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Bern Nix: A History In Harmolodics

AAJ Staff By

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Nix also scored a film. In 2002, a letter asking him to write a film score arrived in his mailbox. It was from Raymond Bally, the director of a proposed documentary about the American arts biographer James Lord, entitled A James Lord Portrait. Nix continues, "I wrote the film score for this movie about James Lord. He's a lovely guy. He's lived in Paris for maybe about the last 60 years. He's in his 80s now. He went to Paris after World War II and he had the ambition of becoming a novelist. As it turned out, he started writing memoirs.

"The thing is, he knows everybody. He befriended Picasso and then Picasso introduced him to Cocteau, who introduced him to Gertrude Stein. So he knew all these people. He wrote all these books and memoirs about these people. He was a better memoir writer than novelist! He befriended Alberto Giacometti—he was Giacometti's official biographer. So all his books are about these people—anybody [who was anybody] over the last sixty years—Jean Genet. I met him when we did the screening. He was a very quiet, unassuming kind of guy. So this film is a documentary on his life."

Although excerpts from the film are on YouTube, it has not been officially released. "But nobody wanted to release the film or do anything with it," says Nix.

"I guess (Lord's) written about five or six books—they're all memoirs about hanging out with these people. I started working on it in 2002, 2003. I went to the mailbox one day and I had a letter from the filmmaker Raymond with a check in it. He was telling me to start writing music. The [film's] cameraman used to work with Orson Welles. He also did a film with the guy who used to play organ with The Doors, Ray Manzerak."

Of The Doors in general, Nix displays his reverence for study: "I preferred the instrumental stuff more than the Jim Morrison [music] but I always thought they were probably one of the more interesting bands at that time. They (the instrumentalists) were a little bit more trained than Morrison."

Two of the tunes Nix wrote for A James Lord Portrait are on his Myspace site.

"To Paris" (mentioned above) is one, a typically concise yet flowing piece. "It's kind of like straight swing, but not exactly," says Nix. "I [wrote] seven or eight tunes—you get so immersed in it, at a certain point you can't deal with it anymore," he adds, trying to get familiar with the music again. "You spend such a long time... living with it."

"'The Plaster Bird'—that's from a scene in the film. They're showing Picasso's work and he's looking at this little bird Picasso made in the studio, and he looks at the bird and he's talking about it, so I called it "The Plaster Bird." It's on YouTube."

The "Plaster Bird" scene:



Nix reflects on the art world: "It's such a lot of money—thousands and thousands for a little bauble Picasso put together in the studio—I'm not demeaning the work he's talking about, but... the amount of money!"

"I just took the tape recorder one day and I started improvising. The bassist on the tracks was Bill Zola. He was in my old band. The drummer was Adrian Valosin. He played with Joe Morello at one time. Bill used to play with Dave Holland, he used to study with him."

Nix's most recent album is Low Barometer (Tomkins Square, 2006), a solo guitar album of tunes performed on a steel string acoustic guitar. The music ranges from airy chordal sounds to the vibrato twangs that punctuate the elegant track, "Love's Enigma," all played with a Webern-like sparseness. The sound is rich and eminently appealing, and is similar in sound to that of avant-garde guitarist Derek Bailey's album, Ballads (Tzadik, 2002). But Nix's record has, also, his trademark musical question marks and sideways explorations—though this time in the solo context. The album is available as a download album from eMusic.

Nix explains that the music arose from sketches he made during his time with Coleman and Prime Time—further works from Nix's notebooks. "The tunes on Low Barometer are derived from exercises I did when I was with Ornette Coleman," says Nix. "They were practical applications of harmolodics. I was trying to get used to the whole process of harmolodics. Ornette gave us all these notebooks. We had to write out ideas in the notebooks. These things I have had for years."

The label, Tompkins Square, specializes in (but is by no means restricted to) releases of acoustic guitar recordings, and the title track from Low Barometer is also on a highly-rated (by All Music Guide) acoustic guitar anthology entitled Imaginational Anthems Vol 1—3" (Tompkins Square, 2007).

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