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Mark Mantel’s Machine Gun Music

Oct. 5, 2012
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Mark Mantel surfaced in Milwaukee music, circa 1980, as a drummer. But even then, his scope was wide and getting wider. Mantel played with Brian Ritchie and in new wave bands like Rocky Koelpin & the Otters while sitting in with the Milwaukee and Racine symphony orchestras. Mantel left for California in 1984 to pursue graduate studies in music at California State University, Long Beach, went on to earn a Ph.D. at SUNY Buffalo and lived in Michigan, organizing cultural non-profits along the way. He returned to Milwaukee in 2008 and became the moving force behind the “Machine Gun Series,” a sequence of multi-disciplinary performances building toward the eventual premiere of his orchestral work-in-progress, The Machine Gun Concerto.

You were born in Milwaukee?

And raised. One of the most important things was going to Bay View High School when it was a performing arts school. It changed my life. Instead of hanging out under a bridge, I went to school early in the morning and stayed all day! They treated me like a grown up. It spoke highly to the public school system at that time. From there I went to the Conservatory…

And became involved in the music scene…?

It was an exciting time. The Shepherd and the Express were new. There was a healthy underground scene. I actually met Brian Ritchie through the school system, the Saturday Morning Lessons. We rehearsed together. When I left town it was to spread my wings. I wasn’t running away from a bad place. Milwaukee wasn’t like Waco…

Why did you move back?

I have family here… And I got back together with my girlfriend from college, Lynn, who worked at Narada and suffered through many performances of my music back then.

Tell me about the “Machine Gun Series.”

The impetus behind it is music as social protest. I’m going back to the Jimi Hendrix song “Machine Gun,” which mentions Milwaukee.

Do you quote Hendrix in your music?

It’s almost unrecognizable but I incorporate Hendrix in my composition with some of the gestures and riffing.

And what are you protesting?

Our war-based economy—the machinations of our war economy and its effect on education, poverty, mass transit. The events in the political arena are weighing on it. The “Machine Gun Series” is a series of interdisciplinary performances on the way to the Concerto’s debut in the concert hall—they are rest stops along the way. The piece has 11 sections, always presented in order as a sort of narrative. I’m introducing film and video and spoken word, trying to open up the dialogue in front of the public.

In a way, it reflects my compositional process from scored sections to improvised kernels. I’ve asked Victor DeLorenzo and Elvis Thao to turn sections of the concerto into spoken word pieces. For [the segment called] “Yellow Cake,” Elvis reached into his Southeast Asian background and brought up something from inside of him. He took it from the heart. For “Jessica the Hero,” Victor researched that false heroic rescue of an American soldier at the start of the Iraq invasion, a piece of Bush propaganda. With each performance I’m marching toward the conclusion, which will be a chamber music piece with a 30 or 40 player orchestra.

The next installment of the “Machine Gun Series” will be performed at 7:30 p.m., Oct. 25 at the Translator Lab, 415 E. Menomonee St. It will feature film by Scott Johnson as well as spoken word, theatrical performances and, of course, live music.


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