ICE plays Alvin Lucier’s music at the MCA

You had to be there. An audio recording of the International Contemporary Ensemble’s performances last weekend at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago might capture some of what happened, but to understand and appreciate what ICE was doing with Alvin Lucier’s compositions, you really needed to be inside that three-dimensional space. You needed to move around the museum’s fourth-floor atrium to feel the sound waves coming from various directions.


ICE devoted three concerts to the work of this innovative composer, the most extensive retrospective of Lucier’s work ever performed in Chicago. (Read Peter Margasak’s interview with Lucier in the Chicago Reader.) I attended Saturday’s concert.

The closest thing to a piece of traditional music was Lucier’s 2013 work “Codex,” performed by soprano Tony Arnold and five musicians: David Bowlin on violin, Nicholas Masterson on oboe, Daniel Lippel on guitar, Katinka Kleijn on cello and Campbell MacDonald on clarinet. At times, it seemed like each of these players was expressing just one tiny note at a time: a plink of one string on the guitar, a wordless “ah” from Arnold, a tone from the oboe, and so on, with the notes overlapping to create the sense that they were sustaining. Was it just an illusion that this was a minimal skeleton of music? Or was it an illusion that this seemingly bare framework somehow revealed richer colors? It was a shimmering but mournful wonder.

Some of the other Lucier pieces performed on Saturday were more like sonic experiments than traditional compositions. Most striking was “Still and Moving Lines of Silence in Families of Hyperbolas” (1973–74, revised 2013), which featured two speakers at one end of the atrium emitting tones from pure wave oscillators. We were encouraged to walk around the room and experience the changes in volume level and vibrations where the waves from the two speakers came together. There was Lucier himself, leading a line of people slowly moving forward from the wall to experience the oscillations; I got in line and followed him. Musicians accompanied the oscillations. Just one note — C sharp — was struck on a marimba over and over. The soprano raised her voice and sang along.

That piece segued into “In Memoriam Jon Higgins” (1984), for clarinet and pure wave oscillator. The concert also included a duet between bassoonist Rebekah Heller and an electric lamp. And it ended with a piece that featured no live musicians at all: just a violin hooked up to wires and attached to a pole, surrounded by microphones and sound-sensitive lights.

Through it all, there was a remarkable feeling of calm in the room. You could sense the other people around you paying close attention to every nuance of noise. You could feel the physics of what makes music.

Frost and ICE

On Sept. 11, it was possible to see two concerts of daring, challenging music in one evening in downtown Chicago — and I managed to attend both. (I did not take photos at either, however.) First up was the closing day of Sonar Chicago, with Australian-Icelandic musician Ben Frost playing at the Chicago Cultural Center. A short time after Frost finished, the International Contemporary Ensemble (or ICE) performed at the Museum of Contemporary Art.

Sadly, I missed most of the Sonar festival, which seemed like a cool addition to Chicago’s September music lineup. Frost stood alone on the stage inside the Claudia Cassidy Theater, switching between his electric guitar and an array of electronics, including a laptop, as he made unsettling and droning noise. Frost created dissonant, almost overwhelming mountains of sound, including some looping repetitions that seemed to sample an animal’s growl and human breathing — familiar sounds that became strange and menacing in this new context.

ICE called its concert “Roots and Return,” since it traced “the web of connections between recent works and the classic pieces that inspired them.” For instance, the first half of the concert featured Arnold Schoenberg’s Chamber Symphony No. 1 from 1906, while the second half featured the Chicago premiere of John Adams’ 2007 piece inspired by Schoenberg, Son of Chamber Symphony.

As always, it’s cool to see the flexibility of this ensemble. ICE is an interesting hybrid, sort of like a symphony with a big roster of musicians and sort of like a chamber group, such as a quartet. For each piece that ICE performs, the group pulls a shifting lineup of musicians from that big roster, putting together whatever musicians are required for each composition. An ICE performance might be just a piano solo — or it could be a symphony with a miniature orchestra.

The first composition ICE performed Saturday is a perfect example of the sort of music it’s well-positioned to play: Pierre Boulez’s Memoriale (…explosante-fixe…originel), a 1985 piece for flute and eight instruments. Flutist Claire Chase is ICE’s offstage leader, and she often takes the lead onstage, too. She dominated the Boulez piece, but conductor Jayce Ogren kept the flute and strings in fragile, delicate balance.

Composer Dai Fujikura was present at the concert, and ICE played two new pieces by him, including one that he wrote specifically for the ensemble — called, appropriately enough, ice. Although it was performed without any pauses, it felt like a suite, progressing from one movement and mood to another with some unexpected directions. The opening’s pizzicato strings were eerie, and the climax — or was it a denouement? — was a low, trembling duet between flute and percussion. After intermission, Fujikura answered questions from Chase in an onstage interview, saying that he’s never collaborated so closely with an ensemble on one of his compositions. ICE pianist Cory Smythe also performed Fujikura’s new composition, returning, a sequence of notes that wandered across the keys without much reference, following what seemed to be a strange logic.

The Schoenberg Chamber Symphony and its counterpart by John Adams were high points of the program — although it would take close study to reveal exactly what Adams pulled out of Schoenberg. The strings were nimble during the Schoenberg, with a strong presence of woodwinds, including oboe, bassoon and contrabassoon. The symphony ended with a dramatic punch. Adams’ piece had the cycling, intricate sequences typical of minimalist music. But surprisingly, some woozy, almost romantic melodies emerged at times on top of those music-box patterns. / ICE podcast including interview with composer Dai Fujikura. / WQXR recording of ICE in concert, including Fujikura’s ICE.

Oboe Overload

The oboe is one of those instruments rarely heard outside the context of orchestral music. But this expressive instrument got a moment in the spotlight Friday night (Feb. 12). The International Contemporary Ensemble held a concert called “Oboe Overload” at Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Photography, featuring ICE’s two oboists, Nick Masterson and James Austin Smith.

ICE specializes in performing new and avant-garde music, and Friday’s concert was no exception. Masterson and Smith opened with Christian Wolff’s 1964 composition “for 1, 2, or 3 people,” which included foot stomping and scraping noises made with music stands in addition to frantic bursts of oboe melody. I was wondering what the sheet music looked like, and after the performance, Smith showed the audience a page — covered with a variety of graphic symbols, like some sort of coded puzzle.

The concert also included Luciano Berio’s “Sequenza VIIa,” Bradley Balliett’s “Slow-Burning Sarabande” (a world premiere, with the composer in attendance), Jonathan Harvey’s “Ricercare una melodia” and Michael Finnissy’s “Yso.” Named after a form of dance, Balliett’s “Slow-Burning Sarabande” was too abstract to provoke any actual dancing, but it colorfully captured the sense of two voices flirting with and seducing each other. Harvey’s composition, meanwhile, used electronic delay to play around with the idea of memory. The oboists seemed to be chasing after their own notes, trying to grasp melodies as they flitted away.

Throughout all of these challenging pieces, Masterson and Smith played with a sense of spontaneity and fierce intensity.

ICE plays Saariaho

International Contemporary Ensemble — or ICE for short — played four pieces by Finnish avant-garde composer Kaija Saariaho Thursday (Nov. 19) at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago.

Based in both Chicago and New York, ICE champions new music, performing in a variety of lineups — Thursday’s concert included a solo percussion piece as well as compositions played by larger ensemble that was more like a chamber orchestra.

My favorite piece of the evening was the first (and most recently composed), “Terrestre.” Flute, harp, percussion, violin and cello notes skittered around one another in a delicate dance. Flutist Claire Chase somehow managed to sing and play flute at the same time during some passages. In “Six Japanese Gardens,” Nathan Davis ably demonstrated the variety of sounds and delicate patterns one can created with nothing but percussion. Well, not nothing — the piece also includes some electronic background tracks created by Saariaho, which Davis triggered by pedal.

The second half of the concert featured two pieces that Saariaho wrote for chamber ensembles with electronics — “Lichtbogen” (1986) and “Solar” (1992). The electronic textures and treatments were subtle, barely even noticeable at times, other than moments like the climax of “Lichtbogen,” when the notes reverbed and echoed in ways you don’t often hear at a classical concert. The music floated along, and it was easy to loose track of the passing time, as Chase pointed during an onstage interview with Saariaho. The amorphous quality of the compositions reminded me of Gyorgy Ligetti’s “Atmospheres,” although Saariaho’s tones are less ominous.

It was interesting to hear Saariaho answer Chase’s questions during their conversation before the concert’s intermission. Saariaho talked about how nature inspires her music — “the symmetry of leaves … and the endless variation within the symmetry.”

In parts of “Lichtbogen,” Saariaho instructs the players to make visceral sounds with their instruments, such as the noise of strings being scraped. “They are not noises for me,” Saariaho explained. “They’re associated with some of the most beautiful sounds that we know — wind and whispering. They are very intimate sounds for us.”

That sort of intimate sound made ICE’s Saariaho concert an unconventionally beautiful experience.

Claire Chase at Velvet Lounge

Fred Anderson’s Velvet Lounge on Cermak is a jazz club, but on Tuesday (Oct. 27), it hosted a contemporary classical music performance. Claire Chase, one of the founders of the International Contemporary Ensemble, stood alone on the stage with her flutes and made some otherworldly noises with those innocent-looking pipes. This was not your grandmother’s flute music. Chase was playing some of the pieces she performs on her new record, Aliento, as well as a few others. Although she was solo for most of the show, she was almost always accompanied by electronic sounds and textures. In some of the pieces, her notes and even the sounds of the keys clicking on her flutes echoed and reverbed back at her, creating alien soundscapes. Fellow ICE member Eric Lamb joined her onstage for Brazilian composer Marcos Balter’s piece “Edgewater,” and the two of them slowly moved in tandem from one side of the stage to the other as their notes danced around one another. Chase closed the show with Paganini’s Caprice No. 24 for violin, using effects to transform it into a duet between “flute and gear.”
International Contemporary Ensemble and composer Kaija Saariaho will perform at 7:30 p.m. Nov. 19 at the Museum of
Contemporary Art.

Photos of Claire Chase.