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Flute genius Claire Chase brings entrepreneurial spirit to Boston

David Michalek

There may be no more complete contemporary musician in the world today than flutist Claire Chase. Not only is she a sublimely good instrumentalist, she’s also a one-woman new-music generator. She’s in the second year of “Density 2036,” a 22-year project (you read that right) named after Edgard Varèse’s seminal flute piece, “Density 21.5,” to commission a new body of solo flute repertoire. She founded and directs the International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE), which has created and nourished an audience for the new works it plays so convincingly.

Chase has also become a poster child for musical DIYism, so much so that when she was awarded a MacArthur “genius” grant in 2012, she was recognized as an “arts entrepreneur and flutist.” Last year she gave a speech at Northwestern University exhorting the school’s music graduates to create their own opportunities: “Whether we like it or not, the call of our generation is not to occupy positions created for us; our calling is to create positions for ourselves, for one another, to improvise, to invent. . . . In short, our calling is to be entrepreneurs.”


On Thursday, Chase gives a recital at Boston Conservatory. She spoke to the Globe last week from Chicago, where she’s a visiting artist at Northwestern.

Q. This is your third year of being an official genius. How’s that feel?

A. I’m still, to be honest, in a little bit of disbelief that it happened, and that it is happening. I’m just very focused on making the absolute most of it, and making sure that not just the money but all the other good stuff that comes with it is spread around and kept in the artistic community, the community of people who are doing weird stuff at the margins that needs advocacy and collaboration and support.

Q. What are you doing, specifically, with the resources?


A. I gave one year of the award to ICE to start this new program called OpenICE. It’s a free concert platform, but it’s so much more than that; it’s about catalyzing public access to contemporary music and to the work we do, both live and online, and through educational outreach. All told, it’s hundreds of performances over the next several years all around the world that’ll be free and open to the public, and that will also be filmed and made available in our digital concert hall.

Q. Why this Density project to commission this avalanche of new music?

A. “Density 21.5” is a very personal piece for me. It completely changed my life when I heard it for the first time. I was 13 years old, my teacher came into my lesson, and he just laid the most earth-shattering performance of this piece. And I thought, oh my God, this is not the instrument I thought I was playing, but I want to play that. . . . The notion that at some point in my lifetime I could either give the premiere of or have some hand in [something like that], even if I’m an audience member or commissioner of something — if I could be an agent of the change that takes place when the 21st-century “Density” is born, how awesome would that be?

Q. ICE has been around since 2001.

A. We’re old. [laughs]

Q. Well, you’re a veteran among new-music groups. How do you keep that experience relevant and fresh?


A. It’s a good question, because new-music years are kind of like dog years — you multiply by seven. It’s like we’re in our 80s. [laughs] I think the way it keeps being fresh is, it’s about constantly gut-checking ourselves and each other, and being vigilant about never being comfortable. We like to say that as soon as we have a successful program at ICE, we go in and destroy it, and we start something new.

It’s not about things being better or more successful, it’s about them being alive. And for things to be alive, we have to allow their natural processes of transformation to happen — which is so simple, and is so exactly the opposite of what bureaucracies and large institutions, and I think much of our training in music school, drive us to do.

Q. That gets us to your 2012 Northwestern talk, which generated a lot of discussion, some of it quite critical of the idea that musicians should be entrepreneurs. Any further reflections?

A. A very interesting thing happened teaching my first classes at Northwestern this week. We talked about entrepreneurship, and I said, “What is it about this word that scares everybody?” And the students said, “Money — entrepreneurship is about money.” And I had a little lightbulb moment, [because] that’s not at all the way I think about this. Entrepreneurship is about ideas, and it’s about agency, and it’s about realizing our own power to effect the change that we absolutely need to embrace.


And I think there’s all sorts of misconceptions that there’s a model now of entrepreneurship. This thing that was precisely set up to be disruptive and can be quite radical is now a set of skills that you’re going to learn at an entrepreneurship institute: If you just follow these steps, you can be an entrepreneur! As if anything could be farther from the truth. This is where I actually prefer the word activist to the word entrepreneur. It really is about the health of the entire ecosystem — I think it’s a spirit of invention and a spirit of generosity and a spirit of resiliency.

Interview has been condensed and edited. David Weininger can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @davidgweininger.