Alexander Berne and the Abandoned Orchestra: Flickers of Mime / Death of Memes

Alexander Berne's triple-CD collection Composed And Performed By Alexander Berne lodged itself firmly within textura's 2010 top ten list, and his entrancing two-CD follow-up Flickers of Mime / Death of Memes finds the multi-instrumentalist and composer poised to do much the same a year later. On the new material, Berne and his so-called Abandoned Orchestra create mesmerizing sound-paintings by augmenting his saxophone (tenor, alto, and soprano) and saduk (a self-created instrument that combines a flute and reed instrument) with piano, lap steel guitar, ocarina, Chinese bamboo flute, recorder, Irish whistle, conch shells, and guttural vocal effects (his other invented instruments include the tridoulaphone—another flute-reed hybrid—and the shakuhachophone, a shakuhachi-saxophone creation). There's a strong Eastern quality to his sound, to some degree because of the saduk and its inherently exotic timbre, not to mention a fundamentally natural character (Berne generally eschews synthesizers and samples, though drum loops were used on two of the first disc's tracks). Technically, one could call Berne a virtuoso but that would miss the point: instead, his energies are directed towards alchemizing sound into ravishing settings that often suggest states of feverish possession.

In opening with ominous chords and a rising snare roll, Flickers of Mime /Death of Memes begins with what seems to be either an overt or perhaps purely coincidental reference to Bernard Herrmann's Taxi Driver soundtrack. The moment is perhaps more interesting, however, for being perhaps the sole moment on the release when Berne's music, so thoroughly imprinted with his sensibility, calls to mind the voice of another's. He might at one time have been associated with the jazz scene, but the music he's making now is leagues removed from any straightforward categorization or reference.

For the first disc, Berne visualized a mime who uses his hands and flame to create flickering shadows to induce images and evoke memories in the people around him, an idea that for those familiar with Plato will, of course, remind them of the Myth of the Cave. The music exudes an ancient and primal quality, feeling as it does like material not of any one place or time. Often veiled in darkness and mystery, Flickers of Mime is nachtmusik, a shamanistic travelogue through deep psychic pathways and with a powerfully seductive undertow. Like a snake slithering through dense underbrush, Berne's woodwind melodies travel sinuously through droning and rhythm-based (“Flicker VIII”) landscapes, at times bringing echoes of classical formality into the fold (“Flicker VI”) but more often than not transmuting his pieces into haunting dreamscapes (attested to by the pealing melodies in “Flicker VII,” for example).

The two halves of the recording are dramatically different in tone. Intimating that the second disc will be considerably more disturbing, “Meme I” plunges us into a zone darker than anything on the first, after which woodwind ululations in “Meme II” conjure the image of the bereaved wailing at a burial site. An entropic quality pervades the music in such moments, evoking as it does the image of things breaking down, a civilization or culture on the verge of collapse. In keeping with that idea, tempos slow and activity levels grow subdued as the disc develops. The restrained piano-centered ruminations of “Meme III” feel like the dying embers of said civilization being scanned for signs of life, while the soprano saxophone's coiling melodies rise from the ashes in “Meme V” like plumes of cigarette smoke. Near disc's end, howls of anguish blacken the droning sixth section, and tribal percussion patterns give the eighth the feel of a funereal procession.

A few of Berne's own words about the recording prove illuminating. His choice of the word synaesthetic to describe his music, for one, begins to suggest how powerfully evocative it is, and his suggested sub-title for the recording, Coincidental Music For an Unwritten Show (of the Mind), likewise captures the sense in which his music feels like material welling up from the unconscious. Packaged in a deluxe and autographed edition, the release is as striking on visual grounds as it is aural.

December 2011