Jason Eckardt began as a heavy metal guitarist and turned to contemporary music after hearing Webern. His music is highly complex andr etains the energy and intensity of his heavy metal roots. Challenging and highly virtuosic, his compositional language embraces both uptown and downtown. Brilliantly performed by JACK, ICE and the Oberlin Contemporary Music Ensemble, 'Subject' contains some of his most extreme and intense works
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Subject (2011 -- 14:50)
The most recent piece leads the album, presenting a challenge for the listener. For over four minutes, the music consists of aggressive single staccato notes, punctuated by silence. The full quartet only enters at 4:10, leading to the heart of the work, an angry, rapid-fire passage with roots in the Second Vienna School. Eckardt explains in the liner notes that "Subject" is meant to provoke, as it is based on the CIA's use, beginning in the 1950s, of "complete sensory deprivation, followed by blasts of light or noise, or very loud music..." as an interrogation method. The furious main section eventually subsides into a calmer passage which might represent the subject growing tired and sleepy, but this is again interrupted by a series of loud staccato notes at the end, apparently starting another round of sensory assault. I have to say I found the opening quite annoying at first, and only gradually came to appreciate this quartet.
Flux (1994 -- 5:35)
Eric Lamb, alto flute and Jay Cambell, cello
The earliest piece is the most conventionally beautiful and the most likely to be enjoyed by a traditional classical music audience. The duet begins with very forceful playing by both partners. Eventually they intertwine into a high register and the tone takes a tragic turn before descending to a peaceful conclusion.
Paths of Resistance (1997 -- 7:04)
Jordan Dodson, guitar
Eckardt started as a jazz and metal guitarist, and he explains that this piece for acoustic guitar is strongly linked to his metal guitar background. It is quite complex, a display of dazzling virtuosity, and is a fine piece, though lacking the emotional resonance of "Flux." According to the composer, it "embeds predetermined sets of ratios into the formal, metric and rhythmic dimensions."
Trespass (2005 -- 14:39)
Oberlin Contemporary Music Ensemble (12 musicians), conducted by Timothy Weiss
Marilyn Nonken, piano
I find this to be the most enigmatic work on the album, featuring a calm, deliberate piano part and a more frantic, variegated ensemble counterpart. Eckardt asserts that there are 13 sections, "each slightly more than half the length of its immediate predecessor," and that the ever-shortening sections produce a "sudden, violent conclusion." For the life of me, I have not been able to detect these ever-shortening sections, and the ending does not sound particularly violent. "Trespass" is punctuated by periodic long silences, which undermine any sense of flow. The texture of the piano and ensemble is attractive, but the overall structure eludes my ears.
Tongues (2001 -- 27:43)
International Contemporary Ensemble (flute/clarinet/viola/guitar/percussion) conducted by David Fulmer
Tony Arnold, soprano
Having heard most of Eckardt's recorded music, I would not have said that his music is characterized by a sense of humor. Now I have to change that assessment, as "Tongues" is quite light-hearted and whimsical in parts. Tony Arnold's vocal part is wordless and spectacular. In one of the six sections she duets with percussion, and throughout, her vocals reflect the sound of the instruments. The composer explains that the vocals and title come from glossolalia, speaking in tongues. The vocal sounds "often reflect the timbral properties of the accompanying ensemble," and moves "from self awareness to rapture." The flute (Alice Teyssier) and clarinet (Campbell MacDonald) are piercing at times, as is the mirroring soprano. Not only the longest composition, I consider "Tongues" to be the best on the album, a fine contemporary work that should be appreciated by anyone who enjoys the music of Gyorgy Ligeti.
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Jason Eckardt (b. 1971), who teaches composition in New York City, always makes clear a social and political dimension to his art. Here is his latest statement, from the liner notes:
"[T]hese works are my response to the apathetic, self-satisfied, bottom-feeding culture that continues to corrode our spirit and will. If there is one thing that I believe art can achieve, it is to challenge us in ways that have positive outcomes. Violence, intolerance and strife in the world are due to, at their foundations, a lack of imagination."
Thanks to John Zorn for providing a home to Jason's music, along with many other non-commercial artists who challenge us with their vision.