Alexander BERNE (b. 1969)
Flickers of Mime: Flicker I [8:16], Flicker II [3:49], Flicker III [4:51], Flicker IV [5:08], Flicker V [4:00], Flicker VI [4:49], Flicker VII [4:47], Flicker VIII [4:47], Flicker IX [3:49], Flicker X [4:16], Flicker XI [4:26]
Death of Memes: Meme I [5:06], Meme II [6:16], Meme III [6:41], Meme IV [6:53], Meme V [5:23], Meme VI [4:19], Meme VII [8:01], Meme VIII [5:40], Meme IX [4:51]
Alexander Berne and The Abandoned Orchestra
rec. dates not given, Mirabella Studios, Florida
INNOVA 804 [53:34 + 53:16]
Alexander Berne is a saxophonist, composer and visual artist. His origins as a musician can be found in the jazz scene, but with a period exhausting the possibilities of solo performing in Europe and a further phase back in New York involved in film production and painting Berne has been on a long journey. One of his activities is creating his own hybrid musical instruments, and with clearly a very wide range of influences this double-album is filled with unique timbres, and much of the material here is very far removed from even the most experimental of jazz.
There are indeed many remarkable sounds on this release. Berne works extensively with a variety of techniques to transform and electronically manipulate sounds, creating vast effects such as those in Flicker I. This opens with a tremendous, all-embracing sonority on a chord which sounds more like a grand conclusion than an opening. I love it. A circus drum-roll and crash of cymbals heralds surreal but subsumed theatrical drama, opening out into a cavernous space inhabited by massed and muffled church bells, the mysterious tinkling of a quasi-piano, elongated and moody organ tones, an elegiac melodic phrase from a saxophone.... Nothing here is quite what it seems, and the imagination is set on fire.
These tracks share a cyclic development of material, giving each its own identity, and constantly creating new effects through shifting juxtapositions. The saxophone is an important voice as you would expect, but Alexander Berne isn’t interested in solo jamming. His tones melt into and emerge from the textures, a member of the family of sounds it inhabits rather than a prominent individual. Overdubbing creates a kind of sax-chorale in Flicker II. A noisy and rather unmusical constantly recurring single bass note in Flicker III is less appealing, though the little flock of toy pianos and ethnic sounding recorder-like instruments are a treat. Flicker IV is steeped in mournful lament, and we hear Berne’s hybrid ‘saduk’: a cross between a saxophone and the Armenian duduk. If you like some of Stephan Micus’s work for the ECM label then this kind of thing will have great appeal. With fascinating textures and a superb touch in exploring the suggestive and non-explicit, Alexander Berne creates a vast aural canvas with his Flickers of Mime. Jazz moments do jump out on occasion, though the piano in Flicker VI is more a performance by the revived corpse of Schumann than the atonal experiment it first appears to be. Chillingly other-worldly slow-motion tidal waves of doom break over us in Flicker VII, and Flicker VIII is the first with a drum beat of any kind, a grinding machine-like loop over a growling ‘sci-fi’ pedal tone. Not all is slow in Flicker X, and with interlacing saxophone scales and a bustling banjo or cimbalom somewhere in the mix this is at times as close to a mix between Terry Riley and Laraaji as we're likely to come on this record. Compared to most of the other tracks it’s a hillbilly car chase. The final Flicker XI opens with a genuinely disturbing mixture of slow wailing and what sound like approaching grandfather-clock-clad footsteps, out of which we are momentarily and periodically helped by more up-beat rhythmic elements.
In his booklet notes, Lawrence Cosentino describes Flickers of Mime as tracing a rising arc, and the second disc, Death of Memes a downward movement of decay. Though there is a cyclical element I don’t think this arch is a particularly strong aspect of the structure of the whole - in other words we might not ‘get it’ in this way if we weren’t told, but if you thought Flickers of Mime was pretty grim then Death of Memes will drag out even darker nasties from your subconscious. Meme I is a grungy soundscape, its bleak features only spoiled by cheesy ‘boom-boom’ drum beats at what your ancient Hollywood Roman naval captain would have called ‘ramming speed.’ Berne says of this second tract that “this city you thought you saw, that this guy could conjure, is culturally on the way down - the destructive principle, making way for something else.” As such it could be a soundtrack for our times – at least in the way all our well paid leaders are culturally on the way down. The sense of dissolution is expressed in fragmented piano notes, little swarms of saxophone insects which gather and disperse; washes of transformed sonority, and further melodic laments. Meme V is a masterful elegy, the accompanying drone being slid around by gorgeously crunchy harmonies, the melodic shapes over the top timeless and exotic. Berne frequently creates atmosphere from a minimum of means, with Meme III a reduction of just a few piano notes multi-tracked into an intimate flight of canonic chiming bird-bells. If you like your sounds spooky, then Meme VI will take you to the gaping maw of an unknowable beast’s lair. The final track is like the final chorus of the great oratorio, the layered voices of the saxophone and other gentle reed instruments propelling our burning pyre ship into a horizon-less infinity.
Too dark and uncomfortable to be categorised in the ‘ambient’ section of your local CD emporium, this is the good stuff, and I support it wholeheartedly. Alexander Berne’s self-made and superbly produced soundtracks go against the grain of instant gratification, and take you to the kinds of places you would normally only expect to find from the intensity of a powerful novel. The two discs are presented in a stylishly bookish stiff gatefold finished in suitable blackness.
Rich food for grown-up imaginations.