Claire Chase @ AIC: Return from Parnassus [Review]

by Arlene and Larry Dunn (@ICEfansArleneLD)

Impressions from Row G - ICE AT Art Institute of Chicago

According to Cy Twombly’s obituary in the New York Times (Cy Twombly, 1928-2011: American Artist Who Scribbled a Unique Path) he once said of his work “It’s more like I’m having an experience than making a picture.” Frankly, until a week or so ago, we didn’t know Cy Twombly from Cy Young (who, it turns out, Mr. Twombly is nick-named for in a roundabout way). But thanks to Claire Chase and composer Marcos Balter we have been ensnared in Twombly’s alternate universe. Claire, along with guest percussionist Svet Stoyoanov, presented a masterful program of works by Takemitsu, Varèse, Reich, and Balter in Fullerton Hall at the Art Institute of Chicago on Friday, January 27. Marcos’ work Descent from Parnassus was commissioned by the museum and inspired by Twombly’s painting The First Part of the Return from Parnassus which hangs in the new Renzo Piano designed Modern Wing. 

Previous ICE blog entries by Claire and Marcos discussing their collaboration on the work and previewing the concert greatly piqued our curiosity to know more. So we arrived at the museum Friday with plenty of time to examine Twombly’s Parnassus. We got a little confused about the location, but we turned a corner and suddenly there it hung, directly beyond the glass doors to its gallery. It is not a painting that is easy to describe. Indeed, painting is not entirely the right word, as the work is composed of overlapping handwritten cryptograms tinged here and there with color. Pencilled scratches and scrawls; painted blotches, splotches and smears; erasures and replacements; here orderly ranks of numbers, letters, waveforms; there disorderly sketches of forms and geometric shapes with uncertain edges, tinged with crayon or paint in white, gray, red, green, blue. In the upper right corner, a golden pyramid, sides numbered 1, 2, 3 . . . Parnassus’ peak? The muses have spoken; Cy tells us what they said in a confusion of symbology. Meaning? Everything. Nothing. We wandered the museum, letting other images and shapes permeate our senses. We returned to Parnassus four times. Each time we knew more, viscerally; understood less, intellectually. 

Like Cy said, it’s more like having an experience . . . an apt description for Claire’s world premiere performance of Descent from Parnassus for solo amplified flute. What Marcos and Claire have created is musical, yes. But it is also something beyond or outside of music. In a very tangible way it transports you into some parallel consciousness, much like Twombly’s painting. 

Claire’s performance of this music deciphered the painting more clearly than any mere intellectual explanation ever could. With a fearless display of incomprehensible techniques and lingual gymnastics, she inhabited the piece. Laying down overlapping lines of notes, recitations of Dante, groans, howls, pops, clicks, whistles, and simply the vital act of breathing in and out across the flute’s aperture, Claire created a swirling vortex of sounds that pulled us into the maelstrom with her. The amplification provided essential reverberation to extend the length of the counterposed lines, reinforcing the otherworldliness of the experience. Then, it was over. The trance broken, we were dazzled, exhausted, enlightened. We knew, no . . . felt, that we had just traveled somewhere in time and space we had not been before. 

The other pieces on Friday’s program were exquisite wrapping paper enfolding the gleaming jewel Return from Parnassus. First, Claire and Svet played Toru Takemitsu’s Toward the Sea, commissioned for Greenpeace’s “Save the Whales” campaign, in an arrangement for alto flute and marimba. Svet played the marimba with amazing delicacy and restraint, a perfect accompaniment to Claire’s plaintive flute lines. The pairing evoked a Japanese sumi-e seascape, painted in sound. 

Claire took the stage alone to play Density 21.5 by Edgard Varèse. Claire described the work as a turning point for the flute, unleashing a beast no longer confined to only pretty, feminine, and frilly sounds. She played this daunting piece with all the verve and energy she must have displayed when she mastered it at 13. Svet then took his solo turn on stage, playing his arrangement of Steve Reich’s Electric Counterpoint, originally written for Pat Metheny to perform on electric guitar. The contrapuntal nature of the work comes from the performer playing one line against his own recording of the other line. Svet’s reworking brilliantly exploits the tuned/percussive timbres of marimba and xylophone and their sustained sounds to bring an extra dimension to this lively work. 

Claire and Svet closed the concert with a high-energy rendering of Iannis Xenakis’ Dmaathen. Originally written for oboe and percussion, they played a 1995 arrangement for flute by Cécile Daroux. Claire had plenty left in the tank to execute a demanding part that included seeming to play lines of simultaneous different notes. But it was Svet who needed to have his gym shoes on. He was in almost continuos motion pounding on bongos and congas (with and without mallets), xylophone, and marimba; kicking a bass drum; striking the side of a gong with a metal rod. All in all, a spirited conclusion to another amazing ICE concert. 

Arlene (acornarlene [at] gmail [dot] com) and Larry (acornled [at] gmail [dot] com) 

Listening Tips: 

Svet Stoyanov plays his version of Electric Counterpoint on his CD: “Percussive Counterpoint” on CAG Records. 

Marcos Balter’s compositions Ut and Live Water can be heard on Nadia Sirota’s CD:  “first things first” on New Amsterdam Records.

Postscript: We really struggled to articulate our experience of Return to Parnassus. We ruminated, talked, took notes, ruminated, talked, took notes . . . Before long, we looked at the notes (below) and realized we’d “gone all Twombly on ourselves.” 

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