Remembering Walt’s “Unachievements”

Grant Chu Covell

[June 2020.]

[James Erber’s Qfwfq for solo piano is dedicated to Walt Mundkowsky.]

“All goes, all dies.
Every trustee of creation must accept that as he accepts his own death.
Even on the technical level his art must evolve towards death,
must achieve itself through ‘endless unachievement.’”

–Grandmaster Jean Barraqué (1928-73)


Walt Mundkowsky (1944-2020) passed away earlier this month, on June 5. La Folia’s friend and contributor was 76. Walt would not have admitted it, but he was one of the pillars of this modest online concern, “…passionate writing about stuff no one has heard of and can’t find.”

This magazine’s editor, Mike Silverton, introduced us via email, and after a few tentative parries, we eventually typed at each other several times per week. We never met in person. Across the past 20 years, we spoke on the phone only once. It was incredibly awkward.

We rarely agreed, each pursuing different listening diets. But there were some overlaps: Barraqué, Schnittke, Beethoven quartets, keyboard music of the French Baroque, the Goldberg Variations. Walt did not understand Mozart’s appeal. He could not comprehend how I tolerated as much contemporary music as I do. I couldn’t follow him when the discussion turned pre-Buxtehude or drifted into pop or jazz lanes. His Francisco Guerrero was the Renaissance fellow (1528-99), mine is the contemporary one (1951-97).

But I learned more and heard more because of his gentle insistence and encouragement. Dowland and Jenkins fell into focus. “Semper Dowland, semper dolens” could just as well apply to Walt who tolerated my silly enthusiasms about what new drivel I had just listened to, or what inconsequential review article I was working up. I became a better listener, and definitely a deeper thinker about what I heard. Despite his eagle-eyed copy-editing, my writing remains clumsy.


“With an ink too thick, with foul pens, with bad sight, in gloomy weather, under a dim lamp I have composed these pages. Do not scold me for it!”
— G. Ph. Telemann


We sent each other CDs, sometimes nabbing items in each other’s wishlists from different coasts. His bequests would arrive fastidiously packed, labelled with distinctive handwriting. Bach, Scarlatti and Shostakovich quartet cycles would appear unbidden. One of his last gifts was a release with music by Gérard Pesson which went out-of-print years ago.

Just the other night I wanted to ask him if he knew anything about Zdeněk Liška, a Czech film scorer, and while typing this up, I would have wanted to share news of Madre Vaca’s Winterreise jazz arrangement. My last emails to Walt were part of a group thread about Beethoven’s quartets. Walt tolerated my enthusiasm for the 1960 Juilliard String Quartet recordings; he had just acquired a disc featuring the Hagen quartet.

Walt, you will be profoundly missed.

* * *

[Walt’s email signatures rotated through several quotations. Two examples are included here.]


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