Composer Theo Bleckmann Dwells In Possibility Avant-garde composer and cabaret singer Theo Bleckmann has been a mainstay on the New York music scene for 15 years. His newest album, I Dwell in Possibility, features music boxes, megaphones and the autoharp.

Composer Theo Bleckmann Dwells In Possibility

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This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli of, sitting in for Terry Gross.

Not a lot of people love show tunes and avant-garde music. Fewer still can perform both well. But today's guest, Theo Bleckmann, is full of vocal surprises. He's been a part of the New York downtown music scene for more than 15 years.

He's performed with Meredith Monk, John Zorn, Laurie Anderson and the Bang On a Can All-Stars. He's been a soloist with the Estonian Radio Choir, Merce Cunningham Dance Company, and the Mark Morris Dance Group.

His new CD, "I Dwell in Possibility," is a meticulous recording, using no processing whatsoever. It features Bleckmann performing vocal solos while accompanied by music boxes, autoharp, water, and various toys with which he amplifies and gently distorts his voice.

Writing about Bleckmann and his new album in The Village Voice, jazz critic Francis Davis calls him the most startlingly original male vocalist since Bobby McFerrin. This is Bleckmann's version of a standard, "Comes Love."

(Soundbite of song, "Comes Love")

Mr. THEO BLECKMANN (Singer): (Singing) Come a rain storm, put your rubbers on your feet. Comes a snow storm, you can get a little heat. Comes love, nothing can be done.

Comes a fire, then you know just what to do. Blow a tire, you can buy another shoe. Comes love, nothing can be done.

Don't try hiding 'cause there isn't any use. You'll start sliding when your heart turns on the juice. Comes a headache, you can lose it in a day. Comes a toothache, see your dentist right away. Comes love, nothing, nothing can be done.

BIANCULLI: Theo Bleckmann moved to New York in 1989 from his native Germany. In 2008, he released a CD saluting his homeland called "Berlin: Songs of Love and War, Peace and Exile." That's when Terry Gross spoke with him. The album features songs by Kurt Weill, Bertolt Brecht, Hanns Eisler and others. On this track, Theo Bleckmann sings "Surabaya-Johnny" from the Brecht-Weill musical "Happy End."

(Soundbite of song, "Surabaya-Johnny")

Mr. BLECKMANN: (Singing in German)


Theo Bleckmann, welcome to FRESH AIR. That's such a really good version of "Surabaya-Johnny." Would you talk about what the lyric means?

Mr. BLECKMANN: The lyric is a love song, pining for somebody that no longer loves him and was abusive. And that is the gist, the core of the song.

Of course it's usually sung by a woman, but in this case I'm singing it as a man, from a man to a man.

GROSS: So you're out as a singer.

Mr. BLECKMANN: Yes, out as a singer, out as a person.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Okay. Now, I particularly like the spoken part in that song. It's like you're acting the song. So maybe you could talk a little bit about doing that kind of (German spoken). What's the Brechtian word for it?

Mr. BLECKMANN: Yeah, it's called (German spoken).

GROSS: Yeah, where it's part-spoken, part-sung.

Mr. BLECKMANN: Exactly. It's sort of that in-between place, where there's no pitch, but you're still somewhat singing the phrases. It's a very strange place.

Yeah, I feel very connected to that lyric because I have been in a relationship like that, not with physical abuse but, you know, abusive otherwise, and so it felt very close to my heart.

I didn't have to really search that long to really find a place that I could connect to in this case.

GROSS: Now, most of the songs on your CD "Berlin" are songs with lyrics by Bertolt Brecht. You grew up in Germany.


GROSS: What did Brecht's songs mean to you in Germany when you were living there?

Mr. BLECKMANN: Nothing.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Glad I asked. Really? So did you not know them until you moved to America?

Mr. BLECKMANN: I did know them but from a far distance, and I wouldn't have touched them. But when I came here - you know, I work a lot in music that has no words. And I work a lot in music that has English lyrics, and most of all sometimes very abstract lyrics.

So for me to sing this material was a far stretch at first, and then when I realized how close I actually felt, how closely related I felt to them, it was actually quite overwhelming because it's part of my history and it's also part of the history of this country right now in terms of the political context that these songs on this record especially have. So it was sort of a homecoming for me.

GROSS: We heard "Surabaya-Johnny," which is a song about someone whose lover is - has been abusing them. I'm going to change the tone a little bit and play another track, and this is a song by - with a lyric by Bertolt Brecht and music by Hanns Eisler. And I'll ask you to pronounce it, but it's "Als ich in meinem Lieb trug."

Mr. BLECKMANN: "Als ich dich in meinem Lieb trug."

GROSS: Yeah, that's what I meant to say.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: And this is a much more, like, march-like and in some parts dissonant song. Tell us what it means in English and why you chose to sing it.

Mr. BLECKMANN: This is one song of a little suite that we actually took apart on the record, but it's four songs of a working mother's song to her unborn child in which she tells the child that you are coming into a very difficult and sad world and that they're already planning victories with your little body.

But there's a little bit of hope in those songs too, in saying that I hope you will stand up against tanks and generals and fight against them. So that's sort of the gist of these four songs, and that's one of them.

GROSS: And that explains the march-like beat.


GROSS: So this is Theo Bleckmann from his latest CD, "Berlin: Songs of Love and War, Peace and Exile"

(Soundbite of song, "Als ich dich in meinem Lieb trug")

Mr. BLECKMANN: (Singing in German)

GROSS: That's singer Theo Bleckmann, from his CD "Berlin," and the song we just heard was written by Hanns Eisler and Bertolt Brecht.

We established that growing up in Germany you weren't paying a lot of attention to the music of Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill. What were you listening to?

Mr. BLECKMANN: I was listening to American musicals. I was listening to a lot of jazz as I got older and into my teens, and that really took over. I was listening to jazz music and then very, very contemporary classical music, Stockhausen (unintelligible) John Cage.

GROSS: Were American musicals popular in Germany, or was it unusual for someone young like you to be listening to them?

Mr. BLECKMANN: They were they were on TV, and I would I would darken the living room and forbid everyone to walk through the living room when a musical was on because it was my private time with the TV.

And then I would find the records for it. At that time you had to order the records in a record store and it would take six weeks for them to get there. I grew up in a small town. So but it was a big, exciting day when the record arrived, and I would listen to it until the next one came.

GROSS: So when you saw American musicals on TV, were they in English?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BLECKMANN: They were dubbed in German and then they broke out into English songs. It was the weirdest thing, and you wouldn't question it at all, that all of a sudden they're singing in a different voice with English words, except for "My Fair Lady," which was overdubbed with German singers.

GROSS: I see.

Mr. BLECKMANN: Overdubbed, the text and the dialogue overdubbed in German.

GROSS: How strange. So did it help you like I assume you were singing along in English. Did you already know English?

Mr. BLECKMANN: Yeah, you learn it in school.

GROSS: (Unintelligible)

Mr. BLECKMANN: No, I just - most of it I didn't understand. I always thought in "The Wizard of Oz" that Judy Garland sang I wish I were a porno star and wake up where the clouds are far...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BLECKMANN: I thought why would she wish that? That is so weird.

GROSS: Did you really think that?

Mr. BLECKMANN: I really thought that, yeah.

GROSS: That's great.

BIANCULLI: Theo Bleckmann, speaking to Terry Gross in 2008. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

BIANCULLI: Let's get back to Terry's 2008 interview with vocalist Theo Bleckmann. His new CD is called "I Dwell in Possibility."

GROSS: You were born in 1966. So you were born, you know, a couple of decades after the war. Did the war have any impact on you when you were growing up, or did that seem like something that was way over?

Mr. BLECKMANN: No, no, no, it was very present in my family. My parents were children. My father actually went into the war. He lost a limb in the war. He lost his leg in the Second World War.

My parents were quite old when they adopted me. So they were part of that whole generation - of course my grandmother too. So there was a lot of history about that in our family.

My grandfather, who I never met, but he, from my mother's side, he was a big opponent of the war and of the Nazis, and he got into some trouble in our little town, but - and my mother had to go to another school because she didn't want to join the Hitler Youth. So there was a lot of impact, and there are still stories that I get from my mother to this day that are about that time.

GROSS: Did your father want to fight, or was he forced to fight?

Mr. BLECKMANN: He was forced to fight, yeah, and he went to the Russian front and came back, you know, crippled.

GROSS: And do you know the story behind your adoption?

Mr. BLECKMANN: I know very little. I tried to find my birth mother. When I turned 30, I got this bee in my bonnet that I would want to do that, especially fueled by all these reunification stories that you see on TV.

And so I wrote to the adoption agency, through which this process had to be facilitated, and they sent my letter to my birth mother, which they had found, and then she sent a letter back through the agency to me saying that she didn't want to meet me, didn't want to get to know me.

This went on for two more letters, I think, and me saying, you know, I just want to meet you, there's no financial impact, or I'm not a crazy person. But she just didn't want to meet me. So that was the end of that, and I didn't pursue it any more after that.

GROSS: Do you feel bad about that?

Mr. BLECKMANN: Well, it was a second adoption, really. It was being adopted for, you know, given up a second time. Maybe my hopes were too high, but it was difficult, I have to say. It was difficult. But it's done, closed chapter.

GROSS: My guest is singer Theo Bleckmann.

You know, we talked about how much you loved show tunes growing up in Germany, and an earlier CD that you did a couple of years ago, called "Las Vegas Rhapsody," has a lot of, like, show tunes and American pop tunes in it. Are any of the songs on that album songs that had personal significance from your childhood?

Mr. BLECKMANN: Particularly "Out of My Dreams" and "We Kiss in a Shadow" meant a lot to me, because those were two of the songs that were on records that I had bought and listened to over and over and over again. I think I got those lyrics right, hopefully.

GROSS: Those are actually my two favorite tracks on the album.

Mr. BLECKMANN: Thank you, Terry.

GROSS: And I thought we'd play "We Kiss in the Shadows," and this is from the Rodgers & Hammerstein musical "The King and I." Is that one of the musicals that you watched a lot?

Mr. BLECKMANN: Yes, when they would come on TV. There was no VCR or anything, so maybe once a year.

GROSS: Well, let's hear it. This is "We Kiss in the Shadows," and Fumio Yasuda is accompanying you at the piano, and this is from Theo Bleckmann's album "Las Vegas Rhapsody."

(Soundbite of song, "We Kiss in a Shadow")

Mr. BLECKMANN: (Singing) We kiss in a shadow. We hide from the moon. Our meetings are few and over too soon. We speak in a whisper afraid to be heard. When people are near, we speak not a word.

Alone in our secret, together we sigh for one smiling day to be free, to kiss in the sunlight and say to the sky, behold and believe what you see, behold how my lover loves me.

GROSS: That's Theo Bleckmann, from his album "Las Vegas Rhapsody," and his CD "Berlin" features German songs, mostly songs with lyrics by Bertolt Brecht, and Theo Bleckmann grew up in Germany.

How old were you when you moved to the United States?

Mr. BLECKMANN: I was 23.

GROSS: Now, you mentioned your dream was to be a painter. I had read that you were an ice dancer in Germany.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Is that wrong?

Mr. BLECKMANN: That's correct.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BLECKMANN: Yes, during my voice break, I needed something else to do, so I went into figure skating. And you know, after my voice came back, that took backseat.

GROSS: So what kind of music did you dance to as a figure skater?

Mr. BLECKMANN: Oh, of course show tunes, Gershwin. One of the routines we did was to a "Sweet Charity" medley, and Gershwin, I always thought it would be so kooky to use a Weber and string quartet or something completely atonal and crazy. But of course, so many people have fingers in their pie of what decisions are being made, including costumes and music. So that was never an option.

GROSS: What's the greatest costume you wore?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BLECKMANN: Spandex, of course, and lots of glitter on it.

GROSS: Now, when you talk about your voice break - because you were singing as a boy, and you had to wait out the break in your voice - it sounds like, well, you know, taking a little hiatus while my voice breaks. But it must have been kind of scary for you when your voice broke, to not know how it would come back.

Mr. BLECKMANN: Oh my God, yes, especially when your identity as a musician, as a child, was so closely linked to that. I remember being in the recording studio and doing a recording at that time, and I thought that licorice would help it go away. So I just kept eating licorice, bag after bag after bag, and it would help.

You know, it goes up and down in the beginning. So I thought, oh, this is really working. But of course it didn't. Yeah, it's scary.

BIANCULLI: Singer Theo Bleckmann, speaking to Terry Gross in 2008. His new CD is called "I Dwell in Possibility." We'll hear more of their conversation in the second half of the show. I'm David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, in for Terry Gross, back with more of Terry's interview with singer Theo Bleckmann. He's a singer as comfortable with show tunes as he is with avant-garde music. His 2006 album, "Las Vegas Rhapsody," featured show tunes and pop songs. His 2008 album, "Berlin: Songs of Love and War, Peace and Exile," featured German songs from the theater and elsewhere. And his new album, "I Dwell in Possibility," is all about vocal and musical experimentation, the very subject he and Terry discussed two years ago.

GROSS: I'd like our listeners to hear your more contemporary or experimental, whatever you want to call it, that side of you.

Mr. BLECKMANN: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: Is there something you'd like us to play?

Mr. BLECKMANN: Well, maybe "Norwegian Wood," which sort of brings together both of those elements.

GROSS: Song and adventure.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BLECKMANN: Mm-hmm. That's nicely put.

GROSS: You do something in the break of this that sounds kind of like Tuvan throat singing.

Mr. BLECKMANN: Mm-hmm, which it is. Yeah. I worked on my overtone singing some while back and see if I could refine it on my own and work on which overtones I get when and sort of that part entered this arrangement.

GROSS: Is there a way - would you be willing to just like demonstrate what it is that you do? Like how it sounds and how do you get there?

Mr. BLECKMANN: Well, the easiest way to start overtone singing is to go into your bathroom, if you have a, you know, especially reverberant bathroom, and start singing...

(Soundbite of clearing throat)

Mr. BLECKMANN: your mid to low range on the word bird and stay on the ir, especially easy for Americans, especially from Texas.

(Soundbite of Tuvan throat singing exercise)

Mr. BLECKMANN: And play around with the position of the tongue and move it back and forth very slowly and listen to what's coming out.

GROSS: Is it the lips too that you're moving?

Mr. BLECKMANN: Not so much the lips but the inside of your mouth. The cavities are changing, mostly the tongue. It's the tongue position.

GROSS: But when you sing in overtones it sounds like you're singing several notes at one time.

Mr. BLECKMANN: They just swing along. They just ring along with what I'm singing because they're present. It's like a color spectrum, each color has other colors in it. The color white has all the colors in it, so I just - by just, changing the shape of my mouth I emphasize red and blue and yellow and purple in this spectrum.

GROSS: Okay, so let's hear what you do with "Norwegian Wood," singing it and doing a little throat singing - overtone singing in there.

Mr. BLECKMANN: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: And this is from an album that you made with the guitarist Ben Monder and the CD is called "At Night."

(Soundbite of song, "Norwegian Wood")

Mr. BLECKMANN: (Singing) I sat on a rug, biding my time, drinking her wine. We talked until two, and then she said it's time for bed. She told me she worked in the morning and started to laugh. I told her I didn't, and crawled off to sleep in the bath.

GROSS: That's singer Theo Bleckmann with Ben Monder on guitar from their album "At Night."

Because you have such range and flexibility and tonal variety with your voice, I think you've also done some like movie special effects?

Mr. BLECKMANN: Mm-hmm. Yes. I've done...

GROSS: Yeah. Tell us what you've done?

Mr. BLECKMANN: Well, I got a call some years ago from a friend of mine who was engineering a sound improv session for a movie and he asked me to read this dialogue in the voice of an alien. And I read through this and it was this person whose head opens and then this alien comes out of the head and then this person falls into a plate of pierogies. And so I was supposed to read this but pretend I was an alien. And I thought, this is the worst movie script I've ever seen in my life. It was just two pages. Just this one scene. And so I kept, you know, doing one take. And he said okay, now do it in another way and I did another take and this goes on and on. And after six takes, we're like okay, done. I said who directs this? This is not even a B movie. This is like an F movie. And he said this is a Steven Spielberg production called "Men in Black."

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: "Men in Black."

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BLECKMANN: Well, that was one of them.

GROSS: That little movie. Yeah.


GROSS: So, we'll hear the scene. But tell us what you did vocally.

Mr. BLECKMANN: I just improvised what to me could be alien language and, you know, they asked for it to be lip sync-able, so not too crazy so that people could learn it. I think what ultimately happened in this session was that it was too complicated for them or I don't know what happened, but usually, my biggest pet peeve with these alien voices is that they all have this strange reverb on them, if you've noticed. So there's so much effect on this alien in the movie that I can't even tell if it's my voice or somebody else's voice.

GROSS: Oh, because it's so processed?

Mr. BLECKMANN: It's so processed. It's so strange, like aliens come to this world with a complete reverb chamber and EQ system that surrounds them.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Hey, they have better technology on other planets.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: So since we won't be able to tell it's you on the film, do you want to just do what you did?

Mr. BLECKMANN: Well I did something like...

(Soundbite of alien voice)

Mr. BLECKMANN: Perhaps something like that.

GROSS: It almost sounds like it was processed in some parts.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BLECKMANN: If you put enough reverb on it, yeah.

BIANCULLI: Theo Bleckmann, speaking to Terry Gross in 2008. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

BIANCULLI: Let's get back to Terry's 2008 interview with vocalist Theo Bleckmann. His new CD is called "I Dwell in Possibility."

GROSS: So when you moved to America you were 23.


GROSS: Were you already out in Germany when you moved to the States?

Mr. BLECKMANN: No. No I still had a girlfriend when I moved here. And the way I was outted in Germany was I was reviewed in a gay magazine for a record that I did, saying that I was gay and I thought my life would end. I thought this is it, my life is over. I will have no career and everybody will hate me. I might as well just, you know, pack it up. And first of all, nobody cares. Nobody reads the thing, first of all, and then secondly, nobody cares. That's the most amazing thing. Nobody cares.

GROSS: So what year is this?

Mr. BLECKMANN: This was 1991.

GROSS: So this was a German gay magazine.


GROSS: So did nobody care because nobody cared about you or did nobody care because the atmosphere was that open that nobody cared that you were gay?

Mr. BLECKMANN: Yeah. Exactly. And most people...

GROSS: Open? Open?

Mr. BLECKMANN: Open, and most people will say oh, we already knew. Hello, you were ice skating.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: You were ice skating to show tunes.


(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Glitter costumes. Yes. So...

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Do you still skate?

Mr. BLECKMANN: No. I - the last time I went skating was with a good friend of mine, Maria Schneider, who used to be a figure skater herself.

GROSS: She's a jazz composer, an arranger.


GROSS: Yeah.

Mr. BLECKMANN: Yes. And we went figure skating in Central Park when the Christo installation was up, and that was really fun. But after an hour I can't even stand it anymore because my feet start to hurt so much in my old skating boots that I just have to stop.

GROSS: Right. Okay.

Mr. BLECKMANN: And it's kind of depressing. You can do one trick and that's it?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BLECKMANN: You know, one little pirouette or one lame little jump. This is not - it's no fun anymore.

GROSS: You've work with like sound distortion and manipulation and electronic music and stuff.

Mr. BLECKMANN: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: And the German group Kraftwerk was some of the first groups to bring like the pop version of electronic music.


GROSS: And, you know, they had big hits. So did they have any influence on you when you were younger?

Mr. BLECKMANN: Absolutely. I actually perform one of their songs...

GROSS: No, really?


(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BLECKMANN: ...with a little Casio keyboard.

GROSS: Not the "Autobahn?"

Mr. BLECKMANN: No, it's called "The Model" - "Das Modell." I love them. I think they're absolutely genius. I can't say enough about them. Yeah. I tried to get tickets to their concert last time they were in New York but it was impossible. I just - I worship at their feet. They're amazing.

GROSS: So what's the song that you do, "The Model?"

Mr. BLECKMANN: It's called "The Model." She's a model and she's looking good, is the first line of the lyric.

GROSS: Can you sing a couple of bars of it?

(Soundbite of song, "The Model")

Mr. BLECKMANN: (Singing) (Foreign language spoken)

That's the song.

GROSS: That's like African clicking that you're doing as you hum, yeah?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BLECKMANN: Yes. I'm trying to be my own Casio.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Have you studied a lot of world singing techniques?

Mr. BLECKMANN: Not really. I think a lot of this stuff is self-evident when you start exploring. I've done a lot of just recording myself, exploring, seeing what I can do. Let's say I would go through the alphabet. I'd start with the letter A and I come up with every sound that I can on the vowel A. And then I take the first one and I make three variations on the first one, etcetera, so it becomes this tree of variations. And then...

GROSS: Show me what you mean.

Mr. BLECKMANN: So let's say I have A...

(Soundbite of demonstrating A)

Mr. BLECKMANN: Ahhhhhh. Try to get a buzz in there a little bit.

(Soundbite of clearing throat)

Mr. BLECKMANN: Then I make a variation on that one.

(Soundbite of demonstrating variation of A)

Mr. BLECKMANN: Put a vibrato in it.

(Soundbite of vibrato A)


(Soundbite of staccato A)

Mr. BLECKMANN: To a staccato. Then I do another gravelly ah on maybe on the slide.

(Soundbite of gravelly A)

Mr. BLECKMANN: Etcetera. And then I do, you know, other ahs, other sounds with ah that have different variations. So I write them down and meticulously lay it out and see if I can combine them. So that's where the click comes in, where I have, maybe I have a...

(Soundbite of clicking A)

Mr. BLECKMANN: Etcetera. You know, it's endless. It's an endless game of just trying to find sounds and see what you can do. Sort of like a painter changing - taking their colors and putting them together and mixing them to different degrees and seeing if this one works next to that one and let's put, you know, more white into that and more this and more that, so it's very simple. But then, and this goes back to Meredith, then the hardest part is what does it mean? What is this about? Is this just a cool effect or what am I trying to say here? And this is what I'm constantly struggling with and working on is why? Why this sound? Why that sound? What does it mean to me? And that's when the work starts to - I think to jam and get more into a deeper place for me.

GROSS: Well, Theo Bleckmann, thank you so much for talking with us. And thank you for demonstrating some of the things that you can do with your voice.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BLECKMANN: Thank you for having me. It's a pleasure.

BIANCULLI: Singer Theo Bleckmann, speaking to Terry Gross in 2008. His new CD is called, "I Dwell in Possibility."

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