An Interview with Jason Eckardt

The NOVA Chamber Music Series will present a concert featuring music by Jason Eckardt alongside late works by Beethoven on February 9. Mr. Eckardt recently took the time to answer a few questions about his music and specifically address works heard on our program. This includes two solo piano pieces (Cuts and Echoes' White Veil) composed in the mid-1990s as well as a new work receiving its world premiere in Salt Lake City, pulse-echo (for piano and string quartet).

J.H.: When we first programmed the selection of Eckardt works to be performed on our February 2014 NOVA concert, you noticed that we'd be juxtaposing some of your earliest published compositions with your most recent work. In the (almost) 20 years since Echoes' White Veil, do you feel that the sound and intent of your music has transformed significantly?

J.E.: Since I began composing, some concerns have remained while others have evolved. One aspect of my music that is relatively new is a preoccupation with timbre. While it is fashionable in some circles to disregard pitch as compositional material, I reject this assertion. In pulse-echo, pitched and nonpitched sounds, some at the threshold of audibility, symbiotically coexist as structural (rather than ornamental) elements. Where melodic phrasing and harmonic motion are used in other works to shape the progression of events, here the timbral transformation of materials, often combined with registeral constraints, serves the same purpose. 

What has remained consistent in my music is a desire to create works that are multivalent, complex, severe, and open to multiple interpretations. But most of all, I wish for my works to be moving. My love of music was fostered early in life while listening to records. The emotions and sensations that I felt were so personal, so deep, that at the time I could never imagine how to communicate them. This world of inner thoughts and feelings is a place so special that it inspired me to create music that might have the same effect on someone else or perhaps even beneficially contribute to “the fate of mankind.”

So much of our existence is filled with instant gratification. We are often indifferent to or dismissive of anything contrary of our beliefs, politics, or personal worldview. 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.

As far as intent is concerned, I believe that music — and by extension all art — lies purely in the perception of the person consuming it. While research in cognitive psychology has been useful in my compositional endeavors, I am not as presumptuous as to assume I can know how someone else is experiencing my music. As suggested, I may try and guide the listener in a certain direction, with regard to form and continuity, but ultimately any aesthetic perception or associations one might have, I leave to the listener. How could I do otherwise? If Debussy had titled Le Mer “Symphonic Suite” or “Les carottes” would we have any impression of the sea? The same could be said of so much programmatic music of the 19th century.

pulse-echo, my new work for NOVA, derives its title from a quote by Arnold Schoenberg: “Art is the cry of distress of those who personally experience the fate of mankind. Within themselves they carry the pulse of the world and only an echo reaches the outside. And that echo is the work of art.” I don’t believe that a listener needs to be aware of this quote in order to engage meaningfully with the piece. Nevertheless, perhaps the listener’s experience is somehow enriched by the quote, or is provided with something to consider while listening. Surely, listeners’ experiences will change, to some degree, if they know this information. But it is certainly not necessary to “understand” the piece. (And I don’t really know if anyone can “understand” any piece of art except on their own, proprietary terms.)

So, I do try and suggest certain ideas in the titles of my pieces or in the program notes but with the understanding that they are ultimately not necessary. Many of my titles are meant to be subtle or multifaceted. While some of my program notes are more overt (particularly in my political pieces), my intention is to provide a space where the listener can be provoked and react rather than batter them with an ideology or bore them with structural details.

J.H.: Beethoven's Piano Sonata in E Major, opus 109 precedes Echoes' White Veil on our program. One of the reasons I chose the Beethoven was because of the highly structured yet improvisatory nature of the first movement. Critics like to point out this idea in some of your works with references to jazz and Cecil Taylor- how does that strike you? Is there any compositional attempt to evoke expressive freedom and improvisation within a work like Echoes' White Veil (even while it is very specifically notated)?

J.E.: Having studied and performed jazz as a guitarist, the influence of the genre is very strong in my compositional thinking, even if it is not always obvious. Broadly, I am attempting to capture the spirit and excitement of an improvisation in notated music. There is either a sense of danger — as if everything could collapse at once but somehow manages to continue — or of intense, introspective emotion that I enjoy in the greatest improvisations. And there are some improvisations that transcend to what I can only describe as the spiritual. Of course, all types of music can reach these heights (I’m thinking at the moment of the conclusion of Schumann’s Dichterliebe, a Gagaku Irite, and John Lennon’s God), but there is a kind of fragility in jazz improvisation that is unique. More specifically, I am fascinated by the way in which rhythm is conceptualized in jazz with respect to the way it pulls and pushes the tempo and plays “around” the beat. Miles Davis, Billie Holiday, and John Scofield have been particularly instructive in this regard. In my own music, I try to articulate this temporal plasticity using precisely notated rhythms. While this may seem at odds with my intensions, I have found that only by using such methods can the micro-accelerations and –de-accelerations be achieved in performance. The result in Echoes’ While Veil is something akin to Coltrane’s “sheets of sound” or the pianism of Cecil Taylor. Echoes’ White Veil is also unique in my oeuvre as it has no meter and therefore, no barlines. All rhythms are to be performed as durations in an established tempo but not with respect to an underlying metric structure. This provides some rhythmic flexibility and allows me to render long strings of grace notes that do not compromise the durations of adjacent, measured rhythms.

J.H.: I find it interesting that Echoes' White Veil and pulse-echo are works that address gestures/thoughts/sounds as they resonate and reverberate out into the world. While the ties between the titles of both works is most likely superficial and coincidental, would similarities or differences in the manner in which these two works address a musical or intellectual "echo" allow a unique perspective for an audience member hearing both works for the first time?

J.E.: While you are right that the connection is incidental, I do think that there can be connections made between the two pieces. Both works are preoccupied with resonance is particular ways. When writing for the piano I am very conscious of the fact that it is not a sustaining instrument: all sounds made are in a constant state of decay, sustained only by the resonant qualities of the wooden cabinet in which the strings of the piano vibrate. The second movement of Echoes’ White Veil explicitly explores the resonance of the piano with isolated events that “echo” through reverberation. In pulse-echo, this idea is extended to ways in which the strings behave, mimicking, amplifying, and sustaining music that originates in the piano. The new work is also constantly repeating self-similar materials that are often significantly transformed, and, like Echoes’ White Veil, literally repeats pitches to establish relatively stable elements in a volatile environment.

The broader idea of the echo is also important. I am constantly made aware of the fact that being is experienced in light of events and knowledge from the pastas well as future projection.As the W.S. Merwin wrote in the prose poem that inspired the title of Echoes’ White Veil, “Anyone can see that echoes move forward and backward in time, in rings.” One can naturally apply this compositionally, by alluding to or repeating things that have already occurred in the composition (or in the case of some works, in other compositions) and suggest possible trajectories by musical means. The sense of progression and pacing that I painstakingly try to achieve in my music is a direct manifestation of this “echo” concept.