Joseph Branciforte & Theo Bleckmann – LP1 [greyfade 2019]
Interview with Joseph Branciforte – May 2019
Through a sort of hidden path, Joseph Branciforte and Theo Bleckmann explore multiple questions arising subtly behind the sounds produced in LP1. Under the quiet, often soothing, amalgam of blurring shades within the soundscapes created across four different tracks, there’s a hint at a bigger picture, including matters such as the interaction between the machine and the human element, the role of narrative in improvised music, the thin line that might separate the score and the improvisation. All of these elements gently arise in an unadulterated form. Yet another one arises. Both Branciforte and Bleckmann have in common being artists linked with a diverse palette of style and experiences. Still they find a common ground which is quite singular. The following words by Bleckmann, who recounted how he developed his own style in Arcana III, the musicians’ editor series created by John Zorn, resonated within me: instead of acquiring a style making that a ‘me’ (mostly by amplifying and repeating affectations), I wanted to rid myself of affect as much as possible to get to a space that resembled something of a black canvas. Short of becoming neutral or neutered, I was looking to approach each piece of music without stylistic or vocal baggage and still be expressive and very personal with it. It is a delicate balancing act between Zen and Rock and Roll, between honoring the music and acknowledging the self. Like a blank canvas, LP1 outlines a place of interaction where each musician listens to the other before only acknowledging the self.
LP1 is the first recording issued by the newly created greyfade label, founded by Joseph Branciforte. As an accomplished recording engineer, composer, multinstrumentalist and sound artist, Branciforte has already spanned multiple facets of the music business chain, and now he adds being a founder of his own label on the top of that. I think of the label as an extension of where I have been in the last twenty years or so. I started as a musician by playing drums as a kid and then piano -he says. I started taking piano lessons as a teenager because I wanted to learn how to write music. As I got older, I studied composition in college, then music production and recording. Then I learned about coding my own software, composing electronically. Growing in the role of producer has been like an extension from a very specific sense of music and experience of music, being and instrumentalist and drummer, then a gradual process more concerned with more and more aspects of musical experience. His name appears linked with experiences as varied as producing and recording releases by jazz guitarist Ben Monder -namely he was the producer of one of the most important albums of last ten years, Monder‘s 2013 release Hydra; or developing software for the creation of realtime scores for chamber ensembles; playing drums for avant prog band The Cellar and the Point; writing essays about the interaction between machine and human in contemporary music -see this NewMusicBox series. And yet he has made a name also by performing as a sound artist with such artists as Ryuichi Sakamoto, Taylor Deupree and Kenneth Kirchner. The newborn greyfade label seems to be just a piece of the puzzle in his own music world, a place where to include all of his previous experiences: with the label I just felt as a natural extension, something that I wanted to do now for a four or five years. I just felt it would be a kind of vessel for all the things I am interested in, could tie together all interests I have, including composing, performing, improvising, software design and recording, engineering, package design, writing, philosophy, music distribution and that kind of thing. I just felt like a natural process to extend my area of concern.
The German-born singer Theo Bleckmann is one of the most prominent artists in the New York jazz scene. The previously quoted statement is a perfect starting point to understand the multiple sides of a musician who has developed an impressive array of sounds using his voice. From collaborating with drummers John Hollenbeck and the aforementioned guitarist Ben Monder to re-imagining the songs of Kate Bush, performing works by Bang On A Can‘s David Lang, Michael Gordon and Julia Wolfe and joining Meredith Monk, to his latest album under his own name released on ECM in 2017, Elegy, he achieved a mastery that allows him to easily imprint his own unique mark to any creative situation he is part of. Thanks to his voice, which has a distinct richness of harmonics, either he is delicately penning an impressionistic version of Stephen Sondheim‘s Comedy Tonight or is uttering aggressive sound layers during a free improvisation. After Bleckmann was already a revered artist in the jazz scene, he met with Branciforte in 2013 during the recording sessions for Monder‘s Hydra. I’ve been a fan of Theo’s music since I was about 15 or 16 yrs old -Branciforte says. I got introduced to Theo through Ben’s records like Excavation and Oceana. I first met him professionally when we worked together on Hydra. Theo did a lot of work on that one. It was a very challenging record to make on a number of levels. Monder‘s recording marked a turning point for the future collaboration between Branciforte and Bleckmann, but it was also a pivotal moment for the former, this time with the double hat of recording engineer and producer. Ben told me this was going to be this complicated project. It took almost two-three years to make it, it was very challenging musically and Ben is somewhat of a perfectionist as am I. So we spent a lot of time in the studio editing and mixing it. Through that I got to know Theo really well, because we worked quite a lot on that record. I don’t think Theo knew that I was a musician or anything like that, he just knew that I was an engineer helping Ben. The story, though, took an unexpected turn when the two met again some years later. We actually reconnected two years ago. It was, strangely enough, at a friend’s wedding. They sat us at the same table. After that Theo stumbled upon something that I’ve been doing for a while online. It is a sound journal, which was really an exercise for me. Interestingly this sound journal Branciforte posted on his Soundcloud page acted as a preparatory exercise for the collaboration of the two from multiple perspectives. It helped me to get out of the perfectionism and to try to put something out every day, a work in progress. It’s really difficult for me, because that’s not my personality. I really like to perfect things, spend a lot of time, hone the details, thinking about things for a long time. This was something I was doing to try to get out of that. Anyway through Theo actually heard some examples that I was posting online, he really enjoyed it. He was the one who reached out saying we should play together.
I think that human voice adds a narrative element to the music that in some ways is not typical for ambient music. Most ambient music is more about setting a mood or a kind of landscape
Bleckmann is not new to explorations in ambient music, even though his name is more linked with jazz or contemporary classical labels. He also toured in the past as a solo artist, using voice with looping machines and delays. The liquid atmosphere at the start of 6.15, with telluric basses thumping in the background while a sonar-like beats slowly set a rhythm, is enhanced by singer’s sighs. At 1.52 minutes into the piece, the voice becomes clearer in comparison to the minimalist soundscape, still with no distinct melody over the top. The two seem to be focused on integrating with each other from an organic point of view, without ever surrendering to the ego and dominating the other. Even when Bleckmann shifts his double pitched chorus of voices of a small semitone above, at around 2.30 for the first time, it is almost impossible to distinguish who of the two is producing which part of the sound flow. We set up a few shows in 2017, maybe two or three performances -Branciforte says. We didn’t really talk very much about we were gonna do, it was just improvised. Really no discussions. It was very organic. This sense of organic interaction between the two evidently permeates the whole recording. When they had a further occasion to play together, again in 2018, they recorded the material that eventually became LP1: we had several really great performances, we both enjoyed them. Then through a strange chain of events, we were asked to perform with Ryuichi Sakamoto, the Japanese composer and sound artist, in 2018. Leading up to that, we thought we could get together and play a little bit to get prepared. I had the idea that, since we were doing it anyway, we would just record it and see what we get. The sessions followed the initial ground rules of a total improvisation approach, not brining any pre-written material the two might have been acquainted with. We spent two days over at my studio in Brooklyn. I just let the tape roll and we improvised three or four hours a day. After the concert with Ruichi was over, I had some time to listen back. I went through the recordings and started to find some little things that I thought were good. I thought that maybe there was an album there. I took a lot of time by myself to sit through the material, find a little snippets that I thought had a form to them, had a shape that I liked. I did some additional recordings, not very much, but a little bit by myself to kind of finish the record.
Even though the full reel of the sessions resulted in many hours of recordings, when Branciforte edited the final outcome it resulted in a 38-minute collection of four tracks, each about the same duration as the others. That choice was quite intentional, resulting in an album with a minimalistic mood and ruled by a minimalistic idea of stripping the duration to the essential. He further explains: I like to reduce things to their most essential form. No matter what I am doing, if there’s something I feel is extraneous, then I try to remove it. I guess you can say it’s the influence of minimalism or something, I just want the essential. It’s just kind of chipping away of the excess. This album, perhaps, could have been a lot longer, but I had the feeling that I only wanted to present the stuff that I feel is unique or moving in the direction of presenting something new. There’s so much music out there today, we have all access to so much sound and art, that I just feel that. Unless I really am presenting something essential, I would rather just not release it. I’m a bit hard on myself in the process, unless I feel it’s strong, I don’t want to pull it out. Interestingly, the editing work was affected by the medium choice; since, choosing a less than forty minutes format was required with the aim to produce a vinyl release. The medium very much affects the composition, the same way now we have Instagram and a lot of musicians make those one-minute clips. In some ways a medium can be a good compositional restriction. It helps to format things in my mind, to know that I only have a certain amount of canvas to work with. Once we said we were going to do vinyl, it actually helped my thinking about what the album would be.
There’s a balance of strong forms and development and concept that I think is important to balance with free expression. Both of those need to be in a kind of balance, for me as a listener.
There’s a very precise mood created by drones and the liquid sounds emerging through the surface of the album. Still this mood is anything but static, it has indeed a very precise direction that develops through the tracks. I think that human voice adds a narrative element to the music that in some ways is not typical for ambient music. Most ambient music is more about setting a mood or a kind of landscape. The second track 3.4.26 starts where the other left, within a forest of shimmering sounds driven by a circular loop of barely recognizable voices. Branciforte gradually strengthens this choir by creating a minimal wave of sound that melts with the previous loop. Theo is a bit freer with his approach. He is more in the moment, whereas I would say I am more conceptual. I had an idea about what I wanted this to be in advance. In the pieces that I selected for the recording, I express my aesthetic preferences moreso than Theo’s. They express more of minimalism that I was trying to achieve. Where the two work in the moment, exploring the possibilities of minimal shifts in improvisations, there’s a creative tension between the visions each of them is bringing. Branciforte further verbalizes this: the human voice has a lot of associations as far as narrative. Just that alone creates an interesting contrast with my more minimalist sense of things. Theo is more narrative and more improvisatory and more in-the-moment. In the recording you have both elements: you have the more conceptual element, the more planned element, as well as freer more improvisatory element. I just find it interesting. This is really the first recording I’ve done on my own that it was completely improvised. And yet I still wanted to feel very compositional. With Theo and I there’s a sort of language that we both share that’s intuitive, but we also highlight different aspects of that language in the recording.
Moving to 4.19, the third track of the album, vocal-produced sounds seem to arise even more clearly, in comparison to previous pieces, over the cloudy, opalescent matter produced by Branciforte. No sense of hurry yet. The casual bells patterns underlays a steady rhythm that recalls both the minimalistic landscapes by Taylor Deupree, who Branciforte is friend with, or a Norwegian-like melancholiness that a Jan Bang/Arve Henriksen duo could paint. I wanted the album to be a complete composition -says Branciforte. Creating a sense of coherent development rather than creating something that could showcase just the skills of the duo, that was the core of editing choices: there were one or two pieces that I think were good enough to go on the record, but I couldn’t find a way to get them in the sequence of the album. This is also something that’s very important to me, the way the order of the pieces unfolds as a complete composition. There was one piece in particular that I ended not including, but it was perhaps my favorite piece, but I couldn’t find a way to fit it in the sequence. It had to go. Sometimes there’s this feeling like you have to kill your child, you have to cut the thing you like the best because it doesn’t work in the whole.
As composer, Joseph Branciforte has developed software to create realtime live scores. As explained in the aforementioned NewMusicBox series, one of the most interesting opportunities it creates is the level of interaction between the composer and the musicians: bringing the composer on stage has its own set of consequences that I don’t totally understand yet, but it is really fascinating. I’ve found that the few times when I’ve done performances where I was as the composer on stage interacting with the composition, there’s a social dynamic that is sort of uncomfortable. The musicians are not used to having the composer in that role. Blurring the lines between the roles, in such a strong social relationship, like the one between the music writer and the performer, is hard. One example I think I mentioned in the NewMusicBox series is that I created a simple thing like a MIDI controller, and with faders I can control the dynamics markings for the musicians. I remember there was a lot of almost resentment and so that was something unexpected. But I realized that musicians themselves are also part of the algorithm, there’s a social dynamic. Something about the relationship between the composer and the performer, it’s always been that the composer in a way has control because there is this abstract convention called the score, maybe the performer doesn’t realize it quite so directly as when you are sitting five feet away from him. There’s a long story about the crisis of this social dynamic, where many improvisation ensembles played a role in creatively increasing it in contemporary music. Worth mentioning are the free improvisation experiences rooted at the margins of contempory music such as Gruppo di Improvvisazione Nuova Consonanza; another example comes from Derek Bailey, when he discussed the challenges of involving musicians with a classical background in free improvisation, due to being less inclined to put their role as interpreters on hold.
I like to reduce things to their most essential form. No matter what I am doing, if there’s something I feel is extraneous, then I try to remove it.
Yet another important aspect here is how this background, these challenges Branciforte previously explored and got exposed to, interact in this work as an improviser. In other words, is there any link between the composer writing the realtime score that musicians are going to play on a stage with the sound artist improvising together with another musician? That involves looking to a broader question that Branciforte addresses with the following words: I am very interested in form and I am very interested in musical shapes I would say. In some ways I’ve had mixed reactions to free improvisations and free jazz. I enjoy some of it, and I don’t enjoy other parts of it. I think that there’s a balance of strong forms and concept that I think it’s important to balance with free expression. Both of those need to be in a balance for me as a listener. With the live notation there is a similar concern, which is to have something that is of the moment and has a sense of freedom and discovery to it, but also is based on a very strong concept. If not a narrative, at least it has strong formal elements that allow connections between the material. There’s a sense of coherence.
The machine element plays a role in this interaction enhancing, like a ‘prothesis’, meant in the anthropological sense, the composer’s ability to improvise with the musicians. Yet the use of automated means to support the writing process is still controversial, for a sort of belief that it might reduce the composer’s subjectivity. A lot of the things that I am interested in doing formally and harmonically in my own music just tend to be things that I realize a computer can do really well. I don’t lose any of the subjective elements that I am interested in expressing. In fact I think I can handle those things by writing code that explicitly expresses my subjective preferences. I studied a lot of electronic music in college. I got very accustomed to the type of creative processes that happen in that type of software paradigm. When I think about composing for acoustic instruments, many of these techniques come to my mind. I tried to combine the algorithmic approach with something that doesn’t really uses electronic sound sources, but just uses conventional instruments. From a composer’s view, using algorithms during the writing process, which I recently discussed with composer Markus Reuter, is also a means to explore new boundaries, new possibilities. A string quartet I just wrote is made by a series of permutations. What the piece became is how to order this gigantic set of data. If I write this out in a traditional notation program, any time I want to change the ordering principle, it would take me several days, if not weeks. With algorithmic tools I can quickly sort the data in fifteen different ways and render them. I can bounce the MIDI files, put them in my car and listen while I am driving around. It might take me months to do that, if I am doing in a conventional way. I like the immediacy of it.
The ending track is pivotal for the whole album. 5.5.9 starts with a brooding and haunting chord sequence; at 2.00 minutes it exudes a dark progression of chords descending in parallel motion. This pattern will loop for the rest of the track, like a spiral going down. There is this thing that starts at around the two minutes mark, where I play these descending three chords. I remember when I actually played those. We were improvising and I played it. It was a feeling right when I did it. It was like ‘I know what this is, I’ve been here before’. It’s a very odd feeling. I didn’t listen to the recording for a month or so after. I remembered that moment and I thought ‘I am gonna find out where that thing was, I have to find that because that was great!’. It just seemed like the end of the record. I knew it was going to be the end from the beginning. That was one of my firm pillars in the sequence. When at 3 minutes mark Theo Bleckmann‘s voice enters in, he sings probably the most unique and beautiful theme of the album. When I played those chords, I just felt he heard immediately what to do. You record eight hours of materials, you have a couple of moments like that. That was definitely one of those that I wanted to find a way to include it. Everything becomes clear, the concept behind it, the vision of the two being unveiled, a pure sense of bliss. That track is a very dark piece and it has this very ‘descend into the crypt’ feel that ended the album. It goes into this horizon, but it never really delivers you anywhere. I just felt that it was a very private or specific moment that I wanted to highlight towards the end. The whole record moves through a sort of emotional arc that becomes clear only at the sunset of the album, with the closure of the last track. I wanted the middle of the record to be warm, to have a lot of richness and beauty and the ending track, instead, descending into this darker place, to kind of release you in an ambiguous territory. The first and the last pieces form these bookends, they are both kind of darker, more electronic sounds, in the middle is a little bit warmer. There’s a little bit of symmetry going on with it.
A lot of the things that I am interested in doing formally and harmonically in my own music just tend to be things that I realize a computer can do really well. I don’t lose any of the subjective elements that I am interested in expressing. In fact I think I can handle those things by writing code that explicitly expresses my subjective preferences.
Greyfade, the newborn label Branciforte inaugurates with this duo recording, is explicitly aimed at producing albums of the ‘highest quality – conceptually, creatively, sonically’ albums. This manifesto is very apparent when putting headphones on, listening to high resolution files (96khz/24bit) and enjoying the initial bass drones opening the album. In thinking about doing this label, one of the things that has frustrated me as an engineer and producer and mastering engineer is that we spend as artists years working on these releases. For me the level of obsession that I go to with the sound is pretty extreme and I spend a lot of time really thinking everything through, listening to a number of systems, really putting a lot of effort in. It’s really frustrating after all that effort to then hear the music being experienced through streaming services. That’s reducing the quality to such a level that I don’t even really recognize the mix. The balances and the frequency responses are so different than I intended, that I just feel people aren’t really hearing what I made. I think I am probably fighting an uphill battle. I am trying to make on emphasis on the resolution and the quality, because I feel like so many people don’t know what they are missing. Following this release, greyfade will continue drwaing connections between practices Branciforte explored during his previous career and his duo recording with Bleckmann. The next record will with electronic musician Kenneth Kirschner, who has worked together with Taylor Deupree on label 12k. Ken and I met through Taylor. Ken is a very interesting guy. He is very interested in minimalist chamber music, but he is not a traditional composer. He is an electronic musician, he doesn’t have a background in notation, arranging, or anything. He works on the computer. This recording that we made we decided we wanted to have acoustic chamber works, composed threough digital technology. The record will be one piece of Ken’s, that I transcribed for two cellos and piano. Then one piece of mine, which we just recorded a couple of weeks ago. It’s a generative, proceduralist work that explores different harmonic permutations for string quartet. That’ll be the beginning of a series we are going to do focusing on algorithmically and digitally composed works for acoustic instruments.
Bringing the composer on stages has its own set of consequences that I don’t totally understand yet, but it is really fascinating.
LP1 is a deep exploration of the organic interaction between voice and electronics. Yet what is most astonishing is how Joseph Branciforte and Theo Bleckmann use their means, organic and eletronic, to lift their interaction to such a level of interconnection, thus making it impossible to even hear the subtle nuances each is bringing at individual level, if one does not listen to them as a whole.
Joseph Branciforte & Theo Bleckmann
Theo Bleckmann: voice & electronics
Joseph Branciforte: modular synthesizer, fender rhodes tape loops, & processing