Concert Review: Claire Chase's Density 2036
HUMAN, MACHINE, AND THE SPACE IN BETWEEN: CLAIRE CHASE’S DENSITY 2036: PART VI
March 5th, 2019
Six years into existence, Claire Chase’s Density 2036 has become an established, yet far from predictable, force to be reckoned with. Borne from Chase’s athletic 2013 album Density, the project has morphed into a commissioning and live-performance powerhouse with epic proportions, aiming for new installments every year until 2036—the centennial anniversary of Edgard Varèse’s seminal Density 21.5 for solo flute. Presented by NYC’s The Kitchen, this year’s Density 2036: part vi showcased Chase at the height of her power, helming a streamlined and remarkably stimulating program of new works by Olga Neuwirth, Pamela Z, Phyllis Chen, Sarah Hennies, Bahar Royaee, and Tyshawn Sorey.
On Saturday, March 2nd, the second of Density 2036: part vi’s two sold out evenings, The Kitchen’s black-box space was abuzz amidst a characteristically-intriguing stage setup of black wooden ramps and raised platforms of different heights, complete with an interactive LED light-tube sculpture by Levy Lorenzo. The program began without preamble, immediately plunging the audience into Olga Neuwirth’s Magic Flu-idity for flute and typewriter. Spread out over two raised plinths, Chase and Nathan Davis appeared as two islands of industrious activity: Chase’s percussive, pointillistic flute jabs provided counterpoint to Davis’ playful choreography of pressing typewriter keys, shifting the paper carriage, and striking a concierge bell at key moments. About halfway into the piece, Davis began emitting a single warbling tone from a crystal water glass, sending the flute texture into more fantastical and atmospheric territory. Beneath the obvious metaphors of the artist-creator and the process of artistic creation, Magic Flu-idity left the impression of creativity sometimes aided, and other times bounded, by the systematic bustle of the machine, a balance captured masterfully by the two performers.
Before the audience had a chance to applaud, Chase seamlessly launched into the glitchy, idiosyncratic world of Pamela Z: painstakingly-clipped audio snippets of Chase’s own voice began to recite sequences of numbers, Chase mimicking each vocal inflection and contour perfectly in live-time flute accompaniment. Described by the composer as “a distilled Claire Chase,” Pamela Z’s Louder, Warmer, Denser is the result of a 2018 interview of Chase at Pamela Z’s San Francisco recording studio. The subsequent audio deconstructions formed a self-reflexive backdrop to Chase’s dynamic, roaming movements around the stage, culminating in an outlandish moment when Chase ascended a platform containing her massive contrabass flute (nicknamed “Big Bertha” by some), laid supine behind it, and began intoning gutturally into the didgeridoo-like instrument. If Louder, Warmer, Denser is a portrait of Claire Chase, it is undoubtedly a multi-faceted and ebullient one.
The transition into the next piece, Phyllis Chen’s Roots of Interior, came in the form of a solitary figure walking slowly up the stairs to join Chase on the platform, turning to face Chase, and slowly placing both of her hands on Chase’s chest as Chase continued to play. This inscrutable gesture began to make sense as a rhythmic rumbling sound gradually emerged, corresponding subtly to the flute’s changes in volume and intensity—Chase’s own heartbeat, made manifest. Roots of Interior provided another kind of portrait of Chase: like Pamela Z, Chen chose to depict Chase obliquely, treating Chase as a “landscape” or “changing environment,” rather than a static entity. Yet by using another person to physically hold a digital stethoscope up to Chase’s breast, Chen’s portrait took on a poignant, intimate dimension that made this performance one of the evening’s most memorable.
As soon as the two women dissolved into blackness, a hush fell over the stage. Before long, a chorus of disembodied, barely-audible hums signaled the onset of Sarah Hennies’ Reservoir 2: Intrusion. Chase descended from her platform, sitting cross-legged in the middle of the stage and beginning to emit long, low, curving tones from her alto flute, as the ghostly figures of the Constellation Chor emerged from either side, drifting and circling Chase while continuing to hum ad libitum. Over the course of the next twenty minutes or so, Chase’s tones accelerated infinitesimally as the figures around her began to pair up, touching, patting, and embracing one another, all while increasing the volume of their humming to eerie effect. Described in Hennies’ program notes as a study on “the relationship between human conscious and unconscious thought,” Reservoir 2: Intrusion was a truly impressive and profound exercise in restraint, never relinquishing its permeating stillness, gaining greater power the longer it held the audience in trance. And for the first time of the night, Chase herself seemed to recede from focus: despite her solitary position at the nucleus of the ensemble, Chase’s unwavering musical material obscured her subjectivity, lost in the dark morass of collective (un)consciousness.
Following Bahar Royaee’s Purge, a short-but-sweet electronic piece inspired by past iterations of Density concerts, the illustrious polymath Tyshawn Sorey took the stage. The audience’s Sarah-Hennies-induced reverie was quickly shattered as the two long-time collaborators launched into Sorey’s Bertha’s Lair, originally written in 2016 for contrabass flute and percussion. This time, Chase stuck to her platinum flute, giving this constantly-evolving piece a piercing quality matched by Sorey’s frenetic and virtuosic manipulations of the stock bass drum, snare, and hi-hat combination. Their performance assumed a punk-rock fever pitch as Chase began to walk up a gradual-incline ramp towards Sorey, who proceeded to rip out the innards of his snare drum, stabbing multiple holes in it with his drumstick spears. By far the most improvisatory work on the program, Bertha’s Lair served as a cathartic release from the more cagey, internally-agitated energy of the pieces before it.
And in dramatic conclusion, Chase segued directly into Varèse’s Density 21.5, announced by a burst of neon-yellow light from Lorenzo’s light-tube sculpture. Based on a primal-sounding F-E-F-sharp motive, Density 21.5 asserts its unique sound world in just four minutes, somehow communicating both capriciousness and driving intensity at the same time. Chase captured this paradoxical effect with aplomb, affirming the piece’s status as progenitor of the program and as the logical denouement of the evening’s riveting performances. Theatrical, immersive, and executed with matchless precision, Claire Chase’s Density 2036: part vi truly elevated the contemporary classical music recital model to a new level of thematic cohesion, examining the tension between systematic, driving, machine-like structure and the expression of human subjectivity—and ultimately putting both extremes in the same uneasy, but thrilling, continuum.