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The ascent of the International Contemporary Ensemble

Chicago-born group brings youthful energy and genre-bending sensibilities to classical music

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In late April Robert Gonyo, managing director of the Brooklyn- and Chicago-based International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE), one of America's premier new-music groups, got a phone call from the Southern Theater in Minneapolis. The news was bad. The performing arts venue was having financial difficulties and needed to cancel some upcoming events, including ICE's April 26 concert. The cancellation would end up costing ICE about $8,000 in unused airline tickets, artist fees, rentals, and other unrecoverable expenses.

That amount almost equaled the organization's entire annual budget for its inaugural season in 2002-'03. ICE's first concert took place at the Three Arts Club in January of 2002, funded by $603 that founder and flutist Claire Chase had netted in tips from catering jobs during the holidays.

Chase got the message about the cancellation from Gonyo later that night. As with many of ICE's concerts, the program planned for the Southern wasn't a predictable stroll through the contemporary-music repertoire, but a showcase of new premieres written by Phyllis Chen, Steve Lehman, and Mario Diaz de Leon—young composers working in and around the periphery of classical music and forcefully borrowing ideas from areas like jazz and noise. Beginning the next morning Chase spent 48 hours trying to find a New York venue where she could stage the concert, and when her efforts failed she decided to host a performance of the works at ICE's Brooklyn rehearsal space. She arranged to shoot HD footage of all of the performances, and a few days later the footage was posted on the website of New York classical radio station WQXR.

That ICE could absorb that financial hit speaks to its monumental growth over the past decade. Its annual budget for that first season was $10,000. For the current season, which concludes this month, it's $758,000. Earlier this week Nonesuch Records released a new album by John Adams, one of the most popular and acclaimed contemporary American composers, which features him conducting ICE in the first recording of his Son of Chamber Symphony. Says Adams: "I like their youthful approach, their enthusiasm, and their willingness to work hard until they get it right."

There are many groups devoted to contemporary classical music around the country, including Chicago-based ensembles like Eighth Blackbird, Third Coast Percussion, and Dal Niente. But ICE is more than simply a new-music ensemble. The group includes 33 members, and it's routinely drawn upon loads of nonmembers so that it can accommodate any kind of work. The music ICE plays is usually eschewed by larger orchestras because it's not widely known or because it's deemed too challenging, but ICE has proven that there is indeed a real audience for avant-garde compositions, whether historical pieces by the likes of John Cage and Morton Feldman or new work by composers such as Philippe Manoury and John Luther Adams. "It's the kind of group that people start to trust no matter what they do, [regardless of] whether they've heard of the composers," says New Yorker critic Alex Ross. "They just decide this is a group that they want to be led by, and that's a very powerful relationship with the audience. When a group believes in the music and is executing it with precision and faith, the audience picks up on that and responds in kind."

On Saturday night ICE performs a concert at the Museum of Contemporary Art, wrapping up the first in a three-year residency at the museum with a program of new works by young composers closely affiliated with the organization: Chicago's Marcos Balter (a Brazilian native), New York-based Du Yun (born in China), and percussionist Nathan Davis (who's also a core member of ICE). The program is emblematic of several of ICE's key qualities: a pointed emphasis on presenting new work—much of which the group commissions, often from composers who disregard stylistic purity—and performances that break with stiff traditionalism. Davis's piece "Bells," which depends on audience members to generate sound with their cell phones and mixes those abstract tones with composed material, will be performed in the museum's lobby.

Considering that in its early days ICE performed in Hyde Park church basements and Pilsen storefronts, a museum lobby is par for the course.

CLAIRE CHASE, 33, spent much of her senior year at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music learning skills that would prove crucial to founding ICE. In 2000 she received the prestigious Presser Music Award, and she used the $5,000 grant to commission new work, put together an ensemble, and mount a concert of the new pieces. She spent the following school year commissioning pieces from established composers like Pauline Oliveros and Harvey Sollberger as well as young peers, including her classmate Huang Ruo. Chase insisted on aiming high, using a 700-seat auditorium on campus for the concert, and thanks to a diligent PR campaign that targeted a nonclassical audience she managed to pack the venue.

The experience was so powerful that she decided to carry on with the same plan in Chicago, and on a Greyhound bus ride from Oberlin she began planning. "I wanted ICE to be something that doesn't exist yet," Chase says, "which is an organization that can exist in multiple cities with the same body of people, but in cities where we can actually develop relationships with the communities that we're serving." She gave herself one year to get it off the ground. If she didn't succeed she was prepared to pursue a career as a classical music soloist.

She knew how to operate by the seat of her pants, having been forced to leave Oberlin on two different occasions due to financial hardship. She spent one of those lost semesters living and working in Chicago. "I was a roadie for a swing band. I waited tables 75 hours a week. I taught 17 students at one point," she says. "I did every job under the sun." She enlisted most of the musicians who'd played her concert at Oberlin, now spread around the midwest and east coast, to sign up for the fledgling organization, and six months after arriving in town she presented that first event at the Three Arts Club with a hodgepodge of pieces—from J.S. Bach to John Cage to Steve Reich. In the next artistic season ICE presented nine concerts, including the premiers of 16 new works.

"The first year I wrote 13 grants and was rejected for 13," she says. "My second year I wrote 15 grants and was rejected for 15. My third year I wrote 17 grants and was rejected for 16." The one she scored was a $5,000 operating grant from the MacArthur Fund for Arts and Culture at the Driehaus Foundation. "I felt like the sky was raining gold. I think I wrote 19 grants the next year and 11 were funded. Getting that first one is the hardest."

By year four ICE was presenting several dozen concerts, including an annual ICEfest, a kind of new-music marathon held in venues all over Chicago. Chase had also begun to present concerts in New York. "My original dream was to have west coast, east coast, and midwest, and have this national organization that would have a season in each of these three places, so we'd have three chances to do our work. We will take over the west coast by 2015."

At the beginning of 2006 Chase, a San Diego native, moved to New York, where most of ICE's members were living. "I wanted to build up Chicago so it could run," she says. "We still feel like we live here. We're doing 16 programs here this year, and half of the board is still in Chicago." That year ICE landed residencies at Columbia College and New York University, presented more than three dozen concerts, including two operas, and also made debuts in San Francisco and Boston. Every year since, the growth has been similar.

ICE's only remaining Chicago-based member, Katinka Kleijn, a section cellist with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, joined the group in 2004 as part of its steady expansion. "ICE has such a broad language that it brings another dimension to their music making," Kleijn says. "I hadn't seen that openmindedness with such high-level musicianship together before." Last year she commissioned seven composers—most of whom she'd been introduced to through her work with ICE—to write movements for her solo piece "Oil-Free Blush," which she premiered at the Chicago Humanities Festival.

For seven years Chase ran the show—it wasn't until 2008 that ICE was able to hire other employees. ICE now has four full-time positions. Chase remains executive director, clarinetist Joshua Rubin is program director, Whit Bernard is development director, and Gonyo managing director. Despite the rapid growth, Chase has fought to keep the operation lean. "I think the group has a restlessness and urgency that we feel about every project," she says. "We do not want to become an administration. It's so important that the staff is involved in the work."

In addition to the Adams recording out this week, this spring has seen a slew of other projects coming to fruition. ICE appears on a dazzling new recording featuring music by young German composer Matthias Pintscher released by Kairos, arguably the most important European new-music label. ICE percussionist Nathan Davis, whose work will be featured in Saturday's program, has just released The Bright and Hollow Sky (New Focus), featuring pieces written for and performed by ICE members. Chase and members of the group's string section also appear on the new album by British art-pop icon David Sylvian.

Peter Taub, director of performance programs at the MCA, was sold on the group before it had ever performed at the museum. He programmed it for a concert of music by Greek composer Iannis Xenakis in June 2009, and he was so impressed with the way ICE conducted itself that he went ahead and set up a second concert featuring the music of Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho before the first event had even taken place.

"There was incredible resourcefulness on the part of ICE, and a real flexibility and resiliency in working in different modes," he says. Taub recommended the group to Hahn Rowe, who composed music for a dance piece by the John Jasperse Company the MCA had commissioned, and the group ended up collaborating on the piece, Truth, Revised Histories, Wishful Thinking, and Flat Out Lies, in performances around the country last year. Next year the group will reprise its critically acclaimed Edgard Varese program—which it performed last summer at Lincoln Center—and present a concert built around the music of Chicago native George Lewis and acolytes like Steve Lehman and Tyshawn Sorey.

"There's never a moment when we rest easy," Chase says. "If that happens then I won't be doing my job."

That's hardly idle chatter. While I was writing this story NPR contributor Lara Pellegrinelli was working on her own piece about Chase, which involved shadowing her for a full week. Just reading her tweets about Chase's everyday multitasking—rehearsing, dealing with administrative business, planning concerts, meeting composers and musicians—is exhausting.

"Every year the benchmarks are higher, the stakes are higher," Chase says. "And every day we have to learn how to do something we didn't know how to do the day before." 

E-mail Peter Margasak at pmargasak@chicagoreader.com.

ICE presents ICElab featuring work by Marcos Balter, Du Yun, and Nathan Davis Sat 6/4, 7:30 PM, Museum of Contemporary Art, $28, $22 members, $10 students, all-ages.

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