Claire Chase’s bio on her website claims that she wanted to become a professional baseball player before she discovered the flute. There is symbolic symmetry in that — trading one stick, a baseball bat, for another — and it would be tempting to say that she is swinging for the fences with her current mega-project Density 2036.
Tempting and true, for the idea behind Density 2036 is to commission a whole library of new works for flute, stretching from the year 2013 all the way to 2036, the 100th anniversary of Edgard Varèse’s signature statement for solo flute in the 20th century, Density 21.5. (roughly the specific gravity of the platinum some flutes are made of). A new four-CD set is the down payment on this epic endeavor — 17 new works by 16 composers from the years 2013–2018, plus the original Varèse piece snuck in as an unlisted Easter egg on disc one. Continuing the sports metaphor is the puckish name of her record label — Corbett vs. Dempsey.
One aspect that worked out especially well is that Chase chose to record everything in the Pearson Theatre of the producing Meyer Sound Laboratories in Berkeley. As a result, she could take full advantage of the Meyer Sound Constellation system that gives her total control over the acoustical environment. Once the buttons were pushed and settings were determined, the music was recorded in single takes with no editing or post-production.
Several of these pieces had already been road-tested live at the 2017 Ojai Festival, but now we are hearing them under close to ideal conditions — and my impressions of them have mostly gone up a few notches as a result. The pure unaltered tone of the flute sounds gorgeous in the endlessly adjustable Constellation reverberation, which benefits Density 21.5 itself to no end.
In Tyshawn Sorey’s Bertha’s Lair, the questioning flute plays into a cavernous acoustical space populated by gongs, cymbals, tom-toms, and drumsticks that show off composer-percussionist Sorey’s stupendous, quick-wristed technique. It sounds like free jazz at times, and is much more enjoyable in this acoustic setting than it was outdoors. Same with Vijay Iyer’s tape piece Five Empty Chambers; the electronics imbedded with Chase’s five flutes roar and circle and pop in a lopsided groove of dizzying complexity. A more ethereal merger of electronics and flute is Pauchi Sasaki’s Gama XV, where two performers wore dresses with loudspeakers attached in the Ojai performance. Now without the bizarre visual distractions, the sounds sweep like the wind, then sail in a sustained, glaring sheen, more an alluring series of soundscapes than a conventional composition.
Perhaps in one case, an exception to the single-take process would be the big piece that occupies all of disc four, Marcos Balter’s monodrama, Pan, where Chase becomes a one-woman-band overdubbing all of the parts for various flutes, pan pipes, tuned wine glasses, a music box, vocals and the rest. An excerpt from Pan was presented at Ojai with local townsfolk and visitors from nearby who were drafted to play the wine glasses while seated on the stage floor in a ritual-like configuration onstage. But it’s just as effective this way — with the eerie droning stasis of the wine glasses underneath the pan pipes, the densely harmonized flute choir, twinkling electronic tracks with the flute trilling and darting above, the quote of Randy Weston’s “Hi-Fly” as a motif in a soup of intermodulation distortion, and crucially, a storyline that can be followed through the music alone.
Elsewhere in the set lurks George Lewis’s Emergent which, after an intro of screeching flute blasts, creates a forest of complex, electronic, digitally-delayed effects rocketing into outer space. In 2015, electronic music pioneer Pauline Oliveros contributed Intensity 21.5: Grace Chase, one of her final pieces (she died the following year), in which occasionally intelligible words written by Chase’s grandmother Grace become overwhelmed by a Babel of electronics, harmonica, and voices trapped in a foggy blur as if played back at half-speed. Sounds like delirious nonsense to me.
Of course, there’s lots more to explore in this set, packaged in two double-CD albums — some of it of ephemeral value but that’s to be expected in a new music anthology of this uncharted scope and daring. And again, it’s just the first serving of a projected 23 years of new, challenging flute music in store for us if the planet manages to make it to 2036.