When people bring up the rituals of the classical concert hall, it usually isn’t to celebrate them. Countless blog posts, newspaper columns, and tweets have criticized the unspoken formalized rules of such performances—especially rules about when it is appropriate to clap—for being barriers to new listeners not already steeped in the culture. Whatever the merit of these critiques, it’s safe to say that when talking about a classical concert, the word “ritual” doesn’t have the most positive ring.
Claire Chase, flutist and founder of the International Contemporary Ensemble, has a very different take. ICE is staging the U.S. premiere of Icelandic composer Anna Thorvaldsottir’s “Aequilibria” at the Mostly Mozart festival in August. I recently spoke with both of them about the piece and their relationship. In praising an earlier work by Thorvaldsdottir that ICE has also played, Chase described it as “one of the most fully integrated sonic, electronic, and ritualistic performance experiences. It’s beyond a musical experience.” When I asked Thorvaldsdottir whether this sense of ritual was something she deliberately cultivated in her writing, she said that it was: “When I write music, I think about things that are ‘extra,’ beyond the notes on the paper. I think about the way movements feel to the performer. I obsess a lot about various types of details in music making.” Indeed, there were times where Thorvaldsdottir blurred the boundary between music and other forms of expression. “The first piece I did for ICE incorporated lights as music, and even movement.” Her interest in supposedly extra-musical details has less to do with creating a perfect environment for her sounds to exist in than it does with using every tool available to craft a cohesive experience for the audience.
Anna Thorvaldsdottir, “Aequilibria” (International Contemporary Ensemble)
This attention to details that go beyond notations on paper is one that Chase shares in her work with ICE. “These decisions are logistic—where is this piece going to be performed? Where do the music stands go? What happens when people walk into the room? When you get a composer, a lighting designer, a sound engineer, and a group of musicians together who are all invested in how this aspect of the experience is going to go down, and who all have opinions about it, really interesting things start to happen.” This collaborative investment in the details of creating a concert experience allows ICE to take the same piece and present it in different venues without losing its essence. In the application for the developmental ICElab program that ran from 2011 to 2014, ICE asked composers to describe how their piece could work in a football stadium, in a tiny black box theater, on a boat in a river, or under the Williamsburg bridge. “How do you make something that’s malleable? How do you refine something by redesigning it for different spaces? It will be a different experience each time, of course, but I’m going to use the word again and say the piece’s ritualistic qualities are consistent across them all.”
The sense of ritual they’re both interested in, then, has less to do with a repeated and formalized sequence of events than it does with creating a space that’s marked out as distinct from everyday life. For example, in “[one],” another piece by Thorvaldsdottir, a pianist and a percussionist team up to draw mysterious clusters of noises from a piano, at times coordinating their actions so carefully that they seem like one player. The result is a piece that suspends time. When watching a performance of “[one],” the rest of the world falls away, leaving only an evocative immersion in sound, motion, and light.
If every one of the pieces that Chase and Thorvaldsdottir worked on unfolded along these lines, there might be a danger of creating a new set of ossified rules to replace the old, but Chase was quick to forestall that possibility: “Neither one of us is really big on formulas. I would never presume to say that we’ve found the right cocktail.” But Chase views this uncertainty as an opportunity. “We’re constantly experimenting, and we’re deeply committed to learning not only from our triumphs, but also from the moments where we fall flat on our face—which happens! Not all of ICE’s concerts are well received.” Above all, she seems intent on letting the audience have room to form their own impressions—at one point in our conversation she referred to “the freedom and terror of the listening experience” as something that shouldn’t be resisted or denied.
Thorvaldsdottir chimed in here with her perspective. Being a composer who doesn’t usually perform her own works, she is slightly further removed from direct interaction with an audience, but the freedom of their experience is something she’s keen to preserve as well. “It’s a very precious thing that the audience can perceive and listen to the music from their own perspective.” That said, she’s not opposed to offering guidance where appropriate. “Particularly with contemporary music, it can be very nice to give people some idea of what’s being explored in a piece. I try to find a new middle ground each time and see what each new piece needs.
Each new piece, but also each new concert. The August concert that will see the US première of “Aequilibria” is called “How Forests Think,” and is a response to the forested environments that are featured in many of Franz Schubert’s works. Did “Aequilibria” have anything to do with Schubert in its initial conception? “I can’t say that I thought about it like that,” Thorvaldsdottir said, “But you know, you find different things in different music at different times. That’s a beautiful thing.” Considering the other two pieces on the program—Pauline Oliveros’s “Earth Ears” and Liza Lim’s “How Forests Think”—she continued, “It’s a matter of context. It’s all connected, you just look for the threads and follow them.”
This approach clarified something that Chase had said earlier when describing what draws her to putting on concerts. “When we go to hear live music, we want to hear something new, something that confronts us.” At the same time, however, she sees her place in the relationship with each piece ICE plays as part of a story that will last “thousands of years beyond us.” By seeing pieces not as fixed, but as endlessly mutable as venues and contexts change, this awareness of the future can live harmoniously with a restless search for newness in the present. “With all great music, of any era, there’s always more to uncover. We’re digging deep for jewels that have been there all along.” She likened the process of working on Thorvaldsdottir’s music to that of rehearsing Bach or Messiaen; her music is rich and deep enough that there are always more jewels left to find.
Together, Chase and Thorvaldsdottir are making music that is not bound by a moment in time. Their many collaborations are a testament to the durability of this vision. Their goal is a ritual that changes the audience on a profound level, regardless of where one applauds.