Woodburn Creatives, Sydney
May 25, 2018

Who better to open new music series Backstage Music’s 2018 season than New York flautist Claire Chase? Billed as “a living space for living music”, Backstage Music – which has moved to its new home in Redfern’s Woodburn Creatives – presents early career musicians alongside established artists and ensembles, with a focus on innovative, challenging and experimental music. After launching with New York group yMusic and local band The Music Box Project in 2016, Backstage’s 2017 season featured cellist Ashley Bathgate as well as a suite of Australian artists, while the 2018 line-up includes the likes of Julian Day, Ensemble Offspring and Phoebe Green – and Claire Chase kicking it all off with a bang.

Claire Chase. Photo © Oscar Smith

The founder of new music collective, International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE,) Chase has given the premieres of hundreds of new works, collaborated with composers from the late Pauline Oliveros to the Pulitzer Prize-winning Du Yun, and among the many notches in her belt are a MacArthur ‘genius’ Grant in 2012 and last year’s Avery Fisher Prize – Chase was the first flute player to win the award, joining the ranks of musicians like Yo-Yo Ma, Midori and Joshua Bell.

For all her accolades, though, the Brooklyn-based flute player seemed right at home in the makeshift warehouse space in Redfern, delivering a performance notable not just for its stunning virtuosity but for its compelling sense of theatre.

Du Yun’s 2013 Gradient Density, for electronics alone, filled the space with a fervid miasma of breath and flute amidst the ticking percussion of electronic sounds, before Chase strode on to the stage to join the recorded track in the brightly multi-layered Minimalism of Steve Reich’s Vermont Counterpoint. She duetted deftly on piccolo, flute and alto flute with the 10 pre-recorded instruments, her own sound amplified with a headset microphone.

Chase is four years into an ambitious 22-year commissioning project, Density 2036 – which leads up to the centenary of Edgard Varèse’s ground-breaking 1936 solo flute work Density 21.5 – and it was from this project that she drew her repertoire, the pieces played back to back in a seamless, carefully curated one-hour set performed entirely from memory with tight precision and a gripping, focussed intensity.

On bass flute, Chase’s dark velvet sound and moaning pitch-bends joined an atmospheric electronic track full of hisses, rattling effects and organ-like chords in Marcos Balter’s tenebrous Pessoa for six bass flutes, Chase’s harmonic-rich accents ricocheting in the reverb. From there she traced an effective line to Suzanne Farrin’s 2016 The Stimulus of Loss for ondes martenot and flute with glissando headjoint. Dubbed the “whammy bar” of the flute by its inventor Robert Dick, the glissando headjoint is an extension that telescopes out from the instrument, facilitating trombone-like slides – which, in Farrin’s work (inspired by Emily Dickinson’s letters) resulted in organic, timbral effects playing off the theremin-like sliding of the ondes martenot in a sound world full of purring flutter-tonguing, murmuring voice and stomach-dropping descents.

Photo © Ollie Miller

Mario Diaz de León’s Luciform for flute and electronics reintroduced echoes of Reich’s Minimalism in its short, bright phraselets on flute, sliding electronics giving way to jagged, electric guitar-like riffs and an undertow of distorted bass against more lyrical flute lines.

Taking its name from the writings of Muslim poet and Sufi mystic Rumi, Yun’s 2014 An Empty Garlic for bass flute and electronics explored a visceral, ritualistic aesthetic drawing on vocalisations, chant, organ sounds, hints of Bach and ghostly vocalised inhalations. The work was a powerful climax to the set, Chase demonstrating fine control of both instrument and atmosphere, before the glittering sound of a triangle (used in the manner of a meditation bell) introduced the final piece on the program.

In an effective shift of mood, Chase performed Marcos Balter’s Soliloquy with her eyes open, the lighter work – again drawing a line back to the Reich in its energetic, repeated figures – inviting the audience back into the present moment.

While Chase’s performance was the main event, the warm-up act – experimental sound-art collective Sonant Bodies (Victoria Pham and James Hazel) with flautist Sarah Monk – did much to prime the audience. The 20-minute set, for which the audience was blindfolded, began with the Heartbeat exercise from Pauline Oliveros’ Deep Listening: A Composer’s Sound Practice, the audience tapping, then clapping their own heartbeats (easier said than done), in a polyrhythmic, communal sound-ritual. This evolved into performances of Monk’s Rain, the first movement from Pham’s Modes of Transportation and Hazel’s Salt and Wind Conspiracies, in an organically flowing, immersive set that had the unsighted audience tuning in to music that could come from any direction.

Photo © Ollie Miller

Barely two years old, Backstage Music is one of the most exciting recent developments in Sydney’s musical life, and judging by the audience (a veritable who’s who of Sydney’s new music scene) there’s definitely an appetite for this kind of event – especially with a headliner the calibre of Claire Chase.

Backstage Music’s next concert, featuring Ensemble Offpsring, Julian Day and Georgina Oakes, is at Woodburn Creatives in Sydney on July 19