|Eric Mandat, 2012|
In January 2012, I traveled to Carbondale, Illinois to attend his lecture-recital, "Structural Connections and Motivic Unity in The Sonatas for Piano and Clarinet by Johannes Brahms" at Southern Illinois University, where Mandat is Professor of Music and Distinguished Scholar. His minute and revelatory analysis addressed Brahms' structure in terms of propulsive energy. The lecture marked the beginning of a research arc that Mandat imagines he will be following for some time to come. He didn't have to say this: His enthusiasm for his topic was a static that buzzed and crackled all around him. It clearly took willpower for him to keep from rolling up his sleeves, ripping off his Coloradan's bolo tie, ditching the script, and luring his audience off-road—as a happy naturalist would—to explore for three-note wonders gems Brahms' sublime scores.
|Junghwa Lee and Eric Mandat|
The propulsive quality of Mandat's music often comes from vivid contrasts that pack physical punches. These occur in registers, volumes, and tempos; in rhythmic variety—changes that come suddenly and comically; and in his confident creation of tension and anticipation. Whatever the mood, sparkling, silly, or delicate (in fact, come together in even the briefest work), his music has the listener on the edge of the chair, in the grip of its pushing, brilliantly manipulated pace and pressure.
A key to the drama in what he writes for himself and peer clarinetists is that he writes for "the extended clarinet" (thus the name of his first CD, copyright 1991, The Extended Clarinet, Advance Recordings, FGCD-32, 1991). Mandat is a master of extended techniques, which are unusual ways of playing the instrument that reward the dedicated player who invests in them with the ability to create effects well beyond the expected.
For instance, section five from his 1986 Folk Songs, a sort of flamenco for a dervish dancer, is a tour de force because of the extension of its line: When does this man ever breathe? The flow of the line over the tune's 2 minutes and 45 seconds is so crazily stretched out that it can make the auditor anxious. This is because of Mandat's circular breathing: He takes in air through his nose while he continues to blow through his mouth, thus avoiding the need to "take a breath." As you listen to "Like a Flamenco dancer with St. Vitus Dance" you can listen for the intakes of air through his nose while the notes rush uninterrupted through the second half. Pulitzer Prize winning composer Shulamit Ran appreciates having Mandat play her works in part because of this mastery. Even when her work doesn't call for circular breathing, she knows that Mandat will deliver unparalleled beauty of line, uninterrupted by pauses for breath.
|The professional view.|
Last March, at the Second European Clarinet Festival in Madrid, he presented Shadows from Flames, which he wrote for the (very!) eclectic American bass clarinet quartet, Edmund Welles . This link for this performance takes you to the first of five YouTube videos posted by Stephan Vermeersch, who recorded each of the five brief movements of Shadows from Flames: Intensity, Longing, Cauldron, Oracle, and Assault. This performance by a quartet of European bass clarinetists—Belgian Vermeesch, Portuguese Nuno Pinto, Spaniard Pedro Rubio, and Italian Rocco Parisi—shows Mandat the composer and the performer at his kinetic best. There is indeed little distinction between composer, clarinet virtuoso, and actor. Mandat spins the sound from every part of his dancing body: from his fingertips; he exhales it from the pores of his skin. Shadows from Flames seems to have been composed by a giddy boy who has chased around the backyard to catch a bottle of electricity that he could unleash through five clarinets: The music's charge runs up and down the listener's body.
The idea that his music comes through every part of his body isn't an entirely poetic trope: Mandat understands his clarinet is a literal, physical extension of his body. With the exception of the saxophone, the clarinet is the only instrument that "goes inside you. Everything else is just a little farther away. I can feel the vibrations echoing in my skull. I am the resonator for the horn's sound."
Unlike other instrumentalists, who may own several horns used for different occasions, Mandat has one clarinet, with which he has a singularly intimate relationship. He plays a Buffet RC model, a kind common in Europe and Asia, but hard to find in the States. He's begun a world-wide search, with the help of the Buffet company, to find a
|Masks in Mandat's office, collected on performance tours|
as a hot water bottle in a January bed. "I try to show by example how lovely it is, how fabulous it is; and if they can catch that spark, then I feel like I've been successful." And for anyone who's checking, his on-line student evaluations are spectacular, something he's well aware of. "I crave acceptance!" he grins. "I'm a performer. If I hadn't been a musician, I'd have been an actor."
But of all the places in the world to which Mandat has traveled to perform, the one he's returned to as to a home has been Latvia. In the late 1980's, a Latvian-American professor retiring from SIU procured a grant that enabled an exchanges of personnel and materials between the countries. In 1991 an SIU professor who had planned to go on the exchange backed out. Mandat went in his place and experienced the heady first anniversary of the Latvians' independence after decades of Russian rule. Mandat was profoundly affected by the passion and energy of a people whose culture had been suppressed to the level that they had been unable to use their own language. In a country with a very low standard of living, he found both the classical and folk music traditions revered and robust. He recalls a folk festival with 13,000 singers on stage; he played a solo in front of an orchestra of 4,000 that included twenty horns. Mandat returned many times over the course of eight years and formed close musical and personal ties. Latvians, he says, are "delicate, gentle people. They love music and they love poetry...The same verb means 'to read' and 'to pick flowers.' I think that's just lovely. And the same noun means 'field of grass' and 'concert hall.'"
An element of Mandat's love of Latvia and depth of experience there transcends the energy of the historical moment, the renaissance of its culture, or the poetry of the language. When he went, he found himself experiencing situations from his dreams and he learned the language as easily as if it had been his own. The tie he felt to the place was uncannily intuitive. This belief in the possibility of a psychic or spiritual connection is something strong and unapologetic in him. His sensitiveity to the unseen forces and energies of the world is profound; he takes to be real what others shrug off, unexamined, as fantastical because they cannot logically account for it.
Mandat's life experience has borne out the wisdom of being present to intuition and feeling. He explains that when he was three, he and his big brother had a recording of the "The Instruments of the Orchestra." Even at that age he fell in love the with nobility of the description of his future instrument: "The clarinet is the Queen of the instrument; it has great range..."
|"We decided to keep my clarinet. I am going to|
play very hard on it."
Mandat tells this story with zest and a bit of awe. After the Brahms concert in January, he bent over earnestly to tell it to a very young clarinet student, an encouraging "keep at it!" to a ten-year-old artist. In this photograph (right) he shows off a treasured souvenir found in the papers of his late aunt, who was delighted to have a nephew who knew his heart. The letter hangs on his office wall, with equal status among all the framed elite degrees.
In Mandat's telling of this story, I hear in his laughter empathy for the little boy and an awareness of the struggle that intuition faces. He came so close, so young, to eschewing his joy, but he pulled it out through a self-awareness and presence of mind.
The aunt to whom the young clarinetist wrote eventually came to suffer from Alzheimer's, yet Mandat speaks of his time and communication with her in the happiest terms. What others found in her as flawed and diseased, hIs empathy and imagination appreciated as poetic understanding, as a rearranged way of seeing the world. He was the person able to communicate with her: He spoke her language.
These character traits—empathy, and the ability to observe with imagination—are undoubtedly sources of energy. Mandat's willingness to accept worlds where time isn't kept on a clock, and to accept them as real, is an attitude that has implications for us who listen to his music. He would have us bring to his (and to any contemporary) compositions and performances a willingness to be present to what unfolds. He'd have us not compare what we hear to what we think we should hear, or what we have heard in the past. We needn't prepare ourselves to compare the performance as it is recalled from music history courses. Mandat would have us focus on and enjoy what is actually delivered. Be present for this experience. It's unlike any other. Be here.
For an artist like Eric Mandat, "being present" means being without an agenda in the sense of career plans, vying for awards, or measuring himself within his profession. His sole aim is to keep developing as an artist. "For me, being a growing artist means that I'm going to have to abandon some safe zones—in performance and in composition. Thinking about my own composition for clarinet, there are certain expectations people have based on certain other pieces of mine that were perhaps successful, and it would be relatively easy to stick with those. In order to grow, I've got to break with those as my growth forces from time to time. It's a challenge.
"And with regard to New Music and its future, that's a big challenge that it's really difficult now for people who want to 'be successful.' They have to be able to find something that people are going to be able to identify and label and stick with. It's too bad, but there are just certain pockets that people get stuck in."
Which brings us once again to the observation of Mandat's energy, his ability to derive it from the world he observes, and to generate ideas and music from the heat to which he's so sensitive in the world.
But energy is also required for endurance: to tolerate uncertainty and to generate new growth. HIs music ripples with brilliance. wit, and joy. But it is fueled by the strength few can summon: to be where he is, listening and watching with every pore open, them compressing himself into each idea and note as it comes. His energy is in his willingness to be present.
|Reedmaking on the workbench|
|Toys on the funbench|