Yesterday on NPR’s Fresh Air, I heard an interview with singer and composer Theo Bleckmann, a German native who moved to New York in 1989 and has been, according to his bio, “a steady force in the New York downtown music scene for over 15 years.”
Now, don’t worry if you don’t know what “downtown music scene” means. It’s an umbrella term for a lot of different music and performance art, from Yoko Ono to Bang on a Can. If I had to summarize it in just a few words, I’d say it’s experimental, iconoclastic and embarrassingly easy to parody. 😛 You can learn more than you could possibly want to know from this Wikipedia entry. But that’s not so important here, because the interview features his latest CD, which is a collection of music theater songs.
If you find that combination of musical interests unusual, you’re not alone; here’s how Fresh Air host Terry Gross opens the broadcast:
There’s not a lot of people who love show tunes and avant-garde music — even fewer who can perform both well. So let me introduce you to Theo Bleckmann, who’s full of vocal surprises.”
I suppose what she says is true, although I’ve met many others who belong to that narrow category she describes — heck, I belong to it myself! Oh well… my arms stay nice and strong, what with all that swimming upstream! 😉
Anyway, the juxtaposition is less surprising when you consider the particular show tunes we’re talking about here. The CD is titled Berlin: Songs Of Love & War, Peace & Exile — High School Musical it ain’t. Think something more like… Cabaret maybe? But darker and more political, with music by composers Hanns Eisler and Kurt Weill and lyrics by Bertolt Brecht.
The Fresh Air interview is really worth listening to for several reasons — it covers the gamut from The King and I to Tuvan throat singing. Oh, and there’s a wonderful Mondegreen moment, when Bleckmann talks about listening to American records while growing up in Germany:
I wish I was a porno star
and wake up where the clouds are far…”
What I was most drawn to, though, was Bleckmann’s performance of the Brecht/Weill song “Surabaya Johnny.” Or, as Terry Gross puts it, “such a really good version of Surabaya Johnny.” 🙂 I used to play this song with a singer friend of mine, so it has a special place in my heart. In its original context, it’s sung by a female character, so hearing it sung by a man is a fascinating experience. But the really wonderful thing about it, as far as I’m concerned, is what Bleckmann accomplishes with the German language. The stereotype is that German is angular and harsh, and that anyone speaking it automatically sounds angry. Bleckmann gives the lie to that with his haunting performance, which alternates between achingly lyrical singing and a hurried, urgent sprechstimme — he makes the language sound positively velvety, like dark chocolate melting in your mouth. You can hear the first half of the song right at the beginning of the Fresh Air interview. Go listen to it, and stay for the rest of the interview while you’re at it!
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