Looking Up At Joe Maneri

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Joe Maneri (1927-2009)

Joe Maneri has left us. Those of us who were close to him will need to adjust to life without Joe’s infinitely expressive face, the sound of his voice, and the access we were accustomed to having to his acute mind and compassionate soul. Or, to view it in a more hopeful light, we will now need to find another means of access. The rich gifts Joe gave us through his music will always offer contact of a sort. In fact, one of the most valuable aspects of all great art is how it can connect us with the mind and soul in their highest form, and how in its permanence it is able to keep that mind/soul alive and with us.

It is often the death of an important artist that prompts us finally to go and seek his or her work. In the case of Joe Maneri, there are two bodies of work to explore: his substantial and powerful output as an improvisor, and his smaller, but no less powerful, output as a composer. If you have never heard Joe’s performances as an improviser, go and find them now. His numerous quartet and trio recordings with violinist/violist Mat Maneri (his son), drummer Randy Peterson, and various other artists are available on CD from the ECM, HatArt, Leo, Avant, and Atavistic labels. (Some tracks are available also as mp3s.) In these recordings you will hear a way of producing sound and melody with the saxophone, the clarinet, and the voice like nothing you’ve ever encountered. Microtonality, which so many over the past century had speculated and theoretized about, was something Joe Maneri the improviser simply jumped into because he had to; only in this way could he complete the particular curving shapes and shimmering rhythms that were his musical self.

Which of his recordings to begin with? If you have an appetite for truly wild and unfamiliar territory, why not start with “Number Three,” Joe’s solo alto track on the ECM CD Angles of Repose? Still, you may be shocked by the naked expression here, the twisting of his tone, the way he squeals and cries with his voice through the horn, bending his lines in directions that seem almost forbidden. There is always restraint and focus, though; not once does he abandon the melodic thread. Like the majority of his recorded work, this is an entirely free improvisation, yet it maintains a sense of structure and forward momentum that never falters—a lesson for other aspiring free improvisers.

On the other hand, if you feel that you like “something to hold onto” while you listen, then begin with the familiar old spiritual “Nobody Knows,” on In Full Cry, also an ECM release. Here you hear the sweet, soulful tone of Joe’s clarinet, gently accompanied by Mat, Randy, and bassist John Lockwood, adorning and prodding the pentatonic sad cheerfulness of that tune, more and more, until it’s eventually opened up and its troubled interior is revealed. On that same CD, three other old tunes are translated into this new language: Walter Gross’s 1946 tune “Tenderly,” the spiritual “Motherless Child,” and Ellington’s “Prelude to a Kiss.” On that last tune you will discover Joe Maneri the pianist, another much too well-kept secret. Joe’s presence on the piano is tremendous.

Also on In Full Cry, “Outside the Dance Hall” is a free, “up-tempo” number, and is a great example of the intricate counterpoint that made this quartet legendary. The melodic interplay between father and son is uncanny; each musician seems to respond to the other not after, but at the very same moment a musical phrase is conceived. “Telepathic” is how writer Harvey Pekar once described it. In fact, this is not really musical “response” but the two halves of a single musical gesture, moving in tandem.

If you’re curious to learn how Joe Maneri reached this place as a player, the 1963 recording Paniot’s Nine—released only in 1998 on John Zorn’s Avant label—shows the thrilling start of that path. Early in his musical career, his years spent performing Greek folk music, with its tradition of bent and sliding pitches, had shown Joe an open portal. On “Shift Your Tail,” a Greek “syrto” dance-style tune, we can hear him wandering a little “too far” into that portal, savoring the “wrong notes” he’d become so enchanted with by that time. Here he has set himself free to make something of his own out of this genre, something far beyond what he would have been allowed to do during any regular Greek wedding gig. Joe’s tune “Mountains,” from that same session, has always been a favorite of mine—I heard it on a cassette Joe had way back when I first met him in the late ’80s, and I’ve always felt there is something deeply Greek yet distinctly Joe Maneri about it. The opening figure, played in unison by Joe on tenor and John Beal on bowed bass, has the shape of a mountain itself, and could be the moaning of some mountain creature.

Mountains were in fact a source of inspiration for Joe. In one particularly memorable composition lesson with him, he invoked for me the image of a mountain, or the powerful sensation of being on a mountain; he described to me a day many years earlier that he had spent with his wife Sonja and Mat, still a young boy, on top of a mountain somewhere, just sitting. Joe, who always pushed for larger forms and longer phrases, must have been inspired by the magnitude, solidness, and certainty of mountains, and felt something alive in their awesome presence. On another occasion he described with great excitement the strange giant rock that loomed over Marineo, his parents’ town in Sicily, where he had spent one wonderful summer as a child. Could this powerful image from a time of rare happiness in his childhood have been the origin of his attraction? I know also that after struggling for over a year to find an ending for his piece for soprano and piano And Death Shall Have No Dominion (dedicated to two friends, a mother and daughter, who had committed suicide), it was looking out a window somewhere and gazing at a mountain that finally gave him the psychological nudge he needed, and he finished it in 20 minutes. Then there is the choice of “Coming Down the Mountain” for the title track of one of the quartet’s HatArt CDs; this was most certainly Joe’s descriptive name for the spiritual experience of that performance. Perhaps it can be felt by us in the intense momentum that builds so gradually over 11 minutes, from the hazy, brooding beginning to the furious end.

Joe Maneri’s composed music possesses all of these same basic characteristics: the same soulful voice in the melody, the intricacy of line and counterline, the vastness of form and space, and the momentum. In fact, one of the challenges for performers of his music is to maintain this momentum, the intense forward-moving feeling, often through long silences between phrases and gestures. The primary difference from his improvisations is a predictable one: it is even more disciplined, the structure even more controlled. He uses the same sorts of rhythms that seem to come at you from out of nowhere, and in works from the late ’70s onward, the same wild microtonality, though the individual components of the music seem more measurable to the ear.

But I must pause here, before you get too excited about Joe Maneri’s composed music, and point out that finding it is a complicated matter. Scores and recordings are difficult, though not impossible, to get. Two of them, And Death Shall Have No Dominion and Maranatha, were originally published by GunMar Music and now can be ordered print-on-demand from Schirmer. The remaining works must now be requested from the Boston Microtonal Society, also print-on-demand. Only one recording of a single, short, composed work is commercially available: the brilliant violinist Biliana Voutchkova recorded Joe’s Violin Piece for Gunther Schuller, from 1982, and included it on her CD Faces, which you can order on CDBaby.

And here is where I will use this platform to broadcast a message to the new music community, directed now at performers, ensembles, and concert producers. There is a gap in your repertoire, and as long as it remains there, our collective understanding of the music of the last five decades is incomplete. Make the great effort: seek out the hard-to-obtain scores, schedule the extra rehearsal time, and challenge your audiences to open their minds to this strange, expressive new language. The Boston Microtonal Society includes a work by Joe Maneri on every concert, but this is not enough.

Not that there are a large number of pieces to choose from. A certain psychological suffering persecuted Joe throughout his life, and he also struggled with a learning disability, a kind of dyslexia, that wasn’t clinically recognized until he was in his 60s—much too late. All of this made the process of composing excruciating for him, even though when he performed, the music flowed out of his horn effortlessly. A complete list of his works, as well as a few audio and score samples, can be found on his website, joemaneri.com, but I will list some important ones here, by category. Some are microtonal and some not.

There are two important chamber works. Maranatha (1967), for woodwinds, brass, and percussion, though “atonal,” has all of the heavy, rustic swing and excitement of the Paniot’s Nine recording from four years earlier, including a jerky, speech-like bass clarinet solo that could be straight out of one of Joe’s own improvised solos. Ephphatha (1971), for clarinet, trombone, tuba, and piano, is the first piece in which Joe used microtones—quartertones—though they are mostly used in a coloristic way, to enliven sustained tones with wavering or what he called “frozen glissandi.” There also is a string quartet I have never heard, completed in 1959, written in the mid-century serialist spirit and dedicated to Josef Schmid just after Joe completed ten years of study with him. (Schmid was a former student of Alban Berg, assistant conductor to Alexander Zemlinsky, who had fled Germany to the U.S. with Zemlinsky during the Second World War, and who had many students in New York, including Robert DiDomenica and Angelo Mussolino.)

There is a piece for chorus and two soprano saxophones, Holy Land (1980). This was intended as the introduction to a larger work, but the parts to follow never materialized. Nonetheless, this piece stands on its own, and is a stunningly bold act, a contrapuntal work for chorus in four parts, using 72 equal divisions of the octave. Think of it! And yet as one who has taken part in “decent” student performances and who teaches microtonal ear-training, I have seen glimpses that it is possible. All it takes is a lot of time and practice. Fortunately, in his mercy, Joe used only one word for text, the word “heaven,” and I believe that when a professional chorus one day finally performs the work with the proper amount of work, a truly heavenly sound will be the result.

There are several solo works: Osanj (2004) for viola, his last composed work, dedicated to Sonja; Sharafuddin B Yah-Ya Maneri, Makhdum Ul-Mulk (1993) which has been performed on flute, contrabass, and cello, and Violin Piece for Gunther Schuller which I mentioned before. These are all composed with 72 divisions of the octave. Feast of St. Luke is for quartertone pianos (two hands), and is one of the rare quartertone piano pieces that get beyond the out-of-tune piano sound into something lyrical. There also are three virtuosic serial works for piano from 1957 and 1958, “Rondo,” “Theme and Variations,” and “Pax.”

Metanoia, Joe’s piano concerto, was commissioned by Erich Leinsdorf, then director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, but then abandoned by him after it was completed in 1963, perhaps because of its difficulty. It was finally performed by the superb Rebecca LaBrecque with the American Composer’s Orchestra in 1985, but other than that this momentous, formidable piece has collected dust on the shelf in Joe Maneri’s closet ever since.

There are three pieces for soprano. And Death Shall Have No Dominion (1977) on the famous poem by Dylan Thomas, uses microtones in the vocal part only, in a manner similar to that of Ephphatha. If you can make your way up to the Northwest corner of Massachusetts on September 12, you can hear a performance of this hair-raising work by Jennifer Ashe and Barbara Lieurance. (This will be part of a NotaRiotous concert at Williams College.)

Kohtlyn (2000) and Oulge Urngt (2001), both for soprano and tenor saxophone, use 72 equal divisions of the octave. These songs feature another of Joe’s innovations, from the last decade of his life—the use of his own written and spoken “language.” Joe filled notebooks with poetry he wrote using words—an entire vocabulary—of his own creation, and he read these to friends and at concerts. The meaning of his words was not translatable into other languages, but they did have meaning; they were not mere phonemes. They had meaning in the same sense that music has meaning, though they were mostly spoken, as poetry is spoken. This language, with its highly nuanced vowels and tongue-twisted consonants, seems so perfectly suited to the special microtonal musical language he also invented. You can hear Joe reciting poems in his own language on tracks 1, 7, and 14 of the ECM CD Tales of Rohnlief—”Rohnlief,” “Flaull Clon Sleare,” and “Pilvetslednah.”

“To end, or not to end?” This is the title of another Joe Maneri improvisation, the last track on Coming Down the Mountain, and I think of it now because I don’t know how to end this essay on my former mentor. Joe himself never wanted to end anything—concerts, lessons, visits with friends, life. I could keep on remembering more things about Joe and his music, and writing away, because I intend for the music world to turn its head and listen to this man on the mountain.

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Julia Werntz
Photo by Michele Macrakis



Composer Julia Werntz lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts, with her husband, jazz pianist Pandelis Karayorgis, and their daughter Anna. Since the mid ’90s her music, mostly chamber pieces, has been almost exclusively microtonal. Her music has been performed around the Northeastern United States and Europe, and may be heard, together with works by composer John Mallia, on the CD All In Your Mind (Capstone Records).