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Concert Mon Feb 11 2013

Sculpting the new repertory: ICELab at the MCA


Like every classical art form, the avant garde has a canon. It seemed unlikely in their early lives that composers like John Cage and Karlheinz Stockhausen would eventually be an accepted form of entertainment (or, if we shrink from that word, let's say emotional and intellectual stimulation) for a respectable, concert-going crowd. But goalposts, they do move. In any city that of a certain size and cultural infrastructure, you can support a new music group that can play "repertory," and make a return on investment. But even with the most open-minded audience, what's hard then, now, and always is bringing a crowd out for untested talent.

For the International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE), the thrill of the new is always the most important, but introducing crowds to the true unknown is the most important of all. It's why over half of every year's ICE events are given over to young composers. "People come for one fundamental reason: they want something unexpected to happen," says Claire Chase, flutist and artistic director of ICE. While it's fundamentally easier to fill an auditorium with promises of seldom-performed Xenakis pieces or interlaced programs of octet music by Franz Schubert and George Lewis, Chase says ICE is equally drawn to attacking the problems burdening young composers, namely lack of stage time. "It's one of the most optimistic things we can do as humans," says Chase.

For their performance this Saturday at the Museum of Contemporary Art (220 E. Chicago Ave., 7:30 p.m.), ICE performs the works of Carla Kihlstedt (At Night We Walk In Cirlces And Are Consumed By Fire) and Phyllis Chen (Chimers) as part of their ICElab series. In speaking with Chase about ICE's collaboration with Kihlstedt on her piece, she described a process of close collaboration with Kihlstedt, a musician known better for her work in bands like Rabbit Rabbit, Sleepytime Gorilla Museum, and Fred Frith's Casa Nova, as more of an improvisational workshop than a rehearsal, analogous perhaps to Caryl Churchill's method of using her repertory group to improvise and sculpt the script for months along with the author.

As her piece revolves around dreams, Kihlstedt asked members of ICE to discuss their recent dreams during workshops. When guitarist Daniel Lippel described a dream where people walked on stage and de-tuned his guitar mid-song, the band acted this out in person, having Lippel play while dealing with people walking brazenly up to him and fiddling with his tuning pegs. Describing a dream is one level of reaction; experiencing it as a dreamer is a deeper connection. But to act this potentially embarrassing act out in front of a group of real people concretizes the emotions in a way that mere description of the dream cannot. "It was a living, breathing act...not like a performer interpreting a score," said Chase, who noted that the composition was constantly changing up to the last minute as each ensemble member brought a new idea to the work table.

Though the "I" word (Indie Rock) is bandied around a lot to describe Kihlstedt, Chase insists it's not altogether accurate. "Carla is beyond category. Music just pours out of her. She's a classically-training violinist, but this isn't a crossover situation because there are no lines to be crossed; the lines have disappeared completely."

Within the ICElab statement of principles, it's noted that commissioned pieces should be malleable enough to adapt to many different environments, from an intimate room to a football field. "A piece like this could live meaningfully in very different environments," said Chase, who noted that the piece will be performed in Chicago, Washington D.C., and on tour later. As the piece concerns dreams, it could be expanded and modified for years.

ICElab, an experimental program originally planned for four years, is set to end in 2014. Chase says it will almost certainly continue beyond, though perhaps with a different focus. "In 2012, we took on many large projects which were turned into small projects. After 2014, we'll be looking for smaller projects to make larger," noting that the number of composers per year will probably drop from six down to two or three.

The final goal of ICElab is not just a chance for new composers to workshop their pieces for sympathetic audiences. "Our hope is that at the end of the program, we will have created a section of the repertory that will represent some of the most exciting music of our generation," says Chase. "We are hoping that it becomes a model that can be replicable. The more new music being commissioned in the ecosystem, the better off we are all going to be."

It doesn't get more ambitious or optimistic than that.

Tickets are $28, $22 for MCA members, $10 for students. Order here.

Carla Kihlstedt: I. Factual Boy from At Night We Walk in Circles and Are Consumed by Fire (2012) from ICE on Vimeo.

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Feature Thu Dec 31 2015

Our Final Transmission Days

By The Gapers Block Transmission Staff

Transmission staffers share their most cherished memories and moments while writing for Gapers Block.

Read this feature »


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