An Interview

Theo Bleckmann & Ben Monder

This interview with Theo Bleckmann and Ben Monder was conducted by email during March 2007.

Tony Reif: If I’m not mistaken, you’ve been performing as a duo since 1994 or 1995. How did you meet, and what led to the idea of performing as duo? How has the collaboration developed over the years – have there been any radical shifts, or has it rather been a slower process of evolution? What ideas or musical needs does this formation (duo/trio with Satoshi Takeishi) fulfill that aren’t being met by other groups each of you has or collaborations you’re involved in? And how do those other projects or performance works (of all kinds) affect what happens in the duo?

Theo Bleckmann: Yes, we’ve been performing in duo since 1994. I heard Ben play in Pat Zimmerli’s group and also in Drew Gress’s Jagged Sky and was completely blown away by the depth, speed and quiet in his playing. I called him up and asked him if he wanted to do a duo gig. After 10 years of playing in duo we started to invite different musicians to join us for free improvised sets every so often. Satoshi had been playing in Ben’s quartet at the time, so it seemed natural to play with him. Our first gig as a trio was really magical – Ben and I could weave in and out of our repertoire and Satoshi would either hook onto it or be in another world altogether. The possibilities were vast.

Ben Monder: It was Theo’s idea, originally, and one which I’m glad he had. It has evolved quite a bit from when it started out. Initially we had to put together a couple of sets to fill this weekly gig we had, and our repertoire included more standards and “inside” material (like “Button Up Your Overcoat”). More originals and free playing began to be introduced later as we started to find our sound. We added Satoshi when we decided to do a gig that was 100% improvised, and we’ve done a number of gigs like that since. The chemistry seemed to gel instantly, and there didn’t seem to be a lot of floundering around for ideas, one of the perils of that kind of playing. Since then the free element has begun to be more prominent, even as a duo. What is unique about the duo setting for me is the degree of responsibility and at the same time freedom I have. It’s a role I enjoy.

TR: You’ve both also both performed as “sidemen” in each other’s bands – for example, Ben in Theo’s quintet on the CD Origami (2001), and Theo in Ben’s quartet/quintet on Excavation (2000) and Oceana (2005). How (apart from whose compositions are being played) are these situations different from the way you work together in the duo?

BM: These other situations, which amounts to my quartet for the most part, are much more structured. Theo generally has a written part that he interprets rather faithfully, and there is much less improvisation.

TB: When we perform in duo it’s truly a collaborative affair as far as repertoire and the feel of the music, down to the set list. I think we can push each other into very different terrains in our own bands and then bring all that into the duo where we can let go of all that decision-making and just play.

TR: The two of you have rather different musical backgrounds, compositional styles, etc. – could you fill us in on how you developed the music for this CD, and more generally for the duo? For example the three settings of Rumi lyrics: Ben did the music for two of them (“Late, by Myself” and “At Night”) and Theo for one (“Orchard”). How and why did these songs come about? Did you decide on the lyrics together and then go away to compose the music individually? Theo, how do you decide on which standards to bring to the duo and how do you (both?) work out the arrangements?

BM: “At Night” was a commission from WNYC’s show Studio 360 for a Valentine’s day show. The theme was “love,” and my task was to set a love poem. This led to the idea of each of us setting more Rumi. I chose the two quatrains in “Late, By Myself” because I particularly liked them and thought they could inspire an interesting treatment.

TB: We’ve always wanted to bring Rumi into the duo and so we started to look closer at his poems. Ben and I are quite self-sufficient in our writing and we both have a very clear understanding and respect for each other. Of course, we suggest and change things in the rehearsal process, that’s where it ultimately gets shaped or tossed. Standards are decided upon mutually. I never impose them on Ben, as I know he would not enjoy playing something he doesn’t want to and the same is true for me. We’ve been through a lot of material to come up with the repertoire we have.

BM: When doing standards or other covers we don’t talk about too many aspects of the arrangement. We just play it and see what happens, and sometimes an arrangement begins to solidify and become more consistent, and sometimes the approach remains more fluid.

TR: There are three trio improvs on the CD, with Satoshi doing both live and sampled/electronic percussion I believe (using his laptop). Could you talk a bit about how the three of you as a group approach free improvisation?

TB: What’s really interesting is that each player in this trio is very autonomous, musically speaking. Three sonic worlds can exist simultaneously and create a fourth. Free improvisation is so delicate on so many levels and there’s a good balance here of making bold statements, being sensitive to one another and playing irreverently all at once.

BM: It’s the approach of no approach. We’ve never discussed any aspect of the free improvs as far as I remember. Personally I try to be aware of elements such as texture, timbre, harmony (whether to think harmonically or not), dynamics, and contrast. Of course, these considerations could apply to any kind of playing.

TR: Theo, you do a lot of live vocal processing but your tools are intentionally not high-tech. Could you explain technically what you do when you’re building up multiple vocal lines electronically, and how you think about electronics in your music-making? More generally, who have been your inspirations in terms of your approaches to vocalizing? And how much of what you’re communicating in your music is tied to the meaning of the lyrics? (On previous CDs you’ve performed songs in German – your native tongue – French, and Japanese as well as English, but often there are no lyrics, just vocables/sounds.)

TB: Actually, I don’t feel that I’m doing that much vocal processing – a lot of the sounds are actually done without effects, just with extended techniques. Everything is live, that’s true (except for the overdubs at the end of “Late, By Myself” and “Animal Planet”) and I’m using fairly simple machines and some toy megaphones and other low-tech things to sing through, like the plunger on “Carbon.” For me it’s important to have a physical connection to the processing. In a nutshell: I push a button and when I push it again the loop repeats, decays, elongates etc., so the live audience is always included in the process. A computer simply doesn’t have that basic simplicity that an audience can follow, unfortunately, and especially when dealing with the voice, there is so much potential of connecting to the audience even when the music is challenging. I don’t want to lose that by looking at a computer screen all night.

To me building up multiple vocal lines can sometimes make time and music stand still, something I’m going for in “Late, by Myself.” It can sometimes be extremely visual, and by dissolving harmony and time that way I feel like I’m standing still at the same time as moving really fast. To me, there is no difference in singing words or no words. Each song or melody has to have a distinct sense of purpose. I most often sing wordless music, so that when I do sing lyrics, regardless of the language, I’m always trying to think of their meaning beyond the individual sentence or word to give the song its purpose. I like to convey a larger sense of mood or state of mind and not be so literate about each word. Using layering in a song that has a lyric, like in “Origami,” is always an extension of the words and the overall atmosphere or underlying soundscape.

TR: Ben, you worked quite a while on the sequence of the record (with Theo’s participation), and to me its flow is often quite magical. If either of you can put it into words, what were you trying to achieve? What would an ideal listener come away with, having listened to the record for the first time?

BM: The main thing you want to get out of a sequence is a balanced flow of energy. You don’t want any part of the record to either lag or become overwhelming. Also, a piece can sound really different depending on how it’s framed, so I tried to put each piece in its most flattering context. It can be a challenging puzzle.

TR: How do you think about your music in relation to such categories as “avant jazz,” “contemporary classical,” “ambient,” and “new age”?

TB: Sure, let’s go for all of them! Obviously, I don’t create music with that in mind, so whether one calls it jazz or not is of no concern to me.

BM: It may be a clich‚, but I don’t think about these categories at all. This record certainly doesn’t fit into any of the categories you listed, although it may contain elements of each. With the exception of “New Age” – what is that, Yanni?

TR: What’s next for Bleckmann/Monder?

TB: Trying to convince people to buy this CD by playing more duo gigs.