© 2024 WKNO FM
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Following Claire Chase: A Week In The Life Of A Working Musician

Claire Chase offered to send a helicopter to pick me up each morning during the seven days I followed her to produce this story.

She was only kidding. As we waited on a variety of subway platforms everywhere between Sunset Park, Brooklyn and Harlem in northern Manhattan, most of our conversations that week involved jetpacks: more cost effective than helicopters and engineered for independent travel. It's much more the kind of proposal I'd have expected from Claire. After all, she's not just a musician she essentially runs a small business. And, as I learned, she's also mastered the science of propulsion.

We'd met casually a few years ago, after a concert by the International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE), which Claire founded in 2001 and leads as its Executive Director. The group has consistently impressed me. It performs with intensity and power; has quickly evolved from a start-up into an established leader of the new music scene; and has cultivated a young and vibrant community of supporters. I wanted to know how she'd managed to accomplish all of this from a practical perspective. When she showed me her Google calendar a rainbow of dense blocks I wondered if it represented a life of nightmarish chaos.

Hardly. As Claire blazed and I trailed, the schedule was tight, but not impossible. The days were often long a few topped 14 hours but the time passed quickly. Administrative tasks were accomplished by the dozens with fierce efficiency and balanced by hours at play. Our encounters with others were generous, full of gifts and surprises. They included a conversation with 88 year-old composer Chou Wen-chung, who helped to establish US-Chinese cultural relations decades ago; and a planning session with Habib Azar, who will produce a new solo multimedia show for Claire next year called GASP. (His day job is directing CBS's The Young and The Restless.) Unwinding after hours fed other creative appetites, at the Lambda Literary Awards, where an acceptance speech by Edward Albee drew Claire's rare ire and a reception for the artist Olek, queen of yarn bombing.

You can read about my adventures with Claire below (or listen to it by clicking the link above), and you can find an even more complete account of our activities archived at twitter.com/iveheardworse, hashtag #chaseclaire.

In the end, I had enough material for seven stories. But the takeaway was simple: with a smile and a kind word, Claire puts her shoulder to the wheel every day, day in and day out, using every scrap of every moment to inch forward toward her goals. This, her life seems to say, is how we earn our wings. This is how we fly.

Carnegie Hall sees its share of sleepy, under-attended recitals. Claire Chase's debut last year was not one of them. High energy from start to finish, the packed house leapt out of its seats for three standing ovations, the kind of response Chase seems to be getting wherever she goes.

At a time when orchestras are folding and cutting back their schedules, the future of classical music can look bleak. That's especially true for the freelance musician. But Chase, the flutist and Executive Director of the International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE), is one leader in a growing movement that's abuzz with fresh activity — new music.

I recently spent a week just trying to keep up with Chase. The bulk of her days are generally spent far from New York's elite cultural institutions, in the working class neighborhood of Sunset Park. If you've ever been stuck in traffic on the southbound side of the elevated Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, you may have seen her and her fellow musicians through the picture window of a fourth story loft known to its inhabitants as the ICEhaus.

"People are perplexed," Chase says, "They look in that window at eye level and they're like what are they doing? They see the gongs and all of the electronic gear. We see a lot of nose pickers, too."

It's 8 a.m., the time Chase usually arrives at the studio to practice. It's often the only time she has to herself. Afterward, she heads upstairs to the office to answer phone calls and wade through some of her 30,081 unread email messages.

Chase is incredibly busy at a time when most New York freelance musicians can seem like a dying breed.

"The old model of playing in a fixed freelance orchestra and doing advertising jingles and soundtracks and gigging around town and making a good living — that's really dried up," says Dan Wakin, a reporter for the Culture department at The New York Times.

Most of those musicians are in their 50s and 60s. Chase is 33 and doesn't share their nostalgia for the way things used to be.

"Are we the generation who waits for the phone to ring? No. Do we wait for someone to say here's your amazing opportunity to do this project you've been dreaming of that's totally risky, that no one else would produce? No. We do it for ourselves and we do it for one another," she says.

Producing new music — with its strange and wondrous sounds — has historically been left to do-it-yourselfers. Chase finds herself doing a little bit of everything every day, from planning board meetings to finding hotel rooms for musicians on the road — even cleaning up after her staff of three.

"If I can be the janitor and save us some money, I'll be the janitor for as long as I need to be," she says.

Chase was on a Greyhound bus to Chicago fresh out of Oberlin when she made the decision to start her own ensemble. It was ten years ago, at a moment when a crop of new music groups came into being: eighth blackbird, Argento, Alarm Will Sound.

Cellist Fred Sherry, known for his work in new music, says what's happening today is as seismic as the explosion of composers in Vienna a century ago:

"I sometimes think of it like the San Andreas fault. It moves approximately an inch or two inches a year — it averages out to that. In 1913, it jumped 20 yards and now it may be jumping again and in a very important way."

Now in his 60s, Sherry was one of those do-it-yourselfers three decades ago. But he didn't consider it part of the job description and there wasn't much infrastructure for support.

"In those early days, we picked on anybody that had a hundred or a thousand dollars," Sherry recalls, adding, "That was a lot of money in 1973."

Today the annual budget for ICE is around $800,000, which supports 50 concerts a year. Much of the ensemble's music comes from commissions — brand new pieces custom-made for various combinations of the group's 33 musicians.

By mid-afternoon on Friday, Chase is rehearsing with Steve Lehman, one of five composers she's met with in the course of the week. Afterwards, Chase crisscrosses the city by subway, Blackberry in hand, for meetings: with a board member, TV producer, choreographer, flute technician, and sound editor, not to mention a trip up to Yonkers for a recording session.

When I showed Fred Sherry her calendar, he was skeptical of her ability to juggle so many roles and live the life of an artist.

"She's scheduling every moment of the day," he says, "Where was the time that she did the dreaming?"

Chase sees it differently — a necessity in a new age where artists have to be entrepreneurs.

"For me, it was a realization early on that the only way to do what I wanted to do artistically was if I drove that bus myself," she says. "I realized in doing it that I enjoyed it and there were aspects of the business side that were really challenging in an invigorating way. To be totally honest, there's a part of it that is an absolute drag, but that's like any job."

It's now 7 p.m. at the end of a long week and Chase is onstage at New York's Le Poisson Rouge, a downtown venue near New York University. When she's in front of the standing-room-only crowd, it doesn't look like just any job. It looks like a dream.

"It's always worth the effort," she says. "With ICE, it's always worth it."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Lara Pellegrinelli
Lara Pellegrinelli is a freelance journalist and scholar with bylines in The New York Times and the Village Voice. She has been the commissioned writer for Columbia University's Miller Theatre and its Composer Portrait series since 2018.