A chat with International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE) founder and flutist, CLAIRE CHASE

May 5, 2011

My advice to young musicians is simple: find out what you love the most, what you can’t live without, and what your wildest artistic dream is; and then find out where that’s needed—Claire Chase

LL: When did you found ICE, why did you found ICE, and can you talk about the general mission of the ensemble?

CC:  I founded ICE on a greyhound bus en route to Chicago in June 2001 immediately after graduating from Oberlin. I knew that I wanted to try my hand at building an organization from the ground up, but it wasn’t until that bus ride that the idea of ICE came to me, caught fire in my mind, and wouldn’t let go of me. Ten years later, it still hasn’t!

I wanted to create an international organization dedicated to new music that would someday be as vital culturally, artistically and sociologically as the great opera houses, symphony orchestras, and theater companies of the world’s great cities. The music of our time deserves a place in contemporary culture that is not on the margins but rather in the epicenter of our lives, and I wanted to create a company and build a community of artists that would champion that idea uncompromisingly, a company that would blaze trails and set an entirely new standard for what is “possible” in the 21st century.

The mission of ICE, in a nutshell, is to expand our notion of what is possible on a daily basis – in the concert hall, in the classroom, in the rehearsal studio, in our imaginations, as listeners and as performers.

LL:  What makes ICE unique, and at the same time, how do you see ICE’s role as part of a changing musical landscape with more musicians as entrepreneurs, creating their own opportunities?

CC:  What makes ICE unique in my mind is our shared enthusiasm for making impossible things possible. Ten years ago, the idea of creating an American counterpart to an organization like Ensemble Intercontemporain or Ensemble Modern seemed impossible; today, it’s absolutely possible, not just through ICE but also through the extraordinary movement of young ensembles and organizations that we are fortunate to be a part of. We’re a part of this ecosystem, especially in New York where fantastic young groups are sprouting up by the minute, each with a different, and in my mind, complementary vision for the future of music. It’s an incredibly exciting landscape in which to be making music, and I see this movement strengthening, deepening and widening by the day. Don’t believe the critics and nay-sayers; this is a great time to be doing what we’re doing, perhaps the best time ever. Don’t believe the folks who say they’re competing for few donor dollars either; every dollar that a new-music organization raises to do its invaluable work is also an invaluable service to the larger community of new-music lovers and doers alike. We are all in this together.

In Europe, the contemporary music ensemble is already an institution, and has been so for nearly a quarter of a century. In the US, this organism is just starting to take shape. I want ICE to help shape this movement, accelerate it, build communities around it, and create a modular, malleable, artist-driven organizational model that future generations can use.

The dream in the beginning was to create a company that would have bases in multiple US cities – so that our work as an ensemble could have broad reach and wouldn’t just be limited to one geographic location (or, just as limiting, to a touring schedule that makes sustained, meaningful contact with audiences impossible). I thought, why not have an ICE outpost in Chicago, an ICE outpost in New York, and eventually an ICE outpost in Los Angeles? Someday, why not expand internationally? Why not have 50 events a year rather than a season of just half a dozen? Why not build up to 100 events annually eventually? Why not have a robust budget of a million dollars to do our work? These were crazy ideas in 2001, but they were real questions, and we came up with real answers. We started with $500 and we’re now headed toward a budget of just under a million. We’re going to keep growing and keep dreaming.

LL:  How is ICE structured as an organization? Is this structure related to your mission?

CC:  ICE’s structure is very much connected to our mission. ICE is its own manager, its own producer, and its own artist. We don’t see any need for division among these traditionally disparate categories; we see them as symbiotic parts of a powerful, generous, and constantly evolving totality. What happens when the artist needs no approval from a producer to do the work that that artist wants? This is our early-21st century question, and I think it’s a fabulously exciting one. We’ll see what happens. We’re right in the middle of it now, so it’s too early to tell, but my prediction is that the 21st century artist is going to be more powerful than she has ever been historically, and we’re about to see an explosion of artistic breakthroughs in our generation.

Although I ran the company myself for seven years without a salary, we’ve in the last three years moved toward a more sustainable model with support staff. ICE currently a full-time staff of four, two of whom (myself and my Program Director, Joshua Rubin, one of the finest clarinetists of his generation) are also founding members of the ensemble; our other staffers are a Development Director and a Managing Director, both of whom are two of the most brilliant, passionate, committed and inspiring people I know. We have 33 musicians, 10 of whom are core members of the group and participate actively in programming, composer selection, guest artist selection, and general artistic direction of the group. We are not a top-down company, but rather a bottom-up, inside-out community. The best ideas really don’t come from me; they come from members of the group.

LL:  Can you explain what ICElab is.

CC:  ICElab is a four-year program (2011-2014) that pairs 24 emerging composers and multimedia artists with ICE to collaboratively create genre-defying new work in upwards of 100 performances over four years all over the world. ICElab is also eventually going to be a digital space where anyone from anywhere in the world can tune in and see this work come to life in audio and video. The program is going to completely change the way that we create work, and I’m terribly excited about it. It’s definitely the coolest thing we’ve ever done.

ICElab is all about putting composers and performers on equal footing and giving them unfettered time, space and resources to let their imaginations run wild and inspire each other to explore new terrain. The core philosophy of the ICElab program is that composers and performers form a symbiotic relationship – we need each other. By
working closely and collaboratively very early in the process, we are in a sense turning the process of composing, and also the process of learning a new piece, inside out and upside down. ICElab provides an open, malleable, creative space in which we are constantly bursting the ceiling open, burning the walls around us down, and going deeper into the ground on which we stand. We expect that the composer will come into this space and embrace this process as we do – with the intention of being changed and redefining what is possible.

LL:  Can you also talk about any educational work you do (Listening Room or any other initiatives).

CC:  Education is as important to ICE as performance. We don’t see the two projects as separate – we see them as absolutely inseparable. If we’re not building the audiences of tomorrow, we have no business expecting the audiences of today to show up to our concerts and engage with our work. How do we get a group of kids interested in new music? Easy! We let them do it themselves. We do away with the mystique of new music as some secret society unavailable to all but the select sophisticated few, and we give kids a blank sheet of paper, some markers, a few tools, some prompts and a bit of guidance, and we let them create a piece of music themselves. They write shapes, they draw wiggly lines, they burst ideas onto a giant piece of construction paper, expressing what is in their magical and phenomenal little minds with whatever vocabulary they have, and ICE “plays” what they’ve written. We perform these compositions, these works of art. It’s great fun, and totally empowering for everyone. This is the premise of The Listening Room – a space where kids listen, to themselves, to each other, to ICE, and ICE listens to them, and we create music together.

LL:  Do you have any thoughts on how music training prepares musicians for their professions, and what musicians might want to do, if anything, to complement the training they receive?

CC:  The idea of ICE sprung, in a sense, from my dissatisfaction with the choices that I was implicitly given in my musical training: 1) get an orchestra job, 2) stay in academia and get an academic job, or 3) get a manager and have a solo career. I wanted a fourth option – a career and life in which chamber music, collaboration, and the ability to take an idea from its tiniest seed all the way to its fullest flowering, were all complementary parts of an integrated whole. I also wanted to play solo concerts and develop my own voice as an artist while I was also helping others develop theirs, and I wanted to work in a team and build communities of other teams around us so that literally anything would be possible. ICE became this space for me, and for the other 33 members of the group. When we put our heads together and open our hearts (and you’ve got to have both heart and head in this game, one’s not enough), anything is possible.

My advice to young musicians is simple: find out what you love the most, what you can’t live without, and what your wildest artistic dream is; and then find out where that’s needed. It’s not what you do or how well you do it that matters most; it’s where you’re needed. You’ve got to have both: something to say, and someone to say it to. For everyone this cocktail is going to be different, but I do believe every musician has the power within her to figure this out.

For more on ICE, go here.

For more on Claire Chase, go here.

For her talk on Self Promotion and the Musician Entrepreneur go here.

For “The Economy on ICE” from WQXR go here.

For recent work from one of the ICElab’s composers go here.

For an interview with co-founder of Melissa Snoza of Fifth House Ensemble go here.

And you might want to read these related articles:

House music (or putting the YOU in what you do)


The Art-Career Tango


Participatory Music Making Part 1


Participatory Music Making Part 2


eighth blackbird:  What Can Groups Like This Teach Us?


5 Responses to “A chat with International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE) founder and flutist, CLAIRE CHASE”

  1. Claire Chase and ICE represent what is the most successful thing happening today in serious music: DIY. Bootstrap. The lessons from Bang On a Can. So many good New Music groups: itsnotmeitsyou (did I get that right?) eighth blackbird, Victoire yMusic, ACME, JACK Quartet, and the ever present others.

    Smaller venues are attracting a bright young constituency. Q2 at WQXR is taking them out to the world.

    Of symphony orchestras, only those which are being adventurous are doing well: L.A. Phil under Esa-Pekka Salonen playing New Music; the NY Phil with concepts like Contact!, the White Lights Festival (Jan Garbarek played sax!!)

    Cheers to Ms Chase! And, thanks for the videocast at Q2. I bought a $10 “ticket”.

  2. Laura Lentz Says:

    thanks for your comments! The kind of work ICE and also Fifth House Ensemble (https://innovativeperformanceandpedagogy.wordpress.com/2011/04/07/a-chat-with-fifth-house-ensemble-co-founder-flutist-and-entrepreneur-melissa-snoza/) are doing is vital, along with the groups you mentioned. It’s important to hear their stories, what inspired them to found such groups and what advice they have for other musicians as they carve their own ways.

    Thanks for mentioning Q2… I added the Economy on ICE article as a link for readers from the website.

    Absolutely you are right on about adventurous programming, though I think it’s also about finding the balance that keeps the dedicated orchestra goers coming but also brings in the younger generations too. You mentioned great examples, and more of that kind of programming needs to be seen.

    thanks again for the comments.

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