International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE)
Steven Schick, conductor
A way [tracing] for cello solo (6:30)
Fred Sherry, cello
16 for amplified flute and string trio (12:19)
Claire Chase, flute
Aperture for flute, clarinet, violin, viola, cello, and piano (17:59)
The Distance (This) for soprano and ten instrumentalists (26:39)
Tony Arnold, soprano
Jason Eckardt is one of the leading American composers of his generation. “Undersong” is a cycle of works that explores voice of the oppressed in society, constructed around Laura Mullen’s text of the same name. Eckardt says: “The more I thought about the metaphorical implications of the title and its relationship to my music, the richer it became. The shards that comprise much of the music’s surface also came to represent the ‘noise’ that often covers, distorts, or skews a simpler essence that lies below.”
A way [tracing] is a six-minute cello solo tracing a way toward and back from various interpretations of undersong – extremely excited in character, even hectic, introducing a dialectic that will continue throughout the cycle. It is performed by acclaimed cellist Fred Sherry.
The title 16, the composer has explained, “refers to the sixteen words that should have been excised from George Bush’s January 2003 State of the Union address: ’The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.’ In the opening solo, and on into much that follows, the flutist projects consonantal sounds, either directly or into the instrument, as if struggling to enunciate words – words that are perhaps being obstructed, or else words that are not yet fully formed. A spectrum is opened between speech sounds and pure musical tones, through breathy sonorities of more or less distinct pitch, all brought into play through a conjunction of virtuosities from composer and performer.
Aperture picks up from “16” and, varying from flurried activity to sustained sounds, leading toward the next movement.
The Distance (This) opens onto a larger plane, the cycle’s finale plays for almost half an hour, expands the performing group to the scale of a compact orchestra (solo woodwinds and strings, piano, and vibraphone briefly doubling glockenspiel), and brings forward the human voice-not muffled, as in “16”, but overt and lyrical, the voice of a soprano singing the words by Laura Mullen already implicit.
Liner notes by Paul Griffiths.
Fred Sherry, cello; International Contemporary Ensemble; Steven Schick, conductor
Mode Records CD 243
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.
Fiercely engaged and stoical music from a former jazz and Metal
guitarist whose work confronts what he calls the “human travesty” of
political malfeasance validated by public indifference. 16 for
amplified flute and string trio refers to the 16-word lie embedded in
Dubya’s State of the Union address to justify the war in Iraq:
Saddam’s uranium objectified as moonshine. Eckardt’s Metal past comes
out in the solo cello piece A way [tracing] for Fred Sherry, which
combines boggling complexity of metre and intonation with bludgeoning
directness. Aperture plays with volume and weight, reversing the ppppp
ending of 16 with heavy bow-weight and doughty attacks. Eckardt
acknowledges poet Laura Mullen throughout. They met at the MacDowell
Colony and discovered a shared understanding of how art could still
speak to/for the dispossessed. She takes credit for most of the titles
and for the text to The Distance (This) which completes the cycle.
I’ve listened to enough of Eckardt’s music to expect the
uncompromising. This, though, has a new and positive confidence.