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Out of Chaos

Out of Chaos | Mode 137

After Serra
fl, cl, vn, vc, pf || mp3 | real audio

Tangled Loops
s sax, pf || mp3 | real audio

A Glimpse Retraced
pf solo, fl, cl, vn, vc || mp3 | real audio

fl, cl, vn, va, vc, pc, pf || mp3 | real audio

Marilyn Nonken, piano
Taimur Sullivan, soprano saxophone
Ensemble 21
Jeffrey Milarsky / Paul Hostetter, conductors

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Jason Eckardt clearly rejects the argument, made with increasing frequency, that the mid-20th-century atonalists were working toward a musical dead end. Harmonically and rhythmically his music thrives on complex, constantly changing relationships, but like many composers under 40 (he was born in 1971) he tempers the more prickly, jagged elements of the post-tonal style with humor and eclecticism. What holds your attention in his music is not its ingenuity but its relentless energy and drive.

He also has a knack for defying expectations. Drawn to Minimalist sculpture — Richard Serra’s "Tilted Arc" adorns the CD cover, an allusion to the opening work, "After Serra" (2000) — he resists using the Minimalist musical vocabulary to evoke it. That resistance eventually evaporates, at least partly. The final four minutes of the score is an eerie stasis of slow textural shifts and quietly scampering solos over sustained tones. But that comparative serenity is hard won, coming after 10 minutes of vigorous, high-energy counterpoint. The most ambitious work here, the 2-movement, 27-minute "Polarities" (1998), also begins with an eventful, virtuosic opening section that gives way to quiet spareness. But the proportions are reversed; here the slow, introspective writing is the center of gravity.

The musicians of Ensemble 21 play this music sizzlingly. Particularly striking in “Polarities” is Jean Kopperud’s fluid, feisty clarinet playing, which bounces between klezmerlike note bending and assertive multiphonics that evoke John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman. Taimur Sullivan, on soprano saxophone, makes "Tangled Loops" (1996) into a vivid character piece. And Marilyn Nonken’s sharply focused and often athletic pianism, Rolf Schulte’s lyrical violin playing, atmospheric percussion by Thomas Kolor and a rich cello line from Christopher Finckel, enliven the involved textures of "A Glimpse Retraced" (1999).

- Allan Kozinn, The New York Times, July 27, 2008

Jason Eckardt (b 1971) is a composer who has already earned an impressive number of accolades and commissions. As the liner notes state, his music offers "many pathways...there are no preferred hearings...." I found this to be the case. Eckardt deliberately plays with ideas of structure and timbre, leaving the listener disoriented at times. This is not an unpleasant experience. For example, there are moments of haunting, ethereal textures paired with moments of exhausting, driving activity. Passive listening simply will not do. You must try and figure out a "pathway" for yourself.

There are four pieces here, composed from 1996 to 2000. But there is no signature Eckardt sound; each piece is a journey in itself. I am especially taken with 'Tangled Loops', an outstanding piece for saxophone and piano played with dazzling proficiency by Taimur Sullivan.

This type of music demands nearly super-human ability, and Ensemble 21 certainly meets the challenge. Pianist Marilyn Nonken, co-founder of the group, is one of the greatest interpreters of new music. She shines here bringing each piece to life with an incredible range of colors and dynamics.

- Christopher Chaffee, American Record Guide, January/February 2005

Sometimes music can leave you speechless -- all sorts of speechless. After an inattentive first listen, Out of Chaos, the new CD of chamber music composed by Jason Eckardt, left me with a what-the-hell sort of speechlessness. Because I'm not exactly a fan of heady discourses on the complexities surrounding form and structure -- which is what Eckardt's music seems to demand -- I pushed this disc back towards the stack of CDs that I've been meaning to spend more time with, really. So somewhere between the Cygnus Ensemble's Broken Consort CD, a CRI release from a few years back, and a CD-R of the not-so-new anymore Peaches album that a friend burned for me eons ago, lovingly titled FatherFucker, sat Out of Chaos in a purgatory of what-the-hellness. Needless to say this CD was just too hard to ignore.

I'm not going to lie to you. Jason Eckardt's music is hard to listen to, if only for the demands it places on its listener. Eckardt favors a sound that stems from Xenakis, Lachenmann, Grisey, and other Euro-titans and feels closely related somehow to Sciarrino, and maybe Ferneyhough. You might stumble, as I did, during your first encounter with Eckardt's hyperactive uber-expressiveness. But as your senses enjoy being overwhelmed and you begin to relax into Eckardt's stringent music, try to refrain from analytical listening and simply enjoy the beautiful flow of morphing timbres. It's actually really hard to do as the music unwittingly focuses a zillion floodlights at Eckardt's compositional concerns, which seems to entail, well, bringing some kind of order to chaos. This subtle and, more often than not, blatant push and pull hints at the composer's manifested interests in juxtaposing activity and inactivity -- the corporeality expressed by the cellist in After Serra, rapidly sawing notes like a competitive lumberjack which is suddenly halted by near silence -- in balancing macro-melodic directions and stabilizing a set of narrowly preferred intervals -- the shrill piccolo melody over a rising, brutal piano accompaniment in A Glimpse Retraced -- and imposing randomness into fixed zones of pitch and register, like forcing square pegs into round holes.

While I understand Eckardt's connection to the dwarfing and disorienting feeling evoked by the huge, monolithic steel sculptures by Richard Serra that inspired After Serra, I sense a closer affinity in his music to the sculptures of Sarah Sze: giant aggregates of sprawling material that jettison against the laws of gravity and pixilate into tiny, intricate worlds that lay awaiting discovery entirely separate from the whole.

- Randy Nordschow, New Music Box, July 2004

This Mode CD release is the first full disc devoted to the music of American composer Jason Eckardt (born 1971). It is brilliantly performed by the intrepid New York City based Ensemble 21, which was founded by Eckardt and his wife, pianist Marilyn Nonken.

Eckardt was educated at Columbia University and the Berklee College of Music, and has taught at Columbia, the University of Illinois, Rutgers University, and Northwestern University. He began his musical life as a rock and jazz guitarist before changing to focus on composition. Despite these roots, Eckardt's music does not display obvious allusions to rock and jazz music, other than perhaps in the shifting currents of energy that his pieces contain.

From a look at one of his printed scores, one might immediately place Eckardt into the so-called 'new complexity' movement (generally thought of as typified by composers such as Michael Finnissy and Brian Ferneyhough). There certainly is a connection in Eckardt's work to the 'new complexity' of Finnissy in particular. There is also a strong connection to the American modernist tradition represented by Milton Babbitt, Elliott Carter, and others. However, Eckardt's musical voice is unequivocally his own. His work would not be confused with that of anybody else.

In Eckardt's case, although his scores are filled with the gestures and notation of many hyper-modernist pieces, the sonic result is one of great clarity. This is perhaps due in some extent to the chamber-size forces involved in all of these pieces. In fact, Eckardt's catalogue lists only one orchestral work (a percussion concerto for Evelyn Glennie). All the rest of his music is for solo chamber combinations of various sizes, and it is perhaps in this medium that Eckardt's musical ideas find their most immediate aural impact.

All of these works thus are incredibly virtuosic in their demands on the performers, and it is a testament to the abilities of the wonderful musicians involved that the pieces are projected so naturally. Eckardt's music is intensely passionate in its gestures and ideas, and this is indeed vividly conveyed.

After Serra (2000) is a quintet inspired by the work of the post-minimalist sculptor Richard Serra. The notes (by Marilyn Nonken) state that Eckardt is inspired by the monolithic feel of Serra's work (one sculpture adorns the CD cover). The sonic results of the work are stunning throughout -- as huge outbursts give way to nervously mystical sounds. Eckardt's sense of instrumental color, even with such a small ensemble, is always highly controlled and evocative.

Tangled Loops (1996) is a duo for soprano saxophone and piano which the composer describes as a celebration of great jazz saxophonists such as John Coltrane, Charlie Parker, and Eric Dolphy. The work gradually continues 'looping' around itself to build to an incredibly active climax. The very end of the work, in particular, is a wonderfully scored moment -- as the piano takes off from the saxophone's final note to evaporate into the ether.

A Glimpse Retraced (1999) is a piano concerto, scored for solo piano and only four instruments. The notes tell that the piece is inspired by 'memory and memory's tendency to alter past events in the mind'. As such, the form is one of reimagining and 'retracing' as the same material returns in altered forms and presentations. In fact, at the end of the piece, the entire piece so far is 'replayed' in an extremely condensed format. Although the 'orchestra' of the concerto consists only of four instruments, Eckardt uses them so fully that one never feels that the piece is spare at all. It is fully a concertante work and makes a strong impact.

Polarities (1998) is the longest work on the disc and is scored for an ensemble of seven players. The first movement begins with an extended clarinet cadenza that leads into the rest of the movement. The other instruments gradually come alive and begin to comment on the clarinet's material. The texture remains throughout the rest of the movement. The second movement begins with percussion sounds (cymbal scrapes and maracas). Very slow, ethereal string glissandi join the texture. These colors (and similar effects from both percussion and instruments) dominate much of the long movement's sound world. It explores a far more subdued world from the first movement, although it does return to the active world of the first movement before dying away.

The musicians of Ensemble 21 are among the finest new music performers in New York City. Marilyn Nonken (featured in both A Glimpse Retraced and Tangled Loops) is one of the finest new-music specialists around today. Her piano playing is incredibly sensitive, and she brings a tremendous understanding and sense of shape to the very difficult music. There are various 'complexity technicians' around who have made a career out of playing very hard modernist scores simply by getting through all the notes (which is certainly an impressive feat). Nonken, however, is very far from that world, being a true musician who has chosen to invest her vast musical insight into the works of the composers she most believes in.

Taimur Sullivan's performance of the saxophone duo Tangled Loops is also noteworthy. He projects a tremendous sound across all registers of the instrument, while conveying the poetry of the score.

- Carson Cooman, Music & Vision, August 2005

Jason Eckardt (b.1971) is an American composer new to me who composes exhilarating music that is easier to enjoy than to write about. His many influences have included advanced jazz, gagaku, Webern (whose discovery was a turning point and catalyst for him) and the new complexity (studies with Dillon, Ferneyhough and several other luminaries).

The influences have been assimilated rather than being juxtaposed, and there is a feeling of conviction - he knows exactly what he wants to convey and how to do it, even though the methods are likely to be far from obvious to listeners.

After Serra seeks to echo the sculptor's precarious balance 'verging on collapse' (see cover illustration) with aggressive, volatile outbursts giving way to emergence of the instrumentalists as soloists, but without final stability being achieved. In Polarities the instruments are 'drawn to and away from each other in myriad ways', frenetic activity giving way to final stasis. Tangled Loops celebrates the virtuosity of Coltrane, Parker & Dolphy, with overlapping reappearances of material and furious uninhibited virtuosity at the limits of possibility. A Glimpse Retraced is for five instruments, four of them accompanying the piano in permutated combinations, duets comprising the most extended passages.

It is all music which grabs and holds attention, and makes you want to play the pieces again to get closer to the composer's mind and procedures. It instills a conviction that Eckardt could explain precisely what he is doing, if telling were fashionable. Those of us who have not had formal courses in contemporary composing methods will have to content ourselves with a more superficial, surface enjoyment of the expertise of Ensemble 21, which was founded 1993 by Jason Eckardt and pianist Marilyn Nonken, and is a powerful representative in USA of new music from Europe.

Exemplary recording and presentation. On this showing, their CDs for New World Records and Mode would reward further exploration.

- Peter Grahame Woolf, Musical Pointers, October 2004

"The hiker and the listener have much in common," writes Marilyn Nonken in her liner notes. "Eckardt's music offers the listener many pathways, each leading to a different listening experience." It's not exactly a profound remark, nor a particularly original one (and could apply to hundreds of composers and a multitude of different styles of music), but is quite helpful. For over a generation now listeners have been far too intimidated by contemporary music, particularly of the New Complexity persuasion, seeing it as intellectually impenetrable and as "unlistenable" as it is "unplayable". Fortunately, we're approaching the end of that particular tunnel, and, after Elliott Carter, composers as "difficult" as Brian Ferneyhough and Milton Babbitt are beginning to get some long overdue acclaim. Jason Eckardt was born in the city where Milton Babbitt taught for most of his working life, Princeton NJ, and duly passed through Babbitt's hands, as well as those of Ferneyhough, James Dillon, Karlheinz Stockhausen and, principally, Mario Davidovsky, with whom he studied at Columbia. Not before majoring in guitar at Berklee, though - Eckardt is the first to acknowledge the importance of Metal and free jazz in his background. Nonken claims he turned to composition after discovering Webern, but if one composer comes to mind on listening to the opening ensemble work "After Serra", it's Varese. (Maybe filtered through Birtwistle.) Strong gestures, recognisable contours and vivid contrasts define the music at every level. "Tangled Loops", performed by Nonken and soprano saxophonist Taimur Sullivan, namechecks Parker (Charlie, not Evan this time), Coltrane and Dolphy, and is perhaps closest to the latter, in its dramatic and dogged pursuit of the interval. It's a killer piece, and must be a bitch to play - hats off for Sullivan. Pianist Nonken is no slouch either as performers go, as Paris Transatlantic readers may well remember, and "A Glimpse Retraced" is a chamber concerto for her and flute / piccolo, clarinet, violin and cello. Proof that there's plenty of life left yet in the old Pierrot line-up, it's also the most accessible piece on the disc, alternating tough angular lyricism - Birtwistle once more comes to mind - with an exploration of extreme register as chunky and funky as mid 70s Ligeti. The playing throughout by the members of Ensemble 21 is superb (bravo to clarinettist Jean Kopperud for making New Complexity Clarinet on "Polarities" as sensual and thrilling as klezmer) and the album is as strong and solid as Richard Serra's "Tilted Arc", a photograph of which adorns the cover.

- Dan Warburton, Paris Transatlantic, September 2004

Jason Eckhardt [sic] steps forward with this Mode release as a fearless young proponent of modernism in all its complexity, a shining alternative to the prevalent eclecticism of our time. His Ensemble 21, formed in 1993, deserves acclaim as well, a unit seemingly out of step with the American musical landscape, and not surprisingly pursuing collaborations with Boulez's IRCAM and other European composers and musicians.

Included here are 4 works. "After Serra" (2000) is a wild number featuring "aggressive outbursts and bizarre, spinning resonances" (from Marilyn Nonken's liner notes). The use of bass clarinet provides an unusual timbral contrast. "Tangled Loops" (1996) features the saxophone of Taimur Sullivan, with Marilyn Nonken on piano. A fully composed work, it takes as its model the improvisations of Parker, Coltrane, and Dolphy -- a fantastic high-energy piece. "A Glimpse Retraced" (1999) is a chamber concerto for piano and four instruments, and Marilyn Nonken, co-founder with Eckhardt of Ensemble 21, is superb. Finally, "Polarities" (1998) is a fascinating web of changing relations among the players in two movements. The second movement introduces something shocking in the context of what has gone before -- a long, slow, quiet droning section which erupts half-way through with piano, and then the other instruments, vaulted back into furious motion.

Eckhardt began in music as a guitarist, who was first drawn to the complexity of heavy metal and jazz. But on the road to Damascus, he discovered Webern, and he has transferred the drive of jazz and rock to the realm of contemporary classical composition. OUT OF CHAOS is definitely one of the best releases of 2004, and it marks the emergence of an important new voice beyond the limited precincts of new music, where Eckhardt has already been a professor and the recipient of many prestigious grants, commissions and awards.

I feel more optimistic about the future of music in general, and American contemporary music in particular, thinking about things to come from the 34-year-old Jason Eckhardt -- Elliott Carter and Roger Reynolds have found a worthy successor for their brilliant, cutting edge ideas!

- Richard Hutchinson,

Voici assurement la nouvelle musique contemporaine nord-americaine.


Eckardt's music has an agile, organic energy coupled with a finely-judged sense of balance between small-scale details. The instrumental virtuosity of the improviser is also of major importance - witness the thrilling pyrotechnics of Tangled Loops, a jazzy seven-minute accompanied cadenza for saxophone. These pieces call for very little repose, on the part of either performer or listener; a good deal more atonal than most jazz, the works nonetheless have a brightly kinetic appeal in common with the best improvised music, and are both enjoyable and ultimately rewarding of close attention.

- Records International, July 2004

Tienen la fuerza, la expresividad en bruto, propia de la improvisacion; desprenden un calor que pareciera producido por los mas salvajes frotamientos. Pero lo cierto es que las obras de Jason Eckardt (Princeton, 1971) han sido largamente pensadas: aunque eso si, digamos que se situan en algun interesante punto medio entre el intelecto y el instinto. Out of Caos, se titula la seleccion de piezas recogidas en esta grabacion de MODE; claro que, en ocasiones, para escapar del caos uno tiene que pasar por una temporada de familiarizacion con el caos y en medio del caos. Sea como fuere, el hipotetico desorden al que apunta Eckardt es el de la naturaleza, con sus procesos de mutacion y metamorfosis, de sistole y diastole, de expansion y extincion; solo al terminar cada proceso se advierte que no existia en el -por mas que sus primeros movimientos dieran esa sensacion- capricho, irregularidad o azar alguno, sino que eran precisos y necesarios. Algo similar se advierte cuando se conocen mas a fondo estas piezas, cuyos giros repentinos y nerviosas expresiones se nos antojan con el tiempo ineluctables.

After Serra (2000), para flauta, clarinete, viol’n, violoncelo y piano, ha sido inspirada por las esculturas de Richard Serra, con sus dimensiones megaliticas, con esa contundencia volumetrica que por otra parte no logra superar una presencia inestable, casi siempre en equilibrio precario. Por lo demas, la composicion de Eckardt manifiesta iguales componentes de energia y desestabilidad, como si tuviera necesidad de seguir varias direcciones simultaneamente, como si temiera anclarse en un unico territorio. El material sonoro es tratado con violencia y agresividad, y no obstante prevalece la impresion de encontrarse siempre bajo control.

Tangled Loops (1996), para saxo y piano, resulta de lo mas jazzy, y en efecto, podemos leer que fue escrita en homenaje a Parker, Coltrane y Dolphy. Los temas reaparecen aqui a intervalos regulares, pero sus transformaciones nos los hacen irreconocibles, imprevisibles. Obra de brillos feroces y demostracion de una vitalidad desbordante, A Glimpse Retraced (1999), para piano solo, flauta, clarinete violin y violoncelo, juega con la idea de que la memoria tiende a alterar los acontecimientos del pasado; los desarrollos sugestivamente inesperados de motivos previamente expuestos no hacen aqui mas que confirmar de continuo esa concepcion. Polarities (1998), para flauta, clarinete, violin, viola, violoncelo piano y percusion, nos traslada a un arcaico amanecer de la tierra, dominado por fuerzas teluricas y elementales, por las conflictivas relaciones entre seres verdaderamente de caracteres incompatibles. Los distintos instrumentos emiten frases breves, erizadas, irisadas, configurando una topografia sonora repleta de accidentes y sucesos.

Un mundo, Žste de Eckardt, peligroso, repleto de anfractuosidades, pero sin duda apasionante: Out of Caos!

- Javier Palacio,, November 2005