Michael Mantler – Comment C’est
(ECM 2537 5711447. CD Review by Jane Mann)
Comment C’est (How It Is) is the latest CD from Austrian-born composer/trumpeter Michael Mantler. Mantler, who was born in Vienna in 1943, lived and worked in the USA from 1964 to 1991, playing and composing jazz. In 1991 he returned to Europe, and has concentrated on contemporary Art Music/New Music composition. This new work takes the form of a song cycle in 10 movements, played by the Max Brand Ensemble, conducted by Christoph Cech, with French-born singer Himiko Paganotti and Mantler himself on trumpet.
The impeccable chamber orchestra, from Austria, is a group of 12 musicians – woodwind, brass, strings, vibraphone and marimba, plus pianist David Helbock – who specialise in New Music. Paganotti is most well-known for her singing with French prog rock outfit Magma. Mantler’s distinctive trumpet soars over the whole.
Mantler says on his website:
“No longer able to ignore outrageous recent world events, it had simply become impossible to continue creating music without reacting to this overwhelming and pervasive environment of hatred, greed and corruption. Comment c’est therefore concerns itself quite specifically with a range of serious subjects, such as war, terrorism, hostages, migration, poverty, fear and the generally sorry state of our contemporary world.”
These are quite the grimmest lyrics I have ever heard. The songs are sung in French, which Mantler believes to be a good language to sing in. There is a parallel translation in the accompanying booklet. Mantler’s intention is relentlessly punched home. Each song is a catalogue of despair. Here are a couple of lines in English from Hiver (Winter) to give you an idea: “the dead inside the ruins/cold bodies, once warm/just bits and pieces/what used to be alive…” The songs build inexorably but to no conclusion at all, Mantler does not offer us any hope.
The music is strong, somehow, beneath all this misery, beautifully played, but despite the mellow woodwind and delicate marimba, it is bleak. As I listened to each sad song in turn, I heard resonances of Shostakovich’s Baba Yar, and Prokofiev’s Alexander Nevsky. There is repetition, in the manner of Michael Nyman, and at one point I was reminded of young Ragnar Kjartansson’s Hangover, a never ending melancholic piece for brass band. At other times I thought of Kurt Weill (at his most bitter – there is no Hollywood ending possible here) and there are touches, not surprisingly, reminiscent of the Liberation Music Orchestra, with whom Mantler played during his long association with fellow composer Carla Bley, to whom he was married from 1964-1991.
There is beauty, however, in all this bleakness. I liked two songs Commerce – about the arms business – and Hiver (cited above) which is written from the point of view of someone living in the middle of a war. Paganotti sings with dignity and poignancy, there is no melodrama, anywhere, no matter how grim the words. Mantler’s trumpet solos are exquisite, and so distinctive, immediately calling to mind his contributions to the Haden/Bley masterpiece of 1982, Ballad of the Fallen, which was never off my turntable for most of the ’80s. This is a fine record, if you can bear it.
music and words by Michael Mantler
Himiko Paganotti voice
Michael Mantler trumpet
MAX BRAND Ensemble conducted by Christoph Cech
Annegret Bauerle flute
Peter Tavernaro oboe
Gregor Narnhofer clarinet
Eberhard Reiter bass clarinet
Balduin Wetter French horn
Tobias Ennemoser tuba
Joanna Lewis violin
Simon Frick violin
Simon Schellnegger viola
Arne Kircher cello
Tibor Kövesdi bass
Sun Yi vibraphone, marimba
David Helbock piano