The flute is the oldest of the instruments, its recoverable history stretching back some forty thousand years. Prehistoric humans fashioned flutes, pipes, and whistles from the bones of birds and other animals. There is no way to know what this music sounded like or what it was used for. Was he talking about love? Tribe? Nature? God? Disturbing evidence is that the earliest known flutes were made from the remains of creatures that had been hunted and killed. Pascal Quignard, in his haunting book “La haine de la musique”, summons a plausible scene: flutes made of bone marrow, and dance their secret stories while wearing masks of prey as savage as them.
Over the millennia, the flute has come to be regarded as delicate, proper, ethereal. Claire Chase, perhaps the instrument’s most imaginative living lawyer, is determined to harness its primordial power. Since 2013, she has commissioned scores for a monumental project entitled “Density 2036”; when completed, in the designated year, he will have added up to a hundred pieces to the flute repertoire. In the latest installment of the series, which had three performances at the Kitchen, in December, Chase was a lone figure in an audiovisual storm, standing up to choppy electronic textures and barrage of video frames. She made extensive use of her double bass flute, which she nicknamed Big Bertha; over six feet tall, it emits tones of unearthly, breathing depth, suitable for a whale-watching audience.
What must have attracted the attention of prehistoric bone flautists is the witchcraft of giving voice to an object that is no longer animated. The events of Chase, likewise, often have the feeling of a session, of an esoteric event. Liza Lim’s “Sex Magic,” a sprawling ritual for contrabass, electronics, and kinetic percussion that Chase premiered online in 2020, explores what the composer calls “sacred eroticism in women’s history,” gesturing towards the Pythia, at Delphi, and the Hindu Goddess of the rage Kali. At a confusing moment, Chase blows an Aztec death whistle, a ceramic resonator that can conjure up a roaring wind or a howling crowd. Lim’s creation, however, is less a staging of violence than an exorcism of it. “Sex Magic” ends with a music of mysterious tenderness, with Tennyson quoted in the score: “The long day goes away; the moon slowly rises. . . . Come, my friends, / ‘It is not too late to seek a new world.
Forty-three-year-old Chase grew up in a musical household in Leucadia, California, a seaside community north of San Diego. She became obsessed with the flute in her childhood and, at the age of thirteen, she had a life-changing encounter with “Density 21.5”, Edgard Varèse’s soliloquy for flute in 1936, d ‘after which his series is named. Short-lived, cosmic in scope, “Density 21.5” transforms the flute into a luminous vessel of abstraction. Chase wrote of the sheet music: “There was no need to do anything pretty, homogeneous, uniform. The beauty here was to peel off the mask and let the fire beneath each breath come in contact with the metal in its raw, unaffected way. She tried to program the work when she graduated from college, but was forced to play “Danny Boy” instead.
Since then, Chase has followed an affable Messianic urge to bring modern music to a wider audience. Her first lead was the International Contemporary Ensemble, which she founded in 2001. Within a decade, it had become one of America’s dominant new music groups, and it remains so, although Chase has moved away from it. ‘together in 2017 to focus on a solo career. She had launched “Density 2036” four years earlier, embarking on a quarter-century journey that has few precedents.
The first five years of the project can be summed up in a compilation of four discs and eighteen works that Meyer Sound Laboratories produced in 2020. Faithful to the Varès starting point, Chase seems to favor composers who have connections, in a way. or another, to the modernist tradition; neo-romantic roots and minimalist arpeggiation are largely absent. At the same time, she is drawn to bright colors, extravagant gestures, and visceral-oriented experimentalism. A decisive first offering was “Luciform” by Mario Diaz de León, in which the flute performs fast, spider-like movements on a death metal-like backing track. Many “Density 2036” commissions use electronics, as if to contrast the old with the modern.
The Kitchen concert included three new scores, a sample of “Sex Magic” and a cover of “Density 21.5”. The first creation, “Aftertouch”, was by Wang Lu, who became known for his overloaded and exuberant music that mimics the delirium of digital life. Her piece begins with field recordings of city noise, punchy electronic rhythms, and bursts of flute activity. A sequence of repeating units – three times, four times, six times – suggests machines or humans caught in a loop. But a section called “Aeolian Sound”, for bass flute, takes a melancholy introspection, with notes of emerging folk motifs. The music was accompanied by a fascinating video by Polly Applebaum, showing ceramic bowls spinning on a podium.
Then, on the program, the Irish composer Ann Cleare, whose music often evokes amorphous forms moving in a thick mist. His piece “anfa”, its title derived from the Irish word for storm, combines the contrabass flute with two experimental films by artist Ailbhe Ní Bhriain. In one, a shot of a hill gradually fades away as the film is submerged in bleach, and in the other a scene by a lake is obscured by tendrils of ink. . Shimmering upper harmonics and washouts of trills counter Bertha’s moans, with a synth pedal further scrambling the sound image. Every now and then the murmur of an arpeggiated chord or angular pattern emerges, only to dissolve in the fog. The indication “Austere, Deep-Time, Light-seeking” in the score captures the dark and delighted atmosphere.
Divine chaos returns in the third creation, “Auricular Hearsay,” an improvised pandemonium designed by composer and multimedia artist Matana Roberts. The score presents the performer with a checkerboard of possible heights alongside a range of word clouds that offer both technical (“glissando”, “vibrato”, “diminuendo”) and interpretive (“free “,” Spacious “,” hot “). The player is also asked to respond to the visual component – psychedelic videos that Roberts pulled from scans of his own brain activity. At the first of Kitchen’s concerts, Chase was joined by sound artist Senem Pirler, who handled a live electronics table. Sometimes Chase and Pirler engaged in a friendly duel or competitive dance, rocking back and forth with pops of figuration and bursts of noise.
In the bad old days of the new music circuit, an event like this would have resulted in tedious breaks while equipment was moved. Chase, who has long advocated for a more professional approach to production values in classical music, performed continuously, with his stage manager, Kelly Levy, imposing the fluidity of a tight Off Broadway show. Lighting and production designer Nicholas Houfek created a minimalist theater out of pools of light and dark; Levy Lorenzo’s sound design was as powerful as it was clear; Monica Duncan handled the projections, which swirled at Chase’s feet and onto the screen behind her.
The fact that women dominate the evening did not seem accidental, although it could have been easily, given the astonishing inventiveness of female songwriters at the turn of the 21st century. Lim’s “Sex Magic” set the tone by calling for an “alternative cultural logic of women’s power”. At the end of the night, in a pleasant reversal of stereotypical roles, the macho-modernist Varèse fell into a kind of servant role, calming the nerves with the crystalline structures of “Density 21.5”. Considering what had happened before, Chase might as well have played “Danny Boy.” ??