrous and immensely hopeful. I think it is lazy to focus on one or the other,” Chase said. “If we want to live in a world that is not interpreted for us by others then we need to see it with both of those eyes. It's a wretched situation, but also we are in — or soon will be in — a new renaissance.”

The reason for Chase’s (admittedly mixed) optimism is work she is seeing by musicians to build new groups and artistic efforts from the ground up. And while contemporary classical scenes might have traditionally thrived in New York City, Chase pointed to the New Music Gathering, which was held in Baltimore last month, or the Black House Music Collective in Kansas City, which is commissioning and producing new operas.

“It's not just about what's happening in L.A., New York and Chicago anymore. I love all three of those cities, but I think that they're less interesting than what's happening in smaller places,” she said. “And I think the state of new music, for that reason, is tremendously hopeful.”