Eckardt’s music shows a master’s touch at final Ear Heart concert

Wed May 20, 2015 at 11:53 am
Music of Jason Eckardt was performed Wednesday night at Roulette.

Music of Jason Eckardt was performed Wednesday night at Roulette.

Tuesday night at Roulette was the final event of the Ear Heart concert series, a consistently fine series of contemporary classical music, often with a dance or multimedia component.

What would normally have been regrettable, though, turned out to be bracing and satisfying: an evening of music by Jason Eckardt and John Zorn that was an exemplary testament both to the programming of artistic director Amelia Lukas and the still vital strain of complexity and virtuosity in contemporary composition.

The music offered three pieces by Eckardt and two by Zorn—one a world premiere—all among some of the most virtuosic heard in New York over the last several years. And while accomplished playing of music by Vivaldi, Scarlatti, Rachmaninoff, and others is often exciting and enjoyable, this display was aesthetically and teleologically different. Eckardt and Zorn don’t write technically challenging music so the listeners can delight in the playing, they write astonishingly difficult music because what they have to say demands that.

Eckardt’s works—Subject for string quartet, the guitar solo Paths of Resistance, and Tongues for chamber ensemble and soprano voice (all of which can be heard on his fine new CD, Subject, on the Tzadik label)—explore challenging musical and philosophical ideas. And while just hearing the CD is an involving experience, witnessing performances turned out to be essential to understanding and appreciating what Eckardt is doing.

The composer is up front about how his music is “inspired by the physicality of performance and the attendant psychological dimension” of musicians wielding inner resources to grapple with difficulty. His music also deliberately agitates against the culture that surrounds him, a view that connects to his early background as a heavy-metal guitarist.

Subject (the piece) is a fascinating, provocative exploration of how sound is used as a weapon, specifically as a means of torture. Played by JACK Quartet, as sound alone it is episodic, with an opening section full of brutal attacks, tense silences, and the sensation of a tonality aching to resolve. Then there are alternating sections that touch on high romanticism, low and brittle dynamics, and intense, virtuosic, dueling solos from violist John Pickford Richards and violinist Christopher Otto.

At Roulette, JACK was accompanied by lighting design from Devin Cameron that hinted at the way the CIA, as explained by Eckardt, used light and sound in interrogations. The performance began with near total darkness, and the playing was punctuated by blinding, flashing lights. Along with the music, the bursts were spikes into the brain that jolted the nervous system into high alertness, and seemed to knock one out of present reality, only to have the music pull one back. It was easy to imagine how, without Eckardt’s artistry, the sound could whipsaw the listener into exhaustion or worse. Cameron’s design continued to alter the lighting throughout, bringing the entire set of house lights back up briefly, spotlighting musicians, rising and falling with the expression of the music. It was a unique and powerful experience.

Paths of Resistance is a tremendous work, stretching the guitar to its limits while remaining idiomatic. Jordan Dodson’s fluid command of the music was jaw-dropping. The dexterity the music demands is already off the charts, but even more challenging is how great—as the piece shifts with extreme speed from one complex, but clear, idea to the next—are the intellectual demands, how the mind has to be quicker than the hands to maintain coherence.

JACK also played Zorn’s Necronomicon, which is now a dozen years old. While still sounding fine, it marks a clear transition from his earlier string quartet pieces like Cat O’nine Tails to the dense, masterful contemporary works likeThe Alchemist. The technical brilliance of Zorn’s writing is easy to admire, but it can be harder to sympathize with his inspirations in the hermetic and occult traditions. But JACK’s muscular, commanding playing made the work transparent, and what one heard was an intellect overflowing with both ideas and energy. The musicians beautifully captured Zorn’s rapturous side, a sepia-toned sound like something out of Baudelaire’s dreams.

Autumn Rhythm was premiered by the great young cellist Jay Campbell. It’s a fast, delirious, spidery piece, that touches on extremes of dynamics and articulation. Like Eckardt’s work, there is no ostentation, just a torrent of ideas, so dense and strong that time can barely contain them. Perhaps they are channeled from some inhuman, metaphysical source. The demands are almost incomprehensible; Campbell played while detuning the C string on the fly, then picked up a second bow with his left hand and played the instrument with both simultaneously. Music like this cannot be understood in one hearing, but that’s all it takes to appreciate its skill and power.

Tongues is a gripping ensemble piece, played by members of ICE, conducted with great musical focus by David Fulmer, and featuring thrilling singing from soprano Tony Arnold. Eckardt means to get at glossolalia, but as he’s crafting precise notation, the effect is deeper and more musical—the piece argues for music’s eloquence when language cannot express ideas and feelings. While not as dense as the other pieces, it’s again full of challenging, gripping writing. A flute solo by Alice Teyssier was mesmerizing, and Arnold and guitarist Daniel Lippel had an equally involving duet. The vocal part has only sounds, no words, and Arnold’s own solo—a collection of pitches, syllables, cries and stutters—held musicians and audience in awe. The shape of the piece, and the performance, left an imprint.

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