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Tim Berne: Superstitious Pragmatist

By Published: January 23, 2006
AAJ: I'm interested in Hard Cell's approach to time. Like on "Brokelyn, which is a great piece with an eerie, gathering beginning with your alto sort of crossing a World-War-I minefield of piano and cymbals. But a lot of it has a real rubato quality, and those sections really contrast with the parts where time gets more definite.

TB: Well, the first thing's in time, believe it or not, but we play it as if it's rubato. It's just two parts written in strict time. It's written to sound like it's floating, so with the slightly rubato approach we take—and in fact, we've played it a lot—it'll work that way. You know, it's just contrast; there's no big, radical thing going on. "Okay, this was floaty and weird so now this should be be in strict or more definite time.

In terms of the written material, I'm just looking to supply enough contrast that it's not boring, basically—and then enough information that makes you want to improvise. These days I don't really want to direct any improvisation; the only directing I do is by nature of the written music. That should make you want to improvise, provoke something to happen. If it leaves you someplace and you don't feel like improvising, it's not working. So when I do use written music, that's as much as I want it to do. And also, you know, just sound good. But I'm sort of going through a transition—I'm trying to figure out in a way how to use less written music and still get something specific.

AAJ: How to suggest something without having as much stated?

TB: Somehow, or just making it more organic. I noticed when we were on tour—by the end of the tour, the last gig, we almost didn't play any of the music. I remember the last two sets we did in England, I think we played maybe two tunes a set. We would just keep playing and if it wasn't going there, we just wouldn't play the next tune; we'd keep going. Which is kind of what I want—but I don't want to say I want that. I don't want to ask us to do it, I just want it to get to the point where everyone's that confident that they're not going to force something if it's not there. When it starts happening like that, it's really cool.

AAJ: It's funny that you put it that way. You say you're so pragmatic, but in not wanting to mention what you want to do, you're almost superstitious—like you're afraid you'll jinx it.

TB: Well, it's true. Because I've been in bands where you say, "well, that song was great but it seems like it might have been too slow—and the next night it'll be ten times faster. Almost invariably. So when you do enough gigs, you have to relax and just say that for every person that doesn't like it like that, someone is going to like it, and you can never please everyone. You have to accept these things as the nature of improvisation. It's going to be slow one night. I just don't want to turn it into a show. Not that that's good or bad; it's just my nature—I'll get bored. There's something exciting about not knowing whether it's going to work or whether they're going to like it. It's almost like cheating when you find something that works and then just keep doing it and it's successful. I always feel like we're cheating when we do that.

AAJ: Well, that's not what you do for a living.

TB: [laughing ruefully] Well, it sounds stupid when you're describing it.

AAJ: Well, it's hard to talk about music. It's easy to feel like a jerkoff.

TB: Yeah, you always contradict yourself—just like the music. The minute I lock into an idea it seem like I go another way and contradict it. That's why I've never liked liner notes. It just ruins the whole thing for the listener; once I say what I think it is, there's no way that someone's going in most cases to not agree or not hear it that way.

AAJ: I think "I Thought You Had It is—

TB: Good title. "I Think I Thought You Had It.

AAJ: That can be your sequel! That song's a good example of another Hard Cell trademark—there's strong convergence, like unison alto/piano, and enormous divergence, where not two but all three musical voices drift apart autonomously. Any opinion on that?

TB: That sounds accurate. There's some things that happen more than once on that record [laughing], I would say. I'd like to say that's not true, but there's a definite strategy in my writing that I can't avoid, so I try to hide it. But I'm aware of it. And, you know, it's honest. When people ask me what's my concept, I say that in a way, I don't have one. I just have taste. I try to keep it as interesting as possible, as different as possible—but at a certain point you have to be honest and say, "this is what I hear. This is what's coming out. If I strive for perfection, I might not make a record. I might never grow; I might just get stuck in that "I'm-not-ready-yet mode. So at a certain point, I just throw my arms up and say, "yup, that happened again. I guess that's me. And it's not like it's uninteresting, but if you want to get superanalytical about it, you can find certain strategies that recur. In the end, everything I'm doing is a reorganization of something else, that somebody else did anyway—and if you put out enough records, you're sort of asking for it.

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