Michael Mantler: Songs and One Symphony (ECM 1721)

Songs and One Symphony

Michael Mantler
Songs and One Symphony

Mona Larsen voice
Michael Mantler trumpet
Bjarne Roupé guitar
Marianne Sørensen violin
Mette Winther viola
Gunnar Lychou viola
Helle Sørensen cello
Kim Kristensen piano, synthesizers
Radio Symphony Orchestra Frankfurt
Peter Rundel conductor
Songs recorded October 11, 1993, Danish Radio, Copenhagen
Recording engineer: Ronald Skovdal
Mixing engineer: Lars Palsig
One Symphony recorded November 13/14, 1998, Hessischer Rundfunk, Frankfurt
Recording engineer: Thomas Eschler
Mixing engineer: Rainer Schwarz
Album produced by Michael Mantler

I don’t know
anything darker
than the light.

Whatever your spiritual inclinations, you can be thankful that people like Michael Mantler have walked this earth and left behind a sonic trail so intuitively drawn it almost hurts. The Austrian-born composer delivers a subtle yet nonetheless smashing twofer in Songs and One Symphony, pairing his settings of poems by Ernst Meister with the titular symphony.

Songs is performed by the Chamber Music and Songs Ensemble, a group Mantler formed in 1993. Last heard in his masterpiece The School of Understanding, its instrumental signatures are uniquely Mantlerian, including the composer himself on trumpet, Bjarne Roupé on guitar, Kim Kristensen on keyboards, and a string quartet. For the present recording singer Mona Larsen assumes the throne, her wrapping of words the perfect disguise for Meister’s bare bones. Mantler’s ability to draw out melodies from the texts as if they’d always been there is uncanny. The cycle’s smoothness of execution is uniquely moving in this regard, finding traction in every negative space on the page. The connective tissue between “For ever” and “Nothing more,” for example, breathes in the fumes of just-sung sentiments and exhales the fearless drug of circumstantial evidence. Indeed, each slide on the projector roulette bears its own exhibition letter, submitted to the scrutiny of an invisible jury. Their shifting and murmuring implies conclusions but them lets them go in the interlude “How Long Are Our Nights,” from which the cello espouses lachrymose verdicts in kind. Larsen slips through words like a snake through the knotholes of an abandoned shed, carrying in her mouth the minimal shadows required to bleed warmth and misery. She embodies Meister’s “stir of solitude” so unpretentiously that one need know nothing of her pop music roots. Rather, she unearths her art for the first time with every stanza.

One Symphony is the result of a German radio commission. It takes the concept of a symphony in its most rudimentary form—which is to say, as a large meeting of musicians—and represents Mantler’s mounting interest in explicitly notated material. Consisting of four numbered movements, it finds its voice early on with the establishment of a characteristic flow. The harp flirts with the water’s surface like a sunlit dragonfly in Part 1, sucking inkblots from paper as if water from a glass. The shifting rhythms and textures achieve perfect kilter in the final origami fold, looking deeply into the mirror where its cinematic fantasy moves on. Part 2 opens poised before an oncoming train: it hears the signals but heeds them not in the widening funnel of light. The clouds offer little solace, dark and gnarled as their manner is. The feeling of locomotion never completely recedes. It touches the piano keys, flicks its hair in the wind, and swings from brass branches. The honeycombed Part 3 unloads a relatively mechanical shipment of dots and dashes, leaving the aftermath to spawn life of its own will in Part 4. This self-tending garden sustains some of the symphony’s darkest wounds and presses its palm to a cold window until an ephemeral handprint is all that’s left of its ever having been here.

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