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John Eckhardt - Xylobiont

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Artist: John Eckhardt

Album: Xylobiont

Label: Psi

Review date: Sep. 26, 2008

Saying that a performance blurs the lines between composition and improvisation has been said so many times that it really doesn’t say anything at all anymore. The main concepts of the statement go undefined (What is composition? What is improvisation?), and its basic argument remains unquestioned, namely, how is the breaching of this strict border news at all?

Instead, what the statement attempts to reveal are qualities that give music its energy, its edge, beyond which lies the something that escapes the grasp of verbalization, yet is also supremely and elegantly logical. These qualities might better be called spontaneity and design. Spontaneity suggests something happening now, something inherently unstable, full of risk, dangerous. Design suggests intelligence, structure, clarity. In short, they are chaos and order mingling, sometimes meeting, sometimes clashing.

These terms are not specifically musical ones, but they most concisely describe the mood that German bassist John Eckhardt creates. His music is reminiscent of much 20th century music (composed or otherwise) in the way it stresses usual musical descriptors to the breaking point and forces listeners, critics and musicians to approach it with new terms and new ears. In particular, he draws inspiration from the three giants he mentions in the liner notes: György Ligeti, Iannis Xenakis, and Morton Feldman.

And what inspires about these three composers is what inspires about Eckhardt: he works with a known quantity – the double bass – and doesn’t rely on extended or novelty techniques, or overdubbing or electronic manipulation for that matter. Instead, he mobilizes technique along with imagination to create pieces that are neither compositions nor improvisations; they are organic systems capable of taking on a mind of their own.

At times, his performances reach such a frenzy they almost seem to levitate. “Noo bag” is so dense with criss-crossing musical lines and clusters of motion that it achieves an ecstatic motorik state just short of Remko Scha’s Machine Guitars. “mbhere” sets high-register clusters of insistent notes against lower register girding tones, developing the two lines until they start to split and morph, growing off each other like a natural feedback loop.

Eckhardt’s conception, however, includes more than just avant-garde composition. Classic free jazz bass, in the style Coltrane stalwart Jimmy Garrison, shows up on “TTzz”: propulsion, power and deep woody resonance dominate. While Eckhardt’s engagement with electronic music would seem to inspire the arco, drone-centered pieces here, especially the cavernous analogue-synth growl of “filum.”

So much music passes through the supposedly rarefied borderland between composition and improvisation, and so much does it so well, that bringing it up anymore generates a second reaction: So what? Everything from Bach’s cello suites to John Coltrane’s solo on “Chasin’ the Trane” inhabits that space. What the spontaneity and design of Eckhardt’s performances really accomplish is that they express something more than musical, though not necessarily extra-musical. Eckhardt explores that space where sound and its organization show themselves to be a natural phenomenon, and taps into a whole world of moods beyond the one of human emotion.

By Matthew Wuethrich

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