Squid’s Ear review by David Madden

Tim Berne – Insomnia (CF 215)
Tim Berne’s choice of title stems from his inability to sleep the night before this 1997 gig (this record is the first physical proof of that day). As such, he claims that this altered state pierced his interaction with the music and his octet (culled from cohorts in his 1990’s crew, Bloodcount) with an odd clarity, Berne using the words “kaleidoscope” and “another perspective” and “make everything look sharper” to describe the event. You know, shimmering stars within Berne’s already otherworldly music.

Taking on two of Berne’s classic works, “The Proposal” and “oPEN, cOMA”, the group does advance like a waking dream, repeatedly crossing back and forth between the fence of straight-forward — multi-metered compositions, but adherence to time signatures, nevertheless — and woozy genre-bending free-form. In other words, the crew glances at Berne’s script then individually dance around the notes like tracers. On “The Proposal”, they slowly awaken with high-pitched wiggles and mouthpiece kissing sounds; eventually, strings (Dominique Pifarely on violin, cellist Erik Friedlander, upright bassist Michael Fermanek and Marc Ducret on twelve-string guitar) and reeds (Chris Speed on clarinet, Berne on alto and baritone sax) unite while trumpeter Baikida Carroll and drummer Jim Black tarry with a gurgling wah-wah and skittering flurry, respectively. Avalanche-like, everyone gathers speed with the rhythm section working hard under Carroll’s solo (Ducret’s unique instrument choice provides a sonically interesting choice for the chord-carrying comp). Of course, the band tears this apart: Pifarely and Friedlander jaunt through a quick Bartók-esque duet, stop to scrape and twist their strings, then frantically bow, rising, and the rest slowly join the harmony. Elision. Done. Change of scene, and we’re barely ten minutes into the thirty-five minute work.

The group uses this “jazz” template throughout both tracks, allowing everyone to solo alone, or over the others, or be soloed over. But due to timbre shifts, stratified ideas and counterpoint, the disc is anything but homogenous. “oPEN, cOMA” commences in the similarly delicate fashion as the previous piece, Ducret tinkering behind his bridge and setting up a percussive platform of muted pangs before launching into a bombastic rattle that prog-rock pioneers should envy; when Speed begins his fantastic run, the band shifts with the mood, then to the side, grabs the motifs, creates branches off those, then returns before it ends. This virtuosic aesthetic should be par for the course in this musical universe, but Berne and Company’s penchant for clever metamorphosis is overwhelming — “overwhelming” in the way you felt the first few times you listened to Le sacre du printemps.

In Stephen King’s Insomnia, the sleep-deprived protagonist begins to notice oddities in his waking life: some people have multi-colored auras, creepy ethereal doctors from another plane manifest and tinker with unsuspecting victims. But, like Berne’s work here, this isn’t the character’s hallucination: it’s actual. A cloudy, skewed reality that takes some time to comprehend (though Berne’s Insomnia is a celebration, not a funeral).
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