John Berndt: Occupation 1980-1990
Local free improviser and experimental provocateur John Berndt's latest releases document a slightly lesser-known aspect of his cultural production: his highly varied work as a composer. This pair of electro-acoustic albums--Occupation released earlier this year on Nautical Almanac's HereSee, Private Language on the new music imprint of Pittsburgh's Sort Of Records--suggests a faint, if variegated, road map charting Berndt's compositional ideas over nearly 30 years. And while both albums spring from a creative mind seriously committed to the more unconventional aspects of existence, what's striking about these works is how conventional the early work sounds today and how some of Berndt's genuinely innovative sound ideas create such traditionally gorgeous music.
Perhaps it's unfair to level Occupation as conventional given the 1980s decade that it documents, but it's difficult to listen to it from today's distance--with ears that now benefit from more than half a century of electro-acoustic experiments available for their education--and not feel momentary wafts of déjà vu. From the drum-machine drive of the insouciantly militaristic "Totalitarianismo" (think Mussolini Headkick trying to be cheeky) to the ebb and flow of tones sculpting the tapestry of "The Extraordinary Natural History of Advance Notice" (which could be an extreme power electronics outfit trying to smelt something florid), hints of familiar ideas start to poke through the tracks' organizing structures. More than its sound ideas and collage results, though, an unabashed, youthful impertinence informs these recordings, an ambition that isn't afraid to be engaging or even romantic. In fact, although a great deal of 1980s electronics composition feels extremely abstract and impersonal, what's most rewarding about Occupation is how unafraid of the personal and beautiful it is. Even a track as superficially formless as "Slow Learning" invites you to get lost in its textural subtlety, and on the unassuming "Mirage," Berndt orchestrates a melodic electronics experience that is positively lovely.
And beauty is the predominate mood that permeates the often gorgeous Private Language. Perhaps overly detailed liner notes explain the context and intellectual armature of the eight pieces here--springing from unusual sound sources, invented instruments, and the like--but the works themselves function more than adequately as experiential immersions in a highly articulate and expansively expressive personal vocabulary. The album's title hints at the dangers of such a pursuit--the inherent problem of a private language is that it's understandable only by a precious few--but what Berndt does here fiercely resists categorization while remaining emotionally seductive. From the idiosyncratic "Sounds of Madness"--a jaunty, spry piece that sounds like Charles Ives scoring a surreal carousel--to the woozily disorienting "Dragon Paths," Private Language becomes feels like the first encounter with a non-English speaker, and while you realize you share but a few common words, communication is not only possible, it's disarmingly eloquent.