Micro’s Macro:On Andrew Bernstein’s The Great Outdoors (Ehse)

What feels like nearly a minute and a half of silence lingers between the first two tracks on Andrew Bernstein’s new cassette/digital EP, The Great Outdoors. Six-minute opener “Black Noise,” a wash of propeller-blade textures and oscillating electronic tones, begins its glacial fades to silence at around the five-and-a-half-minute mark, and the following title track spends about 50 seconds before what sounds like a tenor saxophone’s low murmur haunts the headphones. Only on the fifth or sixth spin did the ears detect a subtle something lurking in silence’s shadows at the tail end of “Noise” and the beginning of “Outdoors,” and those faint notes—and the patience necessary to go looking for something in that presumable negative space—feel to be part of Bernstein’s close-listening request here. This quiet isn’t the digital blank tape hiding a hidden track at the end of a CD; it’s an attempt to draw the ear into what first reads as sound’s absence, to pay attention to the musical details that aren’t up front demanding attention.

Thus far on his solo recordings Bernstein, a percussionist/saxophonist in Baltimore quartet Horse Lords—whose upcoming new album, Interventions (Northern Spy), is a dizzying jolt—and former Teeth Mountain member (a band whose Outside the Dream Syndicate tumults and hang-up-in-the-time-machine drones have aged quite well), explores texture combinations in subtle variations and layerings. The three pieces on Outdoors fall someplace between Unnatural Music for Cassette‘s long-form electronic odysseys and Cult Appeal‘s sax and electronics experiments, as witnessed in the “Thought Forms” I to III variations, which felt like an abstract painter exploring a new idea. Outdoors‘ “Black Noise” and the closing track “Exhaust” hew closer to Bernstein’s deliberate electronic works. The latter, particularly, is affecting, stretching past the 14-minute mark and achieving a mesmerizing, meditative tension through a series of layered, sustained tones that slowly build to an old-cathedral menace before the track slowly slips away. “Exhaust’s” fade to silence is an uncomfortable two minutes of barely perceptible volume diminishing, and it leaves you feeling like you’ve been blindfolded and left alone in an unfamiliar abandoned building.

If it sounds like there’s more purpose behind the sounds on Outdoors than Cult, credit the suite of four generative sound art pieces that accompany it. Each takes a relatively simple design element, varies it, and repeats it over and over and over—such as a screen-filling series of horizontal lines, the distance between each line slightly changing to make whole groups of lines appear to buzz—establishing the album’s leitmotif headspace: minor adjustments in small parts can yield profound variety in the overall work. This idea finds it most potent realization in “The Great Outdoors,” 13 minutes and 45 seconds of what sounds like tenor saxophone played via circular breathing and extended techniques. In my ears it brings to mind those disarmingly dense solo outings by Evan Parker, such as Whitstable Solo and Conic Sections, where repeated patterns sound the same the first time through but repeated listening rewards the ears with a strange lushness, where minimal subtly piled upon minimal subtly becomes a baroque tapestry. Bernstein’s playing here produces that kind of opaque beauty, where the smallest of shifts in tone and timbre again and again and again snowball into a voluptuous curtain wrapping itself around the ears.
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Andrew Bernstein plays an album release show for The Great Outdoors March 11 at the 5th Dimension with Tigue, Alpenglow, and Anna and Elizabeth. See: Facebook event page.

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