The music of Jason Eckardt (b. 1971) posits complexity and technical difficulty as core expressive and artistic values. That is, Eckardt’s music is (in part) a celebration of the physical and psychological acts of performance at levels that stretch the abilities of performers to execute the score and for audiences to follow them on the musical journey.
This perceptual difficulty is central as well—you are not expected to hear everything that is going on in one of Eckardt’s compositions, certainly not on first listening. Rather, it seems to me, that what we, the audience, are expected to hear, what we need to hear, is the emotional/expressive content of the musical gestures as they pass by. These gestures add up to a musical-expressive experience, whether we are able to “understand” them on a detailed level or not.
This brilliantly recorded Tzadik disc begins with the JACK Quartet’s riveting reading of Subject, a 15-minute exploration of the effect that torture can have on its subject’s experience of time. Eckardt makes a connection in the liner notes make that you’ve probably already thought of—that music itself involves the manipulation of the listener’s time-sense.
In this way, then, Subject is (in Eckardt’s word) a “provocation.” The provocation begins immediately—unison notes played in a variety of ways, all of them aggressive, surrounded by silences of unpredictable lengths. This goes on for a little over four minutes, after which a frenzy of arcing lines and skittering outbursts takes us through the rest of the piece (including a few quieter sections serving almost as interventions), with the beginning material reappearing near the end. Subject is a masterful provocation, and the JACKs give it a performance it deserves.
Eckardt began his musical life as a metal guitarist. He describes Paths of Resistance as an exercise in “post-shred.” It is far more than that. Guitarist Jordan Dodson responds to the demands of the score with style and expression. By “demands,” I mean a withering array of runs, chords, harmonics, and percussive sounds, all coming at a mostly breakneck pace. Dodson’s technique is nothing short of amazing, as he makes it all sound easy.
Musical color is a very important component of Eckardt’s music. That much is clear in Subject and Paths of Resistance, but it comes to the forefront in Trespass, for chamber ensemble. It begins with a teeming and colorful section, full of virtuosity and flair. The pace, density, and color of the following sections vary, and the structure of the piece is fairly easy to follow, even if the local events still have Eckardt’s characteristic density. Trespass consists of clearly differentiated (yet not always clearly delineated, hence the title) sections that are each roughly half as long as their predecessor. The result is a macro-acceleration that gives this piece solid momentum and genuine musical excitement.
Flux is drawn in generally more muted colors than the other pieces on the program. That said, the soundworld of the piece is teeming and skittering, with change the only constant. Eric Lamb, on alto flute, and Jay Campbell, on cello, give a performance that is precise in detail and intimate in expression.
Tongues is a kind of concerted song cycle for soprano and mixed chamber ensemble. Glossolalia, or “speaking in tongues,” is behind the conception of the piece, with the soprano making an incredible array of sounds, some of them phonetic, some of them not (including coughing), but none of them words. In some ways it’s reminiscent of vocal music of Luciano Berio and John Cage, but there’s also something fundamentally different about it.
The six songs (Eckardt calls them “sections” for good reasons, but they come to me as songs) all have a distinct timbral character, based on shifting instrumentation and the ways the instruments are used. The soprano part, given an astonishing reading here by Tony Arnold, blends with the ensemble at times, and at other times leads them into new sonic territory. Tongues is a revelation, a piece that deserves many performances and much discussion.
The actual sound of this Tzadik release is typically outstanding. It has a warmth and clarity that pulls the listener into the music’s space. The performances on the disc are also uniformly superb. The number and quality of young, vital performers dedicated to such challenging music at present is amazing. It makes me optimistic.
Watch a live performance of “Paths of Resistance”: