There's a 1976 recording of James Galway playing Paganini's "Moto Perpetuo" on his golden flute, in which you never once hear him draw breath.
At the time, it was lauded as an almost superhuman feat; a virtuosic example of circular breathing, a technique that allows wind players to simultaneously inhale air through the nose while breathing it out through the mouth. (Galway later confessed the recording had been spliced together.) In 1997, saxophonist Kenny G used circular breathing to play a continuous, unbroken note for a total of 45 minutes and 47 seconds, earning him a mention in the Guinness Book of Records.
Last week's concert by flutist Claire Chase at (Le) Poisson Rouge, celebrating the release of her new CD "Terrestre," offered no shortage of athletic challenges and technical sorcery of its own. But what struck me the most about the recent compositions for flute was the return of the breath. By turns expressive, mysterious, and dramatic, it was always unapologetically human. As Chase later told me over the phone, "Breath is the one thing we can't live without. As flute players, it's something we should honor."
Of all the wind instruments, the flute is the least efficient in transforming breath into musical sound, because so much of the air is lost when the player blows across the opening in the mouthpiece. (At the other spectrum is the oboe with its tightly pressed double reed, which wastes so little air that oboists have to empty out their lungs at the end of a phrase before quickly tanking up again.) Normally, classical flutists are taught to make the breath as self-effacing as possible - to banish that persistent ffff-sound that is usually the mark of a beginner.
But in Chase's performance of "Glacier" (2010), a solo for bass flute by Dai Fujikura, her breath floated audibly above much of the music, giving it a ghostly quality. With subtle changes in the angle of the mouthpiece, she was able to invoke the sound of more ancient types of flutes made out of wood, bamboo and stone.
Her inhalations, too, became part of the music. Contemporary composers like Fujikura, says Chase, "have started to think of breath as an ornament and as an expressive device in its own right, whether it's a subtle, moody breath or the dramatic gesture of an inhalation. Some breaths are even notated in the music: it increases the drama."
Breath also became a character in Kaija Saariaho's "Terrestre" (2003), a spirited, fanciful work for flute, strings, harp and percussion in which Chase was joined by her colleagues from the International Contemporary Ensemble. "Terrestre" is inspired by an Aboriginal tale of a bird teaching an entire village to dance. In it, the composer calls on the flutist to sing, too, sometimes while simultaneously playing another note, other times alternating, so that a conversation ensues between voice and instrument.
It's a magical effect, but startling, too, because we have come to think of classical performers as transparent conduits for pure music. Bringing their breath and voice back into the performance is a way of asserting their physicality and individual sound. To do it well and remain within the confines of art takes the kind of combination of grace and guts that make Chase one of the more formidable forces on the classical scene - but the result is a full-throated affirmation of chamber music as human drama.
-Corinna da Fonseca-Wollheim, January 28, 2012
On January 17, Claire Chase celebrated the arrival of her new CD, Terrestre (earthly in French, Ed.). The setting was Le Poisson Rouge, and the ambience was set smoothly before a single note was played, as the room was lit primarily by swaths of cool blue lights and warm red ones, in a jagged pattern. The house was packed, and the crowd was eclectic, as twenty-somethings, hipsters, and the baby-boomers were all well represented.
Starting the evening off was Glacier, a minimalist piece written by Dai Fujikura for solo bass flute. The bass flute is not often seen or heard, and after seeing and hearing Chase play it, one wonders where this magnificent instrument has been hiding. The piece opened mysteriously on an open fifth, and proceeded like a soliloquy with great expressive range. While the timbre began gently, warm, and with an airy vocal quality, even approaching a plainchant, there was soon much more vigor, with multiphonics, trills, warbling sounds, even honking and blasting at times. The music was divided nicely by carefully measured periods of silence. It ended on a repeating descending tritone, fading away.
Following the first piece, a brief interlude was provided by Chase and poet Laura Mullen, as they both read Mullen's poem, with Mullen reading it forwards and Chase reading it backwards, simultaneously. The second musical piece was Pierre Boulez's Sonatine for piano and flute, with Jacob Greenberg as the accompanist. It opened with sharp contrast between the two instruments, as the flute played wide-ranging leaps while the piano palyed sparse accompaniment, and as the piece continued, their lines began to seamlessly blend together. Chase rendered the angular lilnes beautifully, and imparted a sensuality that was raw and felt hedonistic. Her brilliant piercing shrill in the high end of her range was particularly effective. Greenberg played his technically challengingn part very skillfully andn with confidence.
The final work played that evening was the title work of the CD, Terrestre, composed by Kaija Saariaho in 2003, and scored for flautist (doubling as vocalist), violin, cello, harp, and percussion. Chase was backed this time by the International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE). She began solo with an interesting and impatient theme, as though to rouse the other players into action, and the energy picked up quickly. The piece itself was quite beautiful, with flowing, exotic scales being passed between the instruments, and distinct use of the xylophone as well as woodblocks. The vocal parts for Chase were syllable-focused and reminiscent of the work of Luciano Berio. During the frenzied solo sections, she brilliantly blurred the line between her voice and the sound of her flute. All the players were in fine form. Of note, the composer was in town from Finland for the performance, and had a very warm reception when arriving on stage.
The only significant negative thing I could mention is that the concert was too short in duration, and I was left wanting more. When Chase picks up her flute and plays, it is immediately evident that the rest of her world fades away as she bares her spirit through her instrument, allowing the listener to let the world fade away as well. And she has clearly gone to great lengths to explore every possible timbre on the flute that one could imagine, giving her a remarkable palette to paint with.
-Neil Prufer, January 25, 2012
Sure, Claire Chase’s Terrestre may not boast the ear-worminess of “Zou Bisou Bisou,” the latter of which was sung on last month's season opener of Mad Men (and subsequently by everyone everywhere the following Monday morning). But, much like the French pop ditty, there’s something immediately captivating, compelling and compulsive about this feisty flautist’s newest solo album.
Chase, one of the indefatigable forces behind the International Contemporary Ensemble, has never been one to hide her voracious appetite for new music, as seen on her 2009 debut solo album Aliento. But here, she also shows off her magnetic ringleader persona, bringing together a number of performers to accompany her on an odyssey through Saariaho, Carter, Boulez, Fujikura and Franco Donatoni.
Worth the price of admission alone is the world-premiere recording of Kaija Saariaho’s Terrestre, an opening track that percolates with a gamine energy and beguiling bird calls (this is a revamped version of the second movement to Saariaho’s flute concerto, set to poetry by Saint-John Perse that evokes birds in flight). Rather than adopt a Messiaen complex, Saariaho’s piece delves into the soaring psychological aspects of being able to take flight at will, and Chase makes each of those requisite soaring dives along with members of ICE.
Throughout the album, Chase displays a dreamy flute technique, ringing crystalline and clarion when she wants to, but also exploring the textural possibilities of the instrument in pieces like Donatoni’s Fili and Boulez’s Flute Sonatina (both played with pianist Jacob Greenberg). She balances disturbingly well with partners like clarinetist Joshua Rubin on Elliott Carter’s 1985 duet Esprit Rude/Esprit Doux. We hear her completely solo on another world-premiere track, Dai Fujikura’s Glacier for bass flute, the effect of which creates a low and languid pace across a frozen five minutes.
As a bonus track, we’re treated to a roundabout thematic conclusion that ties the whole album together in a neat bow: Chase’s reading of poet Laura Mullen’s Was O (a soundalike for the French term for bird, “oiseau”). In speaking, Chase captures the lyrical rhythms of the preceding pieces—“Was O” is said in the same cadence as the first two notes for the preceding Fujikura work—and thematic currents. After listening to this unorthodox encore, you may be tempted, perspective renewed, to listen to the preceding five tracks again.
-Olivia Giovetti, April 9, 2012
Claire Chase is known as the founder of International Contemporary Ensemble, one of the world's best and most adventurous new music groups, but she's also a striking flutist. Terrestre (New Focus 122; 48:54 ****) is a stunning second solo album, and it nonchalantly displays her easy virtuosity and empathetic approach. Kaija Saariaho's swooping title piece finds Chase breathlessly interweaving vocal interjections and fluid flute lines without seams, backed deftly by a quartet of ICE members with translucent brilliance. The middle of the album features two duets with pianist Jacob Greenberg and one with clarinetist Joshua Rubin on works by Donatoni, Carter and Boulez, while the collection closes with the premiere of Dai Fujikura's bass flute meditation "Glacier."
-Peter Margasak, June 2012
Although she’s steadily been building a reputation as one of contemporary classical music’s finest interpreters and ambitious organizers, 2012 was an auspicious time for flutist Claire Chase. Her work with International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE),both on record and in concert, garnered frequent acclaim. She released Terrestre, her second solo CD for the New Focus imprint. Accompanied on the recording by pianist Jacob Greenberg, clarinetist Joshua Rubin, and other members of ICE, Chase assays works by Pierre Boulez (Sonatine), Kaija Saariaho (Terrestre), Elliott Carter (Esprit rude/esprit doux), Franco Donatoni (Fili), and Dai Fujikura (Glacier). These range widely in style and demeanor. Hyperactive melismatic writing, microtonal bends and use of vocalizations are found on Terrestre; intricate ensemble interactions populate both this work and Esprit Rude/esprit Doux. Sonatine is an early example of postwar modernism, rife with angularity and reveling in syncopation. Equally impressive is her rendition of Fili, a breathless piece filled with myriad utterances and a kaleidoscope of rhythmically charge motifs. Chase is equally at home playing the soulful and gradually unfolding utterances of Fujikura’s Glacier,a bass flute work that combines simplicity – quasi-modal melodies – with complexity – multiphonics and other effects – in a convincing amalgam.
On October 1, 2012, it was announced that Chase had been awarded a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship. Nicknamed “genius grants,” these awards are designed to give some of the most prominent practitioners and thinkers in their respective field monetary support and time to more fully explore their goals. Upon hearing the announcement, my sense was the Chase was the first flutist to receive a MacArthur Fellowship. When contacted for comment, the MacArthur Foundation indicated that they don’t keep an accounting of which instruments their musician fellows play. But after digging around their website and newspaper archives, it appears to me that Chase is the first flutist they’ve made a fellow. Back in October, shortly after the awards were announced, I interviewed Claire. Our exchange follows below.
- Christian Carey, December 2012
Listed under "Best Albums of 2012"
Most recent CDs of contemporary flute music focus on unaccompanied works, so this disc, featuring members of the International Contemporary Ensemble (founded by Chase) is a welcome break from the norm. It’s a bold, ambitious disc, featuring works by Donatoni, Boulez, Carter, Saariaho & Dai Fujikura, but the performances throughout are arresting and full of conviction. Particularly impressive is Chase’s remarkable agility, enabling her to skitter effortlessly through tortuous material, yet equally able to penetrate dark recesses of tranquillity & introspection.