The Peculiarly Beguiling Aesthetic of Alexander Berne

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Composer and multi-instrumentalist Alexander Berne's "Self Referentials" is a profoundly enigmatic listening experience. It doesn't make the kind of sense that we may have come to expect from a piece of music. It isn't an argument or a story; it doesn't come to a point. It isn't about themes or climaxes. At the same time, it's too seductive to the ear to pass as furniture-music, and it's too rich to serve as some austere meditation. What it is, is a trip: it's a journey, taken through a pair of headphones, into an unfamiliar land.

Berne comes right out and calls the three-movement suite that ends the first disc, Headphonic Apparitions—in case the listener needed that nudge to submerge him or herself fully in this immersive soundworld—but the whole record is rich with experiments in stereophonic ambience. The spatial "where" and the atmospheric "how" of the music are as important as, if not more than, the conventional "what."

This journey is a long and wandering one, but the music seems organized by an impenetrable logic, as recurring musical elements come back around like a vast, inexorable system rotating through one more epicycle. Elements of rock, jazz, chillout electronica and South Asian music drift through the mix, not with a sense that anything goes but with a sense that everything that rises must converge, that there's some elemental commonality between these overlapping piano melodies, those plaintive reeds, that dance beat.

But if the style is diffuse, the genre indefinable and the form utterly devoid of rhetorical or narrative thrust, "Self Referentials" is nevertheless an unmistakably subjective project. The listener is, ultimately, being led by the composer, through a carefully curated collection of nicely wrought sonic events. And for all the technical polish of the ambient acoustics, they still have the idiosyncratic, homemade feel of one of Brian Eno's early "Ambient" experiments. Each musical gesture's handwrought timbres of each musical gesture and the long, slow rhythms of their recurrence are as deeply personal a musical statement as any—it just happens to have been constructed and developed according to its own peculiarly beguiling new aesthetic.

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