Seth Colter Walls is a freelance writer whose arts reporting and criticism have appeared in Newsweek, the Village Voice, the Washington Post, and The Awl. Previously, he worked as a writer and editor at The Daily Star in Beirut, Lebanon, and as a reporter in The Huffington Post's DC bureau. He is a graduate of NYU and Columbia University. Follow Seth on Twitter at @sethcolterwalls.
Flutist Claire Chase Has Breath and Breadth in 'Density'
Q2 Music Album of the Week for October 14, 2013
Monday, October 14, 2013
On her last solo album, "Terrestre," flutist Claire Chase performed pieces by Boulez and Carter, and threw in a new Kaija Saariaho premiere for good measure. With her newest album, "Density," she presents the most varied “American” program yet from any soloist in the International Contemporary Ensemble orbit. (Chase is the virtuoso group’s executive director.)
Steve Reich’s Vermont Counterpoint is first up: Chase multitracks its 11 parts, but rather than feeling studio-cramped, it’s expressive. Her downshift into the slow section is majestic. A rare recording of Philip Glass’s Piece In the Shape of a Square, written in 1967, doubles up on the album’s minimalist bona fides—though this connection between two pieces is hardly the most interesting one on the album.
Three other pieces suggest two additional, complementary pairings. Electronic-acoustic dialogue is foregrounded on Alvin Lucier’s Almost New York: the flutist has to look for ways to blend in with the pure-wave oscillators, and thus manipulate the “density” of her instrument to get the cleanest sound possible. By contrast, Mario Diaz de Léon’s Luciform pits flute-tones in stark relief against a barrage of alien electronic effects. Here, Chase deals with chords of doom-metal texture, and, at the end, sheets of tintinnabulation that sound as if grabbed from Stockhausen’s Cosmic Pulses. Diaz de Leon’s composition is the most varied-sounding one on the album—a perfect foil for Lucier’s drone-work.
But Luciform also has a connection to another piece, Marcos Balter’s Pessoa (for six bass flutes). Both composed in 2013, their distinct approaches make a powerful argument for the current health of the New York scene. Less hyperactive than Luciform, Balter’s Pessoa nevertheless is full of activity: a nimbus of five multi-tracked parts often swarms around the solo bass-flute lead, casting delicate shadows of flutter-tongue action. At other points that chorus coalesces into keening chords.
All that’s left is for Chase to pivot back to a key text of the solo flute literature: Edgard Varèse’s Density 21.5. Its register leaps aren’t just “navigated”—they’re all but dared to trouble the flautist. They don’t, much. As on the other pieces, sometimes her instrument sounds as if disembodied, while at other moments the human breath rattling around in the density of the instrument is a presence all its own.
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