Tristan Eckerson – Dream Variations.

I have a lot of respect for an artist that is wholly independent. It doesn’t mean that there is anything wrong with their music, quite the opposite – it means that they have a power of conviction and a self belief in what they are doing. They are also the masters of their own destiny and they reap all the rewards of their hard work. Case in point Cincinnati, Ohio based musician Tristan Eckerson who recently released his fourth full length album “Dream Variations” on limited CD and Digital. The twelve track collection follows on from last years “Disarm” with an eclectic group of pieces covering a variety of genres.

Following a true DIY ethic, Tristan handles all aspects of his music career independently from writing, mixing, and mastering his music to producing cover art for his albums and booking his own international tours. With that spirit in mind, Tristan decided to release his latest album “Dream Variations” completely independently. This latest album of solo piano compositions was released worldwide on July 6th, 2018. Tristan describes the inspiration for this latest album as coming from a combination of his current major influences, namely: Ryuichi Sakamoto, Beethoven, Sigur Ros and Tigran Hamasyan. Tristan says about his goals for the album: “I wanted to make an album that was dynamic and exciting, but also ethereal, ambient, relaxing, and whimsical. I wanted to focus on strong songwriting and melodies, but also the overall tone and atmosphere of the album itself.”

“Dream Variations” is a culmination of all of Tristan’s musical experiences, encompassing his passion for film music, post rock, jazz, ambient soundscapes, pop, and classical music. The twelve songs on the album are at once accessible and complex, relaxing and thought-provoking. It is Tristan’s ultimate goal to stretch the possibilities of solo piano composition and the contemporary classical genre, and with this new album he has done just that.”

“Mirror” is an interesting choice for opener as it has a very deliberate and reflective piano tone. Normally you would expect to ease into an album before bringing in a piece like this. The feel of the piece is thoughtful with a mood of introspection which could be referenced by the title. The recording has an intimate feel which assists in creating the mood. The pace is relaxed, but never slow and the narrative is linear and doesn’t feel like it is going over and over in repeating the theme.

“Jupiter” a chance of pace from the opener with a repetitive section pairs along side a more controlled one. The tone is different as well as even though the track is built on fast repetitive playing, at no point does it make the music hard and maintains a sense of playful innocence. The blend of the styles works very well and brings out the richness in piano. If this was a purely electronic piece it could be referenced to an IDM style, such is its contemporary sound. A joy to listen to, this bodes well early on for the rest of the album.

“Nico’s Song” not knowing who Nico is, or their relationship with Eckerson, I can say just by listening to the piece there is a deep connection between the two of them. The playing could easily tip over into melancholia, but manages to stay in the emotive style of playing. Eckerson doesn’t seem to me to travel through a variety of sections and then return to the initial ones that set the mood. It feels like he sets down a feeling and then expands on it. If there is repetition it is part of the style, rather than part of the music. The music is like a travelogue of a journey, rather than a constant return to a place or a feeling.

“Oscuridad” translates to “Darkness”, but this is not an overly dark piece. The tone is one of moodiness with a melancholic edge to it. The recording has a muted quality (possibly even some natural field recordings in the beginning) with the piano keys sharp edge removed giving a submerged underwater feel to this track. Drones emerge and hang for the briefest of times adding to the mood of the piece. The flowing nature of the playing lends it a cinematic feel that belies its three minutes and forty seconds.

“Amagant” a laid back opening full of natural recording sounds as Eckerson gently and mindfully winds his way across the keys. The tone of the piece is a forward think introspection if there is such a thing. It feels like if there is a central character to the piece, that they are looking forward after coming to terms with something. Interestingly it translates to “Hiding” but I am not detecting this within the music. It is quite a hopeful piece.

“Elevate” field or natural recordings lead into a repeating phrase that is hypnotic in nature as it swirls around with additional jazz like flourishes that are at a different tempo and style. The track changes the complexion of the album and introduces a different style and feel to it. In the press release Eckerson talks about stretching the possibilities of solo piano composition and the contemporary classical genre, and one way to do that is by bringing other musical styles, influences or techniques into the music which refreshes it and gives it his own stamp in such a crowded genre.

“Endeavour” an emotional track that musically sounds like a love letter or something deeply personal between two people. A simple phrase that is worked on repetitively breaks through to a fast flowing lyrical and emotive section full of fills and flowing chords. You can picture the artist in full motion on the piano, full of intent and letting his fingers glide over the keys purposefully. The final chord speaks volumes as it appears, to me, to have a sense of finality because of the nature of its sound. It’s as if it’s a musical full stop or exclamation mark.

“Vakna” translates to “Wake” and is a pure delight of a track. Fast high playing with a slighter darker undercurrent, the piece weaves its magic with a tone that is light, airy with a fair sense of innocence and joy in the playing. Towards the end of the track it becomes a more conventional piece, but that opening is one to savor and return to. The playing reveals a playfulness that has started to become more apparent in the second half of the album and shows Eckerson as a composer not afraid to flirt with different approaches on the album. Probably the highlight of the album for me.

“Maui Eventide” a gentle different tone and recording style are present early on in this piece. I am not sure as to what the reference in the title is, but the piece sees the jazz influence that was apparent in “Elevate” with its glassy tone flows over and creating a shimmering sound over a constant Modern Classical pattern. In a way it’s quite an Ambient track as the music is relaxing, meditative and never jarring, while the tones are extremely palatable to the ears.

“Quiet Days” a pure modern classical piece nicely balancing dark and light tones with a flowing elegant style that is lyrical in a way. It is not hurried nor is it in any way intrusive, it quite simply is a piece of music that is perfect for a quiet moment where you are relaxing with a cup of coffee, the sun shining in and just being appreciative of things around you. In a way its a soundtrack to a particular mood or time in your life, one when contentment is apparent.

“Symmetry” the mood if the piece that is conjured is one of late night contemplation. Romantic in nature, the playing balance restraint with a certain amount of filigree. A third of the way in the tempo and style changes and I guess this is where the title is derived as the playing mirrors itself with a fast paced section. The track changes once more again with several sections of playing rich in tone, working through jazz influenced parts and returning to the late night nourish feel of the tracks opening, again representing the symmetry of the piece.

“In Kind” brings the album to an end with more delightful playing. Rather than finish off with a totally introspective piece that might wrap the album up as a whole, Eckerson brings us one last fast flowing, even toned, rhythmic and engaging piece. Fitting with the linearity of some of the other pieces, Eckerson takes us on a winding journey full of peaks and troughs, bringing us through quieter sections and then elevating us up in others. I have always considered the opening and closing tracks to be the most important in any works of art, simply because they initially set the tone at the beginning and are designed to bring the listener into the artists world, and finally to coalesce the experience the listener has just had. With this piece Eckerson does remind us a bit of where we have been, but also sends us on our way with a memory of what we have listened to and what we can look forward to in the future.

The world of solo piano/modern composition is as crowded as any other popular genre of the last fifty years. It’s very hard for artists to out their own stamp and personality on their music that makes them stand out in a crowded field. By simply bringing in influences and styles outside of the modern classical canon, Eckerson is able to inject his personality into his music. Occasionally listening to an album that is played on a single instrument can be a challenge, but this was not the case with “Dream Variations” and album which you can easily return to and enjoy the experience. If you happen to dabble in the instrument as well, the CD and digital purchases include ten sheet music pdf scores for free.

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