Andrew Bernstein's New Album Is Full of Saxophone Jams That Mess With Time

One-fourth of the Baltimore instrumentalists in Horse Lords unleashes a head-spinning solo effort, 'An Exploded View of Time,' on September 28.

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Sep 27 2018, 3:00pm

Photo by Wolfgang Daniel

Earlier this year, I wrote a little bit about the strange joy of music that forces you to reconsider your relationship with time. Then I was largely talking about drone, and other totemic music with slow movement that forces you to wait, to stew, to forcibly recalibrate your internal rhythm to something other than the ticking of the second hand. It's one of the best things about music that breaks from pop structures, its easy to come unmoored from the grounding force of the clock and float somewhere above the rhythms of the everyday. It's a sort of freedom.

The composer and saxophonist Andrew Bernstein—both as a member of the dizzying Baltimore instrumentalists Horse Lords, and on his own—has long made music that's gleefully formless (or at least, form-agnostic) in this way. His playing is ecstatic and discursive, tracing out minimal melodic lines that are at once athletic feats (he's a practiced circular breather) and delightfully free. Even in his role as member of a quartet, he's often turned loose, free to flit between beats with fleet-fingered flourishes, and colorful diversions. At the first date of a Horse Lords residency in New York earlier this year, a significant segment of the show was devoted to a solo saxophone excursion that found Bernstein puncturing the silence of a small dark room with an unending torrent of vibrant patterns. It might have lasted a couple minutes or a couple hours, I didn't dare check my watch.

This week, Bernstein returns to the Chicago label Hausu Mountain for a record that explicitly engages with his temporal trickery. The LP's called An Exploded View of Time and it consists mostly of in-the-moment explorations of the time slipstreams he can generate with his alto saxophone. The pieces are minimal, with lots of repetition, but the layered-ness of the recordings almost feels impossible. "Boogie Woogie Phase" finds Bernstein stacking simple rhythmic lines over one another in complex Tetris-like geometries, and stretching them out unto infinity. These pieces explore your patience, but they reward close listening. "Pressure Wave Meditations I - XXIII" is largely a piece of small changes, but when the dramatic jumps happen, it suggests a dream-like lapse, like watching footage of a flowering forest that cuts rapidly between real-time and montage-y superspeed.

Per Bernstein's comments in the record's press materials, his playing explicitly meant to explore different dimensions of our understanding of time as it relates to music. "The album title is a reference to sound being a direct expression of time, and to the fact that time is the medium of sound and music," he says. "With this LP, I’m trying to express different time scales: at the physical level (sound as vibration), at the musical level (rhythm and the possibility of multiple rhythms and pulses), at the performance level (including “extra musical” artifacts of the performance like key clicks and breaths), and at the production level (inserting an obvious and jarring post-production cut)."

Taken as a whole, he intends it, in part, as a diagrammatic dissection of the way we listen to and process recorded musical performances—but that effect's more intuitive than it sounds. As he unfurls the florid melodies that make up "Broken Arc" or as he splatter-paints notes across the canvas of "Round Up," he has this way of making every moment last for both a blip and eternity. Part of its in the way he packs in flurries of notes, but part of its in the woody repetitions, the way these melodies unfurl like tree rings, each one another visible reminder of the passage of time. It's an experience that's well worth undertaking, and you can do so today, right here in this post, in advance of the record's release on September 28.

Colin Joyce doesn't own a watch, but does have a Twitter.