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Claire Chase on New Music and the Dawn of the ICE Age

She decided not to pursue an orchestral job, not to go to graduate school, not to settle down to an ordinary teaching schedule -- all that before she got on the bus. Then, somewhere "around Gary, Indiana," she recalls, the concept of ICE began to form, based on that experience of bringing 750 listeners at a new music concert at Oberlin.

"I thought, you know what, maybe life doesn't get better. Maybe that's as good as it gets and that's pretty fantastic," she said.

While she had shown entrepreneurial tendencies, even as a child, she had no formal business experience or training.

"I literally checked out a book from the Chicago Public Library on how to start a nonprofit organization," she said.

The Road to Lincoln Center

ICE was formed in Chicago, debuting in 2002, on a budget of $603, according to ICE's Web site, that Chase had earned from waiting tables at catered affairs. Starting small and building community around each event gave the group a foothold in many Chicago neighborhoods at once and allowed it to grow an audience.

But from the beginning the model was meant to be national, and ICE quickly established locations on the East Coast and West Coast as well, each doing the same thing: working with neighborhoods to develop audiences for new music written by composers in that location.

The group's annual budget has grown each year since its founding, reaching $750,000 in 2011, according to the ICE Web site.

Along the way, the group, comprised of some of the finest new music performers around, has been invited to participate in many high-profile events, including a Lincoln Center tribute to Edgard Varese in 2010. Recognizing her entrepreneurial, social and artistic vision, the MacArthur Foundation awarded her its fellowship, commonly known as the "genius grant."

But perhaps the most notable validation of her original vision is the current residency at Lincoln Center's Mostly Mozart Festival.

"In a way it's an unlikely marriage, but on the other hand I think we have a lot to give each other," Chase said. Terming her group a "scrappy" outfit, she compares it to the longstanding, entrenched traditions represented by the massive theater complex. "This mashup of big and small and of new and old has been really enlightening for us and I hope for Lincoln Center and their audiences too."

The group's performances began Saturday with the premiere of Lang's whisper opera and continue through Aug. 22. Among the other world premieres will be work by Pauline Oliveros and Columbia Professor George Lewis. The 19th century giant Ludwig van Beethoven -- a looming historical figure whose isolated, stormy genius still defines the word "composer" for many to this day -- will also be featured on the opening and closing nights of the series, tying in with the 2013 Mostly Mostly Mozart Festival's focus on the relationship between W.A. Mozart and his younger contemporary, Beethoven.

The Roller Coaster

"This has been a challenging one to manage, for sure," she said of ICE's residency at the Mostly Mozart Festival. "It's 10 different performances, seven distinct programs. We have 10 brand new pieces that are being unveiled at the festival in celebration of our 10th anniversary season. It's a lot of new works, a lot of risks, a lot of brand new material, hot off the press and a lot of moving parts."
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