Mario Diaz de Leon grew up in Woodbury playing Guns N' Roses and Metallica tunes before graduating into the Twin Cities hard-core punk scene. Phyllis Chen was an honors student in classical piano who's going for a doctorate at Indiana University, where she has studied with the great Andre Watts. And Steve Lehman is a highly regarded jazz saxophonist who studied under such luminaries as Jackie McLean and Anthony Braxton.
All three are cutting-edge composers in the free-wheeling genre known as contemporary classical music, chosen by the International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE) to help it "push the borders of music exploration."
That bombastic phrase, reminiscent of "Star Trek," is actually a succinct description of why ICE exists. The group has premiered more than 500 compositions since its founding in 2001. This year, with a grant by the Mellon Foundation, the ensemble has expanded its ambition via the ICElab project, which selects a half-dozen composers for their expertise and unorthodox approach, and puts them together with the 33 intrepid chamber musicians on ICE's flexible roster.
On Tuesday at the Southern Theater in Minneapolis, Diaz de Leon Chen and Lehman will premiere pieces at one of the 20 or so ICElab concerts scheduled this year. NOTE: THE SOUTHERN HAS CANCELED THIS CONCERT.
For Diaz de Leon, the concert represents a celebratory homecoming. Although he earned a doctorate in music from Columbia and now lives in New York, he has fond memories of hanging out at the Extreme Noise punk record shop in Minneapolis (and still plays guitar in a quasi-metal duo called Mirrorgate).
His music has obviously evolved since then. The first of his two compositions Tuesday is "Portals Before Dawn," an 18-minute piece involving two flutes, percussion, piano, clarinet and synthesizer. The second, "Soul Is the Arena," is an eight-minute solo bass clarinet work played by ICE member Joshua Rubin.
"My writing has a raw and primitive edge but is still very virtuosic," he said. "The piece with Josh involves an electronic part and some crazy rhythms in unison and it all has to be in sync."
The skill and understanding that ICE members bring to his music "just opens so many doors for what I am doing," he said. A New York Times reviewer described one Diaz de Leon piece performed at an ICE concert last September as "a dreamlike sequence of hallucinatory intensity, which lingered well after the last note had faded."
Toy piano -- and bowls
By contrast, Chen deals in miniature -- the toy piano captured her muse when she discovered it at age 21. "I was looking for new sounds for acoustic piano and I fell in love with it," she said. "But there is not a lot of new music written for toy piano, so I ended up doing some of my own composing for it. Then it became Phyllis plus one on songs, and then Phyllis plus two."
Chen, a founding member of ICE, will have two world premieres in Tuesday's program, including a work titled "Glass Clouds We Have Known." It's a 12-minute piece involving four players, with a centerpiece being 19 different bowls, "all meant to be played in a very choreographic way," she said. "There will be some movement, too. Someone will be the clarinet and then a bowl and then a wind music box, and some will move from station to station." Video and, of course, toy piano will add more layers.
The evening's third composer, Lehman, had a New York showcase last week, premiering the evening-length "Impossible Flow" for ICE. He'll play a section of that composition, written for alto saxophone and piano and named after such jazz masters as Braxton and McCoy Tyner, as one of his two pieces Tuesday. The other piece, "Manifold," is for saxophone, flute, clarinet and live electronics.
Like Diaz de Leon and Chen, Lehman is a renegade who is most comfortable operating in a milieu without borders.
"I work in a lot of areas -- classical, jazz, electronic -- and I try not to have the medium define the message," he said. "That's why the collaborations with ICE are so powerful. To be able to work for months on a piece, working with individual musicians and then an intense residency of about four days -- it takes a lot of resources. So, yeah, I'm grateful. It is a special opportunity to get composers off the ground."