Last month, Steve Hicken reviewed composer Jason Eckardt‘s CD Subject (get it on Amazon). He wrote, “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…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.” Read the whole thing.
Hicken sent Eckardt a few questions via email; his answers are below.
Your music makes demands on performers, both as individuals and in ensembles. In fact, that seems to be one of the principles that animates your work. In a time when mainstream composers have elevated accessibility to a core principle, what do you think is your responsibility to an audience?
I never try to anticipate what an audience or individual listener might like or want—that would be incredibly presumptuous. Rather, I rely on my own instincts and tastes. Often, when composing, I imagine myself sitting in a darkened auditorium watching the musicians perform the work. I pretend that I’ve arrived at a concert with no former knowledge of the piece and try to make a critical assessment. This helps to objectify the music and gives me a truer sense of how it might sound to me if I hadn’t written the piece. Ultimately, I feel the same way as Richard Barrett: when asked a similar question he replied, “I write for an audience of Richard Barrett clones.”
How do you begin work on a composition? Where does the initial idea usually come from?
The initial idea is usually a sudden, striking vision of how the piece will open, or be structured, progress, or be constrained. It is a bit like being in a landscape during an evening thunderstorm. There is darkness, then a flash of lightning that illuminates the surroundings. For that fraction of a second I can “see” everything I need to begin the piece. What follows is a painstaking reconstruction of that moment.
How closely do you work with performers during the compositional process?
I used to get together with performers before starting a composition to get a sense both of the instruments (behavior of dynamics and timbres in particular registers, etc.) and of the physical choreography necessary to realize the gestures that I compose. The latter is particularly important to me in terms of the visualization that I mentioned earlier. Becoming intimately familiar with the physicality of the performers is essential to my understanding of the instrument and the musician playing it. These days I tend to write with performers with whom I have a close relationship so consultation is often not necessary. I imagine these players performing the music as I compose it, making the connection very personal and specific.
Your music and that of some other composers of your generation seems to represent a return of complexity in American music. Do you have any thoughts along those lines?
Without getting into the difficult question of what we mean by “complexity,” I think that the generation of composers that I belong to was the first in some time to be liberated from the style wars that sullied the new-music community for so long. So, yes, these days I do hear more music that shares some of the same features as my own but I am also hearing more music of all styles being performed more widely, and more accurately and expressively. I think this is due in part to a shift in attitudes that I alluded to earlier as well as a new crop of young, extremely talented performers that are rather open-minded when it comes to programming new music.
Do you tend to work quickly or slowly?
Rather slowly. I usually give myself about a year for a substantial work, say, a chamber piece around 15 minutes long. Unless I have a full day of teaching, I try to compose every day. I compose from the beginning of the piece until the end due to the fact that I cannot assess the nature and proportions of my materials unless I know how they relate to everything I’ve done up to that point.
How do you pick the first note?
Somehow it just arrives in my imagination (as per my description above). Occasionally it is due to an instrumental/timbral concern: The first note of Subject is a G# below middle C because I wanted to use the lowest semitonal fingered note on the violins for the opening of the quartet.
Your music has a very characteristic sound. If it wouldn’t be giving away any secrets, do you have a method or methods you use to create your harmonies? Or is it more a matter of having a set of chord structures that are favorites?
I’ll usually begin with a gesture that I analyze and then derive the pitch materials from there. Occasionally I’ll take a harmony I like from another piece, modify it, and then tease a set of harmonic relations out of it. Other times I’ll allow the harmony to develop out of an accumulation of pitch materials that accrue over time. There are certainly many favorite harmonies and one I find myself repeatedly drawn to is a hexachord that Schoenberg frequently used, in works like the Suite, Op. 25. My music is not serial, nor is it 12-tone, but I often keep the chromatic rotation high. I also employ quarter tones that are subject to certain constraints based on the way I hear microtonal material. My current piece for flute is also making limited use of eighth tones.
What are you working on now and what’s next?
At the moment I’m working on a solo flute piece for Claire Chase that I’m conceiving of as a monodrama. It includes stage directions and explores breath, speech, and nonsemantic vocalizations as well as more traditional flute techniques. After that are two works for guitar: a solo for Jordan Dodson and an ensemble work for Nico Couck and the Talea Ensemble. There is also an ongoing series of works for various instruments and combinations that I’m composing based on native botanicals from the Catskill Mountain region, where I live.
Are there instruments and/or combinations of instruments you’ve not written for that you would be interested in using?
One instrument that has my imagination right now is the harpsichord. I fear that once I delve into the instrument’s possibilities (and limitations), I might regret it! I am also interested in older instruments, recorders, the theorbo, ancient wind instruments. It would take a significant time investment in order to really understand them and also performers who were willing to experiment!