On Tuesday, May 19 at Roulette, ICE and the JACK Quartet with soloists Tony Arnold (soprano), Jay Campbell (cello), and Jordan Dodson (guitar) perform works from Jason Eckardt’s new CD “Subject” (Tzadik Records) as well as "Necronomicon" and the world premiere of "Autumn Rhythm" by Tzadik founder John Zorn. "Subject" releases on 26 May and can be preordered here. In a conversation with ICE flutist Alice Teyssier, Eckardt speaks about "Tongues" (featured on "Subject"), his writing process, recorded vs. live performance, and more.
Alice Teyssier: I am very interested in your use of the voice, and your interest in the voice, so maybe we can start there - with your general motivations for writing the piece… I noticed you had written some vocal pieces earlier on, in the late 90s, and not so many after ‘Tongues’ (2001). Care to talk about your use of the voice here, and in general?
Jason Eckardt: ‘Tongues’ is really the first vocal piece that I wrote that I considered anything substantial. The idea for the piece more or less came out of the idea that I wanted to do so something at some point with solo voice. Pieces like the Berio ‘Sequenza’ were really influential in that decision, and when the opportunity came along to write the piece with the ensemble, I knew that I wanted at least one part of that piece to be a solo vocal part. So then I started to think about what that would mean in terms of the voice, and how I would use it. I had to think about what I wanted to do with text, and I started thinking about all kinds of different texts, ranging from archaic French medieval poetry to really contemporary experimental poetry and language poetry, and I just never really felt that there was anything that fit in that initial vision that I had for the piece. So then I started to think about using the voice in a somewhat nontraditional way; rather than thinking of it as a song cycle, I started to think about it as a concerto for voice, and then I thought about that solo part as being the cadenza. I knew I wanted to have different movements, because I wanted contrasting types of ensembles, textures and sets of constraints and so on. So I started to think about using this voice very instrumentally as opposed to vocally, so at that point it became obvious to me that maybe text wasn’t really going to be a part of this piece at all. Luckily, the International Phonetic Alphabet is something that singers know because of training and diction and so on, so this seemed to be a natural fit for what I wanted to do with the voice. I started thinking about the voice the same way that I would think about a flute or a cello or something like that - stratify different kinds of sounds, from pitched sounds to non-pitched sounds, from different types of vocalizations that were traditional, in terms of phonemes, or more non-traditional, like tongue clicks and coughing and so on. I began to think about having different kinds of profiles for the voice for each one of these movements; some of these movements would be really led by the voice and that the instrumental counterpart to the voice would be following or mimicking the voice, and then other times I wanted it to be the opposite, whereby the voice was really trying to blend in to the ensemble as opposed to being a soloist. With that, I began to compose each of these individual movements and thinking about the different kinds of contrasts; one movement is for just voice and guitar, and in that movement I don’t use any pitched phonemes, it’s completely unpitched, so theoretically that movement could be sung by any vocal range. In other movements I wanted to have a more traditional, lyrical, melismatic type of voice, and other times I wanted it to be mixed together. The cadenza is a sort of summary of everything that comes before in a hyper-compressed type of way.
AT: Your idea of wanting to write for the voice as an instrument is so interesting to me, because actually, I have found your instrumental writing to be particularly vocal in a lot of ways: many lyrical lines, many speech-like kinds of sounds. Is this just a natural approach to writing music for you?
JE: Well, after writing ‘Tongues’ and subsequently after writing ‘16’, those things to me do tend to go together. In fact, ‘16’ got its genesis from an idea while I was writing ‘Tongues,’ because I wanted to have one movement that was just for voice and flute, where the roles of the instrument and the voice would actually be exchanged: the flute would be doing much more vocalization than the singer would, and vice versa. I had sketched some of that out [for ‘Tongues’], but in the end it didn’t really fit into the structure of the whole piece very well. So, I tucked that one into my desk, waited a few years until it was ready to go for a different opportunity!
Thinking about the voice and singing and that kind of ‘singerly’ line is something that isn’t entirely new. I mean Chopin was trying to write a melismatic bel canto line for the piano, which in itself is a really interesting project. But especially with instruments that are dependent on breath for sound production, I do tend to think very vocally about those things… But I don’t think I ever formalized that thought until you just asked me that question! [laughs] That was very perceptive!
AT: Well, it is something I tend to think a lot about because my life ties both aspects of music-making together, and I sometimes have the opportunity to play pieces that wed the two, wherein the sounds can blend together in amazingly lyrical ways, but also through the percussive elements of speech and vocalizations that can be transposed and even amplified by an instrument like the flute. So clearly this kind of thinking is of interest to me, particularly!
JE: Yeah, well you can basically use the flute as a resonating body through which the voice is projecting, but there are so many gradations within what one would associate with a prototypical flute tone and something like a very percussive type of speaking that could be the result of either regular types of phonetic sounds or other types of vocal extended techniques. With the construction of the flute itself and its open embouchure, it’s no mystery to me that writing for the solo flute in the last 20 or 30 years has just really exploded!
AT: Definitely! We’re still waiting for our recession! [laughs] So, in writing for the voice within this ensemble, how did you end up choosing when to use which vowels, consonants, syllables… Is this something you looked at timbrally - different colors that could be generated - or do they have some sort of semiotic link?
Definitely timbre was a huge component of it, especially for the unpitched phonemes and extended techniques, but also writing for the voice, thinking about which vowels would work in which ranges and so forth was another tried-and-true constraint that I had to adhere to. Mainly it was out of a desire to have different types of phonetic profiles for each one of those movements; for example in the first movement, you get a mix of a lot of different phonemes - it’s sort of a preview of the different types of writing that will come. The second movement in the most melismatic and probably the most traditional type of vocal writing, whereas the third movement has no pitched phonemes at all, and I was going for a very percussive type of effect. The fifth movement is again a type of summary as the cadenza, and the sixth movement passes the vocalization off to the ensemble in the end. Ironically perhaps, the singer doesn’t sing the last vocalization in the piece - that’s done by someone in the ensemble, where they have an unpitched phonetic canon between the vocalist and two of the performers. So there was a desire to figure out which kind of profile and character I wanted for each of the different movements.
As far as how I would pick things moment to moment, it boiled to me just having lists of possibilities, combing through them, or just imagining these gestures in my mind and transcribing these things using IPA symbols. This led to the concept of glossolalia, or speaking in tongues. This was an attempt to capture the sense of possession - of being outside oneself - that one is reported to have in ecstatic moments (most notably in contemporary Pentecostal practice), whereby the supernatural is said to use a human subject as a vessel. Aside from the surface resemblance to a nonexistent language, I also think the concept is an extension of the performance practice that is suggested - perhaps demanded - by my music. Specifically, that one has to let go, at least in part, of their conscious self, and let the flow of precisely articulated physical gestures take hold.
AT: This is perhaps a good transition into my personal experience recording this piece with you, with the movements having such distinct characteristics and profiles, and I feel like that - beyond the practical considerations of endurance and what we had time for - that also played into the choices of which movements we were going to focus on, the kind of energy and feeling that each movement needed.
JE: In the recording session, obviously, you’re trying to work as quickly and efficiently as possible, and as you say, there are stamina issues which you need to really carefully manage in a piece like that. It was essential that we did it over two days because of those demands; there was no way we could get it into a single day, either practically or in terms of the voice being able to sustain that kind of repetitive activity for so long.
The other concern was about how these contrasting emotional characters would play out in the recording session, trying to - in not so many words - communicate what those emotional characters are but also to try to organize the session so that same kinds of emotional characters would be covered in one period of time. As practically as was possible, like sections would be connected together, so that people would hopefully understand that there was a shared quality from one take to the next, even if those sections were not actually adjacent in the music.
AT: I am also curious, since I have not yet performed this piece live (and you have heard this piece live numerous times), what the difference is, in your perspective, between the rehearsal process for a live performance and experiencing it live, and this experience recording the piece with ICE in the studio.
JE: They are really different kinds of experiences, and there are obviously different ways in which one prepares for them. In preparing for a recording session, you’re usually dealing with much smaller chunks, and really drilling down on detailed surface-level things, and then putting them together later, when the session in done. With a live performance, clearly, there is the stamina issue that we discussed, but also the sense of the larger arc coming together and being able to successively put all these pieces together to make a convincing architecture. In the recording studio, the performers want to be as accurate as possible, so there is a lot of attention paid to the detailed types of gestures that might be particularly difficult that in a performance, it’s sort of understood that you’re just going to go for it. That is also kind of written into the score, and how I think about performance practice anyway in my music. So it boils down to a different kind of energy. In a live performance you have to gauge where you are in this piece, which is half an hour long - knowing what’s coming, knowing how to save your lips, your vocal cords, your breath, your concentration, for those moments when you’re really going to be called upon to use them. And that’s a lot different, of course, than a recording studio situation, where the level of concentration is highly elevated for everything, but you are able to stop and start, take breaks and relax mentally and physically if you begin to get tired. Live performance doesn’t offer that option!
AT: As exhausting as that recording session was, we all felt, as soon as it was over, the great desire to go perform the piece [laughter]! After so much stop and go, I really wanted to finally be able to let the dramatic arc actually BE a dramatic arc, to feel the long lyrical lines, and to experience the energies push and pull through the piece, so I am pretty excited to finally be able to perform this piece!
JE: Yeah! And after having done all of that very fine detail work, that all translates into the live performance very immediately. But obviously performing live is going to require a different approach, physically and mentally, to get to the end in good shape!
AT: Maybe just to wrap up, if you’d like to give us a few words about the rest of this CD, the idea for it, and what it represents for you in more global terms.
JE: Well, the idea for the CD was actually John Zorn’s, the proprietor of the Tzadik label, among many other things. He had for years been saying that he wanted to do a record; originally, I had approached him about doing the "Undersong" record, and he had his reservations about the vocal writing in particular, actually, and passed on the project, so when this CD project came along, I actually had to twist his arm quite a bit to get ‘Tongues’ on the record (believe it or not!). When I was putting together the record, I wanted to have ‘Tongues’ as the major work - it is by far the longest piece on the CD - and I also wanted to have a mix of different kinds of pieces on the CD. My CD "Undersong" was actually conceived as one single super-composition using four smaller compositions connecting together seamlessly; but for this I wanted to have different kinds of contrasts and also choose pieces that were from different parts of my compositional life. The earliest piece on the CD, ‘Flux’, is from 1995 and the newest piece is from 2011, and there are other pieces in between. I was also interested in the contrast between instrumentations, solo and duo and then larger ensemble pieces, like ‘Tongues’ and then of course ‘Trespass’, which you performed and recorded in 2006 [with the Oberlin Contemporary Music Ensemble] and now it’s finally coming out! [laughs]
AT: Yeah! I find that exciting - being able to connect different points of our “being”, where we were at what times, and what we were doing, and the kinds of people we were around and the influences we had. I feel like this CD is such a cool way of kaleidoscopically seeing all the different kinds of things you’ve done over the last 20 years.
And it’s really interesting to me, with the recordings of ‘Trespass’ and ‘Tongues’ being on the same disc despite a decade separating them, that things have actually come full circle in a strange but, I think, profound way in terms of when we first met, back in 2005, and here we are in 2015. There’s something of a special resonance with me about that, because it was sort of taken from a particular point in our lives and being able to reflect on that from where we are now, and I’m pretty proud of both of us actually! [laughs]
AT: Definitely! I think it also underlines the real relationships that this kind of music creates a space for and the fact that we are there for each other our entire lives, and we can grow together and help each other and influence each other - and you certainly have done so for me and for many people close to me.
JE: I appreciate you saying that. And actually, I can’t say it surprises me that much that we’re working together in this completely different context and geography; the trajectory between Oberlin CME and the present situation with ICE isn’t very unusual at all.
AT: These are pretty natural and organic progressions.
JE: So if you had told me ten years ago, you’re going to be in New York and work with Alice again and make a record, I would have totally bought that! [laughs]