It may have seemed exotic and otherworldly when the Beatles used the sitar on “Norwegian Wood” 48 years ago. But that version of the song sounds utterly conventional compared with the vocal treatment Theo Bleckmann gives it.
Theo Bleckmann, Ben Monder offer innovation at Intersections
Bleckmann approached “Norwegian Wood” with all manner of vocal clicks, whirs and mechanical approximations that suggested the didgeridoo or Tuvan throat singing before starting its familiar opening lyric, “I once had a girl, or should I say, she once had me.”
Accompanying electric guitarist Ben Monder explored the sonic edges of his instrument with feedback and reverb, as well, but never as much as the singer, who applied a range of vocals and honest interpretation to a soundscape with loops and echoes that was every bit as processed.
An occasional collaborator with Laurie Anderson, Bleckmann creates a chorus of his voice through electronically looping, adding more notes as it comes around and changing its course like a rock tossed in a pool of concentric waves. It results in a fascinating sonic journey where vocals (and guitar) are the launching pad for a galaxy of sound.
While he kept a hand on the knobs of an effects box next to him to modulate the sound, Bleckmann’s sonic experiments began with his voice, trying out unusual runs or breathing techniques, none so odd as a Scandinavian approach that added tone to inward breathing. By making breath part of the musicality, he was allowed more of a continuous sound than possible through conventional singing, although one wondered if he was soon to lapse into Alpine yodeling.
As much as he injected playfulness, sometimes using toys such as a mini-megaphone or robot-voice modulators, Bleckmann stopped short of sound effects displays of, say, the comic Michael Winslow.
The best collaboration of Bleckmann and Monder many have been the adaptation into art song of two works of 13th-century Persian mystic poet Rumi.
That kind of adaptation had been occurring earlier that night with the Great Noise Ensemble performance of Ted Hearne’s terrific “Katrina Ballads,” an oratorio based on primary texts from the New Orleans disaster. While it, too, had its comic moment — a movement based entirely on the phrase “Brownie, you’re doing a heck of a job” — more often, it brought dignity, depth and timelessness to the voices crying for help amid the devastation.
The power of that piece followed another suite evoking the South but from higher ground, ensemble member Mark Sylvester’s Banjo Chamber Concerto.
Catlin is a freelance writer.
The Intersections Festival at Atlas continues through March 10.