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Ben Monder: Surprise from Cohesion

By Published: February 6, 2006
AAJ: This album continues your work with vocalist Theo Bleckmann. He's got an interesting role here—not a lead singer, exactly—more like another instrument. You've worked with him a lot over the years.

BM: About eleven years now.

AAJ: His contributions to this record are considerable. Why a vocalist at all? What's he bringing to the music?

BM: When I first start of using him in the band, I hadn't written specifically for voice. But I thought some of the melodies needed reinforcement. So with some of the trio pieces, I had him doubling some of the melodies, and I thought it worked well—I really couldn't hear another instrument playing those same melodies. It seemed like voice, and in particular, his voice, was the only thing that was going to work. So he joined the band, and I started hearing things for him specifically and writing individual parts for him. That's sort of how it evolved. Again, I don't hear other instruments playing those parts; I just don't think it would work. I guess maybe the voice makes some of the complexity a little more accessible and maybe otherwise some of it could be a little forbidding. But if it sounds like it's a song, even if there are no words, it might be easier to deal with.

AAJ: Yes, now that I've heard the music as it is, it is hard to imagine something else playing those notes. I can't imagine, for example, a trumpet doing it.

BM: Right, and that might even be the closest thing.

AAJ: Speaking of Theo, let's start by talking about the shortest piece by far on this album of long tunes, which is "Light. This is a very brief, multi-tracked, a cappella Bleckman performance—a canon. It's gorgeous and unique and sort of acts as a prelude to the song "Oceana, which follows it, even though it has nothing in common with "Oceana. The musical material of "Light also recurs later in the song "Rooms of Light. What's its story?

BM: Actually, we were mixing "Rooms of Light, mixing the chorale part from that without the instruments, and I thought it sounded cool. So we just decided to print a version without the instruments. So it's not a separate performance; it's just that part [laughing] of that other tune. I thought it would be nice for it to recur later to kind of lend some unity to the whole record.

AAJ: That's great. "Light occurs pretty early on the CD, and when I heard that vocal melody again in "Rooms of Light, I thought, "brilliant! It's an album.

BM: [laughing] Well, I grew up in the seventies, in the rock epic concept- record age, so it's a little bit of an homage to that.

AAJ: Somehow that brings us to the album's title track, "Oceana, which is a fantastic song that sound like nothing else that's out there in music now. I suppose it's all based on that arpeggio phrase that you play at the very beginning, but the tune is long and goes through a variety of permutations and sections—in my mind, I hear three sections to this. I love the knotted, connected way you and Kermit Driscoll play and the way the song builds tension through its density and rigor—it doesn't ever really release that tension, either. Other than Ted's drum break near the end, I don't really hear any improvisation in this song.

BM: There isn't any. Originally I meant for there to be a solo section, just so it could qualify as a jazz piece [laughing], but then it just didn't seem to work, so I took it out. Three sections—well, I don't know. I would think there are five. There's the original theme that occurs twice more. Like you said, everything is some kind of treatment of the first four bars or so of the tune. I'm breaking it down into basically two subjects, one more scalar and one more angular, and kind of going back and forth between those, doing different things with them. So there's the first statement, which is pretty much non-tonal. Then I'm taking the first part of the theme and putting it into a more tonal context—that's the second part. It kind of goes from G minor, then there's a little E minor section and back to G minor. Then there are some pedals and then the original theme comes back. Then there's a sparser section where I'm taking the second theme and working that through—I don't know how technical you want to get, but I'm taking a particular scale and moving that in minor thirds and putting that sort of angular shape through that. That goes on for a few minutes, so that would be part three.

AAJ: So now we're getting to Theo's vocal, right?

BM: Yeah, exactly. And that somewhat violent strumming section—that was going to be the solo section, but I decided to just strum those chords instead of trying to play over them. Then what would constitute a release would be Theo's little cameo. I don't know—thematically, I can't really justify that; I don't know where that comes from. But it did seem like the right thing to do at the time. The guitar part is just a bunch of tone rows, and he's singing this melody over it. Then when it gets really fast over those pedals, that would be the, ah, fifth section now?

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