Siobhán Kane talks to composer Theo Bleckmann about music, teaching and his recently-released album Hello Earth! – The Music of Kate Bush.
Theo Bleckmann‘s musical evolution has taken in many things, from Kate Bush to The Great American Songbook. He moved from Germany to New York over twenty years ago, and since then has become a hugely respected jazz singer, but also composer, teacher (he is Professor of Jazz Voice at Manhattan School of Music, and NYU, among other institutions) and performance artist (his pieces have been commissioned from places such as the Whitney Museum). Over the years he has collaborated with everyone from Philip Glass, Laurie Anderson, The Bang on a Can All-Stars, and various dance companies including Mark Morris; with his work inspired by everything from Berlin (Songs of Love and War, Peace and Exile, 2007), Charles Ives (Twelve Songs, 2009), and Arte Povera (I Dwell in Possibility, 2010).
So it is unsurprising that a man with such expansive tastes would be drawn to the atmospheric, sensual and all-encompassing world of genius Kate Bush. His new project and record Hello Earth! – The Music of Kate Bush (Winter & Winter) was released in October, and covers fourteen of Bush’s most beautiful songs, such as ‘Running Up That Hill’, ‘Watching You Without Me’ and the spooky, otherwordly ‘Hello Earth’, and the result is as mesmerising as it is interesting. Siobhán Kane talks to Theo Bleckmann.
How did your appreciation of music start? And how far do you think German music in so many of its guises; traditional, and more contemporary music, has affected you? My first contact with music were records of childrens’ choirs that sang German folk music and I just sang along endlessly. I was blown away by the sheer existence of vocal harmony and so I would try to learn the parts off the record or make up new ones. Later, I eschewed most German music except for classical and contemporary music. I love and played Bach and Mozart, and I listened to Henze and Stockhausen, but overall I looked elsewhere – pop and jazz. It’s really hard to say what exactly I took from it. My earliest memory is the joy I heard in these choir records, just a group of kids singing acappella and creating harmony. Magical.
Was there a kind of epiphany when you became interested in The Great American Songbook as it is known? How did this happen? Who were some of your favourite composers, and also favourite songs and singers of that period of the ’20’s through to the ’60’s? One day I was listening to Ella’s Gershwin songbook and got it. The clarity and joy, the depth and lightness with which she sang this repertoire was everything I was looking for in European art songs and couldn’t quite find. I realised that the American Songbook has the same timelessness and depth that an art song can have, but it’s lightness moved me in a different place.
There seems to be a common sympathy between a certain kind of German torch song and The Great American Songbook, what are your thoughts? For one, a lot of the composers of the Great American Songbook were either German immigrant Jews or have German roots in their immediate past. The romantic German spirit is the polar opposite of what the rational, engineering German stereotype is and I think this spirit is present in the American Songbook as well. When you listen to the German repertoire of the 20’s and 30’s its wit and its tongue-and-cheek quality in lyrics and music is something you’ll find in the music of Cole Porter or Irving Berlin and so many other.
You have lived in New York for over twenty years, do you consider it a muse of sorts? It must have been really exciting going there, when you had been so inspired by it from afar. How far do you think the city has changed, particularly in terms of music? The city is one muse, but the people and artists in New York are another. I think of them as my inspiration. New York has changed dramatically and always will. If you cannot accept that, then perhaps it’s better to live in a city like Rome. Right now New York seems very corporate, expensive and globalised, but there will always be nooks and niches where new things happen and people create exciting new work. Everything comes in circles, including money.
You have collaborated with so many interesting musicians, what are some of your favourite collaborations? Right now I feel an immense gratitude towards my long-term collaborators – Ben Monder, John Hollenbeck, Meredith Monk and Phil Kline. It seems that we have grown old together and continue to keep in each other’s lives and art – that alone is worth celebrating.
How influential has Sheila Jordan [jazz vocalist] been to you, and what was it about her that you felt an instant kinship with? I think Sheila and I both feel like outsiders a lot of the time, underdogs perhaps. Sheila, as great as she is, has never really had the career I think she ought to have. She is one of the great singers and spirits in jazz. I think the world of her – she often calls me her son, that’s how strong our bond is. Even when we don’t see each other for months we pick up right where we left off.
You teach so much as well, how did you gravitate towards teaching? Do you find it a very satisfying process? Teaching is extremely exhausting for me. It takes every ounce of concentration and empathy to really make a difference but because of that t can be extremely satisfying. I can’t teach very much because of it – half of it ends up therapy, which is my favourite part sometimes – helping people break through their habits not only vocally but emotionally and spiritually, too.