Frank J. Oteri: What does it mean “to become a member” of ICE? It sounds a little like a corporation. Do you pay dues? What is the difference between being a member versus just being on some concerts with the group?
Claire Chase: It means that you’re involved in programming decisions. It also means that the group supports you as an individual: it supports your individual projects and your individual voice. It’s a chamber music group, but it’s a chamber music group of extraordinary soloists. Everyone in the group is an awesome solo player. And everyone has really interesting and very diverse musical interests and musical aesthetics. That diversity is one of the things that I love the most about this group. We don’t have a house style; we don’t have one particular stylistic niche that we’re out there promoting. In a given week, we’ll play what would be qualified as uptown music and downtown music: we’ll play music of Steve Reich, and we’ll play music of someone that no one has ever heard of before who comes from Bulgaria who is 23 years old. We’ll play an improvisation concert in a bar, and then we’ll play something at a standard chamber music series in a church. We’ll do all of that within a given couple of weeks. The personalities involved in the group reflect the diversity of venues and the choice of repertoire, and vice-versa, too.
FJO: Claire, technically you’re the executive director. What does that mean? Do you get more say than everyone else? How does that play out?
CC: You guys can probably answer this question better than I can, but I’m sort of like the den mother. The way I feel about ICE is that all the great programming ideas and all of the artistic vision come from the group. Everything comes from the group. Dave’s officially our program director, and we have an operations manager and an office manager and some folks that work for us part time, but I see our jobs as just gathering information and making it possible to execute the ideas that come from the group.
David Bowlin: Claire really founded the group. Our first initial concerts were back in 2000 at Oberlin when we won a grant to commission five chamber music works for flute by living composers. That was the genesis of ICE. Claire really organized everything, and subsequently her business acumen has been largely—well, solely—responsible for it. What it comes down to is that Claire runs the business end from contracts to writing grants, with assistance from some of us as she needs it.
FJO: Beginning with programming ideas and coming up with programs is great in the abstract, but then you have to sell a presenter or you have to sell a series somewhere. What is that process?
CC: The funny thing is we don’t do a lot of selling to presenters. We don’t have a manager. I only send out press kits when people ask us for them.
David Schotzko: We just had this conversation last night.
CC: We started out producing our own concerts, just self-producing everything. And we had no money and we had no venues and nobody knew who we were and nobody knew the music that we were playing, and so we just got together and did it and found an audience and found some money. It grew from there, from the very simple desire to have a garage band; it was that small in the beginning. And I think, in a way, our mentality and our way of doing things is basically the same, although it’s gotten much more organized, and we have space and we have a board now. We do music that interests us; we do projects that interest the group. More than half of our concerts are self-produced, so we’re not trying to sell them to a presenter. And the concerts that we do that get presented usually come to us. Usually someone calls us and says, “Would you guys like to do this?” Then we take it back to what we call the roundtable committee. The roundtable is a representative group that functions like an orchestra committee and deals with programming issues and also personnel issues. So I say, “Hey you guys, what do you think about this?” Sometimes they say, “That’s fantastic; I love it!” Sometimes we have a heated discussion about it. Sometimes they say, “No, we don’t really want to do this; we would rather do something else.”
DS: Usually we say yes, though.
CC: We’re not really in a position to say no, most of the time. I hope I’m not revealing too much about ICE’s secrets, but that’s how we operate. It’s not a whole of a lot more complicated than that. We don’t have a big marketing strategy as far as sending press kits out and trying to get concerts in major venues. We’re interested in doing the work we want to do. That’s always been our frame of reference, and it’s always worked.
FJO: So without letting even more secrets out of the bag, are you guys able to make a living through ICE only?
CC: Solely through ICE, no. We’re working on it. We’re working real hard on it and it gets better every few months. The fees go up and our budget has doubled consistently since the beginning, so our grant funding goes up every year, and individual donor funding is growing. But it’s a process. This hasn’t really been done in this country yet. So we’re trying to make it happen. I think we’ll be able to do it. Within three or four years we’ll be able to sustain this.
FJO: Now, David said something very interesting about being inspired to branch out and do contemporary music in addition to playing standard repertoire. ICE was formed at Oberlin, which is a real new music hotbed. Did all of you go there?
DB: Out of this group of players, only Cory [Smythe] didn’t go to Oberlin.
FJO: And Peter, you just joined the group; but you’re an Oberlin guy, too. So you knew these people.
Peter Evans: Yup.
DS: Dave and Claire and I and a couple of others were all freshman together. Josh was a year older. The foundations of it were essentially us all learning to play contemporary music under Tim Weiss in the Contemporary Music Ensemble at Oberlin.
Joshua Rubin: He was our conductor and mentor. And he also put us together as ensembles before we even really knew each other, and forced us to get along.
DS: Then we all graduated and went to different places and missed playing together, and Claire found us a wonderful excuse to start playing together again.
CC: When we graduated we had just spent four years playing contemporary music together. Naïvely I thought that experience would exist somewhere else in my professional musical life right away. And it just didn’t. And it didn’t take me very long to realize that if I wanted to make that happen, I had to just make it happen. It seemed a little bit crazy in the beginning because everybody was spread out. You think that we’re spread out now between Chicago and New York, but this is easy to manage compared to where we were before. Everyone was in grad school in different places. Scheduling-wise it was an absolute nightmare because people had school conflicts. But we just started doing projects.
DS: Then it started getting scheduled farther and farther ahead.
FJO: So do you all live and have residences in both cities at this point?
CC: But we go back and forth.
DB: We have an active network of close families and regular sublets that kind of work out of Chicago.
CC: We have our little homes away from home.
DB: We’ve made arrangements to find ways to stay in Chicago reasonably comfortably. But none of us has permanent residences in Chicago, except for Claire and a few members of ICE who actually live in Chicago.
CC: And who commute to New York.
FJO: Did you all know when you graduated from Oberlin that you wanted to devote your energies to contemporary music?
DS: Well, I’m a percussionist, so my options were limited to begin with.
JR: I know for me it’s what I really loved to do when I was in school, and I didn’t really have as much of an outlet for it here in the city. I was playing in a lot of orchestras and I was in grad school. As a freelancer, I was mostly doing orchestra or chamber music, and so ICE was really my way to be involved in that which I really loved and still love to do.
DB: I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do. I played a lot of chamber music during my graduate study. I was in two traditional string quartets, and ICE was something that I really enjoyed doing extracurricular to that. But then as ICE has grown more and more, and the string quartets ended up not working out for a myriad of reasons, I’ve grown into doing more contemporary music. That’s how that’s worked for now, but it wasn’t necessarily something I had designs on doing while we were at Oberlin.
FJO: How many of you are active improvisers?
PE: I am.
DS: Me to a lesser extent. It’s something I used to do more of.
CC: We’re actually taking on a few structured group improvisation projects for the first time. Peter and Corey can speak more than I can about this. I really feel like their presence in the group has inspired me personally to explore it on my own and also to incorporate it into ICE’s programming. Peter, you do improvisation like at least half of the time, right?
PE: Probably more. I do a lot of jazz stuff, free improv, and all different kinds of things outside of ICE, so this is my freedom to bring that stuff into the group. Especially with Dave. Dave Remnick is the saxophone player who lives in Chicago, and he’s the first person that I did free improvisation with outside of an explicitly jazz context. Last September we did it as part of this ICE festival in Chicago. And I think we’ll be doing it again.
CC: We’ll be doing a lot more of those. The concert that the two of them put together was just amazing.