Sunday, February 21, 2016

Claire Chase goes beyond the beyond in her one-woman show

Claire Chase - photo by Jacob Wade

When Claire Chase finished her hour-long performance on Friday night (February 19), she left most of the audience at Zoomtopia gasping for breath and probably wondering what that was all about. They had just witnessed a performance art/sonic exploration that started in high gear and blasted off – climaxing with a volcanic piece in which Chase (sans flute) recited streams of words while prancing into, around, and about the audience. It was a riveting, wide-ranging sonic exploration by the New York City-based, MacArthur Fellow.

The one-woman flutist extravaganza was sponsored by the Third Angle New Music Ensemble as part of its Studio Series, and the Friday show was the second of two that Chase performed. The concert began with Edgard VarĂ©se’s “Density 21.5,” which is considered the first solo flute piece that pushed the artist and the instrument into new territories. Wearing blue, workmen’s overalls, Chase began the piece while standing on an 8 foot ladder. She wasn’t on the top rung of the ladder, but the persuasive, intense way that she played conveyed the sense of someone committed to take the plunge from a great height. She would fire off a series of tones and cut off each with a demonstrative swing with her flute.

The next pieces, all written last year by composers commissioned by Chase, flowed together with barely a break in the action. Dia Fujikura’s “Lila” featured Chase playing the flute, the bass flute, and the contrabass flute. I had never seen a bass flute before, and it is impressively big – sort of trombone-sized – but it was nowhere near as large as the contrabassoon, which was more tuba-sized – but without all the curling tubing and the big bell. In any case, Chase rocked-out on those instruments: singing into the mouthpiece, talking, overblowing, underblowing, buzzing, tonguing, and a bunch other techniques that I didn’t grasp.

Things got more complicated with Francesca Verunelli’s “The Famous Box Trick” and Nathan Davis’s “Limn” because they incorporated electronic sounds. I heard whistling, grunting, groaning, growling, panting, muffled sounds, rapping or tapping. Often the sounded were layered on top of each other. At times, the sound reached into an elemental, animalistic arena that fluctuated between being oddly appealing and repulsive. At one point, Chase was on her knees; then minutes later she was playing the flute on back while stretched out on the floor, or she played while on a skateboard. I think that she could play upside down, if she wanted to.

The sheer variety of unusual sounds led up to Pauline Oliveros’s “Intensity 20.15: Grace Chase” in which Chase put her flutes aside and did an extended word play in a unique duet with a computer-controlled sound interface called the Expanded Instrument System. Oliveros designed the EIS, which works by picking up sounds from the microphone worn by Chase. Those sounds were fed to processing modules in a computer and then emitted from speakers in the performance space. So we heard the text that Chase recited and the generated tones from the EIS – which was manipulated by Levy Lorenzo. Speaking of text, the words that Chase spoke were written by her grandmother, Grace Chase, who apparently wrote something every day of her life. The text rhymed at times, but mostly seemed nonsensical so that we stopped trying to make sense of what Chase said but rather just appreciated the musicality of it all. That was teamed up with her antic interaction with the audience: taking someone’s shoes or handbag and clowning around. The intensity was electrifying but disconcerting at times because it seemed that Chase might have a meltdown or just go insane right in front of us.

But she didn’t. And it was gratifying to stay after the show and hear her answer questions from the audience with pluck, intelligence, and emotional understanding. Wow!
Claire Chase and Ron Blessing during post-concert session - photo by Jacob Wade

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