Interview: Claire Chase

Interview: Claire Chase

How is it to work with Olga Neuwirth?
One of the things I admire the most about Olga is that she never, ever compromises. She accepted the challenge of writing the next great flute concerto not by making the orchestral part something any orchestra with 2.5 rehearsals could play. No way! After the first performance in Orebro, we met in the dressing room back stage and immediately went over all the things that could be improved during intermission; this is a rare kind of trust between a performer and a composer, and I relish it. No one needs to sugar-coat anything. We knew there was so much work was still to be done before the second performance, in Stockholm, and no one wanted to waste any time talking about what went well. I really appreciate that. It takes a special kind of devotion to the work to put the ego aside and put the work first, always, even in your vulnerable moments just after getting offstage.

What makes Olga Neuwirth’s music special in your opinion?
I have always thought that her music is both experimental and somehow ancient in its sensibility; she deftly manages to sculpt sound that is at once utterly original sounding and intuitive feeling. As a performer, this is a thrill to behold. No matter how difficult - and in some cases, truly intimidating - a passage might be to execute technically, I am never left questioning its intention. Her musicality is oceanic, irrepressible in this way. 

How would you classify Aello?
I often day-dream about what the trajectory of the flute might have been over the past few centuries if, say, Brahms, Beethoven, Schumann, Stravinsky, Sibelius and Berg had written flute concertos. Can you imagine?! I do love to envision a rewrite in my imagination, not so much to bemoan the comparative dearth of repertoire of the past as to forge a path forward into the 21st century that puts the flute as the oldest surviving musical instrument back into the hot seat that it enjoyed in the 18th century. In a courageous way, Olga has accepted this challenge with Aello. In doing so, she has written a piece that sounds nothing like any other flute concerto. And for the lucky girl who gets to give it its first spin, this is one of the most exciting things I’ve ever had the opportunity to do. To say that I’m grateful is an understatement. I’m gobsmacked!

What is the role of the Soloist in Aello?
Aello presents enormous technical and musical challenges not just for the flutist but for the orchestra, and for the intricate dialogue between all the instruments. Much like the specific experience of playing Brandenburg No. 4 on which Aello is based, the “soloist” is not a soloist at all if she is not both a leader and a follower, an adept chamber musician who listens to everything and everyone more than to herself; and likewise, the “orchestra” is not an orchestra at all, but a group of soloists themselves who are willing to behave both boldly and generously in rehearsal and performance. 

What is the connection to Bach?
Like in the Bach, if you at any second let your concentration go, or rest on the laurel of a passage having gone well, you’re off the train and everyone feels it. And like Bach, Olga’s music requires total commitment, total surrender and total humility in the moment. Unlike the Bach, however, we are not playing swinging, ebullient sixteenth notes in rhythmic unison; we’re playing driving seven-tuplets with quarter-tones and offset accents. Talk about concentration! 

The performer’s perspective

Claire Chase about Aello

The first movement: a high-wire act

The sound-world she creates, with typewriter, two muted-trumpets (who take the role of the flauto dolce in the Bach), strings, harpsichord and flute is alternately capricious and demonic - much like the “whirlwind-footed” mythological character Aello who torments people on their way to Tartarus. The flute is often overblown to the third and fourth partials, the extreme upper register of the instrument, and then in rapid succession brought down to some of the lowest acoustic sounds possible on the instrument through covered percussive blowing, sounding a seventh below the lowest fingered note on the flute. This back and forth is extremely difficult to execute, but the effect, when I’m able to pull it off, is so incredibly cool! And it doesn’t sound like any piece of contemporary flute music that I’ve ever played. 

The second movement: magical moments in the cadenza

In a quasi-improvised cadenza, Olga she invites the flutist to veer off into her own imaginative world incorporating all of the material introduced in the movement thus far - everything from baroque-inspired timbral trills, singing/playing deliciously close intervals with the voice and the flute, extreme overblown harmonic flurries at all dynamics, and devilish inhale/exhale scalar passages that sound like scurrying winds - and working into a kind of frenzy before rejoining the orchestra. There’s one passage that requires the flutist to play and speak/whisper a syllabic passage on top of it in a kind of duel of the fingers and the mouth. Like some passages in Xenakis, this is just beyond the edge of playability - but the effort to conquer it in the moment, when I really force myself to believe that the impossible is in fact possible, for just a moment, illicits another level of music-making and wordless storytelling. 

The third moment – ends with a tongue in cheek high-hat hit
The third movement is a driving, insistent ROMP for the unlikeliest of instruments - the bass flute! - wailing and soaring and alternately spitting and scatting on top of and inside the texture of the other soloists in the orchestra. Like the other movements, the tempo is exactly that of Brandy 4. It’s light-hearted and wildly virtuoso for everyone, and the Bach quotes can at times make the listener chuckle for a moment, but Olga never lets the listener rest on the laurels of familiarity for longer than that fleeting moment. You find yourself smiling one second, and then utterly horrified (indeed, tormented!) the next with the sonic surprise that unfolds. It’s such a rush to play. And the final note, after all of this incisive driving, is a kind of slapstick moment of a tongue-ram and a typewriter hit just off of the third beat. A kind of tongue in cheek high-hat hit!

Photo: Ross Karre Documentation Services