What sort of music do we most need in these disturbed times? Something to soothe and console, certainly. Something to help us dance our way through the gloom, of course. Something to ensure, as well, that the finer instincts of the human mind remain open to stimulus. But perhaps most of all just now we need music that observes and warns. That’s the task of Comment c’est, a new extended work from the trumpeter-composer Michael Mantler which seems likely, at least to me, to be one of the most significant recordings of the year.
Born in Vienna in 1943, Mantler is probably still best known for what happened after he moved to New York in 1961 and teamed up with Carla Bley, with whom he founded the Jazz Composers Orchestra Association. His compositions for large ensemble were heard on the JCO’s first album in 1968, a series of bold compositions designed for soloists such as Cecil Taylor, Don Cherry, Gato Barbieri and Pharoah Sanders, all of whom were known at the time for their work with small groups. Since then his many recordings have included a symphony, an opera, and settings of the words of Samuel Beckett, Harold Pinter, Paul Auster and others, often featuring a regular cast of collaborators including Jack Bruce and Robert Wyatt. With Bley, he was also a member of the first edition of Charlie Haden’s Liberation Music Orchestra.
Comment c’est is an agitprop song cycle in 10 parts, written for the voice of Himiko Paganotti, Mantler’s own trumpet, and the Max Brand Ensemble, a 12-piece chamber group, augmented by the piano of David Helbock and conducted by Christoph Cech. Its subject is the hell we are in the process of creating: a 21st century hell, but with immemorial echoes.
The lyrics are in French — perhaps because that’s the language in which Beckett, a long-time inspiration for Mantler’s work, chose to write. (Beckett wrote a novel in 1961 called Comment c’est. The English translation is called How It Is, which is also Mantler’s subtitle. The two works are not otherwise related, as far as I can tell, although Mantler quoted some paragraphs from the Beckett in the booklet that came with the JCO album.) Here’s how the first song begins, in the English translation provided in the album’s booklet: “Today / like everyday / facing the news / ignorance, intolerance, chauvinism, bigotry, nationalism, dictatorships, hostilities, assaults, invasions, wars, methodical violence, ethnic cleansing, genocide, hatred, the horror / and again, and again, and again, again…”
So humanity repeats its follies, from which Mantler doesn’t flinch. The lyrics deal with fear of the other, the military-industrial complex, the spread of hatred, the return of torture (if it ever went away), and other currently relevant concerns. There is definitely a kind of bleak poetry here, in the mostly unadorned language which cuts from the eye of an all-seeing observer to the first-person testimony of a nameless participant, witness, or victim, and back again.
These are art songs, making use of Mantler’s command of both contemporary classical music and jazz to create an idiom perfectly suited to the through-composed structures. The voice of Ms Paganotti, a member of Magma for the last few years, is grave and poised, avoiding melodrama even in its most impassioned moments (such as on the song called “Sans fin”), matching its poignancy to the sober textures drawn from the ensemble of flute, oboe, clarinet, bass clarinet, French horn, tuba, two violins, viola, cello, double bass and vibraphone/marimba. The rhythms, although sometimes making use of a tuned-percussion ostinato, are usually episodic or rubato.
The prevailing mood is inevitably sombre but never gratuitously austere. Although restrained, the music is suffused with humanity. There are melodies here, if not necessarily the kind you sing along with, and Mantler’s concise solos — the music’s only improvised element, often responding to Ms Paganotti’s lines — stick in the mind. On a journey from Mike Westbrook’s Marching Song through Liberation Music Orchestra’s Not In Our Name, this could be seen as the next stop. Every minute of the album, all the way to its bleak ending, rewards concentrated attention. It would be wonderful to hear it performed live; it would be even better if, somehow, it could help to change the world.
* Comment c’est is released on the ECM label. The photograph of Michael Mantler is by Rainer Rygalyk.