Wednesday, April 8, 2009

John Hollenbeck/Theo Bleckmann/Meredith Monk ("Listening Diary")

This will amount to a meme, but I had the great pleasure of seeing composer/drummer/percussionist/wunderkind John Hollenbeck and vocal wizard Theo Bleckmann, who is one of those true artists who can be an instrument, a "voice," a percussionist, a symphony all by himself. I don't know of a male analogue to what Bleckmann does, but if you listen to his singing in Hollenbeck's large ensemble, the closest parallel is Norma Winstone's often wordless work with beloved British trumpeter/composer/bandleader Kenny Wheeler (click the Wheeler link for a vintage video! And you can see a more recent Winstone video here.) In his range and range of expression--from singing a song, beautifully, to croaking or utilizing phonetic percussion, Bleckmann recalls nothing less than Berio's one-time wife (and long-time muse), chanteuse Cathy Berberian:

Here's a video of Hollenbeck and Bleckmann together:

Of course, it would not be to everyone's tastes, and one five-minute segment can't come close to expressing their range, which often creates a kind of looped, fed-back polyphony over a strange vamp that wouldn't have been entirely out of place centuries ago (if it weren't for all the amplification). In fact, while I picked up the Hollenbeck/Bleckmann album Static Still at their gig last week, I've been chewing over Meredith Monk's 2008 Impermanence album, that Bleckmann and Hollenbeck both perform on. A song cycle of sorts, Impermanance presents, in exceedingly warm and frail fashion,

a celebratory and moving meditation on life. Each section of the work, announced cabaret-style by a spoken title (Last Song; Liminal; Seeds; Particular Dance; Disequilibrium Song, Mieke’s Melody #5), provides a non-narrative look at the different facets of impermanence and the joy and wonder of being. Accompanied by voice, piano, clarinet, breath, bicycle tire and other inventive instrumentation, the many scenes -- a montage of video portraits of extreme close-ups of diverse faces; a playful dance of energy unbound; voices rising from the dark singing a song of beginning and opening; an elegant dance of small gestures, performers balancing on chairs, seemingly floating in space -- create a collage of emotion, image, and sound that gently transport us on a journey that is haunting and mysterious, but at its core, essentially human.

I highly recommend the long, haunting, slowly developing "Liminal," that seems to be a collection of modally sung statements about people who are gone, the strange kinds of things that you remember in a person's absence, including my favorite line, one of those lines that rattles around in your brain for weeks: "She wears the same color ribbon as her dog." Lest you're afraid, there's nothing particularly "weird" about that song. It's just great music with a laudable reason for being. I was inspired, lately, by reading an interview with Monk from the early 90s where she discusses the importance of healing to her music.

Also worth checking out (my copy's on order!)--

Bleckmann's Winter and Winter album of Ives songs with avant-garde vocal ensemble kneebody, that was just released.

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