Review: ‘Density’ Keeps Expanding the Flute’s Universe

It was a familiar, comforting sight: the flutist Claire Chase, standing atop a scaffold and softly lit, a warmly glowing star in the expansive darkness of the Kitchen’s performance space.

Since 2013, a scene like this has greeted every audience to witness an installment of “Density 2036,” Chase’s multidecade initiative to commission a new program of flute music each year, leading up to the centennial of Edgard Varèse’s brief but influential 1936 solo “Density 21.5,” a work that, she once wrote, “unfurled genre-dissolving possibilities for the instrument.”

These programs — theatrical as well as musical, vocal as well as instrumental — have taken on the reliability of holiday gatherings. And, like many such gatherings, Chase’s was jeopardized by the pandemic: The seventh installment, Liza Lim’s “Sex Magic,” premiered online last December.

What a relief it was, then, to be back at the Kitchen on Friday for Part VIII of “Density” — one of the great musical undertakings of our time, a singular project by a singular artist on the messily ambitious scale of Wagner’s “Ring” and Stockhausen’s “Licht.” The climax will be a 24-hour marathon concert, but until then, “Density” is unfolding incrementally, with Chase as the North Star of her instrument’s ever-expanding universe.

This latest performance — dedicated to the composer Alvin Lucier, whose “Almost New York” was featured in Part I, and who died recently at 90 — opened with Lim’s “Sex Magic,” in the form of the excerpt “Throat Song,” for ocarina and voice, blending and blurring the two in gentle polyphony.

Lim’s piece was a reminder that, while “Density” is, on paper, a mission to develop a modern solo flute repertory, it has in practice been much broader. Chase and her cohort of composers have made an encyclopedic embrace of the flute family — especially in Marcos Balter’s “Pan,” which constituted Part V — and remained open to the ways in which the human body can produce sound, such as in Pauline Oliveros’s monodrama-like “Intensity 20.15: Grace Chase,” from Part III. Some works haven’t even been solos. (And some, it should be said, have been easier to respect than love.)

The concerts are anything but straightforward. Friday’s came with a host of additional credits, including for Levy Lorenzo’s sound, Nicholas Houfek’s lighting and production design, Monica Duncan’s projections and Kelly Levy’s stage management. The reason was clear the moment Chase began to play Wang Lu’s “Aftertouch,” which complements three types of flute with street noise, a club-worthy beat and videos, by Polly Apfelbaum, of spinning singing bowls. It seems like a lot, but the elements wove together naturally: the city’s restlessness; the dizzying video; Chase’s arpeggios, amplified and, through electronics, feeding one another in waves of sound that transformed into clashing ripples.

If “Aftertouch” courted dance, the low frequency of its beat rattling the rafters, then Ann Cleare’s “anfa,” which followed, invited something like the opposite. Its title, according to the program notes, comes from the Irish word for “a disturbance in the elements,” and its baseline is deceptive stasis. Chase stood with her towering contrabass flute against the backdrop of a projected film landscape, by Ailbhe Ni Bhriain, of an Irish bog — a site, Cleare says, of rich industrial and geological history.

The video has the look of a still image, but Cleare’s score reveals that there is always more to a landscape than meets the eye. Accompanied by electronics, Chase sounded both of the earth and beyond it, shifting textures with tectonic patience and warping time. Quietly, but alarmingly, the image changes to another in which inky plumes erupt with increasing frequency; by the end, their slowly spreading tendrils begin to overtake the bog.

Matana Roberts’s “Auricular Hearsay” countered Cleare’s muted intensity with piercingly loud extroversion. Written for flute, video and the option of collaborators, it uses a mixed-media framework that Roberts calls “Endless Score,” and is, the composer writes, “a visual and sonic exploration of the brains of the neurodiverse,” inspired by how they “operate in starts, stops, spurts.” Improvising from a set of instructions, Chase played no fewer than a half-dozen instruments, including slide whistles, percussion and panpipe, alongside Senem Pirler’s scene-stealing live electronics and against blazing projections.

It’s a marvel that, after this rush of premieres, Varèse’s original “Density 21.5” had the freshness of a new discovery. But its inclusion also put a lot of pressure on the pieces that preceded it: Will they still have such an eager audience in 2136?

And what about artists able to take them up? So much of “Density 2036” has been written specifically for Chase, tailored to her nimble technique, vocal prowess and charismatic presence. Although each addition has been a gift, it will be even more impressive if these works break the trend — all too common in new music — of coming and going like the burst of breath that makes a flute sing.

Density 2036, Part VIII

Performed Thursday through Saturday at the Kitchen, Manhattan.

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