Never let it be said that Claire Chase doesn’t enjoy a challenge. Chase is an acclaimed flutist The New York Times called “the most important flutist of our time,” and the winner of a MacArthur “Genius Grant” Fellowship, the Presidential Scholar Award, and the Avery Fisher Award for outstanding achievement in classical music. But that’s all incidental when compared to Density 2036, a project she created in 2013.
In a nutshell, Density 2036 is a 23-year project with the goal of creating an entirely new repertoire for the flute.
No big task, right?
The idea is that Chase will commission and premiere a new program of flute music each year until 2036, the 100th anniversary of Edgard Varèse’s groundbreaking 1936 flute solo, Density 21.5. It’s a piece that thrilled Chase as a 13-year-old music student.
“Density 21.5 unleashed a curiosity and a passion for creating a new body of repertoire for this little piece of metal that happens to be our oldest, most ancient instrument,” Chase says. “When I was 13 years old, my teacher came into a flute lesson and asked if I wanted to hear it, and I said, ‘Of course!’ And he said, ‘Ok, kiddo, stand back.’ I’d never heard that preamble to a flute performance before, so I stood back, and for the next four and a half minutes I completely had my little imagination just blown. I’d never experienced a piece that unleashed the power of the flute in that way.”
As Chase moved into adulthood and became one of the most acclaimed flutists of her era, she started wondering when the next Density 21.5 would come along to inspire future players.
“I asked myself, ‘What will the Density 21.5 of the 21st century be?,’” she says. “And how could I participate in getting closer to that kind of groundbreaking material in the 21st century?”
Chase will perform two of the commissioned pieces that have come out of that ambition at the University of South Carolina this week, as part of the School of Music’s Southern Exposure New Music Series. The first piece, 2014’s Meditation and Calligraphy, was composed by Felipe Lara, and it will serve as a sort of musical appetizer.
“It’s one of my favorite things to play,” Chase says. “It’s so beautiful. In three minutes, we go so many places, and I love opening a concert with it. The first sound is barely audible, so if anyone in the audience’s energy is scattered, within a few moments we’re all in the same space together.”
After she’s done with the opening piece, Chase will speak to the audience about what they’re about to experience next. Which is probably a good idea because the centerpiece of the evening — PAN, composed by Marcos Balter — is quite epic.
When it debuted in 2017, PAN was billed as “a 90-minute musical drama for solo flute, live electronics, and an ensemble of community musicians.” An ensemble of around 65 community musicians to be exact. The piece is operatic in scope, moving from joyfully light moments to sinister howls of pain, meant to portray the final moments of the Greek deity Pan’s life before he’s executed. For the performance at USC, Chase will perform a newly-adapted 45-minute version, but it’s no less dramatic or demanding in its shorter form.
Chase will perform PAN solo, accompanied only by a painstakingly assembled electronic track of samples from the original piece.
“This version I’ll be doing at USC takes all of the energy and a lot of the sound of this massive version with 65 players and distills it into an electronic track and just little me,” she explains, “with the conjured presences of these other sounds and bodies.”
“It’s somewhere in between performance, performance art and ritual,” Chase adds. “I don’t know really how to describe it yet because it’s so new. We individually sampled every one of these sounds, thousands and thousands of sounds, and then meticulously layered them on top of one another. Everything’s automated, so there’s zero room for error. But I really love the challenge, and I just hang on for dear life.”
What: Claire Chase
Where: USC School Of Music Recital Hall, 813 Assembly St.
When: Friday, Nov. 15, 7:30 p.m.
More: 803-777-4337, music.sc.edu