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Claire Chase Is Changing How People Think of the Flute

Something unusual happens when people speak about the flutist Claire Chase. Seasoned musicians light up with gleeful optimism. They use superlatives that would seem reckless if they weren’t repeated so often. The most jaded among them appear incapable of negativity.

“It’s so difficult to talk about Claire,” the composer Marcos Balter said. “She’s so much more than a virtuoso flutist or a pedagogue. She is a true catalyst for change. But also not only that. She makes you think that everything is possible.”

Chase’s reputation is all the more remarkable for the level head she maintains as one of the most enterprising and imaginative musicians in her field — which is to say one of the busiest fund-raisers and devoted interpreters of new music, and the unconventional performances it often demands. This, on top of a life that involves shuttling among Cambridge, Mass., where she teaches at Harvard University; Brooklyn; and Princeton, N.J., where her partner, the author Kirstin Valdez Quade, works, and where they have been raising their 10-month-old daughter.

This month is one of the biggest stress tests on her schedule yet. Earlier in May, she played Kaija Saariaho’s concerto “L’Aile du Songe” with the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra at Carnegie Hall. Next she is planning a marathon of 10 performances looking back on the past decade of her “Density 2036” project, a colossal initiative intended to last 24 years in which she has commissioned annual new works for the flute, leading up to the centennial of Edgar Varèse’s solo for her instrument “Density 21.5.”

Her coming concerts will culminate in two premieres, on May 24 at the Kitchen and the next day at Carnegie’s Zankel Hall. She is also releasing a box set of “Density” recordings and starting a fellowship to ensure that this music reaches the next generation of flutists.

In an interview at her Brooklyn apartment, Chase, who turns 45 on Wednesday, recalled being told that once you become a parent, everything else becomes “like miniature golf.” That has helped.

“Two weeks into our daughter’s life, I was like, Oh, I get it,” she said. “I have these 10 ‘Density’ shows and things that are finally launching, and it really is miniature golf. And it’s such a gift because I can’t possibly take what I’m doing too seriously. The only truly important thing is feeding and caring for and learning from this little person.”

Much has changed in Chase’s life since “Density” began, but her resting state of restlessness has been a constant. She was a founding artistic director of the International Contemporary Ensemble — arguably America’s leading performers of new work — which in 2001 had grown out of her time at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music. With that group, she churned out commissions that put composers like Balter on the map.

By the time “Density” got off the ground, though, Chase knew that she wouldn’t remain with the ensemble forever. Leaving, she said, “was always in the back of my mind. All artists — we have to be very honest about what we’re afraid of, and I was really afraid of holding this thing back.” It was one of the hardest things she’s ever done, she added, but also one of the best lessons she’s ever learned.

As the years of “Density” went on, more developments came. She joined the Harvard faculty and was asked to become one of eight collaborative partners of the San Francisco Symphony under its music director, Esa-Pekka Salonen. She met Quade and started a family. And since then, she has approached her work with a fresh sense of time.

“I only have so much time I can give each day, and so much energy,” Chase said. “If this month of ‘Density’ had happened in a different part of my life, I think I’d be practicing eight hours a day, and I would be living and eating and breaking and only seeing this material.”

Even with what limited time she has, Chase is seen by fellow musicians as thoroughly committed — whether performing Felipe Lara’s Double Concerto on tour with Esperanza Spalding or revisiting the “Density” repertoire. Audiences can tell, too, from her animated but not overstated movement, dizzying technical facility across the flute family, and extended techniques that branch out into vocalization and dramatic text recitation.

The composer and scholar George E. Lewis, who now serves as artistic director of the International Contemporary Ensemble, said that her interpretation of his piece “Emergent,” from early in “Density,” has evolved so much that it sounds “like the difference between early and late Coltrane.” Susanna Mälkki, who has led Chase in performances of the Lara concerto, as well as the Saariaho at Carnegie, said that she stands out among contemporary music specialists because, while some might “be very scientific about it,” Chase doesn’t forget that, fundamentally, most composers just want to reach listeners.

“If we approach this as an intellectual exercise, it won’t work,” Mälkki added. “We need to have a balance, and she is so generous and engaged, it’s mesmerizing. And from there, her aura just spreads.”

It spreads not just to fellow performers but to colleagues in the broader classical music field. Lewis said that Chase has a gift for seeing “how things could be, not how they are now,” and that in the process, “she sweeps you up into the enthusiasm and makes you believe you can do anything.”

Salonen recalled meeting her as part of a New York University project devoted to the future of classical music. When the inevitable subject of getting young people interested in and on the boards of institutions came up, he recalled, she said “that her problem with I.C.E. is that she would really want to see some older board and audience members.”

“Jaws dropped,” he said. “You could hear it. Then I thought: This woman is doing something. She has her finger on something that we don’t.”

Through the ensemble, Chase caught the attention of Matthew Lyons, a curator at the experimental-art nonprofit the Kitchen. When she introduced the idea of “Density,” before it had begun, he quickly got on board. “I have a weakness for long-form creative projects,” he said, “and Claire just kind of came in with this infectious energy and determination and courage to take it on.”

The Kitchen has been the New York home for “Density,” a space where Chase has been given time to prepare theatrical, multimedia presentations for each edition. A program can contain just one, full-length piece — like the two premieres this month, Craig Taborn’s “Busy Griefs and Endangered Charms” and Anna Thorvaldsdottir’s “Ubique” — or it can be a batch of new works. Regardless, an installment typically adds up to roughly an hour, with the idea that the project can conclude with a 24-hour performance.

The roster of composers has been diverse in nearly every sense of the word: age, race, gender identity, career stage. “It’s not uniform,” Balter said. “Claire is the glue, but there is not an aesthetic glue.”

If there is a defining aesthetic, it’s virtuosity. Lewis said that a commission for her means that you are writing music for “someone who can do just about anything.” “Busy Griefs,” which premieres at the Kitchen on the 24th, calls for its performers to wander through the audience and navigate notated and improvised material; “Ubique,” at Carnegie Hall on the 25th, however, is fully notated, a journey of its own, but with nothing left to chance.

Thorvaldsdottir said that she “always pictured Claire in everything I was writing,” but balanced her technique with more abstract ideas about density and ubiquity — “an exploration of colors and timbres and textural nuances between the instruments.” In composing specifically for Chase, Thorvaldsdottir is far from alone among the “Density” contributors; it can be difficult to picture anyone other than Chase performing this idiosyncratic, challenging and occasionally large-scale music.

Chase is aware of how, as “Density” enters its second decade, she must ensure that the new repertoire doesn’t merely exist, but that it also spreads beyond her own concert calendar. She is already a teacher and mentor — young flutists “follow her around like little puppies,” Lewis said — and now she has also created a “Density” fellowship, whose first class was announced this month.

Ten early-career flutists will take on one of the project’s pieces and devote a year to studying it with Chase, and often the composer, then performing and potentially recording it. Future concerts might not have the grand multimedia treatment of a Kitchen program, but, Claire said, that has always been the plan.

“My dream for all pieces, not just ‘Density’ pieces, but for everything I commission,” she added, “is that it can potentially work with me and a Bluetooth speaker on a granny cart in the subway.”

With that philosophy, “Density” begins to look a lot more like, well, the rest of classical music: endlessly interpreted, with endless possibilities for how it’s presented. All it takes for repertoire to survive is continued performance, generation after generation. Chase’s fellowship, she hopes, is a start.

“One little thing at a time,” she said. “It’s such a gift to be thinking about 20 years from now, or even just 10 years from now, and then 13 when this is all over. Oh, then I’ll be so sad. What am I going to do?”

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