Jason Eckardt

Undersong

Fred Sherry, cello; International Contemporary Ensemble; Steven Schick, conductor

Mode Records CD 234

Composer Jason Eckardt is one of a small but growing number of composers adopting the aesthetic viewpoint of “Second Modernity.” Briefly described, this approach involves a renewed embrace of abundant virtuosity, compositional and conceptual rigor, and dedicated exploration of new playing techniques and interdisciplinary applications in contemporary music. All of this may sound like a very intellectual approach to an artistic discipline. But Eckardt’s music is anything but sterile. Instead, it is kinetic and vigorous, as inspired by the enthusiasm for heavy metal with which he began his musical journey as it is by the top notch players who now champion his work.

Indeed, one couldn’t ask for better advocates in this repertory than the ones appearing on Undersound, Eckardt’s latest release Mode release. This group of pieces, based on Laura Mullen’s text of the same name, is thematically unified by the concepts of decrying oppression, corruption, and dispossession. Its cornerstone work The Distance features Mullen’s words sung by soprano Tony Arnold, who negotiates its high tessitura, extensive chromaticism, and angular melismas with a graceful fluidity that few other vocalists can muster in such challenging fare. Simply put, she’s a rock star in this genre. Her accompanists – stars in their own right – are members of the International Contemporary Ensemble, conducted by Steven Schick. Their performance exudes a confidence that belies the myriad challenges that they face when realizing Eckardt’s score.

ICE flutist Claire Chase is also featured in two other works on the disc. “16” references the sixteen regrettable words in G.W. Bush’s 2003 State of the Union address (those about WMD in Iraq): words that helped to later cause so many recriminations and, worse yet, casualties. Parlando techniques, breathy attacks, and stuttered mouth sounds turn the flute into a metaphorical mouthpiece for troubled communication. It is accompanied by percussive attacks and furtive gestures from a string trio. Chase’ playing bridges the gap between these deliberately halting sounding effects and fetching, albeit fleeting, snatches of melody, as if yearning for an eloquence that, in this score, is deliberately avoided.

Meanwhile, on Aperture, Chase is part of a Pierrot ensemble in a work that indulges both the noise and effects end of the sound spectrum as well as more pitch focused passages. Sustained single lines are pitted against pointillist excursions and busily angular sections. The whole creates a diverse, labyrinthine compositional architecture, full of twists and turns and engaging surprises.

Cellist Fred Sherry performs the glissando-filled and devilishly tricky solo  A Way (Tracing) with characteristic flair, attacking its quickly evolving formal terrain with mercurial suavity.

Undersong is a mind-blowing and aesthetics-expanding journey. Recommended.

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