“[International Contemporary Ensemble is] the nation’s preeminent new-music group.” The New York Times
“The organ is an ensemble with one master: a massive contraption tamed by the great skill of its organist, its builder, and its tuners.” Nathan Davis
A 3,000-pipe organ, centuries-old bells as they are heard in the belfry, an orchestra of pipe whistles, community-built music boxes: the sounds of In Plain Air carry the audience through the campus and history of one of the nation’s most historic sites.
As Christ Church installed its C.B. Fisk pipe organ — the latest in a 300-year history of grand church organs within the space — it invited members of acclaimed artist collective International Contemporary Ensemble to inaugurate the new instrument with a program of original compositions. Composers Phyllis Chen (known for her work with hand-wound music boxes and toy pianos) and Nathan Davis (a percussionist fascinated by the mechanics of instruments) immersed themselves in the sound-making possibilities of the church’s organ, bells, and open spaces, as well as the history and public role of the venerable institution.
The resulting multi-movement program unites the historic bell tolls of “The Nation’s Church,” the majesty of the intricately constructed organ, and the Ensemble’s characteristic focus on place and community into a one-of-a-kind sonic experience — a worthy welcome to an instrument that will continue to ring in the ears of visitors for the next 300 years.
Tickets free at the door. Limited seating available. Guaranteed seating, $2 advanced reservations.
Composed by Phyllis Chen and Nathan Davis Performed by International Contemporary Ensemble.
Photos by Plate 3 (unless otherwise indicated)
Major support for In Plain Air has been provided to Christ Church Preservation Trust by The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage, with additional support from Dolfinger-McMahon Foundation and Arthur Judson Foundation.
In Plain Air commission and engagement activities are supported in part by OpenICE, a program made possible by the generous support of The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, Howard Gilman Foundation, Booth Ferris Foundation, National Endowment for the Arts, A.N. and Pearl G. Barnett Family Foundation, Fan Fox and Leslie R. Samuels Foundation, Paul M. Angell Family Foundation, Aaron Copland Fund for Music, Mid-Atlantic Arts Foundation, Francis Goelet Charitable Lead Trusts, Amphion Foundation, Pacific Harmony Foundation, Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation, Alice M. Ditson Fund of Columbia University, Casement Fund, BMI Foundation, as well as public funds from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the City Council, and the New York State Council for the Arts with the support of Governor Andrew Cuomo and the New York State Legislature.
About Phyllis Chen
Phyllis Chen is a pianist, toy pianist, composer, educator, and curator, whose musical interests have led in numerous directions as a soloist and collaborative artist. She is dedicated to performing and promoting new works to engage audience in concerts and educational programs. Described as “a dazzling performer who wrings novel sounds from the humble toy piano,”(NY Times) and “a bold pianist with an excellent sense of color” (LA Times), Chen is the founder of the UnCaged Toy Piano, an annual toy piano composition competition and biennial festival in NYC. As a composer, She has received commissions and grants from the Singapore International Festival of the Arts, Fromm Music Foundation, NYSCA, New Music USA, Baryshnikov Arts Center, A Far Cry, Opera Cabal, and others. Chen has released five albums, including three solo albums. Her fifth album, Nature of Thingness(Starkland), featuring chamber works by Chen and Nathan Davis, won the 2016 Independent Music Award for best Contemporary Classical album.
About Nathan Davis
Nathan Davis “writes music that deals deftly and poetically with timbre and sonority” (NY Times). His opera/ballet “Hagoromo” premiered at the BAM Next Wave Festival produced by American Opera Projects, and Lincoln Center inaugurated its Tully Scope Festival with the premiere of “Bells,” a site-specific, electroacoustic piece for ensemble, multi-channel audio, and live broadcast to audience members’ mobile phones. Davis has received commissions from ICE and its members, Donaueschinger Musiktage, Steven Schick, Miller Theatre, Ojai Music Festival, the Calder Quartet, Third Coast Percussion, and Yarn/Wire, with premieres at Tanglewood, Park Avenue Armory, and Carnegie Hall.
The 2018 Aaron Copland Fellow at the Bogliasco Foundation, Davis has received awards/fellowships from the Camargo Foundation, Meet The Composer, Fromm Music Foundation, Jerome Foundation, American Music Center, MATA, and ASCAP. He and Phyllis Chen won an NY Innovative Theater Award for their score to Sylvia Milo’s play The Other Mozart. After serving on the faculty of Dartmouth College for eight years, Davis teaches composition and electronic music at Montclair State University. An active percussionist, he performs with ICE; appeared as a concerto soloist with the Seattle Symphony, Tokyo Symphony, and Nagoya Philharmonic; and has toured Russia, Bali, Turkey, and Cuba.
About International Contemporary Ensemble
The International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE) is an artist collective that is transforming the way music is created and experienced. As performer, curator, and educator, ICE explores how new music intersects with communities across the world. The ensemble’s 35 members are featured as soloists, chamber musicians, commissioners, and collaborators with the foremost musical artists of our time. Works by emerging composers have anchored ICE’s programming since its founding in 2001, and the group’s recordings and digital platforms highlight the many voices that weave music’s present.
A recipient of the American Music Center’s Trailblazer Award and the Chamber Music America/ASCAP Award for Adventurous Programming, ICE was also named the 2014 Musical America Ensemble of the Year. The group currently serves as artists-in-residence at Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts’ Mostly Mozart Festival, and previously led a five-year residency at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago. ICE was featured at the Ojai Music Festival from 2015 to 2017, and at recent festivals abroad such as gmem-CNCM-marseille and Vértice at Cultura UNAM, Mexico City. Other performance stages have included the Park Avenue Armory, The Stone, ice floes at Greenland’s Diskotek Sessions, and boats on the Amazon River.
New initiatives include OpenICE, made possible with lead funding from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, which offers free concerts and related programming wherever ICE performs, and enables a working process with composers to unfold in public settings. DigitICE, a free online library of over 350 streaming videos, catalogues the ensemble’s performances. ICE’s First Page program is a commissioning consortium that fosters close collaborations between performers, composers, and listeners as new music is developed. EntICE, a side-by-side education program, places ICE musicians within youth orchestras as they premiere new commissioned works together; inaugural EntICE partners include Youth Orchestra Los Angeles and The People’s Music School in Chicago. Summer activities include Ensemble Evolution at the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity, in which young professionals perform with ICE and attend workshops on topics from interpretation to concert production. Yamaha Artist Services New York is the exclusive piano provider for ICE. Read more at iceorg.org.
About Christ Church
Christ Church, the birthplace of the American Episcopal Church, was founded in 1695 as a condition of William Penn’s Charter. Known as “The Nation’s Church,” it hosted members of the Continental Congress during the American Revolution and Presidents George Washington and John Adams in the first decade of the newly established Republic. Among early members were Benjamin and Deborah Franklin, Betsy Ross, John Penn (William Penn’s grandson), and signers of the Constitution and of the Declaration of Independence, including Robert Morris, Benjamin Rush, and Francis Hopkinson.
At Christ Church, Absalom Jones, the nation’s first black priest, received his ordination, a school was created to educate slaves and over 25% of Philadelphia’s free and enslaved Africans were baptized. Dating to 1744, the current building has been cited as “our finest Early American church” and one of the finest Georgian structures in America. Its steeple (1754), financed by a lottery organized by Benjamin Franklin, is the work of Robert Smith, one of America’s earliest architects. For 56 years, the steeple made Christ Church the tallest structure in North America.
Christ Church is a privately managed historic site that is an official component of Independence National Historical Park. An active Episcopal parish, the church hosts daily historical talks and tours, and serves artists through the Neighborhood House theater and arts program.
Interview with Phyllis Chen
FringeArts: How does this project fit into your larger career?
Phyllis Chen: I have been a pianist since I was five but this has been my first opportunity to explore the organ. As a composer I have gravitated towards cheap, miniature and small objects as musical instruments so working with this new state of the art organ has been a new direction for me, despite it being in the keyboard family. As I enjoy playing and composing for small instruments, finding the organ has begged me to think more about the place in which it lives and how it is part of its surroundings. This has led me to think of ways of incorporating the community and the performers into the space itself.
FringeArts: What creative opportunities did you find in composing for Christ Church’s new organ, its bells and its space?
Phyllis Chen: While touring the innards of the organ, we saw the various sizes and materials used in creating the pipe whistles. I saw the opportunity to create some of the smaller pipe whistles and make a miniature mobile organ with ICE performing different pipe whistles by blowing in them. I collaborated with a long-time instrument-maker friend of mine, Ranjit Bhatnagar, where the two of us designed and experimented with different materials to create miniature pipe whistles.
FringeArts: What role does the audience play in the piece? What should they know coming in to fully open themselves up to the experience?
One of the things that was told to us early on was that this organ is really for the people. I found that to be very exciting and somehow different than what one would think of when hearing about a new organ going into a church. I can’t really say anything to calibrate anyone’s expectations, but for me, I find this event to be a celebration for its “birth” so to speak, and all the people it will bring together in the next century.
Excerpt. Read the full interview on the FringeArts Blog.
Interview with Nathan Davis
FringeArts: How does this project fit into your larger career?
Nathan Davis: I have long been fascinated with instruments, such as the organ, that place intermediary mechanical steps between the performer and the sound production. Ten years ago I wrote a piece for Phyllis called “The Mechanics of Escapement” for toy piano and clock chimes that are played by pulling long cords. The organ is a vast mechanical instrument. My work here is partly on the components of the machine (air, bellows, valves, keys, etc.) and their correlation with the instruments that the organ emulates.
FringeArts: What creative opportunities did you find in composing for Christ Church’s new organ, its bells, and its space?
Nathan Davis: The organ is truly magnificent. And having the opportunity to see it evolve over a year gave me a perspective on its components and its voice that I wouldn’t have gotten any other way. Access to the bells has been very inspirational. I am exploring new ways of playing them, relating to my work as a percussionist. And the unusual overtone structures of the bells are providing melodic and harmonic pitch content for other instruments. Though the organ and bells are fixed, the space provides unique opportunities for placement of other instrumentalists, as well as the penetration of interior and exterior sonic spaces using the huge windows and the bell tower.
FringeArts: What should the audience know coming in to the piece?
Nathan Davis: The audience will begin to experience the music even before they arrive in the sanctuary.
The organ is itself an ensemble with one master: a massive contraption that is tamed by the great skill of its organist, its builder and its tuners. In combining the Fisk organ with ICE, we extend and explore musical and social relationships in ways that are both literal and metaphoric.
Excerpt. Full interview coming soon to the FringeArts Blog.