Michael Mantler: The Hapless Child (WATT/4)

The Hapless Child

Michael Mantler
The Hapless Child

Robert Wyatt vocals
Carla Bley piano, clavinet, string synthesizer
Steve Swallow bass guitar
Jack DeJohnette drums, percussion
Terje Rypdal guitar
Alfreda Benge speaker
Albert Caulder, Nick Mason additional speakers
Recorded July 1975 through January 1976 at Grog Kill Studio in Willow, New York with the Manor Mobile at Robert Wyatt’s house and Delfina’s farm in England, and at Britannia Row in London
Engineers: Michael Mantler, Dennis Weinreich, Alan Perkins, and Nick Mason
Mixed January 1976 at Britannia Row by Nick Mason
“The Hapless Child” mixed November 1975 at Scorpio Sound by Dennis Weinreich
Produced by Carla Bley
Release date: June 1, 1978

Our sojourn through the shadowy periphery of WATT-induced slumber presses onward in The Hapless Child. Michael Mantler’s lovingly crafted ode to Edward Gorey (1925-2000) deepens the dream in which we find ourselves, making it seem more real by every sung (and spoken) word. Those who adore Mantler’s soundscapes might already be familiar with Gorey’s words and illustrations. Macabre though his themes often are, there’s also a childlike wonder to his gallery of apparitions, misfortunes, and uncertainties that lends itself beautifully to Mantler’s uniquely sonic stagecraft.

Gorey himself once said, “It’s well we cannot hear the screams we make in other people’s dreams.” And perhaps we are given here a glimpse into that very possibility, as if every scream were re-clothed as a poem that everyone can relate to. Aiding in this psychosomatic translation process is a band that is itself the stuff of fantasy: Carla Bley on piano and keyboards, Steve Swallow on bass guitar, Jack DeJohnette on drums and percussion, and Terje Rypdal on guitar. Standing at the top of this pyramid is vocalist Robert Wyatt, who drinks in all the sunlight and spews out morbid parables for the lost below.

The most convincing turns of this subarachnoid maze are found in three dense scenes. “The Sinking Spell” opens with what sounds like the tail end of an in-studio conversation, reminding us from the start that what we are about to experience has been fashioned as an object of fascination for our voyeuristic ears. Wyatt transitions into the deceptive simplicity of rhyming couplets, telling the story of something “morose, inflexible, aloof” appearing and disappearing. Ever closer but ultimately ephemeral, this unidentified presence looms with a feeling of unsettlement as intense as Wyatt’s matter-of-fact delivery. “The Insect God” conveys the frantic story of a child’s disappearance and the dismay of a family who will never know the ghastly sacrifice for which she has been taken. It is also one of the most disconcerting masterstrokes of prog rock these ears have ever encountered. Then the title song, in which a girl falls into destitution following the death of her parents, only to be fatally run over by her war-wounded father (alive after all), who no longer recognizes a daughter battered beyond recognition by fate.

Rypdal and DeJohnette provide glimpses of gold in these otherwise silver-toned dramas. Bley’s piano and string synthesizer up the quotient of creepiness, while Swallow’s bass is the perpetual mobile of time that stops for no one. Other shards in this bag of broken memories include “The Object-Lesson” (a recitative laid on an extraordinary altar of guitar, bass, and drums), “The Doubtful Guest” (for which Wyatt’s brogue is uncannily suited), and “The Remembered Visit” (about a promise destined never to be fulfilled). Each of these is a path we might very have wandered ourselves, but against which Mantler has constructed a strangely alluring warning sign for us to read in full before heading forth to brighter pastures under opened eyes.

Though The School of Understanding will always be my favorite Mantler piece, The Hapless Child might just as appropriately wear the crown of his highest achievement.

The Hapless Child back

Michael Mantler/Carla Bley: 13 3/4 (WATT/3)


Michael Mantler
Carla Bley
13 3/4

Carla Bley piano
The 13 Orchestra
The 3/4 Orchestra
Recorded August 1975
Grog Kill Studio, Willow, New York
Mixed September 1975
Scorpio Sound, London
Engineer: Dennis Weinreich
Assistant: John Hunt
Produced by Carla Bley and Michael Mantler
Release date: February 1, 1978

After sleeping in separate beds, so to speak, in the first two WATT releases, Carla Bley and Michael Mantler share a marquee for the label’s third. The program here is bipartite, sporting one composition by each in a resolutely multi-dimensional form of jazz that pairs Bley’s piano with orchestral forces.

Mantler’s 13 is a morose dive into some light-starved chambers of nature. Sounding like a storm turned into a symphony, it has the climatic features of rain and hail. Bley is a lost and itinerant soul in all of this, one whose mind, despite being over matter, is subject to abuses of the elements. The combinatory dialogue of strings and horns generates internal combustion, reaching textural peaks of brilliance. The piano’s forlorn timbre is emphasized by a slightly detuned and tinny delivery, as if it were an instrument that has known only a life of physical compromise. And so, any glimpses of perfection or woundless-ness feel more traumatic than hopeful. Struggles are indicative not of pain but of an underlying deference to the fate of its infliction. The storm, then, serves to illustrate a way of life, not an interruption to it. We are left with a sea of textures to be felt along the spine and ear canal, building to a cathartic wall of sound à la Glenn Branca.

Bley’s 3/4 is just as distinctly her own, though its breadth of vision may be compared to the classical hybrids of Keith Jarrett (who, incidentally, gave this piece’s premiere). Opening with a cyclical piano that maintains its course throughout, it ties a web of winds and brass, allowing notes to flow through every opening. An overriding drama speaks of the theater, but one in which bodies jump off the stage yet never land. Droll memories share oxygen with coarse futures, yielding a vibrancy that speaks both of its composer and the time during which it came into being. It ends as it began, in a childlike wonder at the immensity of creation. Only now it knows where life will lead because, as we will realize, everything that came before was a prelude to self-destruction.


Michael Mantler: No Answer (WATT/2)

No Answer

Michael Mantler
No Answer

Jack Bruce voices, bass
Carla Bley piano, clavinet, organs
Don Cherry trumpet
Recorded February and July 1973
Blue Rock Studio, New York
Jack Bruce recorded November 1973
Island Studios, London
Mixed March 1974
Blue Rock Studio, New York
Produced by Carla Bley and Michael Mantler

when the panting stops yes so that was true yes the panting
yes the murmur yes in the dark yes
in the mud yes to the mud yes

After landing us in the scenery of Carla Bley’s Tropic Appetites, our journey through the land of WATT brings us to its first stopover in the form of Michael Mantler’s No Answer. Here we are exposed not to the snapshots of that first masterful traversal, but rather to the fitful dreams of our displacement following it, wounded by the act of travel in ways that only the unpunctuated prose of Samuel Beckett can articulate. Drawing on the globally talented trio of vocalist Jack Bruce, trumpeter Don Cherry, and Bley herself on piano, clavinet, and organs, Mantler sets passages from 1964’s How It Is (1964) as if each were a life to be shuffled rather than a memory to be pulled from its deck.

Consisting of two sections—NUMBER SIX and NUMBER TWELVE—of four parts each, No Answer is (curiously) an answer to its own question. This philosophical DNA repeats itself endlessly; only we are privy to a sliver of its helix. Bley’s pianism is the damp ground beneath gray-clouded vocal overdubs, yielding beneath every word as if it were a footprint in the making. The quality of Bruce’s singing lends itself organically to Mantler’s stage, as if the two were made for each other. His delivery is sardonic yet sincere, his falsetto particularly haunting in its naked vulnerability. He walks the line of theatrical refraction, rolling up the fourth wall like a backdrop no longer needed. Thus, he represents a lifelong fascination, pulled into an ephemeral mold.

Though the novel itself is a slog through mud and violence, there’s something unclothed about the music that adds an entirely different level to its interpretation. Bley is the curio collector in this regard, at some points rummaging through a closet of memory while at others dancing among the bits of relics she has unearthed. As for Cherry, he is a voice from the past, chanting and bubbling through terrestrial forms of communication.

The second half of the program is introduced via clavinet and Bruce’s congregation of selves. In the context of this vibrant execution, we find ourselves caught in the web of inner meanings over outward appearances. The effect is such that, even when Bruce breaks open a bottle of funk with his bass, there is little to be hopeful for in the bleakness of things. In a reversal of fortune, fire comes before smoke, sinking into the darkness of Bley’s organ in the slow tumble of a drunken tourist.

nothing to emend there no the arms spread yes
like a cross no answer
LIKE A CROSS no answer YES OR NO yes

No Answer back

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

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