A Mystery Twice Sworn: Alexander Berne and His “Abandoned Orchestra” Take on the Self

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Alexander Berne & The Abandoned Orchestra
Self Referentials Vols. 1 & 2

Innova Recordings
Released November 13, 2012

Upon first encountering Alexander Berne, you may feel tempted to know of the journey that led such a musician to the cavernous way station that is Self Referentials. I can tell you that Berne is a child of New York, where his fingers nourished themselves on woodwind keys, his lips on embouchure and reed. I can tell you that his work with jazz visionaries Billy Hart, Victor Lewis, and Cecil Taylor spun the backbone of his exploratory spirit, a spirit that led him to Belgium and a period of intense devotion to solo saxophone performance. This search flung him back to the Big Apple, forgoing the obligatory bite in favor of tracing the city’s hardened, pockmarked skin. In tow came a host of extended techniques, instrument design and development, and compositional fervency. All of this he continues to tie together with abiding interests in filmmaking and visual art, the latter of which informs every hand-painted cover of the present album’s 800 limited copies.

I can tell you that, in light of the music it designates, the title is intriguing for pointing not to the individual as worldly, but to the worldly as individual. To evoke this precept, Berne employs a variety of conventional and custom instruments throughout this multi-part opus (his third in as many years), refracting himself in the studio as the eponymous Abandoned Orchestra.

I can tell you that Volume I wavers with the breath that moves his art. Despite the physical augmentations thereof, the results are decidedly vocal in their unfolding. From the insectile coterie of “Far Afield Recording” and warped distortions of “Pulsationism (The Long Tick)” to the three-part “Sonum Onscurum: Headphonic Apparitions,” we find ourselves in a landscape at once industrial and verdant. Shawm-like undulations trade places with plucked strings and siren calls in a flowing admixture of whispering rhythms and inward, organ(ic) washes. Like a window covered by Venetian blinds, all that falls between stripes the ears with light and shadow. Lurking in Berne’s favored winds is a narrative piano, which threads the acoustic snippets of “Ruse (Fantastique)” with delicate pulse and runs through the fleeting recollections of “Hidden Memories: Plangent Wail” with the patter of feet on hardwood floors and dusty attics. “Transsublimination” seeks to unpack at least one of said recollections, visualizing it, if you will, in sound. It is a lonesome and skittering thing, morphing the keyboard’s monolithic insistence into throbbing bass.

I can tell you that the album’s first clear-cut allusion comes in the form “A Choir of Threnodic Winds,” this to Krzysztof Penderecki, if not also to Q. R. Ghazala. A glorious chorus of bellows, it is a prayer unrolled in a long tire track through the mud of experience. “Amphibiana,” for another, takes a page from the book of Bryn Jones (a.k.a. Muslimgauze), enacting a similar brand of semi-orientalisms with due process. “Of Fugal Melancholia” is among the more heartfelt tracks on the album, if only for being unaccompanied. Its Ryuichi Sakamoto-like cells of piano splice sunlight in repeated patterns of flash and shade. Of that shade we get reams in Volume II, the more ambient half of this matrix. Subtitled “An Unnamed Diary of Places I Went Alone,” it is a primordial flight response stretched to goopy pathos. Of its 17 parts, each designated by Roman numeral only, the poetic narration of late singer Jaik Miller (1970-2012) lends notable sanctity to Part IV. In this industrial fever dream, hazed by thinnest cloud in moonlight, we feel the sinews that have so far eluded us flex to the point of ambulation. Part VIII, with its mantra “I am,” is the ultimate self-referential of the collection and also its lushest. The drone is alive and well, it affirms.

I can tell you that while Self Referentials is certainly original, it is not fiercely so. This is not a detriment, for it pays loving homage, witting or not, to a roster of ethno-ambient greats, inspiring the warmth of nostalgia within those of us cued in to those streams and the breath of newness from the uninitiated to explore further. The creation of such a richly textured sound-world without the use of synthesizers or samples will be familiar to any Voice of Eye fans. One might draw lines of contact also to Scott Solter, Robin Storey (a.k.a. Rapoon), Alio Die, Vidna Obmana, Jérôme Mauduit (a.k.a. Désaccord Majeur), and especially Mandible Chatter. Taken on its own terms, this is a mesmerizing and unforgettable cabinet of sonic curios, a search that needs nothing to be sought. The only journey it harbors begins when you take the first step.

In telling you all of this, however, I bring you no closer to the rewards of Self Referentials. The missing hyphen from its title is its key: when bonds between words are erased, pure expression remains.

(See this review as it originally appeared in RootsWorld Magazine, where you can also hear samples of Self Referentials.)

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