Alexander Berne: Composed and Performed by Alexander Berne

Harley Gaber: I Saw My Mother Ascending Mt. Fuji

Psychoangelo: Panauromni

Innova distinguishes itself here with three superior releases, each one deserving of attention in its own right. Having said that, while Gaber's classical-drone setting and Psychoangelo's trumpet-and-electronics excursions are powerful, Alexander Berne's ambitious three-disc opus impresses most of all for presenting polyphonic musical content that's so ravishing. His is truly a world music in that there's a primal and unadulterated quality to the material that would enable it to speak directly to any listener, regardless of ethnicity or geographic locale. And that it's produced entirely free of synthesizers and samples bolsters that quality. Berne's that rare artist who can integrate lyricism, spirituality, and prodigious technical command into a single package, and his intricately woven lamentations constitute a potent sound-world that's regrettably too seldom encountered.

In the liner notes to the first of the set's three discs, The Soprano Saxophone Choir, Berne writes, “There seems to be a special, even mystical quality when an instrument is multipled by itself…a choir. This recording is an exploration of that choir phenomenon: many soprano saxophones living together, magnifying the ‘overtonal,' textural, harmonic, vibratory, ‘soundistic' experience.” His words neatly capture the wondrous character of the music, not just on the saxophone disc but on the other two as well. The interweave of Glass-ian sax swirls casts an hypnotic spell on the listener that's intoxicating. In tracks such as “Gardens” and “Hyacinth,” Berne uses rising-and-falling pitch-shifting to deepen the music's entrancing effect, such that one finds oneself caught up in the music's swoon. That the music involves a single instrument hardly means the results are one-dimensional. “Eschaton,” in contrast to the aformentioned pieces, cultivates mystery in juxtaposing the lonely, bird-like call of a single saxophone and the low-pitched rumble of a drone. During “Magic,” the instrument's snake-charming melodies appear but then, teasingly, vanish before just as suddenly re-appearing.

The second disc, The Saduk, sees Berne's music undergo a significant timbral change as the soprano saxophone is replaced by the saduk, an open-holed flute-reed hybrid created by him (though the saduk is the dominant voice, other sounds include wordless vocals by Christo Nicholoudis, percussion, and saxophone). Nevertheless, the middle set's eight pieces prove to be as spellbinding as those on the first, whether it's the mournful quietude of the opening “Aubade,” the crystalline allure of “Wanderer,” or the trance-inducing mysticism of “Clepsydra.” On disc three, The Abandoned Orchestra, Berne supplements the soprano saxophone and saduk with the sadukini (a ‘conically functioning' saduk), the tridoulaphone (a flute-reed hybrid heard in multiple registers), and a reeded slide trumpet. If anything, the music feels as if it's traveled even further east on the final disc and expanded into an even richer and more encompassing sound world. It's also more ensemble-oriented in design, with downtempo beats(!) of all things making a jarring appearing on “Lustening.” Continuity from one part to the next is established when Berne complements the opening disc's twelve-minute meditation “Chronicles” with the second's even more immersive “Chronicles 2,” which feels like a distillation into sonic form of the time-suspending drift of an opium-induced experience, and the final disc's “Chronicles 3,” at nineteen minutes the longest treatment of the the three. While Berne used the title “Sirens” for one of the middle disc's most seductive pieces, he might just as well have selected it as a title for the collection itself in place of the more prosaic Composed and Performed By. If there's a single word that captures Berne's music in a single word, it's siren-esque.

Harley Gaber's I Saw My Mother Ascending Mount Fuji, a work for multi-track violin, processed alto flute, and tape that integrates 1973 performances of 1968's Chimyaku (for alto flute, played by David Gilbert) and 1972's Mich (for violin, played by Linda Cummisky) with a tape part produced by Gabler in 2009, sustains its ethereal and haunted mood for an uninterrupted sixty-five minutes. Alternating between resonant aggressive plucks and bowed tones, the violin's sawing drone hovers in mid-air while background screams repeatedly swoop in like a murder of crows. Like the violin, the flute's high-pitched flutter floats high o'ertop a droning background whose protracted moaning suggests an anguished, Ligeti-esque choir of condemned souls pleading for release from their stricken state. Moments of near-stillness and piercing intensity appear in equal measure but in general the piece perpetuates a mood of disturbed serenity, as oxymoronic as that might sound. The piece's harrowing character gradually diminishes as it moves closer to its end until the violin's soft cry is the last voice one hears.

Psychoangelo duo Glen Whitehead (trumpets, computer) and Michael Theodore (computer, guitar, small objects) create thoroughly distinctive sound worlds in Panauromni, their creative talents midwives to a restless and constantly mutating whole. Though one presumes that the album title's similarity to ‘paranormal' is accidental, there's nevertheless a haunted quality to the material. Simply put, it's music of immense scope—panoramic in the truest sense of the word—whose tempered wail often suggests a vortex. Oftentimes, the elements cohere into simmering masses of combustible sound, with all parts subsumed into the whole except for Whitehead's blustery trumpet. The title track multiplies the trumpet into a muffled choir while huge industrial emissions swell in the background, while trumpets coalesce into an immense haze during “Pipe Dream in Silver.” “Dodechophoenix” ups the turbulence ante even further with its rippling horn cyclone before the final piece “Phosphorus Mas Frio” induces a relatively calmer state with a blinding drone of white heat. Like the other two releases, Panauromni is a challenging recording but also adventurous and boundary-challenging in the best possible way.

July 2010