Every so often (very occasionally), a concert forces you to reassess what you thought you knew about an instrument. CLAIRE CHASE’s solo performance at PICA last week was one such show: a concise and daring programme that totally rattled my understanding of the flute. 

To be fair, I have never really sat down and thought about what the flute means to me. I have thought about flutes from a pragmatic point of view: I’ve used them in music, though more often than not as a sort of self-signifier; an infusion of “flutiness” and its connotations where required. (For which reason I’m lately more drawn to using “fake” flute - keyboard sounds etc - so as to acknowledge that simulacra up front). What are those connotations around “flutiness?” The instrument constellates ideas like finesse, softness, mystery (perhaps stemming from Mozart’s magical example, or the sound’s breathy indistinct edges). Also, for whatever strange cultural reasons, a kind of benign femininity: I remember the way male flautists in high school were regarded as somehow emasculated; formal studies have shown that even university music majors conceptualise instruments on a gendered spectrum, with drums at one end and flute at the other. These are the preconceptions. I don’t mean to suggest that Claire Chase is crusading to shock people, or that her main motivation is to reform the instrument’s reputation. Rather, she seems to have met the flute on its own terms - both as an object, and as a multivalent player in musical tradition - and from there, explored its possibilities relentlessly. 

This process of exploration constitutes much of Chase’s practice, and it’s now got a convenient name: “Density 2036,” a 22-year commissioning project aimed at fostering a new, innovative body of flute music to culminate at the centenary of Edgar Varese’s game-changing piece “Density 21.5.” Tonight at PICA, Chase brings us selections from the project so far - insights into what the future of the flute might sound like.

The first is Meditation and Calligraphy (for G. Mend-Ooyo) (2014) by Felipe Lara. Chase emerges from behind a black curtain into the mostly dark space, finding her place on a stool under a narrow spotlight. Here, she begins to calmly and decisively breathe sound through a golden bass flute that shimmers like a sunset as she slowly sways. The notes are spare and rustling, as patient and nonchalant as a breeze, until suddenly she lets fly a pair of wild staccato stabs, somewhere between a note and a violent sneeze. This contrast leads into a textured polyphony - two notes somehow emerging at once - then key noise and a low growl, a gurgling contemplation, something akin to a horse’s snort. And on it goes, sounds emerging as discrete utterances, suggesting less a narrative and more a unity of mood and purpose. Lara wrote the piece quickly after meditating for an evening, inspired by the stately calligraphic gestures of Mongolian poet G. Mend-Ooyo whom he’d met in an Umbrian castle. It’s a great backstory but, more importantly, it actually translates: each note, whispy phrase and near-tactile vibration floats with the assuredness of ink swooshed clean on paper. 

Another Lara commission, Parábolas na Caverna (2014) follows. Again, this is very much flute laid bare - no backing tracks, no effects to speak of. Given the simplicity of this arrangement it’s tempting to describe it as “minimal” but - on the contrary - Chase conjures a dizzying array of pitches, timbres and dynamics. The percussive tonguing of raindrop-like notes about a minute in is the first sound of the night that I feel I’ve never quite heard before. The piece also ventures into hectic cacophony, pitchless squeals and aquatic burbles. But its overall impression is its real triumph: a carefully hewn yet somehow formless rhapsody, inspired by Plato’s cave and its compelling but ungraspable shadows of realty. 

Mario Diaz de Leon’s Luciform (2013) evinces a totally different approach, focusing less on the minutiae of flute sounds and more on the interactive potential of flute and electronics. It’s a fun, freewheeling composition - as Chase says, “very rock and roll” - with different electronic vignettes designed to evoke (or invoke) quasi-mystical “vision states” through which the flautist might travel and transcend. The spiritual or metaphysical concept here is fairly vague - and despite Lucifer being a light-bringer, conceptually I feel kind of left in the dark. Musically though, it’s thrilling: theremin-like synth swoops, fiendish scalic gasps, some kind of hellish harpsichord, droning organ, wide-eyed trills and bristling metallic noise. 

Jason Eckardt’s The Silenced (2015) constitutes the evening’s most ambitious work from a staging perspective. Conceived as a “monodrama” rather than a piece per se, it sees Chase inviting the audience to surround her on stage before she roams every inch of it, followed by spotlights, navigating space theatrically as she plays.  Some of the piece is performed kneeling, some of it lying down; all of it with a sense of sincerity and immediacy. Eckardt's piece is intended as a homage to those around the world who've had their voices repressed, which - albeit a noble motivation - seems both too lofty and too nondescript to really offer much insight. Despite this generality, Chase does a formidable job of imbuing each phrase with emotion, whether choking on notes or letting them escape with desperate clarity. 

The final contemporary piece tonight is Du Yun's An Empty Garlic (2014), inspired by a (rather remarkable) verse by Persian master poet Rumi. It also draws on the classical form of Sarabande dance music, emerging from Seville and France. A Chinese piece inspired by Persian, Spanish and French culture, performed by an American flautist in Western Australia - in this heady cosmopolitan juncture, we encounter a piece that is surprisingly restrained and laconic. Atonal drones swirl like smoke under Chase’s fluttering consonants, eventually making way for something warmer, more harmonious. Elsewhere it splutters over what might be every note on a piano ringing out at once, or croons lonely in the air. But throughout, there’s an ineffable sense of calm, the gentle grace that infuses poetry itself. 

Chase closes with the piece that functions as an origin story and vanishing point for all the work we’ve heard tonight - Varese’s “Density 21.5” (1936). The piece changed the trajectory of flute music for a few reasons: it incorporated the first use of percussive key clicks (combined with pitched notes); it explored the extreme upper register of the instrument; it dared to move the flute from its establish role and position it as a tool for radical experimental music-making. An expert could give you a far better run down but even a glance at the sheet music gives you a sense of the piece’s wild, unapologetic approach. 

It’s easy to see how that piece’s spirit has informed Chase’s practice, and the work of the composers she’s collaborated with. Unfettered experimentation, the testing of limits, every bit as soulful as scholastic. And never chaotic: as much as the impacts might be discombobulating, every bar is rendered with extreme attention and precision. That’s the kind of discipline that can land you a gig as a co-director of the International Contemporary Ensemble in New York, and attract the attention of musicians from around the world. It’s not so much that Chase directly parodies or upturns the stereotypes surrounding flute; more that they’re immediately forgotten in the wake of these powerful musical excursions. I eagerly await the creative culmination of Density 2036; even more, I’m excited for what happens along the way. 

Lyndon Blue