Ever-Changing-Mood Music

Photo: Joerg Grosse Geldermann/Courtesy of Theo Bleckmann

The iPod’s shuffle mode has changed the way people listen to music, and that’s a good thing for Theo Bleckmann. He’s the sort of artist who, in one evening, will jump from Phil Kline’s Zippo Songs—an art-rock song cycle with text taken from inscriptions on soldiers’ lighters—to Kurt Weill to “Chim Chim Cher-ee,” without losing his hold on the audience. “I used to think that it was so verboten, like you can’t do all these things at once,” he says. “People used to say, ‘You should just do one thing—you should just sing jazz.’ And I think this upcoming generation is really much more open. When I just did this gig in Vancouver, there were really young kids in the audience, and we could do some free-jazz, crazy sound thing and then we would play a standard, and it was totally fine.”

Bleckmann, who frequently collaborates with Meredith Monk’s ensemble, is one of the foremost new-music vocalists working today, with a range that jumps from baritone to striking countertenor with no vibrato. But he also has a real throwback quality, and those sensibilities converge in his new album. Las Vegas Rhapsody is a collection of American-songbook tunes presented as a show in an imagined Vegas nightclub. Since he arrived from Germany seventeen years ago (after a stint as a competitive figure skater), Bleckmann has built up a cult following, but this is a potential breakout moment for the 40-year-old. Las Vegas Rhapsody , which features the arranger-composer-pianist Fumia Yasuda and the Kammerorchester Basel, is probably more accessible than anything he’s done so far, though it won’t necessarily go down easy with either the Sinatra crowd or the Rod Stewart–standards listener. “It’ll also raise some eyebrows of people who expect me to do extended vocal technique,” acknowledges Bleckmann, whose last CD, Anteroom, was just that kind of solo, lyrics-free vocal experimentation. “Well, that’s sort of the point, you know? Break expectations—not only for the audience, but for myself.” It’s not likely that an artist whose musical influences include John Cage, Morton Feldman, John Coltrane, Doris Day, and Kate Bush is in any danger of becoming complacent.

Nor is he particularly happy. Bleckmann can seem a somewhat angsty figure, one who says he felt at home for the first time in New York. “I think it’s not angst so much,” he says, picking up a white cloth napkin and twisting it. “I feel sad about the stupidest things—that we’re all gonna die, obviously. That somebody hasn’t found their love yet, or that we’re all just yearning to be loved, and stuff like that … I’ve tried to find my birth mother, and I hit a wall there; my birth mother does not want to meet me.”

The upside of this melancholia—which onstage is shot through with a certain peculiar goofiness and augmented by an even more peculiar wardrobe—is that it serves him exceptionally well artistically. Right now he’s mixing a duo album with the jazz guitarist Ben Monder, due out this winter, with several settings of texts by the thirteenth-century Sufi poet Rumi. He’s also about to record a CD of German cabaret (something he does supremely well), also with Yasuda. In short, his entire career appears to have been spent on shuffle—impossible to place into any genre. He says free jazz might come the closest, but only because of the word free. “I’m trying to make myself free of my own preconceived notions of what music for me should be,” he says, pondering his career thus far. “And that’s a tricky place.”

Yasuda’s arrangement of “My Favorite Things,” and Bleckmann and the orchestra’s performance of it, may be the freshest version of the song since John Coltrane’s in 1960. It’s intensely ominous, bearing a closer resemblance to Mussorgsky’s Night on Bald Mountain than anything the Von Trapps sang. There’s also that ethereal, otherworldly version of “Chim Chim Cher-ee,” a song Bleckmann’s been singing since before his voice changed, and an eerie “Luck Be a Lady.” Bleckmann has unconventional ideas about phrasing, holding his phrases a few seconds longer than one would expect or ordinarily consider comfortable. Most of all, he is absolutely earnest about these songs. He disdains interpretations that, as he puts it, “say, ‘Oh, ha-ha, this was 50 years ago, it doesn’t matter.’ It totally does!”

Las Vegas Rhapsody.
Theo Bleckmann. Winter & Winter. 2006.

Ever-Changing-Mood Music