Saturday, March 24, 2012

Clarinetist and Composer Eric Mandat: All Music is New

Eric Mandat, 2012
Clarinetist and composer Eric Mandat asks me if I know aspen trees. He sparkles, describing the impression they made on his first visit to Utah's Bryce Canyon National Park. One ancient, unfettered root system sends up trees in colonies that span millennia. Individual trees can live for over a hundred years, constantly joined and eventually replaced by shoots that arise from the massive, vital root system. The image of connectedness and regeneration fires Mandat's imagination as a kind of ideal.

Mandat invoked the aspens when I noted how frequently the word "energy" occurs in his speech about music—or about anything, really.

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 scholar Mandat serves Mandat the performer. This recording is of his performance, with pianist Junghwa Lee, of the Brahms Sonata in E-flat, op.120 No. 2, for Piano and Clarinet 
Movement 1, Allegro amabile;  movement 2, Allegro appassionata;   movement 3, Andante con moto ).   Having heard his so-thoroughly engaged lecture, we in the audience couldn't help but have heightened appreciation for the sonata's elegance, if only because of the phrasing propelled by those motives he had laid out for us.

Energy. The key word to Mandat's analysis of the Brahms concertos is the key word for every aspect of Eric Mandat, musical and personal—to the very small extent that the two can even be considered separate at all. The first composition of Mandat's that I knew was his 2008 work for the Tone Road Ramblers sextet plus soprano, Dark Energy. The liner notes to Dancing with the Ramblers (Einstein Records, EIN-018) explain how his conception of the of interconnectedness operates in this piece: "Dark energy makes the universe expand faster and faster. To many, it is unsettling news that the galaxies are retreating apace from their neighbors. But to Eric Mandat, it is a source of wonder, because orbits maintain planetary togetherness even while dark energy mysteriously undermines celestial unity." Since the Ramblers are an experimental, improvisatory ensemble, Dark Energy is both scored, with open sections for improvisation. At this Amazon site you can find an MP3 download of the twenty-minute, seven-movement work with vocals by Phoebe Legere.

Mandat's vitality as a composer is more than matched by his vivacity as a performer in this playful, charming composition for solo clarinet, Coconut Candy (on Black Swirls, Cirrus Music, CMCD 001, 2007)This antic piece, always dancing, seems to change directions in mid-flight—something that I find characteristic of Mandat's freedom and wit as composer and performer. His program note to Coconut Candy  explains in less metaphorical terms, that the tune "is supposed to sound light and fluffy, when in fact there are some sixty-five non-conventional fingerings. The piece is a rather simple rondo, utilizing pitch collections symmetrical around the interval of a perfect third; that is, halfway between a major third and a minor third." It's cotton candy with a steel spine.

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.
Another haunting technique is multiphonics, in which the clarinet delivers two tones simultaneously as Mandat plays the instrument by breathing and fingering in the usual way and by vocalizing into it at the same time. This haunting piece, "...the looking glass" is from Preludes, book I  on  Black Swirls.

Most remarkable to me about Mandat's writing in forms of any length, is the inherent drama. His music conjures images that are never static. It invokes a natural world of rocks and mountains, trees and forests, stars and the Milky Way, all united by the movement of light and sound. His music suggests dancers—not dancers on a stage, but the people whom dancers represent—people who respond directly to their immediate circumstances, wherever they are in space and time.

Last March, at the Second European Clarinet Festival in Madrid, he presented Shadows from Flameswhich 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 
replacement for the instrument he bought in 1997. Since clarinets last only ten to fifteen year. How will he know he's found The One? "The vibrations that are coming out the holes tickle the tips of my fingers and if I can feel that, a certain kind of tickle...If I get that feel, I know it will work for me."

Masks in Mandat's office, collected on performance tours
Southern Illinois hired Mandat as soon as he completed his masters degree. (He was educated at the University of North Texas, Yale, and the Eastman School of Music, taught primarily by Richard Joiner, Lee Gibson, Keith Wilson, Stanley Hasty, and Charles Neidich). his University award for Outstanding Scholar after eighteen years of the usual academic track, earning with it "support to go anywhere any time for any length to do whatever I deem appropriate and valuable." He has taken advantage of this perquisite from the beginning; he tours for a week or two at least once or twice a year.

Nevertheless, he is committed to teaching and to the University. "When I'm here, I'm here. I'm in this office maybe ten hours a day." He's always felt himself literally an ambassador for the clarinet and teaching is part of the mission he embraces as warmly
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."
Corollary to Mandat "being here" in Carbondale is that "when I'm gone, I'm gone." "Gone" can be just about anywhere in the world. He may have had a call to play with the Chicago Symphony's MusicNow ensemble under the baton of Pierre Boulez. He has happy memories of tours in Taiwan and Korea, and an especially rewarding residency in 2010 at the Royal Northern Academy of Music in Manchester, England.

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."
His parents rented him a clarinet in fourth grade. He played it happily, but decided that he would let it go the rental period was up. But the night before his parents were to return the instrument to the dealer, the boy was in tears, wracked with regret, pleading for the chance to keep it. His parents bought the clarinet.

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

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