Tim Berne: The Subliminal Explorations of a Creative Mind

Lloyd N. Peterson Jr. By

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I'm not sure about expecting people to understand it because I'm not sure I understand it and I do it.
Fascinated by unconventional and complex ideas, saxophonist and composer Tim Berne has become a creative force, exploring all the possibilities in sound through his fearless and brilliant imagination.

Lloyd Peterson: You didn't start playing the sax until you were about twenty. That would take quite a bit of confidence.

Tim Berne: I didn't really think about it. In some ways, the more I played the more secure I became. But at the beginning, it was almost easier because I was so ignorant.

LP: Was there appoint where you said, "Hey, I'm going to do this seriously?

TB: I was pretty serious very early. I didn't know what was going to happen, but I was definitely determined to show people like my friends and family that I wasn't just fuckin' around. That was probably my motivation at first and then it was just the passion of wanting to play music.

LP: Are critics starting to understand your work?

TB: I really don't concern myself with what the critics might think and I like the fact that there isn't only one way to see what I'm doing. Somebody might think its jazz but someone else might think it's some kind of rock thing, but that's one of the reasons why I don't try to explain it because I don't want to demystify it. However, I also don't want to imply that the way I see it is the only way to see it. Part of what makes improvisation; improvisation is the spontaneous magic of playing music. A lot of it is unexplainable. I have read interesting reviews from critics, but for the most part, they are not very informative whether they are good or bad. If someone says something really negative, I'll go "holy shit" and get totally depressed, but then I'll go out on tour or get together with friends and it will reinforce what I'm doing because these are the people who really matter. At times I'll get pissed at a good review that's totally inaccurate but it doesn't last very long because I can't waste my time with that stuff. No one likes to be criticized or told that they suck in so many words. I know deep down that what I'm doing means something to enough people and that makes it worth doing.

LP: One of the problems with documentation focusing on jazz, whether it's in academics or done commercially (such as the Ken Burn's series), is that it spends most of its time concentrating on what jazz created in the past tense ands little on what the music is creating at the moment. Doesn't this seem like a lost opportunity to educate potential aspiring jazz students and educate them as to what is available to them?

TB: I was discussing the Ken Burn's series the other night and though I didn't see the whole show, I thought some of the older material was pretty interesting but clearly it was very influenced by Stanley Crouch and Wynton Marsalis to give a fairly narrow view of jazz. The stuff they feel is important and wanted to cover was probably done OK. But just like I don't expect to play at Lincoln Center, I also don't expect to be on TV and don't think I'm owed that. I've chosen to do something that for the most part is not popular entertainment and I have a choice. In some ways, I'm glad as I would hate to be in the limelight and have everything I say or do scrutinized because it's pretty hard not to be misunderstood at some point. Obviously, the show didn't cover the last thirty to forty years very well, but by looking at the people whose opinions were sought, I don't think it intended to. I also wonder whether many of the people who were critical would have wanted to be the ones to say, "I think this is important and I think this isn't." I have my own opinions and just as I find certain music that gets a lot of attention not very interesting, I also find people on the other side of the fence that are just as narrow-minded as the so-called traditionalists and that's just as bothersome. If it's good, it's good and I don't really care if it's in the tradition or not. I have my preferences but they are not really stylistic. It's just that some people sound more convincing than others playing certain kinds of music. There's good blues and bad blues and it's totally subjective. It's just like the avant-garde stuff. Just because someone is playing free doesn't necessarily mean it's creative. There are people on both sides of the fence that are defensive about things and I'm not going to rain on anyone else's parade. In the end, my world is pretty different from that world anyway. I go out and tour in obviously different venues than the guys that were covered at the end of the Burns film. And again, I wouldn't expect to be involved in that.

LP: For me, jazz doesn't get many opportunities and the young musicians might not necessarily be able to relate to the earlier periods of jazz as a medium to play but if they knew about the music happening today, perhaps they would want to get involved with a music they have more of a relationship with.

TB: I agree that there is not a lot of education that offers a complete view, but I also don't expect the government to be calling me and offering me money to do my next record. You can waste a lot of energy beating your head against that wall. I'm the kind of person that says well, "OK, I have $50, I'm going to do $50 worth of music," rather than think, "Gee, I wish I had $3,000 so I could do this big project." I try to not let these things stop me. For me, it takes a lot less effort just to go out and do shit and if I get lucky or I get a grant, fine. But I don't really seek those kinds of things. Just like I don't really seek legitimacy and I don't need it. I get it from my peers and those are the opinions that matter to me.

LP: Do you find there is more creativity and more opportunities as a result of the numerous informational mediums available today?

TB: It's a different world today and though some of these opportunities are good, it has also made it easier for people that may not be qualified, to make music. There are more people trying little tricks to get over and it's also affected the music in that you can record or use a computer to make a pop music record really cheap. Sometimes, I kind of wish there were less opportunities and people would just focus on the music and what they really believe in. People are evolving and looking for the next thing or the next way of doing things perhaps quicker than they need to. There are too many options. I mean, I don't want to f**king get into computers but you almost have to, to keep up.

LP: How much does that lack of awareness in today's creative music have to do with the industry not being able to define and market it efficiently?

TB: The best sales people are the ones who believe in what they're selling and can convey that to others. I know people who are very successful selling "difficult" music because they like it and are able to convey that to other people through their enthusiasm. The problem I have with labels is that everybody is so fucking pessimistic and they accept this whole thing of "Yeah, the industry sucks and blah, blah, blah." It's as if they'd rather accept that than try and do something about it. If you followed us around on tour, you'd see there are quite a few people that enjoy the music and they buy records, and I was one of them twenty, thirty years ago. I don't think corporate record companies are really designed to do that, but there are people within the independent companies that have that same kind of "The industry sucks!" attitude. So you just have to find ways of reaching the really hardcore people, and there are more ways than just sending them to Tower Records. There are a million other ways.

LP: The following is a quote from Cecil Taylor: "Music has to do with a lot of areas which are magical rather than logical; the great artists, rather than just getting involved with discipline, get to understand love and allow the love to take shape." How much of your music is from logic and how much from this other place that Cecil Taylor describes?

TB: The first lesson I ever had was with Julius Hemphill, and the first thing he talked about was magic. Literally the first thing. He said, "I have been thinking a lot about magic lately," and that kind of stuck with me because so much of what we do cannot be explained. You can't analyze it and say, "Why does this happen at this particular time?" It just doesn't make any sense but you can feel it when it's happening. It's magic and that's the only way to describe it, really. That's a great statement from Cecil but on the other hand, it's not just about getting up there and blowing. There are the technical aspects, which are comparable to speaking. The greater your vocabulary the more you can say but you still have to organize it. I don't think I necessarily have a lot of technique, but I'm good at organizing ideas so I kind of compensate for that. Just as Miles Davis wasn't the best trumpet player but as a musician, he was really advanced. He got the most out of what he had and I think if he would have needed more options, he would have found more. And to me, that's what technique is. Some people have a lot of technique because they need a certain amount to express their ideas and that's how I work. I'll get in a rut and then I'll say, "OK, I have to do something to expand." Some people do all that and then try to figure out what they are doing, but for me, it was never a separate issue. I always tried to learn these things simultaneously. Cecil is probably someone that practices quite a bit but then his music is pretty organic; you're not listening to his technique, you're listening to his music.

LP: Does music reflect its period of time and should it?

TB: It reflects the person and the period of time. I hadn't given it a lot of thought until you asked the question but I think it's pretty hard to avoid. I'm hoping that what I do is timeless in that you can't tell whether it's from the '80s or '90s, but who knows. There are really great musicians and that's what happens. You listen to something from Cecil Taylor from the '60s and you don't say, "Wow, that's from the '60s," unless the recorded sound tells you that. But after I get through writing for a day, I don't really think about it because I'm trying to get it out of my brain as fast as possible so I can start the next day fresh. I don't like to dwell on it because it's so hard to do. The whys just don't really matter to me.

LP: Have you checked out Ken Vandermark and what's been happening in Chicago Lately?

TB: I don't really know the music that well but I know that Ken has done a lot to make things happen. He's been very helpful to me and there is no ego. He's just trying to get better and do stuff. But there is so much music going on that we know nothing about. Until I started playing with Craig Taborn, I had no idea. The guy lives a block away from me and there's all kinds of people like that. You can't really judge what's happening by what you have access to or by what's available. There are a lot of people doing great music, but unless they can get gigs or someone writes about them, you're not going to know about them. I get to meet some of these people as I travel and hear them and I think, "Holy shit, where did this guy come from?"

LP: The internet is helping to find out about obscure musicians that are doing creative work.

TB: I have seen some of that but I have also seen things on there that have pissed me off more than the critics. Talk about misinformation! I'll stumble on things written about me and I'll think, "What the fuck is he talking about?" Or I'll say something on stage and the next thing you know it's on some e-mail list. It's almost to the point where it's just as negative because everybody kind of passes the info around as if it's fact. Making factual statements that are just wrong. You have to be careful because everybody has his or her agenda and it's just someone's opinion. It's good and it's bad and sometimes I think there is too much information.

LP: This is a quote from William Parker: "They, the music historians, always seem to leave out the chapter on creative music; they don't seem to get it. I have also observed that some of those who love music least are spokespeople for it. I have always said that this music comes from love, not technique. To love music is to understand it on its highest plane. Love is the highest intellectual level we can attain. At this point there is nothing to prove

TB: I'm not sure about expecting people to understand it because I'm not sure I understand it and I do it. I mean it's a pretty weird thing to do, to get together with people and improvise in front of an audience. You know, like why do we do it? And I don't know why. It's just something that when it's going good, you get transported and that's probably what he's talking about. You get transported to this place that's kind of like being in love. It's that type of euphoria. I'm sure you can get that from other things but we happen to get it from music. And I can't really explain to people what that's like and can't simulate it in any way. I just know that when something special happens during a gig, you can see that everybody in the band is as happy as you can get. And then conversely when you have a gig where it doesn't work, or at least we don't think it did, it's the opposite, where you are totally depressed. So it means a lot to us and because it does mean a lot to us, I think it means a lot to other people that we put so much of ourselves into it. I think it's a valuable thing because I see how it touches people and how it touches me. But as far as understanding it, good luck, because I don't.

LP: How often do you get those nights when you know the music is happening?

TB: It depends because the more we do it the higher our expectations become. And also, sometimes the shows that we think are the shit, we'll hear the tape and it's not. The nights where we're really uncomfortable are sometimes the really great gigs. There is a certain tension and we are breaking into something that we haven't done and it's hard to evaluate the music that way. I have been on tours where it happened almost every night and then others where perhaps it was half of the nights. It really depends, but everybody seems to recognize when it happens almost all of the time. You can just tell. I have been on tours of twenty gigs and maybe seventeen of them felt great but there are so many variables.

LP: Has our society become more aggressive toward culture in a negative way?

TB: It's hard to say because I live in New York and that's not really America. New York is like everything at once. And it depends what you mean by culture because opera gets a lot of money here in New York and there is a wide range of what the arts are. There are the arts that are generally accepted by middle-class America or white America or upper-class America or the government grants people receive, and then there are the arts that are marginal to a lot of other people. If anything, the interest is waning I suppose. I think it's really hard to tell if people are really excited about orchestras and art because it's just something that's there and is always supported. I wonder if people are really that excited or if they have planned to go out a certain amount of time to see culture. It's part of being in a certain class of people, but as far as people being excited about art because it's art, there's not a whole lot of that in America. There are a lot of other distractions and so many other things you can do where you don't have to go out or make an effort and I think that has an effect. It's a little different in Europe. You do gigs in Italy and a lot of people come because its art, a cultural event and they think it's important.

LP: Where does your inspiration come from?

TB: Inspiration can come from anywhere. I could be on a subway and hear some weird sound and get an idea or I could see a shitty movie and get something from it or just by having an interesting conversation. It comes from almost anything except listening to music. I almost have to avoid listening to music when I'm writing for some reason. For me, inspiration is wanting to do it. It's not like I sit around and all of a sudden there is an idea and I write it down. It's really work. Sometimes it's easy but most of the time it's a conscious effort and I have to try to be inspired.

LP: Do you have a philosophy that you try to impart on young students or musicians?

TB: Everyone does everything differently and you have to recognize that or it just gets too competitive and then you'll get discouraged. And it's so easy to get caught up in what everybody else is doing in music school and find yourself practicing for nine hours because somebody else is, but it just doesn't work that way. Some people can practice an hour and it can be a hell of an hour and then some can practice for nine hours and it's a waste of time. You have to find your own way to work and also try not to bite off more than you can chew at one time. It can get pretty overwhelming and lead to frustration.

LP: You play with a number of musicians. How much does that affect your own creative process?

TB: I play with different people to feed myself ideas or when I think I'm getting stale. I do it to give myself a kick in the ass and force myself to move forward. I play with a keyboard player now, which is new for me and I did it to give myself a challenge, which it did. Therefore, I get a lot of my ideas from playing with different people, so it's important.

LP: Does it help to play with people with different musical backgrounds?

TB: The bigger the vocabulary the better, but they still have to know what to do with it and the chemistry is also important. They don't necessarily have to want to play the same things but the willingness to cooperate is important. I'm not that interested in playing with people that just want to get off on playing a good solo and then walk off the stage when they're done. I like people who get involved and put themselves into it and there is a personal connection that I look for too as we may also have to sit on a train together for twelve hours. So there is a lot more to touring than just getting up and playing.

LP: Where would you say you come from musically?

TB: I have no idea, but rhythm is important to me just from the music I listen to. But I honestly don't know and I don't have a style as I've really never been that kind of player. There are people who hear all kinds of influences that are not there but that's fine to me in a way.

LP: Bill Evans said that music has more to do with feel. How much of your music come from feel versus logic?

TB: It's about feel and logic but a lot of other stuff. His music may have been about feel but it's more than that when we're playing. But certainly that's an important component but sound is pretty important too.

LP: Do you feel pressure when you are soloing in front of an audience and you're in that moment?

TB: I don't know if pressure is the right word but you put pressure on yourself to come up with something interesting. It depends on how it's going. If the audience is there and there is a lot of trust and the band has been playing a lot, then you are pretty relaxed, but there are other times when you cannot get anything to happen and you are tense. It just depends but I wouldn't say it's pressure.

LP: Do women and men create differently?

TB: Well, they think differently based on my experience. (Laughs) Can you generalize that? It's doubtful. I wouldn't make too much out of it. Women and men are different so it would follow that they would think about music differently at times.

LP: What have you learned from the risks that you have taken in your career?

TB: I don't know if they are risks because what am I risking really, someone not liking it? It's not that big a deal. You know what I mean? Are you risking anything writing this book? People can choose to read it or not like it but that's not really something like risking your life. You don't think of it that way really when you are doing it. It's what I do and I'm choosing to do it. No one said you have to do this, you have to play this weird music, or else. So I don't really see it as a risk. The risk is almost in not doing it. What I've learned from it is that it's probably the only time that I have ever expressed myself clearly. Where I really don't hold back and I'm not inhibited. Whereas in dealing with people, you are kind of always holding shit back or you don't say what you mean. You are scared to say this and you don't want to hurt anybody's feelings. When you are playing, that's gone. You just play and do whatever it takes to make music happen. I like that because it really brought me out of a shell just in terms of being shy or being incommunicative or scared of my ideas or of expressing myself.

LP: Can you connect today's music politically, culturally, or spiritually?

TB: I'm sure there is a way to do that and with some people more than others. I think music is a real positive force and it certainly doesn't promote violence, maybe violent reaction, but I really don't connect it with politics if I'm honest with myself.

LP: Do you think about the importance of your music moving forward?

TB: I want it to change but I don't know if I can define what forward is. I mean I don't think any of this stuff is new. It's just being organized in a different way. It would be pretty presumptuous to think that I'm going to do something new or progressive or advanced. I'm more interested in trying not to retrace my steps and maybe it means going forward but adding to whatever I'm doing rather than duplicating it, but it doesn't mean it's going forward. Some people may consider it going backwards in terms of my development, but I just try to get better at expressing my ideas. Just being clear with my ideas. It's pretty hard to do the same thing twice. It just gets crazy. One of my role models is Julius Hemphill and he was extreme about not playing it safe in terms of how things were going to go musically or doing projects that he knew were going to work without much effort.

LP: How much influence did Julius Hemphill have on you?

TB: He was a brilliant and amazing man. Amazing vision though most of it was undocumented and he was an incredible influence. It was all about ideas and that's what it's about for me. It doesn't really matter how you get to them. The music that I'm attracted to is about ideas and not about craft, and ultimately, it's about sounds and ideas and probably a million other things and that's why I don't like to talk about it. You know what I mean by that? I mean there are guys that can solo and there are those that can get inside the music and that's why you are attracted to people like Miles or Sonny Rollins because even though they are playing an old form, they are really ripping apart the song and getting to the point, the core of it, and they are personalizing it. And that's what people are attracted to. That's what separates it from people who are very good instrumentalists.

LP: Do you take the audience into consideration when you compose or play?

TB: The audience is an important part of the picture or part of the equation. But I never set out to do what I think the audience will like. But I know if I'm honest about what I'm doing and I'm convinced, most of the audience will be convinced. I've been in situations where the audience will hate us and I'll think, "God help us." But we are so strong in our belief in what we are doing, we don't condescend that we'll win some people over. But you just don't ever expect it with people who don't ever listen to this kind of stuff. Just because we are so into it doesn't mean that we can be condescending or try to do something that is not us because people will pick up on that and you almost always sabotage yourself that way. But the audience is important and you can feel it. When it's not going right with the audience, it really affects the music. There is no way that you cannot notice that, and you can hear it and feel it in the room. There are certain clubs in Europe where we just know the audience is there, we feel confident and end up taking a lot of chances. It really leads to some interesting stuff.

LP: Are the audiences that much different in Europe compared to the states?

TB: Not really. The difference is that there is a lot more money for music. Subsidized stuff. There are good audiences here; it's just hard to get to them, to get the gigs. It's a bigger country, a bigger place. Travel is complicated. In Europe, you can speed around on a train. You can play a gig in Rome and take a train ten hours away and play another gig as whereas here, the cities are not that close together. There's no train service and it's just much harder.

LP: Can you explain your approach to your compositional process?

TB: It's really intuitive. I just sit down and say I have to write some music. It starts there and sometimes I just sort of free-associate and just write anything as fast as possible, or I'll sit there and stare for three days and eventually something will happen. But usually you just have to try. You can't only do it when the ideas are coming; you have to spend a lot of time thinking. After that, I'm just looking for contrast and for ways to stimulate improvisation. The point of written music is to create a structure and motivate people to want to play. Give them ideas or put them in a space where they'll feel like improvising. The transition from improvisation to notate music is really important and I try to disguise what's written and what's improvised. I like to play around with that and make it seamless so it's just not, here is the tune and here is the solo and here is the tune again. If I want to have some impact, then I have to be able to write music that makes people want to play and that's what being a band leader or composer is about. You want to have some influence.

LP: Do you have a vision for the future of music and yourself?

TB: (Laughs.) I see piles of money coming, raining down from the sky. I don't have a vision because I know that there are a million points of view and you can't really tie it all in and say OK, here's this vision. You know there's commerce music, there's so-called art music, and I don't think there is anyone that isn't playing for an audience. There isn't anyone I know that says I don't give a shit about the audience. That's all part of the picture and it's not gratifying to just sit home and play. I need the audience to really make everything work and to make it mean something. And we all think people feel it's important to have music or else we wouldn't do it.

This interview was originally published in Lloyd Peterson's book, Music and the Creative Spirit in 2006.

Photo Credit

Page 5 photo by Klaus Muempfer

All others courtesy of Tim Berne @ MySpace.



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