Meet the Music Makers - International Contemporary Ensemble

In conversation with Joshua Rubin, clarinetist and co-artistic director of Internatinoal Contemporary Ensemble:

UChicago Presents: ICE had its first concert in 2001 in Chicago. When the ensemble started out, what was its place in the new music scene here?

Joshua Rubin: Chicago was a very welcoming place for all kinds of experimental art, as it still is now. At the time, we felt like it was the kind of place where ideas from small groups like us could really thrive and take off. The main motivation for why we started was to be the voice of contemporary music in the 21st century. We wanted to be responsible for bringing the first pieces of the new millennium to life. We also wanted to [perform] underrepresented works, which included composers we thought were marginalized—like people of color, women composers, and young emerging composers.

UCP: The ensemble splits time between Chicago and NYC. How do your dual “home bases” work out, and what’s it like to traverse these cities with very different new music scenes?

JR: That’s a really good question. I would say the first time we had a full season in New York wasn’t until 2005, although we did perform some early concerts there. I remember that we would carpool overnight back and forth to make concerts in Chicago and New York when we were getting busy!

In terms of the differences, I guess that Chicago was the home of our first free festival. It was the environment where we opened up the doors for the process: giving concerts, meeting audiences all over the city. We felt like the city of Chicago was so welcoming to that that we actually made that the mode of our performances in New York. So, we modeled our New York season essentially after our successes and community in Chicago.

UCP: ICE’s programming and mission generally is grounded in performing the music of emerging composers. But this program spotlights very established names in contemporary music. I know Marta [Ptasynska, artistic director of Contempo] was the one who crafted the program, but did you all have any input? And how will ICE’s vantage point of playing the music of primarily living composers inform your approach?

JR: Thanks for asking that question, because it’s definitely different from how we’d program one of our own concerts. But there are some important connections in the program: we’ve worked with Marta for a very long time, and her interest was to take some very established composers that she really cared about. And ICE has championed many pieces from the postwar era by established composers that are not very well known.

Basically, this program was a bit of a connection to people we’ve been very close with over the years. For example, our second album was recording George Crumb’s Eleven Echoes of Autumn, which is how we start the program. It was one of the first pieces we brainstormed with Marta, and Crumb was someone who was incredibly important for the language of the music we play today. We got to work with him on this piece, on the piano that he wrote this piece, in his studio in Media, Pennsylvania. Mario Davidovsky, similarly, was in New York and a mentor of the organization. We presented a portrait of his music in Chicago, at Columbia College. He’s written many pieces for the ensemble; he’s a very beautiful composer. This piece, Synchronisms No. 3, is a real gem of a piece that our cellist [Michael Nicolas] performs really elegantly. On the other side of things, Pauline Oliveros, who passed away last year, was really the grandmother of the group and also our ears in the ensemble for many, many years. She [wrote] the very first piece that ICE commissioned, actually, in 2001. We were very close with Pauline and toured with her last year. We also produced the memorial concert for her here in New York after she passed away. She’s someone who represents not the past generation, but the future of all music, in the way we think and hear. Earth Ears is a really wonderful representation of that larger listening that she opened us up to. Although these pieces are standard repertoire, they’re very personal for us.

We didn’t work with Birtwistle or Takemitsu personally, but we’ve performed many works of theirs over the years. Actually, our first international tour was in Poland, and it was organized partly with the help of Marta. Penderecki is very much one of the leading [composers] of the postwar generation in Poland.

UCP: Penderecki’s Sextet is included on the concert, though it’s less explicitly programmatic than the rest of the concert. But of course it’s a masterwork. What cued its inclusion?

JR: You know, I haven’t thought about it too much in terms of the programmatic element. A lot of times, programs have their way of grounding themselves in music that’s larger than the theme itself. A lot of these pieces touch just generally on a theme; I’m not positive that they’re all explicit about nature. But I think that the Penderecki is a large-form piece that will contrast really nicely with some of the shorter pieces on the program; it’s a piece that has great contrast with itself, and the instrumentation is a bit unusual. It’s also a very active piece. Musically, I think it will round out the program really nicely.