The International Contemporary Ensemble has long looked at boundaries, decided they weren’t in quite the right place, and moved them several football fields away. They, and Claire Chase, the executive director who’s inspired her own hashtag, have done this again with ICELab. From the outside, it looks like a university residence turned inside out and blown up, similar to what ICE and eighth blackbird do regularly at colleges and conservatories, but bigger. Instead of an intense, weeklong period spent with young composers and advising them on their work, ICE picked composers whose work the group already performs and commissioned evening-length works from them. These will then be developed over a year, or however long it takes to complete. The first Chicago stop for the laboratory is Saturday night at the MCA.
There’s a whole boatload of digital artifacts about the project on ICE’s site, including with streams and mp3s works by the composers involved, interviews, and blog posts. Blessedly, it appears to be untouched by the hands of a committee, with an unfussy layout that simply allows you to find things, digest said things, and move on to the next thing. Among the finds are the great, award-winning toy pianist Phyllis Chen playing a work by Nathan Davis, a composer whose renown is growing by leaps and bounds, and an interview with Marcos Balter. He’s a Chicago composer now, and explains how he got to be that way to Elly Fishman, a lifelong Chicagoan. (I know Elly through her parents, incidentally, and seeing that she’s now published makes me feel old. But, that is not her fault.)
Davis and Balter both have works performed on the ICELab concert, with Davis taking the site-specific approach. His Bells requires the input of the audience’s cellphone ringtones, and given its success in the atrium of Alice Tully Hall at Lincoln Center, the lobby of the MCA (at the top of the stairs, inside the Nazi pillbox), should be impressive. Inside the concert hall itself, a new Davis work using onomatopoeic poetry will be premiered with soprano Tony Arnold singing. Balter’s working on a setting of AEsop’s fables and will have also have the great Ms. Arnold to sing.
Finally, there will be a video collaboration between composer Du Yun and artist Shazia Shikander. Part of this video was previewed in late April at the MCA in an ICELab advance event, and Shikander, MacArthur grant in hand from 2006, can describe the art much better than I can (namely, that it seemed like a magical realist cartoon that I couldn’t and didn’t want to stop watching).
This is still early in the life-cycle of ICELab, hence the inclusion of composers already known to ICE. But, baby steps. As time goes on, more and more composers will get tossed into the incubator, and if you’re there on Saturday, you can say you were present at the birth. Or in the waiting room outside, smoking a cigarette and waiting for the baby to be brought to the window. That may actually be a better and less skeevy-sounding memory to share with your friends.