Density’s Pull: A conversation with Alexander Berne

Maxwell Chandler: Your professional beginnings seemed fairly traditional, backing up people like Albert “Tootie” Heath, and “Jabali” Billy Hart among others. How important was this beginning to what you would ultimately artistically become?

Alexander Berne: That’s hard to say.  I think I was born into a situation where to become an artist was inevitable.  The fact that jazz was an early spark, and was in a sense a good incubator for things to follow, people whom I’ve met, a credo of, “making it work”, the love and awe of a Cannonball Adderley, on and on is something I’m grateful for; and mostly that my first teacher Randy Wanless was and is a master, and he spoke that language, and gave me an incredible start and friendship going on 33+ years now.

MC: After playing in other people’s bands and a prestigious teaching gig you left America for Belgium. Upon your eventual return stateside you had shed your old skin for a new artistic vision. Did the journey facilitate the change or vice versa?

AB: My life in Europe for 2 1/2 years was based on a “spiritual search”.  Which basically means I was miserable and knew I had to fix it, and approach the issues directly, I had no choice. The scenery was not critical per se. Quite a while before leaving I had formed much of my hyper – personal saxophone methods/techniques.

MC:  What brought you back stateside?

AB: Malnutrition, depression, desperation…lovely things like that.  It was time to be back at home in NYC.

MC: You have actively been involved in creating an array of custom instruments. How did that come about?

AB:
I think it’s quite natural when spending so much time with something (or someone even) to have frustration with limitations, ideas about what could be better, questions about why certain possibilities seem easy while others are so out of reach, at least for me it’s usually the case.

The saduk was my 1st real foray into instrument making and is the most fully realized instrument to date. I experimented with metal pipes, electrical tape, tin foil, saxophone mouthpieces of all manner. Here’s something I wrote for The Saduk CD which pretty much sums it up:

“What do nearly all instrumental virtuoso do? Running headlong into limitations, they make significant changes to their instruments or in some cases make a new one entirely. I love the saxophone deeply, but it has some inherent constraints. It is a ‘heavy’ instrument, laden down with many large keys; you need a lot of breath to vibrate its elongated conical metal tube. Often longing for a more tender palette of expression than the saxophone would allow, – I developed flute envy. My solution was to create the saduk, the simple open-holed flute/reed hybrid featured on these tracks. Inspired in equal measure by an inner sound – one that I have ‘felt’ as much as ‘heard’ throughout my life – and the primal, tender wind instruments found in most world traditions, this recording marries a prenatally familiar wind expression with voice, percussion, saxophone and other acoustic sounds.”

MC: Do you have a favorite? How tied into your playing & composing is the creation of these instruments and could you ever do one without the other?

AB: My favorite is as of yet unrealized. It’s a new saxophone like instrument, but has a flexibility and range of timbres heretofore unrealized in a single instrument.

MC: Your music has cerebral components and an overall density which legitimately makes it more accurate to describe as modern classical with elements of improvisation. It seems that in America such aural art has become marginalized to a specific semi hidden audience. Does this ever effect the ambition of the scope of a project or how long after completion you remain involved with the performing/promoting of a work?

AB: I have arrived (for now at least) at a place where the pursuit of my art is important in and of itself.  Meaning I trust I am only somewhat delusional, and that I know when I am cheating, being lazy, betraying my self, all the “bad habits” and “the pull” away from “the pursuit”.  I will admit it’s, if not a losing battle, certainly a Sisyphean struggle.

So my ambition as you say, is great…as the standards are awesome, daunting, limitless, unachievable.  Not MY standards, but THE standards.  Set by the masters in all fields, places, times.  I’m fortunate, I have been surrounded by “greatness”. So it’s easy in that sense to keep going.  The goal for me is just to be a drop in the bucket. Not be intimidated but rather just offer up my little effort, my humble talent, mediocre worth-ethic, on the the alter of infinite creativity, inspiration.

As for promotion: I’m a beggar…please listen to my music!

MC: It would seem so many things regardless of the medium that have weight to them are destined to only obtain a certain level of exposure.  Do genre defying artists have to make a conscious decision to not contemplate how “big” they will be or is it a form of stoicism which one learns organically with the passage of time?

AB: Speaking of myself only, again I’m at a nice place when I do that which I can do right here, right now.  Can I make myself a star? In demand? Popular?

I can however practice, study, go in the studio an deal with matters at hand, or ear, or eye.  Complaining in my mind, asking why, when I know there’s no answer, is a self indulgent wine better taken in small infrequent sips.  Reminding myself any complaints I have are more honestly excuses is a good thing. I have to remember, I have everything I need right now, to do something potentially great…it’s up to me.

MC: Once Honore de Balzac (1799-1850) became fully (artistically) realized he said that he no longer read other’s work as he did not need the inspiration in that form. Do you still listen to other people’s work to keep the juices flowing or for enjoyment and if so how have your listening habits and tastes changed over the years?

AB: I love music. I love to listen.  And there is a seemingly never ending wealth of music that I say,  “Wow! I wouldn’t mind if my name was on that!”.  I see a lot of, shall we say, a lack of generosity in artists…and I also see the opposite too!  Ask yourself, “Did I give that recording, painting, movie, etc. the same quality of attention, atmosphere, and benefits I give my own work?”  Of course, de gustibus non est disputandum.

MC: All your albums have a fantastic sound to them. How much of a factor does technology play in your compositions? Has technology ever changed a composition from its inception to execution live or in the studio?

AB: The studio as an instrument is a new and blossoming endeavor/fascination for me.  For years I was obsessed with sound, on my saxophone.

True stories about practicing one note only, for considerable lengths:  living at home my parents forced me to see a shrink thinking I was insane with that one note.  And for a while in NYC I would practice after-hours in a large basement real estate office.  After months, this lovely chap who cleaned at night, the only other soul in earshot, listening to my note every night, approached me.  We had never spoken and he said, “Man don’t you know any songs? I mean you can’t keep playing that one thing forever?”

The studio is infinite saxophones…kickin’ my arse!  I didn’t have any idea what compression was just a minute ago.  Now I geek out about trying to hear differences between optical,  VCA, Variable MU, FET. Mics, preamps, EQs, tonal shaping of aux sends, reverb chambers…insane.  And also a danger that it all becomes an excuse, a distraction.

Yes I think all my work is a balance, a negotiation, a conversation between what I can do and what I want to do, my circumstance vs. my vision

MC: Your music is very cinematic which is apt as you have also done film work. How did that come about?

AB: My grandfather Gustave Berne was a theatre and film impresario, so I had a start there I suppose.  I do believe that I am naturally inclined towards the sound/vision synaesthetic.

MC: You also paint, between all your mediums is there ever a cross pollination of inspiration?

AB: Inspiration is frequently in my case, just about getting started and then trusting providence will meet me half way.  Certainly I have ideas and I prepare for them, and all that’s required to bring such to fruition, but often if I may, the medium is not the message.

MC: With art in any medium, the audience makes a personal totem of a work, not necessarily in line with the intent of the artist. How important is it for people to be attuned with your intent when approaching one of your pieces?

AB: I would like to think that if someone, “gives me a chance”, meaning say in the case of my recorded sounds, at least allowing themselves an atmosphere where absorption would be possible, that I have a good likelihood of touching them.  As I said, beggars can’t be choosers.


MC: Is it possible to sum up your artistic philosophy and in doing so would it enhance one’s enjoyment of your work?

AB: I heard my mentor say once,  “Art is that which represents you when you are not there.”  A few ways to read that…

http://www.alexanderberne.com/

*This article is not to be used or reprinted without the expressed permission of Maxwell A. Chandler (maxwellachandler@aol.com)

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