Jason Eckardt is a composer who produces scores of frighteningly complex notation; who counts Schoenberg, Coltrane, Stockhausen, Ferneyhough, and Lachenmann among his primary influences; and who got his start in music as a guitarist in a metal band.
“I heard the Jimmy Page solo to Led Zeppelin’s ‘Heartbreaker’ and decided that I automatically had to be able to play this some day,” Eckardt explains, pointing out that most kids born in the early ’70s probably had similar aspirations. “Most of my teen years were dedicated to trying to be a rock star.”
A few years later, his ears also got caught up in jazz. But it wasn’t until he was a student at Berklee College of Music that Eckardt began to understand what composers of concert music actually did. This is also when he was first exposed to the sound world that really struck home—Webern’s Five Movements for String Quartet, Op. 5.
Eckardt says that once he had a better understanding of what notated composition offered, he knew that’s exactly where he wanted to be working. “One of the frustrations that I had as a jazz musician was that after concerts I always regretted that improvisations didn’t go a little bit better than I had expected. Suddenly I realized with composition that not only could I take all the time I wanted to make these musical ideas as perfect as I could, but also that now I could play all of the instruments virtually and not just be limited to the guitar.”
That’s not to say that he felt the urge to trade in his previous training. The energy and forcefulness of rock music and the intricacy and improvisational feel of jazz have stuck with him, even if his technical language and his music’s structural underpinnings are more closely aligned with modern composition. “I think that those three things really combine in my music to give me what I consider to be my core musical identity,” though he admits that it might not be immediately apparent on the surface.
“All of these things really combined for me in a really powerful package of musical expression that I felt that I’d been searching for all of my life,” he explains. “When I heard that Webern piece, I immediately knew that I wanted to be a composer; there was no debate or deliberation in my own mind.”
Eckardt has since picked up a doctorate in composition from Columbia University, a host of awards and commissions, and co-founded Ensemble 21, a contemporary music performance group which has more than 30 premieres to its credit—a few of them works by Eckardt himself. For all of the advantages that having a group of close colleagues perform your work over the years offers, however, he says that was never their focus. Rather they were looking at the work of ensembles like Bang on a Can and Sequitur and hoping to fill in a repertoire gap they saw in the New York City music scene in the early 1990s.
And though they do play the occasional Eckardt composition, he says that as a composer he actually learns a lot more when they’re playing somebody else’s music. “I’ve learned much, much more from sitting in on rehearsals of other people’s pieces where the musicians really say what they think, and aren’t on their best behavior because the composer is there, than any orchestration class that I ever took in school.”