The Wire - September 2021


Michael Mantler
Coda: Orchestra Suites

Vienna born trumpeter and composer Michael Mantler seals his reputation as a master of suspense with a set of career-spanning reworks.
by Julian Cowley

"I have always considered myself an orchestral composer," Michael Mantler acknowledges in an interview that accompanies Coda. His history bears that out. With Carla Bley, in 1965, he set up the Jazz Composer's Orchestra in New York, a large ensemble vigorous and versatile enough to channel and give support to the torrential energies of improvising soloists such as Cecil Taylor, Pharoah Sanders and Gato Barbieri. Then, when Mantler and Bley established their independent record label Watt in the early 70s, its third release featured his piece Thirteen, a massive conception scored for two orchestras, plus connecting piano. Even when circumstances, predominantly economic, have placed limitations upon the scale of his groups, Mantler's orchestral inclinations have continued to underpin his approach to writing music

Coda, recorded in September 2019 in Vienna, the city where Mantler was born and subsequently studied music during the early 60s, is both a culmination and a homecoming. A refined statement from a mature artist, it offers testimony to the coherence, integrity and consistency of his musical imagination, nurtured and sustained without dilution for more than half a century. In 2014 an exercise in creative revision resulted in The Jazz Composer's Orchestra Update (ECM), a recording that tapped into the vitality of that vintage project and confirmed its relevance for new listeners, as well as Mantler's long-established audience.

Now, in these five orchestral suites, he elaborates upon thematic materials derived from various phases of his work, recasting and revoicing them for a large chamber ensemble, conducted by Christoph Cech. The opening suite actually draws upon Thirteen. A contraction in purely numerical terms, the material remains weighty, yet it has grown more supple, agile and eloquent.

Eloquence, in Mantler's terms, is never a matter of romantic flourishes or rhetorical excess. A discipline of austerity runs through his music even when the orchestration is at its most animated and intricate. Mantler has made no secret of the deep affinity he feels for the work of Samuel Beckett. He has provided musical settings for the Irish writer's words on numerous recordings, starting with No Answer (1974), the second release on Watt. That label itself took its name from a Beckett novel

Mantler's music, like Beckett's prose, is communicative without being conventionally expressive. Beckett opted to write in French on the grounds that it is a language less deeply engrained with inherited associations than English. At its most minimal his fiction became literally characterless, its language bleached and spare. He worked with the shape of ideas, with verbal patterning and permutation, relishing irony, honing inflection and cadence to compose prose that continues, despite its depletions, to affect, involve, even at times to exhilarate readers. .

As a trumpeter and as an orchestral composer, Mantler to a certain extent shares those qualities and characteristics. He is a jazz musician who frequently seems to be working in an idiom more abstract and oblique than jazz. He does make compelling use of orchestral colour, yet despite the broad range of options available to him a repertoire of characteristic figures, alignments and accents persist. Cultivating these recurrent elements, Mantler manages to project an air of tension and an intensity that carries his own unmistakable imprint. Like Beckett, he is a virtuoso of cadence, his ear for the fall of a phrase is acute. And invariably the truly telling phrases do fall. Exultant ascents, joyous flights of the spirit are not Mantler's natural trajectory

Beneath the agitated surface of his orchestral music there lurks a condition of virtual stasis, less a drone than an impasse, chords that loom in intractable blocks, going nowhere. His frequent use of repetition is never restful or hypnotic. Mantler is a master of anxiety and apprehensiveness. Dedicated listeners to cinematic music should certainly check out his work. His 1978 release Movies is a set of soundtracks for imaginary films. A sequel followed two years later. But listen to any of the tracks on Coda and you'll also enter a suspenseful filmic realm, where harmonic changes convey foreboding and insecurity, and rhythmic emphasis can suggest heightened unease or fretful palpitations.

Material for the other four suites is derived from Alien (1985), Folly Seeing All This (1993), Cerco Un Paese Innocente (I Search For An Innocent Land) (1994) and Hide And Seek (2001). Alien is an instrumental album, trumpet and synthesizer duets with Don Preston from The Mothers Of Invention. The other albums feature texts by Beckett, poet Giuseppe Ungaretti and novelist Paul Auster.

Just as Beckett liked to collaborate with Patrick Magee, Jack MacGowran and Billie Whitelaw - actors who could make his existential vision resonate through their theatrical personalities - so Mantler has favoured certain vocalists, notably Robert Wyatt, Jack Bruce and Mona Larsen. Coda discards vocals, although guitarist Bjarne Roupé, pianist David Helbock, flautist Leo Eibensteiner and Mantler himself are instrumentalists who perform a comparable role, contributing their own slants and textures.

Coda is an outstanding success, not simply as an exercise in creative recycling, but as the elegantly realised fulfillment of Mantler's aspirations as an orchestral composer.