Following Claire Chase: A Week In The Life Of The Modern Working Musician : The Record In an era when some classical musicians are struggling, New York-based flutist Claire Chase, the founder of the International Contemporary Ensemble, is keeping very busy.
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Following Claire Chase: A Week In The Life Of A Working Musician

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Following Claire Chase: A Week In The Life Of A Working Musician

Following Claire Chase: A Week In The Life Of A Working Musician

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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Across the country, many orchestras are cutting back their schedules or folding all together. And that's making it tough for musicians to find work, especially freelance musicians. But Claire Chase is thriving. She is a flautist and executive director of the International Contemporary Ensemble, known as ICE. Chase is a leader in the growing new music movement.

And reporter Lara Pellegrinelli spent a week just trying to keep up with her.

LARA PELLEGRINIELLI: Truth be told, Carnegie Hall sees its share of sleepy, under-attended recitals. Claire Chase's debut last year was not one of them.

(Soundbite of flute)

PELLEGRINIELLI: High energy from start to finish, the packed house leapt out of its seats for three standing ovations, the kind of response Chase seems to be getting wherever she goes.

(Soundbite of music)

PELLEGRINIELLI: But the bulk of her days are generally spent far from New York's elite cultural institutions, in the working class neighborhood of Sunset Park.

(Soundbite of vehicles)

PELLEGRINIELLI: If you've ever been stuck in traffic southbound on the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, you may have seen her and her fellow musicians through the picture window of a fourth-story loft known as the ICE Haus.

Ms. CLAIRE CHASE (Flautist/Executive Director, International Contemporary Ensemble): People are perplexed. They look in that window at eye level and they're like what are they doing? They see the gongs and all of the electronic gear.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. CHASE: We see a lot of nose pickers, too.

(Soundbite of footsteps)

PELLEGRINIELLI: It's 8:00 A.M., the time Chase usually arrives to practice.

(Soundbite of flute)

PELLEGRINIELLI: It's often the only time she has to herself. After that, it's upstairs to the office to answer phone calls and emails.

Ms. CHASE: I only got 20 new messages since I started practicing. I have 30,081 unread messages. That's all.

PELLEGRINIELLI: Chase is incredibly busy at a time when most New York freelancers are struggling. Dan Wakin of The New York Times is afraid they're a dying breed.

Mr. DAN WAKIN (Reporter, The New York Times): The old model of playing in fixed freelance orchestras and doing advertising jingles and soundtracks, and gigging around town and making a good living - that's really dried up.

PELLEGRINIELLI: Most of those musicians are in their 50's and 60's. Chase is 33 and doesn't share their nostalgia for the way things used to be.

Ms. CHASE: You know, are we the generation that waits for the phone to ring? No. Do we wait for someone to say here's your amazing opportunity to do this project you've been dreaming of, that's totally risky, that no one else would produce? No. We do it for ourselves and we do it for one another.

(Soundbite of music)

PELLEGRINIELLI: Producing new music, with its strange and wondrous sounds, has historically been left to do-it-yourselfers.

(Soundbite of music)

PELLEGRINELLI: Chase finds herself doing a little bit of everything every day, from planning board meetings to finding hotel rooms for musicians on the road and even cleaning up after her staff of three.

Ms. CHASE: You know, if I can be the janitor and save us some money, I'll be the janitor for as long as I need to be.

PELLEGRINELLI: She was on a Greyhound bus to Chicago fresh out of Oberlin when she decided to start her own ensemble 10 years ago. It was a moment when a crop of new music groups came into being: Eighth Blackbird, Argento, Alarm Will Sound.

Cellist Fred Sherry, known for his work in new music, says what's happening today is as seismic as the explosion of composers in Vienna a century ago.

Mr. FRED SHERRY (Cellist): I sometimes think of it like the San Andreas fault. It moves approximately an inch or two inches per year, it averages out to that, but in 1913, it jumped 20 yards, and now it may be jumping again and in a very important way.

PELLEGRINELLI: Now in his 60s, Sherry was a do-it-yourselfer three decades ago. But he didn't consider it part of the job description, and there wasn't much infrastructure for support.

Mr. SHERRY: In those early days, we picked on anybody that we thought had 100 or $1,000. And, by the way, that was a lot of money in 1973.

PELLEGRINELLI: Today, the annual budget for ICE is around $800,000 and supports 50 concerts a year. Much of the music comes from commissions: brand new pieces custom-made for the various combinations of the group's 33 musicians.

Mr. STEVE LEHMAN (Composer): Awesome.

Ms. CHASE: I love it.

PELLEGRINELLI: It's now mid-afternoon, and Chase is rehearsing with Steve Lehman, one of five composers she's met with in the course of the week.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. CHASE: Something like that?

Mr. LEHMAN: Yeah.

(Soundbite of music)

PELLEGRINELLI: Afterwards, Chase crisscrosses the city by subway, BlackBerry in hand for meetings, with a board member, TV producer, choreographer, flute technician, and sound editor, not to mention a trip up to Yonkers for a recording session. I showed Fred Sherry her calendar.

Mr. SHERRY: This says it all, but it says that she's scheduling every moment of her day. And where was the time that she did the dreaming?

PELLEGRINELLI: Chase sees it differently: as a necessity in a new age where artists have to be entrepreneurs.

Mr. CHASE: It was a realization early on that the only way to do what I wanted to do artistically was if I drove that bus myself. I realized, you know, in doing it that I enjoyed it and there were aspects of the business side of things that I found really challenging in really invigorating ways.

To be totally honest, there's a large part of it that is an absolute drag, but that's like any job.

PELLEGRINELLI: It's now 7:00 p.m. at the end of a long week, and Chase is onstage at New York's Le Poisson Rouge.

Ms. CHASE: Good evening, ladies and gentlemen, welcome to Le Poisson Rouge. Welcome to ICE lab. I'm Claire Chase, executive director of ICE.

(Soundbite of applause)

PELLEGRINELLI: When she's in front of the standing-room-only crowd, it doesn't look like just any job. It looks like a dream.

For NPR news, I'm Lara Pellegrinelli in New York.

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