ENSEMBLE OF THE YEAR


The 2014 Honorees

By Allan Kozinn

ICE seeks to make new music as indispensable as a city’s orchestra or opera company, whether in a theater, in a boat, on a space shuttle, in Brooklyn, Baton Rouge, Qatar, or the moon. And at the rate
it’s going, it just may!

You would think that the basic operational model for a classical-music ensemble is fairly straightforward: The players come together, agree to focus on a particular repertory, and get on with the business of giving concerts and making records, perhaps hiring an administrative tier to raise money, book performances, and promote the group’s image along the way. The International Contemporary Ensemble, popularly known as ICE, started out using that playbook. But early on, the group began adding pages of its own.

It has, for starters, avoided being typecast as an adherent of any specific new-music style: You might first hear the group in an evening of Xenakis, Saariaho, or Pintscher, but its next program might offer equally illuminating performances of Adams, Zorn, or Du Yun—or Stravinsky, Schoenberg, or Varèse. These days, you might even catch ICE playing Mozart’s “Gran Partita” or the Beethoven Septet at Lincoln Center’s Mostly Mozart Festival, although such antiquities are invariably offered alongside newly composed companion works. Last summer was ICE’s third successive year as the festival’s artists-in-residence, performing ten concerts.

ICE has that kind of flexibility: A “modular” ensemble, to use its own description, the group’s 33 players regularly redeploy into groups of varying sizes and instrumental configurations to suit the music at hand. It also runs its own quirky educational program in which players use graphic notation, non-traditional instruments, and improvisatory, experimental styles to teach young students about collaboration.

And now, just over a decade after it was founded, Musical America’s 2014 Ensemble of the Year seems intent on rewriting the conventional model entirely Although Claire Chase, the group’s flutist, founder, and executive director, and Joshua Rubin, its clarinetist and program director, have made most of the decisions until now, both are committed to what Chase calls an “integrated, hybrid artist/management model,” in which all the players have roles in every aspect of all the group’s projects.

ICE’s two newest projects, launched this past autumn, are a record label, Tundra, to accommodate group and solo projects, and OpenICE, which Chase says “is not so much a series or a program as it is a concept and a philosophy.” The idea, Chase continues, is to create an artist-run structure that will yield at least 100 free performances a year, in countries around the globe. Those concerts would also be archived digitally (the group already has a DigitICE library section on its Web site, iceorg.org) and would remain freely available.

“Adrenalizing access to contemporary music through education and free concerts has been a deeply important value at ICE since the early days—when we were producing free shows in alternative spaces from the backs of pickup trucks to warehouses on shoestring budgets—and OpenICE allows us to pursue this value on an international scale in our second decade by partnering with city governments, public libraries, and other community organizations.”

Behind the scenes, OpenICE involves a  reorganization that will see ICE begin to function as a true collective. “We envision that a ‘mature’ ICE will be at least 85 percent artistrun,” Chase says.

You have to admire someone who speaks of her  ensemble’s work as “adrenalizing,” and if you’ve seen ICE at work, you know exactly what Chase means. But however sincere she is about ceding control of the ensemble’s administrative tasks—and given that she is an eloquent, virtuosic new-music flutist, that desire is understandable—it’s hard to imagine her not remaining a driving force within the group. Her work building and directing ICE, after all, was the main reason she was selected to receive a MacArthur Fellowship in 2012; and she has said that she will invest the second year of her fellowship grant (the awardees were given $100,000 a year for five years, to use as they see fit) in OpenICE.

The official story of ICE’s founding is whimsical: The group, according to its Web site, was “born on a Greyhound bus en route from Oberlin to Chicago” in 2001. Actually, its genesis was a concert Chase arranged in 2000, near the end of her student years at the Oberlin Conservatory, when she ensemble of the year international contemporary ensemble used a $5,000 Presser Music Award to commission new works from five composers, and assembled 15 of her classmates to play them.

“My goal in that original concert,” she says, “was not just to give the world premieres of these new works and to build a band that could collaboratively tackle them, but also to pack Oberlin’s 750-seat concert hall. We were so used to doing new-music concerts there with 25 people in attendance, one of whom was, you know, your mother, who invariably hated it. In the end, we did all of this and then some: It was a standing-room-only crowd, the band played their hearts out, and we left that experience thinking that everything, in fact, was possible. All 15 of those players ended up being founding members of ICE.”

One of the composers on that inaugural program was Huang Ruo, an inventive young composer from China who was also studying at Oberlin. Chase and Huang began talking about forming a new-music ensemble, and it was during the famous bus ride that Chase put her thoughts in order in a long, handwritten letter to Huang, who was spending the summer in Aspen.

The group established itself in Chicago in 2002, but there was a hitch: There was another new-music ensemble in Chicago called ICE, although its full name was the more puckish Intergalactic Contemporary Ensemble. Chase agreed that in printed materials, she would use her group’s full name on first reference, but could then slip into the acronym. What happened to the other ICE? “We haven’t heard from them in about eight years,” Chase says, guessing that they may have disbanded.

Chase and Huang brought ICE to New York in 2003 to perform a Composer’s Portrait concert at the Miller Theater, devoted to four chamber concertos by Huang, with Huang conducting. But Huang soon decamped to pursue his composing career, while ICE built its reputation both in Chicago and New York, and by the mid-2000s, internationally.

Five years ago, Chase told Steve Smith, in a New York Times interview, that she hoped that ICE would “become the first large-scale, flexible contemporary ensemble in the United States that is as important and indispensable as a city’s symphony orchestra, opera companies, and theater companies.”

Chase continues to dream big. When queried, in a recent e-mail, how she envisioned ICE a decade from now, she elaborated on the OpenICE model and said she believed that ICE would eventually devote half its efforts to educational programs, including one (not yet launched) that will be called FellowICE and will be “a training ground for a new generation of artist-entrepreneur-educators.”

“We imagine a fully formed ICE being capable of reaching millions of people each year both live and online with new music,” she wrote, “and we imagine doing this by crowd-sourcing fundraising and marketing and even curatorial ICE efforts all over the world…. An OpenICE event can happen in a theater, in a museum, in a boat, on a space shuttle, in Brooklyn, LA, Chicago, Baton Rouge, Berlin, Qatar, or the moon! “Those are just some musings,” she added, “but I think that they’re all possible. We do talk regularly around the ICEhaus about how fun it would be to play in outer space. I am dead serious with a smile on my face.”

Perhaps the members of the other ICE—the Intergalactic one—were right to be wary. •

Allan Kozinn is a Culture reporter for the New York Times.

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