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The Mesmerising Artistry of Claire Chase

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The Mesmerising Artistry of Claire Chase
Claire Chase photograph courtesy of the artist

Claire Chase – the prodigious virtuoso flutist – may already be considered [with absolutely no gratuitous hyperbole whatsoever] a truly great artist. She has done for her family of instruments what no other artist has done in decades. She has done, for instance, in many ways, what Steve Lacy did to Sidney Bechet’s beloved soprano saxophone that proverbial straight horn, what Roswell Rudd and Albert Mangelsdorff did for the trombone and what Nate Wooley has done for the trumpet, Jimi Hendrix did for the guitar and Dame Evelyn Glennie has done for percussion [and music]; in short Miss Chase has truly revolutionised the instrument she plays – changing the artistic scope and range of each of the variants she plays, changed the context and references of the very instrument, and by projecting her throat and chest voices through the flue, she has dramatised the instrument. Moreover, when she performs all of the above and employs pizzicato and percussive multiphonics, and masterfully, manipulated the technique of overdubbing as well, she [playing solo] can sound like a whole woodwind section.

In a way her achievement is somewhat greater [some may say unfairly so] as she plays every variant of the flute with equal daring and virtuosic dexterity. To be sure, all horn players make art out of mouthfuls of air. But Miss Chase does much with every breath she takes. What churns in the reservoir of her lungs is warmed there glides out and is pushed through pursed lips animated by a curl or a snarl – air now transformed and turned into a melody, often with a harmony too. Phrases soar in great arcs of interminable, lilting slurs. Just as suddenly that flue of air can be turned on a dime to be expelled in a sustained series of great staccato rhythmic puffs to sustain the momentum of the melody that is being played. What she does with this invisible fluid – in a series of ephemeral and just as invisible balletic movements – is breathe life into the sonic code of the black dot that is music. She makes the air of it sing and dance and – if you shut your eyes and let the sound kidnap your senses – you will see impossibly vivid shapes dance inside your head.

The Mesmerising Artistry of Claire Chase
Claire Chase photograph by Karen Chester

In many ways it is as if Miss Chase’s artistic genius is quite inexplicable; it is her very defining characteristic. She is – like other geniuses [Dame Evelyn jumps to mind] – both someone who is completely absorbed by the contradictions of “genius” and unable to reveal its secrets, except, of course in music. Baudelaire once said that: “genius is no more than a childhood recaptured at will.” Moreover, like Miles Davis, Vladimir Horowitz, Martha Argerich or Jimi Hendrix, Miss Chase belongs to an elite breed of performers of genius who have a natural rapport with their instrument. When she plays the flute, it is no longer a flute, but a violin, a piano, a harp, a clarinet, a saxophone, a piano, or a whole crashing orchestra “singing” with the song of a human voice.

Miss Chase has been the toast of contemporary composers and chamber ensembles of various sizes for several years. She has even recorded with various ones and much to show of it with numerous musicians and other group projects. However, just three albums into her own solo career she undertook [in 2013] to create an epic project Density 2036 her ambitious, 24-year project to commission a new body of repertory for solo flute each year until the 100th anniversary of Edgard Varèse. This she decided would memorialise the composer’s groundbreaking 1936 flute solo work, “Density 21.5”. At the root of the project is to commission and premiere a new program of flute music “that seeks to expand the boundaries of the instrument.” The four discs under review here represent the first five years of that project – that is, material written, performed and recorded between 2013 and 2018.

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Based in Canada, Raul da Gama is a Canadian poet, musician and accomplished critic whose profound analysis is reinforced by his deep understanding of music, technically as well as historically. Raul studied music at Trinity College of Music, London and has read the classics, lived and worked in three continents and believes that there is a common thread running through every culture on earth. It is this unifying aspect of humanity that occupies his thoughts each day as he continues to write poetry and critique music. His last book was The Unfinished Score: The Complete Works of Charles Mingus, a book that relocated the life and works of the great American composer and bassist, Charles Mingus, to the landscape of poetry. He is currently at work on a poem of some length.

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