Theo Bleckmann, Joseph Branciforte Investigate the Art of Ambient Improvisation

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Improvising vocalist Theo Bleckmann (left) and producer/multi-instrumentalist Joseph Branciforte

(Photo: Courtesy Joseph Branciforte)

Late in June, vocalist Theo Bleckmann and multi-instrumentalist/producer Joseph Branciforte celebrated the release of LP1, their debut collaboration, by reveling in otherworldly, all-improvised soundscapes the pair sent skittering through New York’s Fridman Gallery.

Bleckmann—a Grammy-nominated sui generis singer who ranked third in the Male Vocalist category in this year’s DownBeat Critics Poll—has tackled the songbooks of Kate Bush and Charles Ives, among other endeavors, and currently is at work on his second effort as leader for ECM Records. As a vocalist and composer, he blurs the lines of modern jazz, contemporary classical, pop and cabaret with aplomb. But Bleckmann’s just as daring as a sound sculptor, manipulating his voice using effects processing and looping to angelic results.

“I’ve done ambient records before,” Bleckmann explained when asked if the wordless experiments on LP1 rank as an aesthetic departure. “I’ve done electronic improvisation or electronic contemporary music for years, so it’s not completely new to me ... . I’ve done a solo record called Anteroom, an ambient record with only my voice overdubbed, so there was no looping; it was just overdubbed a hundred-million-thousand times. I did that record in 2005, then I did a record a couple of years ago with Caleb Burhans, Skúli Sverrisson and Grey McMurray called This I, which is also very much in the spirit of Joe and I free-improvising.”

Perched directly across from each other in the middle of the gallery and flanked by the audience during their album-release show, it was easy to be induced into a trance-like state by the beatific drones dreamily unfolding and the idiosyncratic effects-laden vocalizations that enveloped the space. Branciforte said theirs “was a shared understanding and language that developed pretty quickly. It felt effortless, like we’ve been doing it for a while.”

Tracing the path of their union actually reaches years back and ultimately counts as a dream collaboration for Branciforte. As a teenager, he first discovered Bleckmann through his solo recordings, like Origami and Anteroom, then on Excavation and Oceana by guitarist Ben Monder, albums that proved influential for the experimentalist. Later, as a producer and engineer, Branciforte racked up a long list of avant-garde jazz credits. From Vijay Iyer and Tim Berne to Mary Halvorson, he’s been a choice pick to helm the boards. Producing Monder’s Hydra was actually a catalyst for his crossing paths with Bleckmann, who provided vocals for the 2013 Sunnyside set. That helped plant the seeds of their collaboration, which came to fruition a few years later when Bleckmann fortuitously stumbled upon sonic experiments Branciforte was uploading to Soundcloud.

“I’d been keeping this ‘sound journal,’ where I would record a short minute or two of improvisation using some different pedals on the Fender Rhodes and modular synthesizers and just exploring gear and writing stuff about my process,” Branciforte explained. “[Theo] was digging some of the sounds, so he got in touch and we talked about getting together and playing some shows.”

While the collaboration has manifested in the form of a valuable musical partnership, it’s also presented another opportunity for Branciforte: launching his own imprint. Dubbed Greyfade (the same name as his Brooklyn studio), LP1 ranks as the label’s inaugural release. Branciforte’s vision for the endeavor is focused on collaboration—with an eye toward algorithmic composition, ambient, sound art and minimalist chamber music.

Free-improvisation also is a crucial part of Greyfade’s mission, an artform Bleckmann and Branciforte seem to excel at together.

“For me, it requires a certain personality or certain mindset of a player, and Joe definitely has that, meaning that I don’t have to solo,” Bleckmann said of their musical bond. “He comes at it with a blank slate and that’s really nice. We could do something crazy-wild; it could go anywhere ... that’s actually the mark of true free-improvisation. If you call it free, but all you’re doing is regurgitating Albert Ayler’s ’60s aggressive free-improv, then to me that’s not really that free. So, the nice thing with Joe is that we can do that and it could go there, but for the most part, that’s not really where we’re starting. We’re starting at the microcosm of just looking into the DNA of sound and slowing down, digging and slowly excavating what’s in there. That’s where we feel we click.” DB