Chicago Tribune: “It can break the ICE in any space”

It can break the ICE in any space

Ensemble doesn’t adhere to tradition or boundaries

By Elissa Wagman
Special to the Tribune

Unlike many classical music groups, the International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE) has no problem performing at a bar.

At a recent concert, sipping beer during the rests in the music, their Bach competing with the rattle of a martini shaker, the Icicles, as they call themselves, made old and new classical music a good fit for Katerina’s, a North Side bar.

ICE is willing to play anywhere audiences are, including clubs, art galleries and concert halls.

“Boundaries? What boundaries? That’s our MO” said Claire Chase, ICE’s energetic, spiky-haired executive director. “We’re trying to expand the idea of a performance space. It can be anything.”

Reacting to the grim news nationwide about struggling orchestras, the Icicles, a chamber orchestra of 30 conservatory-trained musicians, want their concerts, venues and, most important, music to be as new as possible. Although they occasionally perform music by pre-21st Century composers during their 20 or more annual performances in Chicago, their primary mission is to collaborate with emerging young composers, playing novel, often multimedia, works that meld music with other art forms.

The result is something decidedly fresh for Chicago audiences.

Born on a bus

The idea for ICE was hatched on a Greyhound bus, according to 27-year-old Chase. When she graduated from Oberlin College Conservatory in Ohio in 2001, she had “no plan” other than to hop a ride to Chicago.

Three hours into the trip, Chase, a flutist with an insatiable interest in new music, realized, “What am I waiting for? I’ll start this organization, give it a year, and if I fail, I fail,” she said recently, sipping a latte at the “virtual ICE office,” an Andersonville coffee shop.

Chase got together some friends, mostly Oberlin alumni who also loved contemporary music, and spent time researching the details of starting an arts organization. By January 2001, the group, based in Chicago and New York, had presented its first local concert at the Three Arts Club on North Dearborn Parkway.

It won a prestigious national award for adventurous programming in 2004. Since 2003, it’s been the ensemble in residence at Columbia College Chicago. It has attracted the attention of important composers around the country, and its concerts are consistently packed.

The group’s endeavors have included collaborations with painters, creating cross-pollinated works of music and art, and the premiere of a multimedia piece for instruments and dancers.

One of its more ambitious efforts was the Young Composers Project, a composition competition for emerging composers. After sifting through works from 100 composers from all over the world, ICE featured the work of the 13 winners in last year’s IceFest, a six-concert series in Chicago. One of their choices was the Japanese composer Dai Fujikura.

Fujikura’s work “Breathless” was played at a children’s concert in the Pilsen neighborhood last spring. Like many ICE performances, novelty was the name of the game: The concert paired toy pianos with traditional orchestral instruments.

“ICE asked me if I wanted to write a short piece for kids,” Fujikura said. “I’d never written for toy piano before. . . . From the beginning I knew that I wanted to use a pizzicato [plucked] violin. The sounds [of the toy piano and violin] jell.”

Crucial initiatives

Veteran composer Augusta Read Thomas, one of ICE’s mentors, said initiatives such as the Young Composers Project are crucial for emerging composers.

“Composers need to hear their music,” she said. “Music is an art of sound. It’s not just in someone’s head or on paper.”

Collaborating with composers such as Fukijura is one of the main reasons many of the Icicles, who are not salaried, have decided to devote much of their musical lives to contemporary music. When he premieres a piece, said Dave Schotzko, ICE’s founding percussionist, he feels as if he’s helping to create it, “bringing new works into existence.”

Even when the Icicles perform older 20th Century works, they try to present them in a new way.

ICE’s Columbia College performance Saturday of Sir Peter Maxwell Davies’ 1969 piece “Eight Songs for a Mad King” features a new staging created specifically for the ensemble.

“Eight Songs,” the story of King George III of England’s descent into madness, is a theatrical piece in which a costumed tenor soloist acts out the part of the king in front of the audience.

In ICE’s version, by Lydia Steier, a staff director at the Berlin Komische Oper, the king is no longer directly visible to the audience. Instead, his upper body and face are recorded by a camera and projected on a large screen.

“The piece starts with a modern-looking tenor, but throughout the piece he dresses and makes himself up,” Steier said.

“When he’s fully dressed as a king, [his face] looks like a big screaming terrible mask.”


One of Steier’s goals in restaging the piece is to make it more accessible to the audience: “This is an age of instant information — [the traditional staging] calls on non-trained ears and eyes to sit and pay attention [to the stage]. Bringing in a screen makes it more palatable to people who have experienced TV and cinema.”

Another piece on the Saturday concert provides evidence of ICE’s commitment to new audiences.¬†With Spanish-speaking listeners in mind, ICE translated a narrated portion of a John Cage piece into Spanish.

The Saturday concert, like all of the group’s performances, is free. The ensemble’s concerts are spread throughout the city, from Evanston to the South Side. ICE is even looking at new performance venues, including unusual sites such as subway stations.

Referring to Italian composer Luciano Berio, Chase said, “We had the idea of doing a `Berio Attack.’ We’d take over 14 subway stations in New York and play all 14 Sequenza [Berio's pieces for solo instruments] at once.”

“Contemporary music shouldn’t be so scary,” Chase added. “Even if it’s wild and grotesque, it has great power to communicate with people who know nothing about it.”

The ICE Mini-Marathon takes place from 6 to 9 p.m. Saturday at The Concert Hall of the Music Center at Columbia College Chicago, 1014 S. Michigan Ave.