Flickers of Mime
It’s half past midnight in the basement of a hospital. I’m alone in the intensive care unit with someone who appears to be near death. It doesn’t take long before I start to hear music.
A machine, maybe a generator, heaves a long, low sigh that slowly rises from silence and retreats into silence, like a tympani roll, over and over. A chime from another machine, a monitor of some kind, pops out a counterpoint: two beeps, short pause, two beeps, long pause, two beeps, short pause, two beeps, again and again, gentle and high, like a thrush. Except for the muffled steps of an orderly or nurse, banging from a hallway closer to the living world, there is no other sound.
After a couple of hours in ICU, my plastic chair seems to float at the edge of the galaxy — backstage, behind the red doors, the staff-only area where only Stephen Hawkings can go, where old stars die and new ones are born.
The isolation is so profound it starts to feel like communion.
Alexander Berne’s music takes me to the deep mystery of that night, the fluorescent lights, the glass and tile, the wires and tubes, the sleeping face on the pillow. He deals in primal tones from the bowels of buried machinery, rolling on slow gears of counterpoint, although in his case the machinery is organic.
“At my core is something about a Platonic ideal of sound,” Berne says. “I don’t really think about it, but that’s in a deep, deep part of me.”
His method is anything but Platonic. It’s a mess of tubes and mouthpieces, invented instruments and in-the-studio layering, connected by an awkward creative process he calls a “cerebral comb-over.”
“I’m crossing neurons all the way across the lobe to do things,” he deadpans. “If I was hanging out with Oliver Sacks, he would say, ‘Wow, that part of the brain is not supposed to do that.’”
Berne is a reedman who left the jazz scene, forsook virtuoso tourneys and crawled inside his instruments, worked them, manipulated them, reinvented them and layered them to get closer to the sounds inside his head.
Sighing, drumming, floating tones approach and recede, groaning with weight, floating out of reach, even dancing. He takes you down, in a diving bell of rusty iron, to the mysterious source of music, where vibrations assault and soothe emotions.
You can fall into that place by accident, as I did in the hospital, or let Berne take you there.
In his New York jazz period, Berne played with “names” like Billy Hart and Tootie Heath. But he seemed destined from an early age to commune with the universe via isolation. He says he sometimes feels like a “one-man tribe.”
“I’m kind of a loner,” he says. “I don’t have a manifesto or any property in Montana. No Unabomber thing.”
As a kid growing up in New York, he would go into the laundry room, listen to the dryer and feel the warmth. When he was about 18, he realized where his fascination with “jungley, syncopated rhythms” came from.
“It was the air conditioner,” he said. “What is syncopation but steady rhythm and different accents? It’s amazing how mechanical things…those sounds are another kind of primality.”
As a teen, he would practice one note on the saxophone for months at a time.
“My parents sent me to a psychiatrist because they thought I was crazy,” he says. “No, I’m just into that note.”
After his jazz period, Berne moved to Belgium and drove himself to exhaustion, trying to squeeze the nebulae wheeling in his head through one saxophone, using new breathing techniques and fingering methods.
“I was hearing more music, something orchestral, something polyphonic and working stupid hard, tendonitis-ly hard, to play these…crazy virtuosic thing I tried to do on the saxophone.”
There were many European concerts, but the harder he worked, the less satisfied he was. An intense period of study on the tabla didn’t help.
“I did well with the mind aspect, but not with the finger aspect,” he says. “I took for granted the ability to express my ideas, but I realized that was never going to happen on the tabla.”
He stopped performing from the mid-1990s to 2008, working instead in film production and visual arts, including a new form of painting that combined photo emulsion and acrylics.
But by 2007, music was bulging inside him.
“It was after New Year’s, I was in Italy,” he recalls. “I just woke up and said, wait, I’m going to die and not put down what I want to put down.”
He decided to do it all himself. He would go into the studio, set his own rules, build his own tools and wear his cerebral comb-over proudly.
He built his own hybrid instruments and began to layer the sounds in the studio.
Among the traditional instruments used on this set are tenor, alto and soprano sax, ocarina, Chinese bamboo flute, recorder, Irish whistle and conch shells.
Berne’s invented instruments, most of them bastard children of his unholy “flute envy,” heard here include the tridoulaphone (a flute/reed hybrid), a reeded slide trumpet, and a shakuhachophone, or hybrid of shakuhachi and saxophone.
“I wanted to play quiet,” he says. “That’s possible on the saxophone, but not easy, and limiting.”
The seagull in this play is Berne’s saduk, a hybrid of the saxophone and the heartbreaking, dove-like Armenian duduk.
Berne’s obsession with writings about Krishna’s metaphysical flute, and “inner sound” in general, pushed him toward the saduk’s ineffably mournful sound.
“There’s a lot of mystical poetic writing, but even more pseudo-grounded talk, about this divine sound,” he says. “They describe it as not human, but like a flute.”
Try as he might, he couldn’t make a saxophone sound like a flute, so he took a very old alto mouthpiece that wouldn’t fit on a modern saxophone and fitted it onto “the right length of pipe with the right holes.”
“It looked like a bong or something. It had tinfoil and pipe cleaners holding stuff together, and electrical tape.”
Being a cylinder, it could play an octave lower than cone-shaped instruments like the saxophone or trumpet.
“It looks teeny, but it had this mellow, throaty sound,” he says. “Then I found a guy in California to make it in wood.”
Berne added dozens of other sounds, from piano and prepared piano to lap steel guitar, wine glass and vacuum cleaner, to reach his Platonic ideal. Inevitably, after he layers these sounds in the studio, listeners see things.
“There’s a synaesthetic quality inherently, for some reason, in what I’m doing,” he admits. But when people suggest he write for films, he demurs.
“I would like to think the pictures are in the music.”
You may see your own pictures as you listen. Berne has suggested a subtitle, “coincidental music for an unwritten show (of the mind),” which you are free to ignore, take brief notice of or cling to like a drowning man, as needed.
The first disc, “Flickers of Mime,” traces a rising arc.
“There’s something about a mime who is a conjuror. He’s evoking some ancient city or culture — that’s the flicker. It’s like Brahma, Vishnu, Shiva, the creating, the beginning of something.”
The second disc, “Death of Memes,” follows the arc downward.
“This city you thought you saw, that this guy could conjure, is culturally, on the way down — the destructive principle, making way for something else.”
Sometimes even Berne seems surprised at the primal sounds he has created.
“I’m a Western guy,” he says. “I’ve never been to Africa. I’m not trying to be…but if I make an instrument, and it’s crude, and I just go for it, then I’m kind of primal.”
Berne wanted to say that he is proud that he doesn’t use synthesizers or samples on this set, with the exception of a toy saxophone “like a Casio they haven’t made in 20 years” and two drum loops on “Flickers of Mime,” tracks 8 and 11.
Western guy or not, he had trouble saying “proud.”
“That’s a terrible word,” he fidgeted. “‘Proud’ in quotes. Just pride in the sense that, you know…anyway. I’ll explain.”
He never did.