Perfect Sound Forever

Michael Mantler

Photo by Gorm Valentin, © ECM Records

Interview by Mark S. Tucker
(September 2005)

Following several decidedly strange communications with the selfsame ECM, PSF's publisher was able to put me in contact with one of their mainstays, outside the arctic corporate offices - Steve Swallow, the leviathan bass player, who got ahold of Mantler, eliciting an agreement to be interviewed. When I first contacted Mike, asking if he'd be interested in answering a few questions to accompany an article I'd written on his early work, I received a somewhat spiky reply:

"Steve Swallow has forwarded your mail to me. You can send me a few questions - but please note that I will not answer things that have already been thoroughly documented in the past, nor "fan" type questions ("what were X, Y and Z really like" etc.). Please acquaint yourself with the contents of"

I could most certainly understand irritation at the prospect at being plagued by yet another potentially brick-brained crit - I much too much sympathize with the dis-esteem critics are held in not to - but, given the glaciality of the subtext, I considered dropping the subject: one gets more than enough crap from crytpic publishers and invisible editors and I didn't really want to step into disdain, perhaps even open warfare, from a musician I admired. But, more often than not, dealing with the irascibility of genius proves profitable - yielding, in my estimation, far more interesting results than what one receives from individuals with pre-programmed responses and Emily Post ingratiation. Despite a careful crafting of questions that avoided "What is your fave color?" babble, Mantler's responses were frosty. Bad? No, good! Very good indeed. Who needs canned manners? Those who carry epidermal cynicality are almost always endowed with a great deal of wit, even when it's venomous.

Bizarrely, though, upon receipt of those retorts, I was also asked to submit my article for his approval:

"P.S.: I would very much like to see what you write before it gets put out (just to verify facts, for my and your own good). Thanks."

To which I answered:

"I apologize but I cannot accede to your request. Doing so would be, I think, not unlike you having to run your works before the audience before publishing them, eliciting their input as a basis for revisions. The result you could well anticipate. Let me say that Morton Subotnick's tone and curtness were not unlike your own when he, too, requested a preview of the long overview I was writing on him. I refused and, after the piece was run in E/I #1, Mort wrote and congratulated me on it, pleased with the result. On the other hand, David Borden was less than enamored of his overview - it was not, apparently, suitably gushing - even though the readers in that particular magazine (Progression) liked it immensely. In short: the artist puts before the entire audience, subject artist included, his work and takes accolades or bricks accordingly, on merit."

To which he answered:

"I very clearly referred to FACTS. I have neither the time nor the interest to check, correct, or influence a journalist's OPINION. What I mind, though, is people constantly getting their facts wrong, whether it be because of carelessness or simply things having been documented badly in the past. It was an offer of assistance, not preciousness. I'm glad that you apparently like my music, but, in the end, I really don't care what writers think. And I have no intention to belabor that point. I'll be happy to be proved wrong."

It's amusing, when artists start bitch-slapping each other, isn't it?

The following is exactly that sort of bizarre, moody, temperamental situation. Though lacking in cooperation or information, it's nonetheless very entertaining, informative, and revealing... or so I like to arrogate. Mantler's not your everyday guy nor is he unjustified in his reticence and frustrations, all things considered - not that it would matter: the music is the point and, in his case, it's singular, stratospheric, and edifying. In the end, though, which is more refreshing in an interview: a colloquy of the sort of moribund and exceedingly tired journalism rags like Goldmine expectorate or the occasional contrastive splash of cold water in the face?. Things balance out.

Of course, it remains to be seen whether or not Mr. Mantler will be "happily disproven" - the Vegas odds are too close to call.

PSF: Opening interview questions inevitably zero in on inquiries into influences but my curiosity involves your literary and composing antecedents as well as the people who initially, as a budding musician, nudged you towards taking up the trumpet. Particularly amongst those, what inspired your marvelously odd musical architectures?

Mantler: Relating to the trumpet, from Louis Armstrong to Don Cherry via Roy Eldridge, Clifford Brown, Miles Davis, Don Ellis, and Booker Little.

PSF: What prompted you to lean so heavily into the idiosyncratic modern writers for librettos... abetting the plethora of endless regurgitations of Shakespeare didn't appeal?

Mantler: See the interview on the Many Have No Speech website page

PSF: Early on, you got involved in Art Bears-ish material and followed an eccentric personalized path. I've always been unhappy with Marianne Faithfull's performance on Many Have No Speech and, even given that there might have been several candidates, wondered why Dagmar Krause wasn't slotted for a role that screamed out for her, especially with Nico deceased.

Mantler: Marianne had the voice I wanted to hear.

PSF: You're the only composer who really understands Jack Bruce's ethereal Romantic classicality, his Elizabethan transcendentality. One easily pictures him as a companion of Blake and gets the feeling, listening through your catalogue, that you might have composed a mammoth "opera", casting him in the lead. Was ere any possibility of that occurring? Your early style, after all, fairly begged for your own Escalator Over The Hill.

Mantler: Jack is more or less playing "God" in School of Understanding (my sort-of-a-"mammoth"-opera) - what more do you want?

PSF: Live showcased the only time in your early ECM catalogue that you really cut loose, especially on "The Doubtful Guest," and demonstrated a vivacity far more usual to rock. Ever considered, then or now, a side project of pulling out all the stops and just wailing through an entire LP?

Mantler: Haven't you ever listened to Movies, More Movies, or even Something There? [writer's note: see the article accompanying this interview, which was written well before the interview].

PSF: Some very few progressive rock enthusiasts see the form as holding an adjunct of neoclassicality, a sentiment very much quashed by journalism in general. Yet, work like yours, though it wouldn't be much considered, I'm sorry to say, by benighted prog critics, keeps re-opening the validity of the assertion. Did you have certain goals in mind or was this your normal voice we heard?

Mantler: No goals, I just do what I do.

PSF: Given your base, a kindredness with top-flight jazz musicians would be expected, but what occasioned the familiarity with the rock giants you'd chosen for your compositions? How did you go about recruiting them?

Mantler: I liked what they had to offer, particularly the voices. They were recruited by my knowing some of them, or them knowing me, or through friends, etc.

PSF: Rockers have tried to escape the tyranny of the stranglehold of the major labels but were smashed from the wings by covert machinations. The Grateful Dead, Beach Boys, Beatles, and Frank Zappa all experienced this rather pointedly and first-hand. Your own NMDS (New Music Distribution Service) was a noble enterprise I was aware of when writing for Sound Choice long ago - I yet possess NMDS's '88 catalogue, a form of heavenly passport - but, to all appearances, it crashed rather quickly and horribly, surviving only so many years. Why?

Mantler: It survived quite a few years actually - from about 1970 until beginning of the '90s. By then, it simply became unmanageable.

PSF: Besides NMDS, you put together JCOA (Jazz Composers Orchestra Association) with Carla Bley, to try to ameliorate financial pressures on music, if I'm understanding correctly. Is that still alive or did it face the same problems as NMDS?

Mantler: NMDS was, in fact, the only remaining activity of JCOA. The orchestra itself ceased to operate in the mid-'70s (lack of money, necessity, and, last but not least, really good composers in that vein).

PSF: At what point, if any, do you think music that extends beyond prescribed interests will no longer be forced to serve the demands of money? What would you think of a tax-sheltered patronage system, wherein a wealthy altruist would get significant incentives for, on a long-term basis, underwriting the creation of art? It seems to be what true artists need, given the unsuitability of existent predatory capitalisms for most such things.

Mantler: Absolutely, and that was what JCOA (and NMDS) were doing.

PSF: As someone who's tried to expand business capabilities, why haven't you used the Web for another attempt to create a new distribution system? I'm an ardent admirer of ECM and can guess you're receiving about as fair a treatment as could be had anywhere with Manfred Eicher & Co., but it seems your rebellious personality would forever be searching for more independence and better returns in audience size/awareness and just remunerations.

Mantler: I'm simply tired of doing it, or attempting to, all myself. At what point does one stop bloodying one's head by beating it against a seemingly impenetrable wall?

PSF: Ever think about now adapting librettos for the more traditional "high-art" singers like Kiri Te Kanawa, Placido Domingo, or anyone within so-called classically "acceptable" parameters?

Mantler: I hate opera and "classical" operatic voices. Of course, if the Met would commission an opera from me, would I do (attempt) it? Probably...

PSF: Your new ventures often concentrate on exquisite orchestral work; what took so long for the orchestra to enter your work... money concerns?

Mantler: One doesn't just happen to come by an orchestra. That was also the original reason for JCOA, of course. One needs to be asked to work with symphony orchestras, and that is generally reserved for a privileged group of what is considered "classical" composers. The so-called "jazz" guys (a category I am usually lumped in with) get the occasional chance, but are normally considered a curiosity and are not afforded such outlets on a consistent basis.

PSF: Who are the composers you see as pumping fresh blood in the musical arts?

Mantler: None, including myself. It has all been done. The only and last perhaps-major innovation, if you can call it that, was minimalism, and just about everything else had been done already (and brilliantly) much earlier by the Vienna School, Bartok, Stravinsky, Varese.

There is still perfectly good, accomplished, even interesting, new music being written - I have no names to offer - but I hear nothing radically new. The same, by the way, goes for jazz, which has now become "classical" music. Nothing new whatsoever but an extremely accomplished re-hashing of the past. These new young musicians play better (and can play it all, any style in the history) than the innovators. Extremely impressive... and boring. I prefer to hear the old, imperfect, and exciting originals.

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