Michael Mantler: Comment C’est (ECM 2537)

Comment C'est

Michael Mantler
Comment C’est

Himiko Paganotti voice
Michael Mantler trumpet
Max Brand Ensemble
Christoph Cechconductor
Recorded April 2016 at Porgy & Bess Studio, Vienna
Additional recording, mix, and mastering June/July 2016 at Studios La Buissonne, Pernes-les-Fontaines
Engineers: Gérard de Haro and Nicolas Baillard
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: November 3, 2017

Few composers face their zeitgeist quite so head-on as like Michael Mantler. In this timely song cycle, written in French and performed by Himiko Paganotti (voice), Mantler himself (trumpet), and the Max Brand Ensemble under the direction of Christoph Cech, Comment C’est is a gut punch of agitprop exasperation, reactionary finesse, and thick description. It’s also in many ways the closing of a circle begun on his first ECM project, Folly Seeing All This. As on that 1993 album, we begin here by beholding the news (“Aujourd’hui”) in all its violent denouement. The instruments, now as then, embody a concerned citizenry, while Paganotti wraps her vocal cashmere around every word as if it were in danger of never being heard.

not much
if anything
not much at all
we’ve learned from history

Mantler’s trumpet, for its own part, acts as mediator between linguistically articulated horrors and victims whose capacity for speech has been torn apart. Through perennial indiscretions of xenophobia (“Intolérance”), killing (“Guerre”), and capitalism (“Commerce”), Mantler leaves a trail of mirrors in the hopes that false idols of supply and demand might catch a glimpse of themselves and turn to salt at the mere sight of their own reflections.

At the core of it all is a harsh winter (“Hiver”), whose nakedness is its only defense against itself. Paganotti’s dramaturgical commitment, shivering at the molecular level, awakens the dead to mourn for those still alive.

of course I know
when this one ends
another war
will start some other place

This triangle of interpretive forces—lungs, brass, and ensemble—folds in on itself until one side can no longer be distinguished from the other (“Sans fin”). The winds take on progressively darker shades of meaning, as if the very shadows of war were reaching out their hands in the hopes of taking down as many with them as possible before the light of the next bomb extinguishes that possibility.

no more place to live
not even in a space already gray
and again, again
they resume

Terrorism reigns (“Folie”), wonderment bleeds (“Pourquoi”), and despair grows into an all-consuming forest (“Après”). Mantler tries to prune every offending branch, but finds even himself overwhelmed by the sheer immensity of our own inhumanity. The poignancy of this music, its reason for existing in the first place, is an endless cycle of which we’ve been offered these ten exegeses. But while they might seem crisp now, we know that one day they will be shuffled into a deck perpetually stacked against us. As the final question (“Que dire de plus”) bids us adieu, we must ask ourselves another: When will it end?

Michael Mantler: The Jazz Composer’s Orchestra Update (ECM 2391)

Mantler Update

Michael Mantler
The Jazz Composer’s Orchestra Update

Nouvelle Cuisine Big Band
Christoph Cech conductor
Michael Mantler trumpet
Harry Sokal tenor saxophone
Bjarne Roupé guitar
Wolfgang Puschnig alto saxophone
David Helbock piano
Bernie Mallinger violin
Igmar Jenner violin
Cynthia Liao viola
Asja Valcic cello
Recorded live August 30/31 and September 1, 2013 at Porgy & Bess, Vienna, Austria
Engineer: Martin Vetters
Mixed and mastered October and December 2013 at Studios La Buissonne, Pernes_les_Fontaines, France
Engineers: Gérard de Haro and Nicolas Baillard
Produced by Michael Mantler
An ECM Production in collaboration with Porgy & Bess, Vienna

Trumpeter and composer Michael Mantler began the Jazz Composer’s Orchestra in the mid-1960s with Carla Bley as a larger outlet for radical jazz interventions. Having just arrived in New York City as a young man from Vienna, Mantler was raring to float his ideas among musicians—Pharoah Sanders, Cecil Taylor, and Don Cherry among them—who cared. In an interview with Steve Lake printed in this album’s booklet, he stresses the tightly knit community of free jazz at the time. The scene was small, he recalls, “and most everybody knew and worked with each other, having formed a kind of bond through necessity, since we were involved in a music that was commercially totally unviable and often even quite disliked by the mainstream audience and critics alike.” While digitizing old JCO scores in 2012, he saw a chance at renewal and The Jazz Composer’s Orchestra Update was born. The new pieces—penned 1963-69 and revised in 2013—are sheep in wolves’ clothing, each precisely notated but with room to spin wool of improvisation.


Mantler has always been one for forthright atmospherics, and these pieces are no exception to that tendency. If anything, they embody it to the fullest. Aiding in the reshuffling are guitarist Bjarne Roupé (last heard on Mantler’s For Two), altoist Wolfgang Puschnig, tenorist Harry Sokal, pianist David Helbock, the radio.string.quartet.vienna, the Nouvelle Cuisine Big Band under the direction of Christoph Cech, and the composer himself on trumpet. Mantler is, in fact, the featured soloist of Update One, which introduces a slightly dissonant and reactive world of sound. Because the big band cuts such a complex figure in the studio, muscling its way through a chain of through-composed cells, each “Update” may be distinguished by its soloist(s). While all the musicians here are well suited for the job, Roupé is a natural-born Mantler interpreter. His gestures cut like a razor across Updates Eleven and Part 1 of Twelve, both of them bursting with roots in a gnarled sort of grandeur.

The main reedmen are likewise exceptional. Sokal’s tenor flips a coin of thunder and soul in Update Eight, landing once on each side in the name of night. Puschnig’s alto, rides a wave somewhere beyond even those extremes in Update Ten, crashing on a vacant shore and leaving only a tender solo from bassist Manuel Mayr to show for having been there. Update Five lodges both saxophones in a briar patch of architectural impulses as the brass section blasts its messages with faith. The radio.string.quartet.vienna adds a dab of brooding to the palette in Update Nine. Violent expectorations, flowering pizzicati, tinkling cymbals, bright piano, clarion trumpet, and dim sonorities from the horns all enhance the strings’ flexibility as spider-web anchors bowing in the wind. Update Six, meanwhile, boasts crepuscular descriptions from Helbock at the keys, while Mantler returns in his barnacled shell.

The last two tracks form an unspoken diptych, with “Update Twelve Pt. 2 (Preview)” going all in with its round of spotlights, and “Update Twelve Pt. 3” taking the opposite route in a skeletal motif, ending where it might also have began: with a thesis statement. It’s an enjoyable reminder that Mantler’s pieces, while consummate in execution, are forever malleable in form, markers along a trail like no other on ECM grounds.

(To hear samples of The Jazz Composer’s Orchestra Update, click here.)

The Jazz Composer's Orchestra Update

Michael Mantler: For Two (ECM 2139)

For Two

Michael Mantler
For Two

Bjarne Roupé guitars
Per Salo piano
Per Salo recorded June 2010 at Studios La Buissonne, Pernes-les-Fontaines
Bjarne Roupé’s guitar tracks recorded August 2010 at home, Copenhagen
Mixed and mastered September/October 2010 at Studios La Buissonne by Gérard de Haro and Nicolas Baillard
Produced by Michael Mantler

Following the monumental Review and CONCERTOS, Vienna-born composer Michael Mantler intersects once again with ECM in an especially intimate project. For Two documents 18 duets written for jazz guitarist Bjarne Roupé and classical pianist Per Salo in a chemical reaction of, respectively, free improvisation and through-composed material. The resulting compound lures a microscope over the crucible of a uniquely cellular approach, which by these vignettes boil down Mantler’s equal footing in multiple registers.

Most impressive is the musicians’ rhetorical clarity, which despite a separation in training elicits an enchanting cross-fertilization. You might hear the jagged Duet One and think you have the album’s ensuing architecture pegged. But then Duet Two counters with a denser fusion of chord voicing and pointillism, while Duet Six reaches an almost bluesy union of form and content. Roupé’s fingers on the electric guitar are just as exploratory as Salo’s on the keyboard, so that rare passages of unison, as those in Duets Seven and Fifteen, feel more like departures than returns. Roupé’s hard-won crooning over Salo’s insistent finger pedaling in Duet Eight digs deepest into the fertile soil of Mantler’s umwelt, where perceptions of meter and matter switch places.

The beautiful Duet Ten discloses the responsiveness of composer and interpreters alike. Its brevity only serves to enhance the restless core of it all, that creative spark in which resides the potential to flare. Some may burn more brightly than others, but not one emits a hue it was never meant to emit. The notion of integration behind these pieces, then, is something born of their circumstances. In this case, the studio is not a meeting place but a funnel of ideas, from the end of which emerges unpredictable mixtures. Elements of stealth lurk in the shadows of Duets Fourteen and Sixteen, but always with an exit strategy in hand. Theirs is not a code to be broken. It is a break to be coded, a fracture in the window of time that mends itself in Duet Eighteen by molten notecraft.

Thus, the duet functions as a single organism that divides through the fortune of iteration.

(To hear samples of For Two, click here.)

Michael Mantler: Hide and Seek (ECM 1738)

Hide and Seek

Michael Mantler
Hide and Seek

Robert Wyatt voice
Susi Hyldgaard voice, accordion
Roger Jannotta flute, oboe, clarinets
Michael Mantler trumpets
Martin Cholewa French horn
Vincent Nilsson trombone
Bjarne Roupé guitars
Tineke Noordhoek vibraphone, marimba
Per Salo piano
Marianne Sørensen violins
Mette Winther violas
Helle Sørensen cellos
Recorded and mixed February-Septemer 2000 at Danish Radio Studios, Copenhagen
Engineer: Lars Palsig
Vocals recorded April 2000 at Gallery Studios, London
Engineer: Jamie Johnson
Electronic percussion programmed by Michael Mantler, sounds realized at Subzonique
Produced by Michael Mantler

Michael Mantler is a force: not to be reckoned with, per se, but of reckoning itself. He is an artist of voices, one who, as the title of this operatic jewel attests, seeks them out from hiding. One of those, Robert Wyatt (long since found), is a singer with whom this album furthers a 25-year collaboration. Another is Susi Hyldgaard (also an accomplished accordionist), who first rose from within the Mantler fold in his masterwork The School of Understanding. Accompanying them is an expanded version of the composer’s loosely termed Chamber Music and Songs Ensemble, which opens its wings to include, on winds, Roger Jannotta (of Tom van der Geld’s elusive Children At Play) and Danish pianist Per Salo. Also (omni)present is Bjarne Roupé, a guitarist who has become an integral player in Mantler’s soundings. The most vital instrument of all, however, is the text by Paul Auster, an author on Mantler’s mind for years and whose eponymous short play lends itself starkly to the composer’s unmistakable brand of telepathy. The result is no mere setting, as Mantler takes his scissors (with the author’s approval) to its language with surgical care.

Holograms are constructed in such a way that if you cut them into pieces, each retains the entire image on a smaller scale. Such is the dynamic of Hide and Seek’s seventeen miniatures. Not one is fragmentary but rather contains elements of the whole. The purely instrumental “Unsaid” dots the program in six parts, the first of which opens. In them one encounters swarms of commentary, some more modest than others, around the guitar’s queen bee. In them are the agitations into which the play’s two characters are so reluctant to give. The balance is meticulous. It allows Wyatt and Hyldgaard to dance in their circles of comfort, breaking even in their seesawing between resignation and martyrdom even as the strings paint cracks in the glass above. Unsaid, yes, but not un-voiced.

“What did you say?”

These words introduce us to a drama of elliptical conversational elements. They cradle in their hands steaming plates of indecision, miscommunication, and vulnerability, which take the piece’s full duration to consume. Voices get caught up in their own vices, and in that process also take advantage of a few loopholes. Statements become facing mirrors lost in a mise-en-abyme of their own making. In their net the accordion occupies stage center, emotes without semantic limitations, while Mantler’s trumpet drips with guidance.

“What do you see?”
“Absolutely nothing”

Question and answer. Cloud and rain. Strings and footsteps. These comprise the core of Hide and Seek, their refrain a powerful marker of identity, or lack thereof, in which all traction is gilded, amplified. The tangled web of “What can we do?” features Mantler’s electronically programmed drums in a whirl of self-realization. It also poses the album’s most pertinent question, for which it has no answer but the melody of its asking.

“It all has to end sometime”

Closure by conjuring. An impending doom, so dark it is beautiful. In its shadows Wyatt and Hyldgaard make an emotionally foiled pair, especially in the final leg. They braid acceptance, parrying and thrusting their way toward the simple resolution of “I’m glad you’re glad.”

All of which culminates in two of Mantler’s most perfect shapes. The circling electric guitar of “Do you think we’ll ever find it?” marks a standout denouement, while “It makes no difference to me” sets speech atop a fulcrum of rocking strings. A return to the game, the accordion’s song passes through the door and on to the next chapter, as yet unwritten.

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.

Michael Mantler: Cerco Un Paese Innocente (ECM 1556)

Michael Mantler
Cerco Un Paese Innocente

Mona Larsen voice
Michael Mantler trumpet
Bjarne Roupé guitar
Marianne Sørensen violin
Mette Winther viola
Gunnar Lychou viola
Helle Sørensen cello
Kim Kristensen piano
The Danish Radio Big Band
Ole Kock Hansen conductor
Recorded January 1994 at the Danish Radio, Studio 3, Copenhagen
Recording and mixing engineer: Lars Palsig
Produced by Michael Mantler

Beginning has us singing
and we sing to make an ending

Michael Mantler’s Cerco Un Paese Innocente (I search for an innocent land) pays tribute to the father of modern Italian poetry, Giuseppe Ungaretti. Subtitled “A Suite of Songs and Interludes for Voice, Untypical Big Band and Soloists,” this seamless construction feels anything but untypical in the comforting plush of its instrumentation and attention to soundscape. The present recording is also significant for bringing Copenhagen-born vocalist Mona Larsen back together with the Danish Radio Big Band, who debuted her as soloist in the seventies to wide renown. Larsen’s diction, in combination with her already broad palette, imparts life to dead limbs and electrical impulses to still hearts. Through it we know the touch of many landscapes, their peoples, their flora and fauna, reaching through our bodies toward the setting sun at our backs. This same sun warms the field’s worth of fragrance that wafts through the swell of orchestral goodness in the piece’s introduction. Yet the voice of “Girovago” (Vagrant) does not feel that touch, is forced to wander, forever a stranger, from land to land. A clarinet plays, stringing a trail of possible futures, all of which disappear into the first of five intermezzi, each an anointing of melodic oil that smacks of the perpetual. Curtains part to reveal the starlight of “Stasera” (This evening) and Larsen’s Francesca Gagnon-esque acrobatics. “Perché?” (Why?) ties an operatic ribbon around the index finger of Part 2. It is the tale of a dark heart lost in its desire to erase the scars of travel. “Sempre Notte” (Everlasting night) turns the dial further inward and walks through cascading gardens, from which hang sad and sorry tales of yesteryear like so much totora reed left to dry. The depths of “Lontano” (Distantly) evoke the poet’s blindness in a landscape of fiery hands. The music here seems to explore those sparkling pockets of air in which our dreams still breathe. Breathing, however, comes at a cost in Part 3, where the soaring orchestration of “Se Una Tua Mano” (With one hand) euphemizes the harm of curiosity trembling beneath its veneer. “Is surviving death living?” Larsen sings, prompting mental implosion through Ungaretti’s unwavering mortal concerns. The halting rhythms of “Vanità” (Vanity) further paint a world of startlement and shadows, its rubble soldered back together by the warmth of Mantler’s trumpet into “Quando Un Giorno” (When a day) and the invigorating “Le Ansie” (Fear). In these we encounter life as smoke, at once agonizing and brimming with potential. Gloom lives in these soils and nourishes the churning dramaturgy of Part 4, of which “È Senza Fiato” (Motionless) darkens like an arc of twilight, led by a shooting star of electric guitar into “Non Gridate Più” (Outcry no more). This sweeping transition rakes its fingers through silent grasses and hushes the mouths of the dead, in whom only the resolutions of “Tutto Ho Perduto” (I have lost all) continue to resound, their childhoods laid to rest by a final word.

One of your hands resists your fate,
but the other, you see, at once assures you
that you can only grasp
tatters of memory

Michael Mantler: Folly Seeing All This (ECM 1485)


Michael Mantler
Folly Seeing All This

Alexander Balanescu violin
Clare Connors violin
Bill Hawkes viola
Jane Fenton cello
Michael Mantler trumpet
Rick Fenn guitar
Wolfgang Puschnig alto flute
Karen Mantler piano, voice
Dave Adams vibraphone, chimes
Jack Bruce voice
Recorded June 1992 at Angel Studios, London
Engineer: Ben T. Reese
Produced by Michael Mantler

Folly Seeing All This must have been something of a dream project for Michael Mantler. Working with the Balanescu Quartet opened up a vital portal in this phenomenal composer. The ensemble also includes guitarist Rick Fenn and a handful of talented chamber musicians. Alexander Balanescu’s unmistakable vibrato ushers us into the title piece’s shifting moods, which speak for themselves. Mantler’s trumpet pulls from this genesis a peak for every valley. Fenn draws thick sentiments with thin lines as a piano (played by Karen Mantler) rises from below the water’s surface to test the nets of time in hopes they might hold the revelations to come. Though nearly a half hour long, the music ends all too soon, imploding into a single white dwarf of energy.

News makes for an airy companion. It undulates with the tide of politics and is every bit as vocal as Mantler’s more operatic configurations. Some beautiful seashell rolls from Wolfgang Puschnig on alto flute make sense of the knotty background, where invisible talking heads are drowned by Fenn’s guitar, more insistent now in its cause. An insightful lead-in to What Is The Word. This meditation on the words of Samuel Beckett joins the voices of Karen Mantler and Jack Bruce to speak as if from within our collective ribcage, swinging from those branches of marrow and calcium with deftly slung words. Strings in the background cycle like an air raid siren in slow motion, lending finality to this brief, tender observation.

Mantler is that rare composer in whose music every instrument, every voice, rings with an equal truth. Folly Seeing All This is one of his most reflective albums to date and serves, along with Review, as an honest introduction to one of ECM’s greatest.

Michael Mantler: The School of Understanding (ECM 1648/49)




Michael Mantler
The School of Understanding

Jack Bruce observer
Per Jørgensen teacher
Mona Larsen refugee
Susi Hyldgaard journalist
Karen Mantler student
John Greaves businessman
Don Preston doctor
Don Preston synth drums
Robert Wyatt guest observer
Michael Mantler trumpet, conductor
Roger Jannotta clarinet, bass clarinet, flute, oboe
Bjarne Roupé guitar
Marianne Sørensen violin
Mette Brandt violin
Mette Winther violin
Helle Sørensen cello
Tineke Noordhoek vibraphone, marimba
Kim Kristensen piano, synthesizers
Giordano Bellincampi conductor
Recorded and mixed by Largs Palsig
Danmarks Radio Studios, Copenhagen
August-December 1996
Occasional assistance by Henriette M. Frandsen
Orchestral strings recorded by Bo Kristiansson
Robert Wyatt recorded by Ewan Davies
Chapel Studios, Lincolnshire, England
Produced by Michael Mantler

“don’t mind me
I am just watching
and observing
asking questions
trying to understand”

Thus do we look into the heart of Michael Mantler’s magnum opus, The School of Understanding. Originally called The School Of Languages, the piece’s central theme came out in its final title, for which the composer did not, for once, work with Heiner Müller and wrote his first libretto instead. Mantler calls this “sort-of-an-opera” not just as a humble gesture, but also because it is an expression of the music’s unwillingness to mask itself in romantic decorations. Rather, it emotes through a powerful cast that includes Per Jørgensen, Jack Bruce, Mona Larsen, Susi Hyldgaard, Karen Mantler, John Greaves, and Don Preston. Whether familiar or not, these names fade into the roles they now adopt. As Teacher and Observer, Refugee and Journalist, Student, Businessman, and Doctor, they bring essential theatrical elements to the offering table.

But like an opera, we begin where voices can have no foothold: in the breathtaking “Prelude.” This tremulous coming into being cracks like the skin of time, filling in every new border with musical information. Against the program’s soft palate, the harder strings bounce like a rubber ball into stasis, leaving behind a trail of dots and lines. This moves us into “Introductions,” during which Teacher brings a raw professorship to bear on the lives of his students, who open like college-ruled notebooks before him. Though bound in primary colors, their stories intersect in all manner of hues and combinations, while Teacher’s haggard monochrome reflects those starry-eyed gazes, those hopeful dreams, those tortured pasts, like unpolished silver. Occupations, aspirations, and inspirations fall to the linoleum floor—itself an incomplete jigsaw puzzle, the pieces of which will never all be found.

The voices are as distinct as their characters, blending histories as they drip like turpentine from an unwashed easel. Still, there is one who holds back until all ears are on him. One who speaks through the act of witnessing. One whose drama is sonorous, heart-stopping. “First Lesson” is a call to mental action, an acknowledgment of tools both given and made. There is only one book and an ever-present television screen, both conduits of words and concepts to the outside world, which itself lies in ruins. And on that screen, we encounter the “News,” a catalogue of inhuman affairs, a string of adjectives, and a slow-motion punch to the winded gut of relevance. The hypnotic pulse of reiteration throws us into the quicksand of information. The orchestral colors that began the piece now merge into a tracking marimba and Mantler’s trumpet. The latter is the occasional placating force, adding brief but potent addendums to narratives of oppression.

There is also a satellite drama. We follow it from “Love Begins” to “Love Ends,” for it can never rise above fallacy in a world whose political architecture is brick-and-mortared with enmity. A clarinet takes off its shadowy muzzle to reveal a voice of reason and bleeds into a formative conversation, a date—as in dinner and a movie—that thrives on a hint of obligratory romance, yet which dies in the inevitable dismay of human connection.

“War,” in both length and content, is the heart of this composition, a tearful sermon on the iniquities of weapons and flesh which makes clear to us that this is a school not only of understanding but also of conversation, a school where education is nothing if not extracurricular. It is a church whose only preacher is whoever appears on a tendered note, and where terrorism is a font in which anyone may be baptized. The cry of an electric guitar bounces across faded frescoes. The students are shocked to realize that war is a reality one may live. The real learning begins in the knowledge that placing their minds in the hands of conflict is one thing, but that likewise placing their bodies is another entirely. An acoustic guitar is another veil of tears through which only the Refugee may see clearly to the memories beyond. She tells her story as might a mother to her child, as might a child to her mother. This street where once she ran is now a place of careful footsteps and homes reduced to ashes and dust.

We “Pause” for reflection and release, swimming through the confusions and contusions of “Understanding,” and awaken in the deeply rooted tremors of “Health And Poverty.” True sickness, we are told, ignores the corporeal and makes its nest in denial and vanity. Once the mirror is broken, we at last see ourselves for who we are, sucking life like parasites from those who need it most, those who’ve never known what it could be, to whom possibility is a passing ideology. Once suffering has clarified its cause, the rest of us latch on to the effect, as if it might give us answers. To the awakened mind, the truth is too much to bear, so that statistics become like words, speaking all too clearly. And while the banality of human interaction (“Platitudes”) is offset by alluring music, we check off our litany of exasperations in “Intolerance,” working our way toward silence, where only one question remains: “What Is The Word.” The Teacher’s voice grows distant as we fall from the source of all songs, sliding down the double-edged blade of knowledge, which both brought everyone here and glints with the promise of hard-won salvation. It cuts the playing field into same-sized pieces, repeating itself, repeating itself…

If you were ever unsure of Mantler’s genius before, then I can only hope this will convince you. The School Of Understanding is not the soundtrack to a film, but the film to a soundtrack. It scoops the idea of education like a dead fly out of stagnant water and resuscitates it to full buzzing flight. It is the pinnacle of Mantler’s craft. This definitive recording belongs on any “Best of ECM” list.

Michael Mantler: Review (ECM 1813)


Michael Mantler
Review (1968-2000)

Robert Wyatt voice
Susi Hyldgaard voice, accordion
Michael Mantler trumpet
Bjarne Roupé guitar
Per Salo piano
Mona Larsen voice
Kim Kristensen piano, synthesizers
Jack Bruce voice
Per Jørgensen voice
Don Preston voice, synthesizers
John Greaves voice, bass
Karen Mantler voice, piano
Alexander Balanescu violin
Rick Fenn guitar
Marianne Faithfull voice
Nick Mason drums
Mike Stern guitar
Carla Bley piano, synthesizers, voice
Steve Swallow bass
Larry Coryell guitar
Tony Williams drums
Kevin Coyne voice
Chris Spedding guitar
Ron McClure bass
Terje Rypdal guitar
Jack DeJohnette drums
Don Cherry trumpet
Pharoah Sanders tenor saxophone
Jazz Composer´s Orchestra
London Symphony Orchestra
Balanescu Orchestra
Danish Radio Concert Orchestra
The Danish Radio Big Band
Chamber Music and Songs Ensemble
Radio Symphony Orchestra Frankfurt

Every once in a while, an album comes along that changes our view of what jazz, or any genre for that matter, can be. Review isn’t one of those albums. It’s much better.

One of contemporary music’s most accessible provocateurs, Michael Mantler is like an old friend and an enigma in one. ECM’s vital retrospective compresses over thirty years of his coal-throated sounds into a gallery of jagged diamonds. With a roster to make even the most eclectic enthusiast blush with delight, Mantler assembles a powerful resume of musical forces, intentions, artifacts, techniques, and emotional ammunition. He is the sonic equivalent of a Robert Altman or Peter Greenaway. Like the latter, he works with pictures within pictures, splashes refractions of time and place across his screens, enhances images with the written word. He makes audible the diaries of our intellectual journeys, folds every page into a paper airplane, and launches it from heights far beyond what we ever imagined as children.

From the first moments of the piano-driven, brass-infused jewel of musical concentration that is “Unsaid,” we feel the broad strokes with which Mantler paints, and the perpetual reinvention that cloaks his every move. No single mood dominates from thereon out. “Introductions,” for example, is a scrapbook of varied histories, of dislocation and dying joys, the story of a war-torn world in which home no longer remains a stable category. Against its beautiful harp-infused orchestral background, a kaleidoscope of characters airs its grievances. It’s as if one were to throw into a pot the music of Meredith Monk and Heiner Goebbels and watch what results. As this broth comes to a boil, we get a most potent whiff of unknown spices. Each instrument is its own flavor, adding a dash of autobiography to the thickening brew. This is a stunning piece, one exemplary of Mantler’s genius. “Solitudine / Lontano / L’Illuminata Rugiada / Proverbi” is a chain of laments splashing in the limpid pool of self-awareness, threading circumstance with the wave of a drunken stroll. A mournful violin lays itself down before a pause brings us to the more resolute “Speechless.” An unspoken word rolling off the tongue only when it is too late, it leads us to one of the album’s many insightful instrumental pieces. Said excerpt from “Folly Seeing All This” (1992) lifts its weight as a foot from mud, with no other choice but to step down and repeat the process. “Movie Two” (1977) is another magnificent incident, marked by nimble drumming from Tony Williams, heading a tight rhythm section beneath a crunchy guitar solo from Larry Coryell, not to mention Mantler’s own vividly imaginary trumpeting. A few briefer interludes make their voiceless presences known. “Love Ends (excerpt),” a bittersweet duet for clarinet and piano, is a memory one can’t quite picture. A treat from the unpretentiously titled “Alien” (1985) sports the nostalgic synths of Mothers of Invention keyboardist Don Preston. “Twenty” brims with the youth of its eponymous age. It acerbic electric guitar and heavy bass almost tumble over one another in their search for gold. But then there is “One Symphony” (1998), from which he hear but one fascinating orchestral snippet. Characterized by vibrant energy and mallet-heavy percussion, its jaunty instrumentation titillates at an intersection of the bowed, the blown, and the struck. Echoing pizzicato strings transcend the music’s outer barriers, puncturing its paper-like firmament with simulacra of starlight. “Preview” (1968) is another bundle of archival explosives. Its incendiary tenor sax solo, courtesy of the legendary Pharoah Sanders, runs amok, incurring not a few brass concussions along the way. And as the drums bubble from the earth around him like a latent volcano, Sanders astonishes with the intensity of his (in)difference.

Of all the vocal talent represented here, Robert Wyatt is foremost. His incautious duet with Susi Hyldgaard in “I’m glad you’re glad” is its own wonder. Here, a relationship’s self-reflexivity is thrown in its protagonists’ faces with veiled exclamations of happiness and return. Wyatt reads from Harold Pinter’s play Silence in “Sometimes I See People” (1976), twisting morose obsessions with social growth and fallacies of identity twist into a complicated braid. Another effective reading, this time run through a flange, in “The Sinking Spell” (from Mantler’s 1975/76 The Hapless Child) offers an Edward Gorey tale to the morbid believer in all of us. Its terrestrial charm, set aloft by flights on electric guitar, slingshots its sentiments across the universe toward vocal ends. Backed by none other than Carla Bley, Terje Rypdal, Jack DeJonette, and Steve Swallow, Wyatt stretches until he leaves his own nebular mark in the evening sky. A trio of miniatures—“PSS,” an excerpt from “Comrade,” and “A l’Abattoir”—featuring the voice of Marianne Faithfull makes for some further incisive dramaturgy. Behind a thinly processed veneer, each is a micro-opera of galactic proportions. Jack Bruce lays down his own heavy tracks with the words of Samuel Beckett in “Number Six – Part Four” (1973), in which he is paired with trumpeter Don Cherry. Finally, the lilting strings that introduce “It makes no difference to me” fade into their reverberant chamber behind indecisive voices, wandering in the confusion of split paths like the accordion that continues their journey when they fall silent. A love for recitative underscores these narratively minded pieces in brightest neon.

The real meta-statement, however, lies in “Understanding.” A piece about and of transition, it achieves its resolution through the fallibility of the utterance and its audio redeployment. It is a Tower of Babel laid on its side and spread thin into an auditory crepe. Mantler manages to be both cinematic and literary here, further skirting an undefined space between the two. As a translator myself, I feel this piece reaches for my heart like no other.

Mantler is a musical treasure, a singular voice comprised of many. His is not music that simply speaks to the listener, but music that speaks and listens to itself.