John Berndt : Philosopher / Musician
Interview by Ian Nagoski 5/30/01
Ian Nagoski: What are the key moments, the crucial experiences which drew you toward making the music you make today?
John Berndt: These tend to fall into two equally weighted categories--what comes from private, inner experience, and what comes clearly from other people.
I was a solo "only child" and rather inward. I spent a lot of time as a kid in kind of state of ambulatory solipsism, almost hallucinatory fantasy, when the demands of the social world were not pressing. I puzzled over paradoxes at a very young age (perhaps trying to focus them as a device for escaping "reality," rather than to resolve them). For instance, I used to lay in bed at night pondering all the ways that the notion of infinity was inconsistent but inescapable (later I discovered that this was a classical "paradoxical" subject matter for mathematics) which made the world seem uncanny and strange to me. In addition to this sort of self-referential/logical character of my consciousness, I also have always had great respect for my own "marginal, subjective thoughts and perceptions" and for "altered states of consciousness," which always seemed elemental to me--those unstable perceptions or states of being which don't have labels or aren't pre-compartmentalized, seem ultimately "as real" to me as "the world of banal objects." I'm also a lifelong synesthetic in that I always experience vivid sensations as crossing the senses to some extent--"seeing sound," etc. I'm not sure what the source for all that is, but it provides a great deal of ineffable motivation and content in my music but also throughout all my cultural work, philosophy, daily life, etc. I feel socialization is always marginalizing the unusual reality of consciousness--my cultural work tries to be a "nondenominational" counterattack. Along with that, my passionate emotions: vulnerability, love, anger, despair, the drive towards ecstasy, and key experiences of liberation or trauma; all this highly personal stuff I feel is in most of the music I do, in some sense.
On the other side of the mirror, I've been fortunate enough to be exposed to some really challenging and "visionary" spirits that are always with my in my work to differing extents--I "grew up" in "the avant-garde" in some sense. The philosopher Henry Flynt is an obscure figure (the inventor of "Concept Art") who I am highly influenced by and who I consider far more intellectually important than the entire avant-garde and history of radical politics combined. The very singular person called tENTATIVELY, a cONVENIENCE, who for better or worse is almost impossible to honestly generalize about, exposed a lot of extreme possibilities for me, and has a very interesting way of constructing standards of nonconformity. In very different ways, my friends Neil Feather, Jack Wright, Laure Drogoul, Jean Dubé, and Al Ackerman--individuals whose sensibilities are all very focused (perhaps hermetic?), expansive, and perhaps incompatible with each other, have all had a distinct (sometimes nonlinear or contradictory) effect on my musical development. Interaction with the extended community of free improvisors who are often close friends like yourself and Catherine Pancake certainly continuously condition and expand my thinking; as does continuous solo playing when I can steal the time. I think it remains to be seen if I will make any direct contributions as focused and "original" (catalyzing?) as some of my teachers--though I've never ever thought of what I do as second string, either. I'm quite aware that I put a huge amount of my private self into it, that is what it is, and that I'm very proud of it.
Incidentally, I use the word "music" lazily--I don't think that word captures what this range of activity is all about, the omni-directional attempt to transcend inherited limits of sensibility, but I use it anyway; an example of the kind of capitulation one makes to inherited categories that may be loaded or less-than-optimal in order to communicate "efficiently." "Evocative Sound" is perhaps more neutral for what I intend (though very sterile sounding) because it could subsume everything from "music" to information encoded in sounds conceptually to sensual sound forms which don't reference "musicality"--but in any case, I'll assume the reader knows what I am talking about, and how culturally limited and loaded the notion of "music" is. I'm not even sure I believe in "sound," phenomenologically, but that is another issue.
Ian Nagoski: Can you recall the most pleasure you have ever gotten from a sound? What was it like?
John Berndt: Difficult question, because in a way my "main thing" is singular, transcendent sound experiences, that is what I cultivate. It happens all the time that new sounds come out for me during my performances of free improvised music, and that is one of the best parts of it, the "new content" flowing out of nowhere as it were.
Actually, a more crucial private musical experience I remember: I was in Lodnon in 1988, and I was standing on Wandsworth road outside of the small Recomended Records shop (now THESE records?), waiting for a full hour for the shop to open in the middle of winter, and I had no where else to go. I was very cold and rocking back and forth on my heels to keep warm, and I started whistling, overblowing glissandos and very fast melodic patterns. I may have also been humming to produce whistling mutliphonics, which I probably hadn't done before, I'm not sure. Anyway, it was a very simple experience, but the music that started flowing out was incredible to me. It was very raw and inaccurate, but in this whistling I started to feel all these sound possibilities in the micro-details, and also a sense of lyrical macro-structure, in a way I had never understood before. As silly as it sounds, the fact that I was able to rivet my own attention like this with so little material was a huge confidence boost, a breakthrough, and very gratifying--I think confidence is crucial to what you can let yourself experience, to depth of experience. I suddenly realize I was "the real thing," I realized my own seriousness and singularity. But it was a change in "consciousness," not a demonstration of skill.
Ian Nagoski: What role does music play in your fantasy life?
John Berndt: I'd like to feel like I'm usually "in the music" (silently, synesthetically) whatever I'm doing, but the truth is, there are degraded pragmatic modes of life when all that shuts off and I'm just a kind of robot. Music does feel like a continuous layer of my consciousness, non-linguistic but profoundly real, its own semantics. The actual act of performance seems like just the tip of the iceberg, a plant with profound roots, to mix metaphors. Or the tip of an oceanic subjective universe entering into the dead universe...
Ian Nagoski: Does it arise in your dreams at night or in your daydreams or typically only think about music when you are actually "doing" it?
John Berndt: I had recurring dreams when I was in my early twenties of electronic frequency modulation music patches--I simply SUSTAINEDLY WAS the "abstract/logical sound generating algorithm" during these dreams, and that was rich and sensual enough without the sound being realized. Now that should be a conundrum for Platonists (which is just about everyone, by my lights)--where do those structures live (abstract structures without tangible referents in a dream, implying a tangible "elsewhere.").
Otherwise, vivid sound in dreams is rare for me, though all my daydreams probably have it. I do dream a lot about performances and about other cultural themes.
Ian Nagoski: To what extent do you think of your own music as erotic?
John Berndt: There is a strong element in common , which I think is centered on what happens to the self during "fascination." The extension of the sense of present time, the focusing of attention, attention-as-pleasure, the sense of being entranced, the shedding of "alert social personality," and much more. So I would relate it more to the idea that eroticism and certain music are windows onto reconfigurations of the self which are extremely varied and complex. Then there is also some music which has an almost sexual drive to it, the "ecstatic" side, more than fascination, loosing yourself in the pleasure of an ever forward rushing current of sensation--as in the really good free jazz, or some polrhythmic music, which incidentally can bring tears to my eyes (a breakdown of social guardedness). I guess the distinction I am pointing to is the quality of time experience as a component of fascination. In either case (music or eroticism), for me it relates to spirituality (in the non-superstitious sense of having all your faculties, of feeling alive and beyond the banal--not crushed or numb); and I'm very aware that it can be degraded or minimized very easily (perhaps because these "private" experiences are so marginal, poorly understood, in our civilization).
I don't have a reductionist view of any of this--no comforting, easy answers.
Ian Nagoski: Is there a social or spiritual benefit to be gained by the kind of music that you make?
John Berndt: Yes. It can reinforce the part of you which is incompatible with banality, the exalted part, which may then put you at odds with the entire social and political spectrum, all of which ultimately considers subjective consciousness to be an unavoidable problem in an otherwise mechanical-reductionist or cynical-expedient cosmos. I mean that in a secular sense. On another level it might, very speculatively, suggest new forms of political or social interaction that would be preferable (freer, more flexible, more alive to possibility), but that is extremely remote political hope to me when one leaves the immediate social realm (the realm of temporary private personal liberation and the liberation of just a few cohorts or comrades). I think the major problems of human social organization (on an economic technical level, as well as on a level of personality and value formation) as being largely unsolved--we don't have a "demonstration effect" for a higher civilization, so people can't imagine what it would be like to suddenly cleave from the existing social formations without it being either a one-sided moral victory leading to demagoguery, or an abolition of personal responsibility or whatever--leaving people with radical political choices that then almost always boil down to cynicism or bad-intentioned moralisms. But I don't mean to suggest that people should give up responsibility for their lives or cave into conservative political formations--things are already very far in the direction of disengagement, with dire consequences. Choice in life is unavoidable.
Ian Nagoski: Do you find humor in your own music?
John Berndt: More like whimsy that isn't always funny. Perhaps in the actual quality of the performances, the gestures, are sometimes self-consciously funny or over-dramatic, but not so much as you could hear it on recordings. But it is all very incongruous, which is a key element in humor of course, but then my intentions are deadly serious.
Ian Nagoski: Are there people in your life who you feel have a keen understanding of your music?
John Berndt: Yes, I've been lucky. More and more I feel like I am playing for a group of friends and people I don't know where there is a sense of recognition. One person who comes to mind is Jim Hedges, my partner in NerveGang who I have always thought had a keen understanding of my sensibility. Another person is Catherine Pancake.
Ian Nagoski: Weirdest question, hard to get the idea across, lemme know if it flat out sucks: How important, relatively, are privacy and expressivity in your music?
John Berndt: I would say that when it is working, it is "out of compartment" to all those things. Normal communication continually rides from private to public and back again; so I think it is like another path along those lines, putting the micro-pieces of that together differently. I try to embody extremely far-out subjective states in vivid, articulated work, often with somewhat esoteric or nonconformist technical content--sometimes it is "expressive" and sometimes it is meant to mechanically evoke a feeling without "being" the feeling--context vs. content music? At the same time, the older I get, the closer I get to my music, the more it is "me," even if it becomes more mysterious.
Ian Nagoski: What strategies have you developed to balance a sense of intimacy with an audience and a comfortable solitude (or autonomy) as a musician?
John Berndt: My solo music is the model for other more social musical things to me, in that I roughly speaking go into a trance, I'm not terribly aware of the audience or my biographic history or anything, just purely in the music, whatever it is. I'm still making decisions and judgments but it is somehow extremely altered, it is more intense than my usual social self--an oblivious self-referential fantasy, some might say! More and more, I find that (preffered) state is available to me when I play with ensembles or in duos. The state is somehow experienced as a lack of friction or gravity in consciousness... freely gaining access to "rooms in the mind" which are not usually available. I'm not promoting mysticism here, just fumbling for English words that simply depict my actual experience the deeper I get into improvising.
Ian Nagoski: Under what circumstances, environmentally, do you have the best time making music?
John Berndt: Varies. I would say, in front of 10-50 people I don't know in a forgeign city where I'm not fluent in the language, in a room the size of an art gallery. Or perhaps those are simply the circumstances where I've had a lot of my better "musical breakthroughs." Incidentally, it strikes me to mention that many of what are probably highly ephemeral, private experiences I had in different performances are just as concrete to me now as the chair I'm sitting in: "what happened at 259 St. Catherine in Montreal in 1986," for instance--something non-linguistic but highly meaningful that I experienced in a given situation, etc. Those things don't fade for me and remain a growing part of my sense of reality and possibiltity, cataloged without words; I get the feeling that it is unusual, even among musicians.
Ian Nagoski: In listening to music, which do you value more, a sense of loss-of-self or a sense of gaining-of-self? Or is your preference variable?
John Berndt: Exalted, altered, reintegration of self for myself and in rare cases, the audience; which is then both--and which only exists in lived experience (or memory of lived experience).
Ian Nagoski: What music, outside of your own, particularly interests you at the moment?
John Berndt: By the time someone reads this, the moment may have passed! There are many many things where I had a personal connection or am a connected supporter or promoter, and those are so well documented elsewhere--at the pinnacle: Flynt, Hennix, Wright, Feather, Genetti, Zerang, cONVENIENCE, Kowald, Gebbia, Michael Johnsen, La Table, Willettt, on and on. I of course listen to a lot of random recordings that come my way so there is usually something new inspiring me. Things I've heard that struck me lately are Jimmy Giuffrie, Lionel Marchetti, Walter Ruttman, all the Coltrane Village Vanguard recordings, Eric Dolphy with Coltrane, The Stickmen, Radelescu, Poulenc, the two Sky Lps "Strange Music" and "Zero Set," Anthony Braxton "Saxophone Improvisations Series F," early Hans Reichel, Maryanne Armacher, David Tudor's "Pulsers / Untitled," some Terry Riley, Esplendor Geometrico, Rod Summer's radio art, the L.A.F.M.S., that weird Burmese music you played me, Todd Whitman, Korean village music, and a great deal of traditional and modern Arab, Persian, and Turkish music. Making a list is always futile, there is so much I forget--and rarely do I like the majority of what comes from any single source.
Chronological Partial Discography:
MANY cassette releases on Widémouth tapes in various contexts
[LP] The Official Wafer Face Record, The Official Project, 1993
[CD] <>, quartet with Bob Wagner, Jason Willett, John Dierker, RECORDED 1994
[CASETTE] Jack Wright/John Berndt, solos and duos, RECORDED 1994
[CD] That Nothing is Known, Quartet with Jack Wright, Michael Zerang, Bob Marsh; RECORDED, 1998
[CD-R] The Hermenutic Ubermenschen ... Sing! -- Former Guitar Duos, THUS [Neil Feather and John Berndt] (Field Recordings, 1999)
The Montreal Concert, 60 minute solo CD on the Italian StereoSupremo Label
In A Human Mood, NerveGang (James Hedges and John Berndt), CD-R
Folk Music Without People, 2 CD set with THUS
No Delays, CD premier of Aerotrain
The Beyond, 2nd That Nothing is Known CD