Eric Mandat's Sound Worlds: Part 1

by Dr. Amanda Morrison


Every musical instrument has influential figures that shape the direction of the instrument’s role and capabilities in the music world. When it comes to the clarinet, Eric Mandat is one of these significant individuals. Eric Mandat’s success as a musician and composer can be attributed to his exploration of new sound worlds with a unique combination of virtuosity and a creative use of extended techniques. He utilizes these assets to create highly personal and expressive compositions that continue to advance and challenge the abilities of the modern clarinetist. By combining extended techniques, folk and jazz music, traditional compositional frameworks, and repetitive rhythmic structures, Mandat’s compositional approach has led him to be one of the most prolific composers of contemporary clarinet music and one of the most influential figures in the clarinet world. Vandoren artist, Gregory Oakes shares, 

Eric’s music—both his compositions and his performances—is the foundation of my passion for contemporary music, particularly extended techniques on the clarinet. After hearing his performance of “Folk Songs” (when the piece was only a couple years old), I knew I had to learn how to create those amazing sounds. Eric’s generosity with his time and energy with me in learning these techniques, even though I never formally studied with him, have created for me a model of how I would like to be as a musical resource for clarinetists and composers in the musical world. I think any clarinetist who loves contemporary music would list Eric as one of their most important influences. He always has been for me.

Eric Mandat has had this lasting impact on many musicians. His genius and generosity have come to define him as a musical giant in the clarinet community. This first installment of a three-part article series will celebrate Eric Mandat’s contributions to the clarinet by exploring his background, compositional style, and pieces.

"Eric Mandat has had this lasting impact on many musicians." - Dr. Amanda Morrison

Education

Mandat was born outside of Denver, Colorado in 1957 to a modestly musical family. His love for solo playing and interest in new music was developed as an undergraduate student at North Texas State University (now the University of North Texas). He earned his Master of Music degree at Yale University where he extensively learned about chamber music playing and conducted the university’s new music ensemble. Mandat was appointed Assistant Professor of Music in Clarinet and Saxophone at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale (SIUC) in 1981. At this time, he also began pursuing a Doctorate of Musical Arts in Performance and Literature degree at the Eastman School of Music during the summers. While at Eastman, he studied clarinet with both Stanley Hasty and Charlie Neidich; learning to analyze playing in a concise and efficient manner from Hasty while also working to be intuitive and spontaneous in his performance with Neidich. Mandat later earned Full Professorship (teaching clarinet and graduate courses in music analysis) and the title of “Distinguished Scholar” at SIUC, where he still remains today.

Performer

While he is widely known as a composer and teacher, Mandat actually describes himself as a performer. He has stated:

I think with growing up in the mountains and being in a very rural setting, you get a sense of being connected to something really, really huge rather than being part of a little family unit or a little community unit. It is you and the mountains or you and the sky. You feel that kind of close connection, and I think that kind of, in a way, has had some impact on me thinking about the solo clarinet as sort of a whole world of sound. It has probably influenced both my clarinet playing and the way I think about writing. You can get as much of a whole world into one instrument as I can with the clarinet.

Mandat has premiered many of his own pieces throughout the world, performed as a soloist and chamber musician with numerous ensembles, and released several solo and chamber music recordings. He has been a member of the experimental chamber music group, Tone Road Ramblers, since 1989 and can be heard on their recordings; Intersections and Detours, Outlaws, FoRay FroMorgan, The Morgan Powell Jazz Album, The Ragdale Years, Orphans on the Road, Dancing with the Ramblers. The ensemble is characterized as bridging a gap between the classical avante-garde and free improvised expression. As part of SIUC’s faculty exchange with the Latvian Academy of Music in 1991, pianist Peteris Plakidis, cellist Ivars Bezprozvanovs, and Mandat formed The Transatlantic Trio that performed in both Latvia and the United States for nearly eight straight years. They also recorded Brahms’s Trio for Clarinet, Cello, and Piano in A minor, op. 114 and Vincent d’Indy’s Trio for Violin (clarinet), Cello, and Piano, No. 1 in B flat, op. 29 for 4tay Records in 1997. Mandat was also invited by Cliff Colnot to be an ensemble member for the inaugural performances of the Chicago Symphony’s MusicNOW new music series in 1999. Lastly, he has participated in SIUC’s faculty ensemble, The Altgeld Chamber Players, which is the main performing group for the university’s Outside the Box Series new music festival. As a solo recording artist, Mandat can be heard playing his own compositions on The Extended Clarinet (Advanced Recordings, 1991) and Black Swirls (Cirrus Music, 2007). 

Composer

Eric Mandat is most recognized for his significant contributions to contemporary clarinet literature. He enjoyed composing from the time he wrote short pieces for his piano lessons in fourth grade and songs for his rock band in high school. During his undergraduate years at the University of North Texas, he mingled with composition majors and explored contemporary works for clarinet. He learned the extended techniques used in the contemporary pieces and began to experiment with how to use them in different ways. This exercise along with the influence of music by George Crumb and Gyorgy Ligeti sparked Mandat’s desire to compose. During his time at Yale University, he took some informal composition lessons with graduate student, Henry Kucharzyk. Later at Eastman, he studied composition with Sam Adler, Robert Morris, and Warren Benson. The work of clarinetist, composer, and teacher William O. Smith also had a profound influence on Eric Mandat. During the 1960’s and 70’s, Smith was a pioneer of new techniques in composition for the clarinet and combined instrumental experimentation with ancient music sounds, cultural influences, and traditional folk music. Mandat employs many of these elements in his writing and combines them with traditional compositional tools and unifying rhythmic and tonal patterns to create his own unique approach to composition.

Mandat describes his own writing style:

I use fairly traditional forms and traditional materials drawn largely from jazz rhythmic context and a lot of traditional non-Western folk music that tends to involve relatively limited pitch structure and somewhat repetitive kinds of contexts. I try to have a longer range sense of direction than might be found in a traditional non-Western piece of music and use pretty traditional forms that I find ways to tweak. Because of the surface details I utilize such as extended techniques and microtones, the sound world is not always easy to grasp right away. So I tend to put it in a context that is a little safer so that there isn’t too much to take in all at once.

While his compositions are unconventionally unique and full of extended techniques, he aims to place his musical thoughts in a context that is comprehensible and accessible. He generally does not place a pitch in a tonality such as major, minor, or modal but rather considers a single pitch a primary, tonic tone that establishes a tonal center. He also builds intervallic and rhythmic patterns through either repetition or sequence to create formal structure, symmetry, and progression in his pieces. Mandat will employ traditional forms in some of his works to provide building blocks of traditional tonal music. Jazz and improvisation are also two significant elements of his compositional language. He often discovers musical gestures through personal improvisation sessions and will sometimes organize a whole piece or movement around the improvised motives he discovers. Extended techniques are typically utilized, in varying degrees, in Mandat’s works. The extended techniques found in his pieces include multiphonics, microtone fingerings, quarter tone fingerings, circular breathing, flutter tonguing, key clicks, harmonics, humming while playing, muting, double clarinet, clar-flute, and clarinet with extensions. This vocabulary of unconventional sounds provides Mandat with a large palette of tonal colors in which to create what he calls, “sound worlds”. The extended techniques enhance the texture and mood of the music which help sculpt Mandat’s distinct style. 

"He stands out as an original, a true innovator." - Dr. Amanda Morrison

Dennis Polkow of Chicago’s Reader wrote in his 1989 review of Mandat’s performance of his own works, “The interesting thing about Mandat isn’t so much his bag of tricks as how he uses them to create highly personal and expressive compositions that, despite their being written for a solo instrument, have dense textures and are loaded with musical meaning.” Mandat’s most celebrated contribution to the clarinet world is the unique musical language he has created through his compositions. It is a language that both acknowledges the idiomatic characteristics of the clarinet and forwards its ultimate capabilities. Performers are challenged by the compositional elements he writes and listeners are awed by the soundscapes he creates. As Eric himself stated, he truly does “get as much of the whole world into one instrument as he does with the clarinet”, and clarinetists around the world are better for it. This three-part article series will provide context for Eric’s body of work and celebrate some of his most progressive and recognized compositions. As Vandoren artist Wesley Ferreira perfectly states, “Eric Mandat continues to be an inspiration to all clarinetists. He stands out as an original, a true innovator. His voice is as unique as it is imaginative.” Please join me for the next article installment that will explore some of Eric’s creative output, specifically his most noted solo works.

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