Worried Sick: The International Contemporary Ensemble plays a new song cycle about hypochondria

(Luke Batten and Jonathan Sadler)

A hypochondriac’s obsession with disease seems more like material for a psychological drama than a song cycle commissioned by an acclaimed contemporary classical music group. Yet the International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE) has recently done just that–allowing composer Corey Dargel to use the ailment as subject matter for his piece “Thirteen Near-Death Experiences.” But Dargel insists that he has put extensive thought into the bizarre theme. “I know [hypochondria] seems dark and depressing. I want people to come away with a sense of hypochondria as an extreme form of anxiety and maybe loneliness, but I want them to connect to it,” he says gently.

His new work, whose Chicago premiere takes place this Saturday at the Velvet Lounge, is certainly an unusual take on the disorder, but the unexpected is not exactly new territory for Dargel or ICE. Both the singer-songwriter and the group boast a commitment to the unconventional. Dargel’s motivation stems from his desire to create artful pop music that is “immediate and engaging and personal, but has a level of meaning beyond your average Top 40 pop song.” ”Thirteen Near-Death Experiences” represents his return to classical writing. “It’s an evening of songs I’m singing with the ensemble,” he explains, “but [all of the songs are] classically notated.”

Although Dargel himself is not a member, he has been around since ICE’s beginning. He first became familiar with group’s earliest form at Oberlin, where many of its founding members went to college. Joshua Rubin, ICE’s Program Director, describes how ICE founder and flutist “Claire Chase hand-picked early members.” According to Dargel, her choices led ICE to become “a group of extremely skilled and virtuosic musicians, surveying the landscape of new, contemporary music.” He says there is a particularly “omnivorous” character to their repertoire that stems from a voracious interest in different kinds of music.

Founded in 2001, the ensemble has grown into a thirty-piece chamber group and expanded from its original headquarters in Chicago to include a New York City base as well. “All of us have other music jobs [such as] freelance gigs and teaching, but we’ve gotten so close and work so well together that we’ve really been able to grow as a group,” says Rubin. “ICE is the result of many years of combined sustained efforts–we all love it. It’s not just love though; it’s also a part of our professional careers.”

ICE concentrates on showcasing the work of young and emerging artists, although Rubin admits that “Corey Dargel specifically has a little different sound.” Dargel definitely believes this to be the case. “This piece is probably unlike anything you’ve heard,” he says in an unassuming tone. “It’s heartfelt and earnest but it has a complexity that gives it staying power.”

ICE was able to commission Dargel’s work after receiving an award from the Multi-Arts Production Fund, which seeks to help contemporary performance groups by granting one million dollars to up to forty projects per year. Eric Lamb, one of two ICE flutists, said, “This song cycle is so ICE, but yet so [Dargel]. I don’t think he has made any compromises aesthetically for our sake.” Dargel gladly agrees with this assessment, saying, “It feels good to be part of that [group]. I hope that I’m giving them something in return for what they’re giving me.”

Rubin remarks that the Velvet Lounge is a particularly significant venue because of Chicago’s history as a bastion for jazz. He says, “The Velvet Lounge has changed over the years, but it’s always a great place to perform in.” Dargel and six ICE members including Lamb and Rubin will be performing there to an audience that will hopefully, as Dargel says, “find something familiar in the music and feel perhaps a little less lonely than when they got there.”
Velvet Lounge, 67 E. Cermak Rd. March 13. Saturday, 9:30pm. (312)791-9050. iceorg.org