For the approaching New Year, a friend of mine was cleaning her home office. She had books which she had read but were not worth keeping and there was also one entire shelf of them from her last job that a boss who thought he was wired into some sort of business Rosetta Stone required his team to read; hokey titles which claimed to offer leadership secrets of everybody from Attila The Hun to Napoleon. It was all very much the zeitgeist of the mid 90’s to early 2000’s. It conjures up remembrances of bosses who were pricks and conference rooms with foosball tables. Equally as prevalent at this time was the myth of multi-tasking, management excitedly piling “to do” things atop their staff while bug eyed and chanting the mantra of “just multi-task it”. The method has long since proven faulty, several things being done at once, none of them well or necessarily right but from those times of the myth of multi-tasking remains a sort of shortened attention span.
Speaking in broad generalities for there are exceptions to every rule, this has spilled over into the arts, with films which emphasize technological flash over substance, popular novels entirely about (semi) classic characters created by other authors and sadly, music. With music the manifestation of short attention span is there but subtler. There are still the aficionados and enthusiasts but gone are the days of people or individuals just sitting and listening to music. Now music is in the background for dinner parties, driving et al; always in the movie of our lives but negated to merely a soundtrack far ever from the main focus.
Multi-instrumentalist Alexander Berne sprang up in the New York scene working with a diverse cross section of musicians including Cecil Taylor, Victor Lewis to Albert “Tootie” Heath. His new double album Flickers of Mime & Death of Memes is a throwback to the golden age of the headphone albums. It is a densely layered work of art which demands one’s full attention to be fully appreciated and understood; on the same levels both viscerally and cerebrally as works by The Second Viennese School (Arnold Schoenberg 1874-1951, Anton Webern 1883-1945, Alban Berg 1885-1935) and other artists whose works have encompassed the dichotomy of electrically charged jump of sparks between mind and emotion; though with the comparisons that is not to say that he has utilized their method of compositions.
From his jazz beginnings Alexander would go on to study Tabla and Indian classical music with Misha Masud and others. He would also embrace multi sources of inspiration from more than just musical genres. From the mid 1990’s until 2008 he would work on film production and visual arts even inventing a new form of painting that combined photo emulsion and acrylics. This has leant his work a cinematic air in the truest sense of the word. Often a descriptive shorthand for not a change of emotional cadence but merely in a work’s volume or number of voices being heard at any given time. Alexander’s latest, with its emotional gears ever in flux, is an example of true aural cinematics, a journey not necessarily of distance but atmosphere.
On New Years of 2007 while in Italy, Alexander decided to free the music in his head, executing every aspect of it himself, following his own rules which allowed for greater possibilities as there were none of the confines of music/studio orthodoxy.
As I sat to give my first listen I purposely held off on reading the liner notes and anything about the work. It can be an interesting exercise, seeing if an artist’s intent matches up to how it makes one feel, especially with music. The work (s) form a sort of programmatic tone poem for the 21st century loosely revolving around a mime (in my mind closer to Pierrot and the classic European Commedia dell’Arte) working his magic in a small theater. One can enjoy the work while having no idea of the program, not necessarily the subject but the sense of mystery comes clearly through.
The very start of the piece, there is the sense of something emerging from the primordial ooze or a thick curtain of fog, out from behind this curtain steps the entertainer. Alexander has invented new instruments, utilized for this album which draw from the DNA of Asian, Arabic and American reed instruments. There are parts where the voice of a specific instrument can be heard but even as it seems to offer a recognizable cadence it morphs into something else, perfect kinship to the voices and sounds one may hear in dreams, sometimes familiar but then changing as its source moves about the dreamscape. There are at the beginning bass organ like pulses and electro tendrils of random thoughts, perhaps birthed from the collective unconscious of the audience. While no synthesizers were used, some sounds were treated, a tinkling piano descends, kissed electronically, it stoops even lower, Dali’s dripping clocks hanging off of the branches. The Electro washes of sound which occur throughout the work avoid the mindless repetition and rise above being mere sonic filler. They show some of the intellectual potential inherent but not often utilized in the Electro-Ambient genre.
The snap of snare drums are as if the ringmaster calls attention to the next section of mystery. There is a slow undulating sense of tension, the things of reveries grafted onto the stagescape of Cirque Medrano. The music is unabashedly dense but never self-indulgent as can happen with such intricate slow shifting patterns of sound. The sound of the CDs throughout is pristine. A flute of butterflies turns sharper, its now nasal in cadence emerging from the shadows of a recessed doorway in a Tangiers marketplace. One follows these exotic strains into the zocalo. The butterflies turn into wasps, shiny black jewels dotting the various pyramids of fruit and honeyed pastries.
The snare drum brings you back to the theater, the darkness a relief from the sun and conscious thought. The silence is the razor’s edge of the crowds’ quietude, the mime conjuring up his invisible world and the tension of seeing a trick well done. It is entertainment, under the surface of which one can sense mystery and the camaraderie shared with magic and all of the other silent things of the stage.
The set comes with liner notes by Lawrence Cosentino. The CDs slip into the cardboard sleeves, a design I am not a fan of as eventually they could scratch. The sleeve itself opens photo album fashion is black with silver lettering, it feels solid and looks good. The cover image is reminiscent of a Jean Cocteau or some other Montparnassian’s drawing of someone casting a spell. This music is challenging but well worth one’s while. It is the score for daydreams tinted in dark colors and feeling like smoke in one’s hand.
For more information about Alexander Berne you can go to his website at: http://www.alexanderberne.com/
*This article is not to be used or reprinted without the expressed permission of Maxwell A. Chandler (firstname.lastname@example.org)