David Schotzko: We happen to be one of a bunch of contemporary music ensembles our age. There’s Alarm Will Sound, Argento, So Percussion; there’s a whole stack. And we all intermix. I play with So a lot, and I’ve sung with Alarm Will Sound. A couple of Alarm Will Sound band members have played with us when we’ve needed extra people, and the same with the people from Argento. We all get along; we all respect what other people do. There is absolutely no reason in this very small niche market to be protective of your own corner of it.
Claire Chase: To take it a step further, there’s no reason to do anything but encourage everyone who’s doing anything like this to keep doing it and to share resources, ideas, marketing plans, and mailing lists. It’s easy to be pessimistic and say, “Oh, there’s no money, federal money’s dried up, it’s difficult to get grants, the government will never support what we do.” That’s never really been something that’s held us back. On the contrary, this is a really great time to be doing what we’re doing, especially in New York. There’s a beginning of a movement happening here and it feels exciting to be a part of that.
Frank J. Oteri: There’s another ensemble that hasn’t yet come up yet in this conversation but that’s certainly been in the back of my head knowing you were formed at Oberlin and have spent a lot of time in Chicago.
DS: The youngest of them were seniors when we were freshmen.
CC: They were sort of like our big brothers and sisters.
DS: It’s hard for me to think of them as peers.
CC: They’re in their tenth or eleventh season. It’s amazing that they’ve been doing that as a unit and the number of performances that they’ve done. We’re all good friends with them.
David Bowlin: In a way, what the blackbirds are doing is so different from what we’re doing. They have a core group of players, and they have management. They have a different working model for what they do. They’re trying to go in the same direction that we’re going in another way, but there’s no professional friction. It doesn’t come down to a thing like competing for the same gig. We’re generating our own creative projects, so there’s room for whatever happens from both organizations.
FJO: Has there ever been any repertoire that both groups have done?
DS: There’s been the Donatoni Arpège.
DB: We have proudly influenced at least one choice of blackbirds.
DS: It’s funny because I don’t think we ever really planned to play much in a Pierrot sextet.
CC: We didn’t really need to.
DS: We started playing a lot of Pierrot sextet things because we did Eight Songs for a Mad King, and we started getting asked to do Eight Songs for a Mad King in various places, so then we started having to fill other programs when we had those six people there. So we started learning a bunch of Pierrot repertoire. At one point we learned Franco Donatoni’s piece Arpege , which is this blazingly hard rhythmic thing for six players. I remember I took the score and held the vibraphone part up to Matt Duvall and said, “You guys have to learn this.” It’s right up their alley. It’s the kind of stuff they would play spectacularly; I can’t wait to hear them play it.
CC: I’m sure they’ll play the hell out of it.
FJO: Has any repertoire gone the other way?
DS: I think not so much, partly because we’ve tried to shy away from Pierrot sextet. They’ve made such a mark with their repertoire. They’re a little ahead of us. They’re in a position where they learn a piece that we did. They’re eighth blackbird. If they learn a piece that we did first, no one’s going to say, “Oh they took this piece from us.” We’re in a different position.
CC: There’s also plenty of great music to go around. We could program 100 years of music that we’d love to play; there’s so much out there already and there’s more and more that’s coming into being every day. Even with getting 100 concerts a year, I don’t think we could keep up with all the things that we would like to be playing.
FJO: Hearing you all say that the Donatoni piece would be perfect for eighth blackbird makes me want to return to what Claire said earlier about ICE not having a style. Is there any kind of music that you guys would not want to go near?
CC: There’s probably not a hard and fast answer to that question.
Joshua Rubin: The collaborative process of programming has prevented this and a lot of times we’re influencing each other. Our cellist begged us to do Eight Songs for a Mad King. I knew the piece but I couldn’t imagine us playing it at the time. But I’m really glad for this experience of having done it, because it’s one of the great pieces.
DS: I think we all have very strong opinions individually, and we try to take everyone else’s opinions very seriously. I have my prejudices. Dave and I have disagreements on Xenakis. I’m a percussionist. I love Xenakis. Dave’s not sure about Xenakis.
DB: It’s also sometimes not a matter of a certain style, but there are certain pieces by certain composers that maybe you don’t respond well to. Maybe there are other pieces by the same composer that you really like, so sometimes it’s piece-driven and not necessarily style- or composer-driven.
FJO: So have you been able to turn each other around on certain things that you might otherwise not have liked?
CC: I think so.
DB: Very probably.
JR: It happens at just about every concert, especially when the programs are very diverse.
DB: There’s no way to really get inside other than playing it, when you’re able to play and perform a piece that you might not necessarily have liked listening to a recording sometimes you develop a much better relationship with the piece.
DS: I had that experience recently. There was something that I wasn’t thrilled with until playing it. I forget what it was.
CC: Well, it happens, you know.
DB: I was playing a piece by Milton Babbitt once, his Arie da Capo; it was actually written for Da Capo Chamber Players, which is another group that I play with. I didn’t understand the piece at all. We were rehearsing and rehearsing the piece and I just couldn’t get it. And then finally in the concert, something clicked and the piece made sense to me. Sometimes that spontaneously happens in a concert or with repeated exposure.
CC: The rewards are very far along in the process. Sometimes it takes two months to just get the basic techniques into your body, at which point you could feel a tiny little bit free with them. Amazing things happen when you push yourself that hard. And I find amazing things happen when I’m in the company of these guys who are doing it at a really high level. I’m forced to keep going if I’m sitting next to people who are doing all of those things with total commitment and with total abandon and with this childlike curiosity you have to have to play contemporary music. Whereas I would probably give up if it was just me alone trying to do something so incredibly difficult: to play the flute backwards and upside down and make a sound when I’m inhaling and then speak and sing. You really have to be ready to do just about anything in front of a public. But when you’re in a group with people like this who are really willing to try just about anything, it makes that process very rewarding, and I find that my mind opens up.
FJO: So some final impossible-to-answer questions: How do you make this music communicate with an audience who doesn’t have this two-month period to get acquainted with it? What is your goal as far as reaching audiences with this stuff?
DB: I think when you’re talking about classical art music, you have the same problems with Brahms as you do with Davidovsky. If someone is listening to the music for the first time, they might have trouble understanding it; but with several listenings, they increase in their understanding. The work starts to have a power with them.
JR: Another way is extramusical, and that’s that the choices we’ve made in programming and also where we’ve played. For example, we’ve given lots of concerts in bars and clubs and places outside the concert hall. This is another way to bring the audience to a place where they feel comfortable. Maybe some people feel more comfortable in this place and are willing to have more of an open mind, which is what both the performers and the audience always needs with new music. I think people get really involved in the music no matter what it is. There might be six pieces in totally different styles on a program and that can draw an audience in.
DS: I think contemporary music has developed a bad reputation as un-audience-friendly. I don’t think that’s been our experience.
CC: It hasn’t been our experience at all. We play a lot of free concerts and we do a lot of what most people would call really hard-core contemporary music in really laid-back venues where people can feel free to react in any way that they’re going to react. They can say, “I hate that.” They could say, “I love that.” They could say, “That did nothing for me.” They could say, “What the hell was that?” But we create the space in which they could have that conversation with each other, and with us. They could have that relationship with the music and not feel like they have to react in a certain way, think a certain thing, or know a certain thing. One thing that we’re really passionate about is seeing if we can cultivate a new mentality in our new audience. A mentality that’s not just about “I’m going to go to this concert because I know that this household-name composer is great and I want to hear that music.” That’s a great reason to go to a concert, and I think all of us would like to participate in that system. But that’s not ICE’s reason for being. We would like someone to come to a concert to say, “I have absolutely no idea what I’m going to hear. I know that it will be played with total commitment. I know that as an audience member my intelligence is going to be trusted. My opinion, my reactions are going to be welcome. And I’m participating in something that’s taking place right now for the first time.” That’s a wonderful reason to go out and hear something.