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“The Art, the Play, and the Rigor”

Flutist Claire Chase marks a key change 
for Harvard music.

May-June 2018

Claire Chase

Photograph by Stu Rosner


Claire Chase

Photograph by Stu Rosner

During her first week of teaching at Harvard, the flutist Claire Chase was arrested while blocking traffic on Massachusetts Avenue—part of a protest last September prompted by the Trump administration’s announcement that it would end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. The demonstration was organized by and mostly comprised faculty members from the history department; having a new professor of the practice of music in their midst might have seemed unusual. For Chase, it was anything but. A commitment to rethinking the social role of the artist is at the core of her creative work.

Chase is among the most important figures working in classical music today. Her eclectic repertoire, centered upon music of the present and very recent past, augments the sonic possibilities of the flute through the use of extended techniques and electronics; she delights in works that require her to act, vocalize, and otherwise heighten the drama of a performance. In 2001, on a $500 budget, she launched the International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE), which now stands at the zenith of the new-music scene—widely admired for its adventurousness and seemingly limitless aesthetic capacities. Its 35 members perform in various configurations, from intimate chamber groups to all-hands-on-deck endeavors, and have given more than 500 premieres. Their performances, which often feature multimedia and electro-acoustic compositions, have a vividly theatrical feel. The group is committed to a collective, artist-led structure in which many musicians also take on staff roles, and all ensemble members have a say in administrative and programmatic decisions.

Because she has achieved remarkable success by unorthodox means, Chase is often described as an “arts entrepreneur.” The label reflects a broader state of affairs in classical music: a dismal job market, anxieties about cultural irrelevance, and a general sense of precariousness have transformed once-reliable goals (like landing a tenured orchestra position) into near-impossibilities. But Chase says she has doesn’t identify too closely with “entrepreneurial” thinking. She is less interested in expediting individual success than in what she calls “the politics of organizing a group of people to make music.”

When she was 15, and had just won “some silly flute competition,” a friend said, “You know, Claire, it doesn’t matter what you do. It matters where you’re needed.” The advice was revelatory: articulating a clear connection between her musical and her social-activist endeavors. (As a teenager, Chase was involved in numerous causes, including LGBT advocacy and immigrant rights.) It also showed her how much she could learn from her peers. This “life-changing, heart-expanding moment,” she recalls, catalyzed an enduring commitment to a musical practice that rejects hierarchy for its own sake, fosters self-direction, and emphasizes the social significance of artistic work.

At Harvard, Chase cultivates an environment where peer-to-peer learning thrives. In “The 21st-Century Ensemble Workshop,” for instance, each class meeting begins and ends with collective music-making. All of her classes culminate in concerts, and students are responsible for each element, from concept to publicity to the performance itself. Prior musical training is not required. “I actually find it incredibly liberating to work with people who are coming at the practice of music from so many different angles,” she remarks. “What I’m able to do is to open more pathways for people to think of themselves as artists, whether that translates into a professional manifestation or…just a more fulfilling life.”

Historically, the University’s institutional environment has had little in common with that of an artist-led collective, which has sparked what Chase calls a “productive and wonderful” tension with her ideas. At the same time, her appointment contributes to a major shift within the music department itself, which in recent years has fundamentally rethought its mission and last year overhauled its undergraduate curriculum. The former system effectively privileged students with prior training in the classical tradition, but the new curriculum is designed to appeal to students with diverse musical backgrounds and aspirations. Requirements for concentrators, previously anchored in theory and Western music history, have become significantly more flexible. And in a department that previously offered few performance-focused courses, Chase is among a newly arrived cluster of eminent faculty performers, including pianist and composer Vijay Iyer (Harvard Portrait, March-April 2015, page 23), saxophonist Yosvany Terry (Harvard Portrait, January-February 2016, page 25), and vocalist and bassist Esperanza Spalding. Significantly, none of these performers—including Chase—is a Western canon traditionalist; both their substantive expertise and their methods offer the department something new. For Chase, this shift is fundamentally about “embracing the practice and not just the scholarship around the practice.” In the concert hall and in the classroom, she is equally attuned to “the art of doing, and also the play of doing and the rigor of doing,” she explains. “I think about those three things—the art, the play, and the rigor—as inseparable.”

The relationships among aesthetic experimentalism, music pedagogy, and social change can be tricky to pin down. Assertions of music’s transformative potential sometimes have a quixotic ring. But Chase’s practice and her department’s paradigm shift reflect a broader rethinking of what it means to study music at Harvard, who can do so, and why it matters. From this perspective, music is not only a potential resource for social change, but a model of social relationships.

This idea is perhaps more easily experienced than explained. On a chilly evening in early spring, the organizers of the September protest held a concert in Memorial Church. Part of the DACA Seminar, an event series convened to educate the University community about U.S. immigration policy, the concert was intended as a celebration of solidarity after a day of workshops and talks. Chase’s contribution included a brief live performance, followed by a 2016 composition by Iyer called Flute Goals: Five Empty Chambers. The piece upended the expectation that the soloist is the primary focus of a solo performance. In a subtly symbolic inversion of the composer-performer relationship, Iyer created the piece using an array of improvised sounds that Chase prerecorded on five flutes. Uncanny and riveting, these sounds careened, collided, and whirled with propulsive energy. Chase introduced the piece from the stage, but as the recording played, she went to join Iyer in a pew. Most people listened quietly, while a few children chattered, and conversations floated in from the entryway; everything became part of the sonic mix. This was music that noisily forged togetherness.

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