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

NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- Fresh out of music school at Oberlin, flutist Claire Chase took a bus to Chicago to start a new life. On that bus ride, the 21-year-old mapped out in her mind what she wanted to accomplish.

"The bus ride from Oberlin to Chicago," she mused during a recent interview with TheStreet at a Brooklyn rehearsal space. "You know, you do what you do on a bus, you dream, you reflect, you write, you listen to loud rock music, you eat junk food. You think about your life and you're kind of in between two locations, mentally and physically."

By the time she got to Chicago, she knew. She would found an ensemble based on what appears, in hindsight, to be a radical new business model. Ten years later, she is the winner of a MacArthur fellowship as the founder and director of the International Contemporary Ensemble, commonly known as ICE.

I spoke with Chase at the Brooklyn loft space that serves as the ensemble's East Coast headquarters, a space brimming with instruments and activity.

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The ensemble is celebrating its 10th anniversary season with an extraordinary series of performances at Lincoln Center as part of its 2013 Mostly Mozart Festival. ICE's concerts feature 10 premieres by New York composers in 10 concerts, including four performances of David Lang's whisper opera, noted by the New York Times preview and interview with the composer, and followup review of the first performance on Saturday, Aug. 10.

At the root of the ICE model is the notion of collaboration at all levels of the musical experience: audiences, composers, musicians and business managers, marketing and fundraising, all toward the goal of building a musical experience rooted in individual communities but fluidly connected across the globe. It's a business model for the Twitter age, building on technology, travel and networking ideas unknown when the models for traditional ensembles were being developed over a century ago.

It was during that bus ride to Chicago, thinking about her life, that Chase realized the experiences she valued most were those that involved working collaborations and group problem-solving, both in music and in marketing and community building.

While still a student, Chase had thrown out an ambitious goal of getting 750 people to show up to a concert involving five premieres by five different composers. Typically, new-music concerts at Oberlin attracted about an audience a tenth that size, she said. New music notoriously has a problem connecting with audiences. It took her a year and a whole of networking and organizing, but in the end, "We packed the place, it was standing room only," she said. "There were more than 750 people there."

That experience became Chase's benchmark for her own success. More than a musical experience, she had gotten involved in community building and marketing, working with composers and top, brilliant musicians on every aspect of the project. The combination of those elements, plus introducing audiences to the joys of new music, fired her enthusiasm in a way that a traditional orchestra job was never going to be able to do, Chase said.

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."

But while these challenges seem extreme for a typical classical ensemble, for this group that set of challenges is more standard operating procedure.

Chase recalled early seasons where the group staged performances for smaller audiences, often in unlikely venues, upping the number of premieres at each season and growing audiences in different neighborhoods in Chicago. Within a few years, they were doing series of concerts of up to 10 premieres by local composers.

"It's kind of a modality at ICE," she said. "It's fun for us in our tenth anniversary season this year to revisit that idea. But to revisit it at a very different stage than the bars and the backs of pickup trucks and stuff that we performed on in Chicago. This time we have an opportunity to take that idea and present it at Lincoln Center."

Premieres, by their nature, often involve extra work. Composers are often deeply involved in the rehearsals, changing what doesn't work, making suggestions, rewriting passages to exploit the strengths of the musicians. In those conversations, musicians and composers often find themselves equal partners in the creation of a finished performance or recording.

That process, the workshop aspect of new music, is what ICE is all about.

"It's a very ICE way of working," Chase said. "It's a jumping off the cliff kind of exercise. That's part of the roller-coaster fun of it."

Trying to build that ICE way of working out to a global scale, the group has initiated three projects. The first is ICELab, which creates workshops for musicians and composers to hash out ideas separate from any public performance or formal recording engagement. Many of the Mostly Mozart premieres are the result of ICELab experiments.

The second is the group's own record label, Tundra, to feature polished performances of its artists and collaborators.

The third is a formalized Web site called DigitICE,, where video of ICE performances are archived.

DigitICE "embraces this idea of free public access," Chase said. The videos are high-quality productions. "The idea is to make the ICE live experience available to people all over the world within 10 days of each performance. We're not able to do these for all of our performances but increasingly we're able to do them for a good chunk of our season."

Chase hopes that in the future, the archive can become as important as the live performances themselves. The two can work hand in hand toward the goal of developing a repertory for the future, long after this season's concerts are over.

"It's a way of giving the artists and the composers and also the public a chance to allow this work to grow and breathe beyond its initial premiere," she said.

--Written by Carlton Wilkinson in New York

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