Name: Andrew Bernstein
Occupation: Composer, saxophonist, sound artist
Recent release: Andrew Bernstein's a presentation is out via Hausu Mountain.
Recommendations on the topic of sound: My thinking about sound has been influenced by the books Sonic Flux by Christoph Cox, Sounds by Casey O’Callaghan, and the writings and music of John Cage, Pauline Oliveros, Éliane Radigue, James Tenney, Tony Conrad, and Maryanne Amacher, among other sources.
[Read our Pauline Oliveros interview]
If you enjoyed this interview with Andrew Bernstein and would like to find out more, visit him on Soundcloud, Facebook, twitter, and bandcamp. We also recommend our Horse Lords interview and, for the perspectives of some of his collaborators, our Matmos interview.
Can you talk a bit about your interest in or fascination for sound? What were early experiences which sparked it?
Some of my first recollections being really in awe sound were playing the clarinet as a child.
My older brother had come home from school with a clarinet, and I picked it up and wanted to play too. I had listened music prior to that, but being able to produce what to my 8 year old ears were musical sounds was really exciting.
I have continued to explore rather intuitively and stumble into new interests in this way.
Which artists, approaches, albums or performances using sound in an unusal or remarkable way captured your imagination in the beginning?
When I was 18 I heard circuit bending and noise music for the first time. I had listened to and played some loud and noisy music in high school, so maybe I was primed to accept abrasive and “difficult” sounds, but this felt totally new.
I found the “Anthology of Noise and Electronic” music series on Sub-Rosa, which introduced me to a whole other side of electronic music. I remember being especially floored by the Laurie Spiegel and Alvin Lucier pieces on the album. I quickly found my way to the music and ideas of John Cage, La Monte Young, Steve Reich, and Pauline Oliveros. I became totally absorbed in experimental music.
What's your take on how your upbringing and cultural surrounding have influenced your sonic preferences?
I’m not sure my family upbringing contributed so much to my musical tastes. I don’t come from an especially musical family. My brother and I played in the school band, and my parents were encouraging, but I don’t think they ever expected I would dedicate my life to music in the way that I have.
As a teenager I fell in with a group of friends who would make music and improvise a lot. Certainly not “free” improvisation, but very sonically open, drumming on random garbage and improvising non-verbal vocal sounds, along with playing guitars and pianos and making up songs. I played guitar in rock bands, and borrowed an 4-track tape recorder from a friend to record some of my own music. That machine started to expand my idea of what was possible sonically with music; layering sounds, changing their speed and pitch, playing them backwards.
I didn’t really exploit those techniques so much at the time, but it got me interested in the possibilities of working with sound in that way.
Working predominantly with field recordings and sound can be an incisive step / transition. Aside from musical considerations, there can also be personal motivations for looking for alternatives. Was this the case for you, and if so, in which way?
I don’t often work with field recordings, but my first solo performance was accompanying a solo dance performance at an arts summer camp I was working at while I was in college, and I played duck calls run through a simple pitch shifting and delay Max/MSP program that I had made.
I haven’t thought about this performance in a long time, but I think it was a decisive step away from more conventional musical performance for me.
How would you describe the shift of moving towards music which places the focus foremost on sound, both from your perspective as a listener and a creator?
For a long time I’ve been interested in the sound of sustained tones, listening deeply to the subtle variations in timbre or how sound behaves in space. This is partly influenced by working with synthesizers, setting up a few oscillators and listening to a slowly changing drone for a long time, living in the sound. I wanted to emulate this on the saxophone, and that is what drew me to circular breathing. The physicality and imperfection of the saxophone is equal parts revelatory and frustrating, but it allows a human dimension that I think is essential.
I wanted to better understand why I was so fascinated by sound, what was it about sound that was so special, and what did it mean to me. I set out to study the physics and the ontology of sound, trying to understand as best I can what the material is. I’m not sure if I truly understand sound any more than when I began; every new discovery just reveals new problems and questions.
But this seems a fitting place to be when working with such ephemeral material. Sound is very difficult to grasp.
What, would you say, are the key ideas behind your approach to music and working with sound? Do you see yourself as part of a tradition or historic lineage when it comes to your way of working with sound?
I’m interested in the harmonic series, and for a long time most of my music has been focused on exploring overtone relationships. This has manifested rhythmically as well as harmonically, through explorations of simple polyrhythms as slowed down harmonies.
The rhythmic side of things is very prevalent in my work with Horse Lords, and was more present in my earlier solo electronic music. A lot of my solo saxophone music has been inspired by and developed through exploring the overtones on the horn.
My new music is very specifically exploring intersecting overtone relationships in harmonic space, taking one tone as a starting point and wandering through the harmonic possibilities present in that fundamental tone.
What are the sounds that you find yourself most drawn to? Are there sounds you reject – if so, for what reasons?
I am open to all sounds.
As creative goals and technical abilities change, so does the need for different tools of expression, from instruments via software tools and recording equipment. Can you describe this path for you personally starting from your first studio/first instruments and equipment? What motivated some of the choices you made in terms of instruments/tools/ equipment over the years?
A lot of my decisions about what tools and instruments to use have come about by happenstance.
My brother played the clarinet, and when he switched to saxophone, I got the clarinet. Playing in bands in high school, drums were left at my house, so I taught myself to play drums. My college roommate had an old saxophone he didn’t play which he gave to me.
Playing guitar was my first real experience with social music, playing music with friends and having it be a communal experience. This is something that is still very important to me.
In college I studied electronic music, and I was (and am) interested in working with electronic sound, but more than that it seemed like you could study contemporary avant garde music in the electronic music department in a way that you couldn’t just studying composition.
I gravitated more toward programming environments, first Max/MSP and Pure Data and more recently supercollider, because it felt more open, that you could (and sometimes had to) create your own tools. In this respect I was inspired by something Harry Partch said along the lines of “if you want to make new music, you have to create new instruments.”
I still work with all of these tools. Sometimes for a few years I won’t spend as
much time with one of them, or present any work publicly. I still play a lot of guitar, but just for myself and for my kids, for fun.
It’s important to me to have some musical activities that are just fun, not tied up with my “art” or anything. I recently starting playing tenor recorder, because a friend had given me a bunch of little flutes and recorders when he was cleaning out his house. I’ve also been playing a lot of Irish tin whistle, because a friend opened an Irish pub across the street from my house, and they have traditional music sessions.
Where do you find the sounds you're working with? How do you collect and organise them?
Right now I am focused on exploring overtone relationships, so I am working a lot with numbers and ratios. I learn to play a certain ratio on my saxophone, play it against an electronic drone, and experiment with different combinations on tones. I’ll explore intuitively in this way, and note what works and what doesn’t.
From the point of view of your creative process, how do you work with sounds? Can you take me through your process on the basis of a project or album that's particularly dear to you?
For the piece “In Flux” from my album a presentation, I charted out a scale that consisted of the overtones 8 - 16 of the 1st, 3rd, 5th, 9th, and 15th overtones of a fundamental tone G = 196Hz. The organizing factor here was the 45th overtone, which is present in each of the 8-16 sets (except for 1), and acts as a sort of pivot point between the scales over the course of the piece.
I recorded myself playing long tones on each of the tones in the scale, and then arranged them in a DAW. Then I generated a score from that recording, so that I could multitrack record the piece. For this score I had to keep in mind what tones I needed to hear at what times, so that I could play other tones in tune later (microtonal fingerings on the saxophone only get you so far, using your ear and embouchure are always necessary).
So the first part I recorded is playing nearly the entire time, and is usually playing the fundamental tone of whatever chord is sounding, so that I could accurately play the higher overtones against that tone. I read from this score for the album recording.
I have since generated a new score for live ensemble performance, taking into account different instrumentation and a more even distribution.
How do you see the relationship between sound, space and composition?
Sound and space are inextricably intertwined. All sound is site specific, since
the way sound is perceived is altered by the space. This has to be taken into account in the composition process, or at least accepted as a variable that is out of ones control, if you plan to perform a piece in different spaces.
Especially with my solo saxophone work, which I have had the chance to perform much more and in many different spaces, it can be fun to explore different resonances in different rooms, and move the horn while I play to feel how the sound changes in the room.
From the concept of Nada Brahma to "In the Beginning was the Word", many spiritual traditions have regarded sound as the basis of the world. Regardless of whether you're taking a scientific or spiritual angle, what is your own take on the idea of a harmony of the spheres and sound as the foundational element of existence?
I don’t know about foundational, but I do feel that sound is fundamental. There is never not sound. Sound is always changing, always in flux, and this is the state of world also.
I view music and sonic art as sampling from this ever present flux. I think seriously considering sound can help people confront change on other, more human scale, levels.