Wednesday, January 19, 2011


Švandovo divadlo
January 18

A formidable player with chops across three genres.

More performance art than music, Tuesday night’s Prague Modern concert featured none of the usual members of the ensemble. Instead, German bass player John Eckhardt brought his battered double bass from Hamburg to join the local electronic duo Birds Build Nests Underground and projectionist Martin Ježek for an evening of...well, noise. But very interesting and entertaining noise.

Eckhardt, who started his career as an electric bass player in funk bands, moved on to acoustic jazz bass and then classical training before immersing himself in modern music. He’s played with groups such as Klangforum Wien, Ensemble Modern and musikFabrik NRW, and recorded extensively, most recently a solo release titled Xylobiant. All these influences surface during his solo performances, which are often accompanied by projections or other visuals.

Were one to hear an Eckhardt solo recording without knowing what it was, it would be impossible to imagine a lone musician wringing such an astonishing variety of sounds out of a single instrument. In the solo half of his Prague performance, he started with long, low growls and grunts, worked his way down the neck to squeals, cranked up the volume to chain saw-intensity and took it down to silent passes of the bow. He played everywhere and everything you can possibly play on a double bass to get a noise out of it, including some virtuoso work on the strings below the bridge, using his fingers and the screw end of the bow. At one point Eckhardt even broke into a straight-ahead jazz improv run, as if to show he can play “normal” music, too – and very well.

The second half of the concert was a jam session of sorts, with Petr Ferenc and Michal Brunclík manning their laptops and turntables to create a field of noise for Eckhardt to improvise against, and Ježek adding a visual equivalent with multiple projectors showing overlapping abstract images. With the stage completely dark and the three musicians off to the side to make room for the screen, it was impossible to watch them work together. And the sound was so dense, it was difficult to discern individual elements.

But it worked. The Birds duo is good at weaving layers of snaps, crackles, pops, scratches, sirens, voices and other random noises into a single organic sound that gradually builds to an electronic thunderstorm. In the seeming chaos, there are structures and riffs and enough changes to keep a careful listener engaged, and Eckhardt provided a steady anchor with deep, droning bass notes. The visuals were not terribly interesting – blurred winter trees, a carpentry instruction film – but Ježek showed himself to be a master of his trade, employing stop frames, slo-mo, multiple images, split-screen and other techniques, all at a rapid clip.

The effect was exhilarating. Soundscapes like this are difficult to pull off, especially in amateur hands. But Eckhardt is a real musician who brings intelligence and integrity to his work, along with considerable imagination. It’s not for everyone. But if you open your ears and mind, it can take you interesting places. And pairing him with Czech performers added some local spice to the mix that went down well.

If Eckhardt were playing at a beatnik coffee house in the 1950s, where he would fit in very well, he would be called a hep cat. That’s not a bad description of him today, either.

For more on John Eckhardt:

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