Big Ideas

Last week, the MacArthur Foundation announced their annual grants to individuals. Commonly referred to as “Genius” grants, they honor people (chosen without a formal application process) who have made and will continue to make a significant contribution to any field—former recipients range from economists to a juggler. This year, I was elated to discover that the amazing Claire Chase, flutist extraordinaire and founder of the International Contemporary Ensemble (commonly called ICE) numbers among this elite group.

ICE’s very first concert, in Chicago, happened to be the night before a music appreciation class that I was teaching had their concert reports due. The confluence between a free concert and an imminent deadline inspired a remarkable number of my students to attend this event. I was quite intrigued by their descriptions of the performances of Bach and Reich, and so made certain to be in attendance at their second show. I was incredibly impressed by the musicality of these recent Oberlin alumni, and became a regular at all of their events. Claire quickly proved that she stood apart from other musicians and concert organizers by seeking me out in order to find out what kept bringing me back to these concerts. Once she found out that I was a composer, she asked to hear my music and within days of receiving my cassette (yes, this was ten years ago) had listened to it and had comments for me. Since that first season, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed watching ICE grow from a scrappy young consortium into one of the premiere concertizing organizations on the new music scene.

During the early days of ICE, I enjoyed the intense pleasure of regular breakfast meetings with Claire at a neighborhood restaurant. On these occasions, we’d bounce ideas off of each other. I’d tell her about upcoming projects and the sorts of pieces that I wanted to write but for some reason or another couldn’t make happen. She’d tell me about her dreams for the future of ICE. She always had grand plans—concepts that involved collaboration with people from several different artistic fields or countries—the sorts of artistic fantasies that obviously couldn’t happen within their current budget and other constraints. Here is the crux of the matter: Claire carefully considered these visions and never wavered from her chosen path. In time, she completed each of these projects and each one of them was an incredible artistic success.

I’ve come to believe that this ability to conceive and execute big ideas constitutes the trait that separates those people who create life-changing art from the rest of us. When I think about the composers whose work truly excite me, it’s invariably the ones who re-define artistic paradigms. Event pieces like John Luther Adams’ Inuksuit, Louis Andriessen’s De Materie, David Lang’s Little Match Girl Passion, or Michael Hersch’s Vanishing Pavilions force us to listen in a different way. By expanding our ability to concentrate and forcing us to consider time in new ways, they bring us close to the sorts of transcendent experiences that I treasure.

Lately, I’ve been trying to internalize the lessons that I should have learned from Claire a decade ago. Instead of compromising my artistic visions in order to tailor them to the realm of the possible, I’m attempting to follow wherever they lead—even when the goals seem unlikely at best. I’m turning away from good projects in order to focus my attention on those rare opportunities that I need to create for myself. Sometimes the good can be the enemy of the perfect in the opposite sense of the usual application of this phrase. In our pursuit of those objectives that we can clearly accomplish, we can prevent ourselves from working towards those dreams that can truly change our lives.

To my mind, that has always been the true genius of Claire, that she always understood the importance of big ideas and never wavered from those targets.

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