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John Butcher
Houston TX, 20 March 2002

British saxophonist John Butcher put Houston on his schedule of solo concerts he was giving across the United States. His performance at the art space Diverse Works presented by the Pauline Oliveros Foundation Houston was a demonstration of musical creativity coupled with astounding breath control and inventive sound creation. Butcher has been a professional musician since the early 1980s after having abandoned a career in academia, where he achieved a doctorate in physics, to concentrate on the field of music. Although he has had a long association of playing with many of Britain's new and experimental musicians, he has a particular enthusiasm for doing solo concerts, which provide for him an additional element of challenge.

Butcher opened the concert on tenor using the circular breathing method extensively to emit rounds and rounds of tonal purity that flowed in gushing waves from his instrument. It was a process of exploration where Butcher combined the clinical aspects of sound development with exciting musical concepts to produce moving and connected tonality. He used a fluttering technique along with the continuous rolls of bellowed breathing to reach peaks of intensity. This emotion was obvious not only through the dynamic music but also from noting the contorted jaw and neck muscles that pumped continuous streams of air into the horn. To wind down the piece, Butcher converted to short and abrupt blasts of single notes jabbed through the tenor at short intervals.

In a complete change of pace, Butcher became a minimalist on tenor as he emitted squeaky and sensitive notes of the highest range. These quieter passages contrasted greatly with the overt stages into which he previously had taken the tenor. This lead to a change in instrument, and Butcher entered into the soprano solo round of his concert. His lines were semi-fluid while containing bits of serrated edges that characterized many of the phrases. The highlight of his soprano presentation occurred when he hit a sustained range on the horn so high that it made an inner part of everyone's ear reverberate in a false counter tone almost comparable to what happens when an overloaded loudspeaker clips. It was an astounding display of virtuosity and instrument control that was phenomenal to experience, although it did nearly reach a level of uncomfortableness. Given the magnetic force of the concert, that did not seem to matter.

As fascinating as this concert was, what followed was equally enjoyable and informative. Butcher agreed to hold a discussion session with the audience, and the astute crowd bore in on many of the technical aspects of his performance and a bit of his history on the British music scene. Narration of most of that discussion follows:

Butcher: It has been suggested that you may have some questions after the performance. I don't have anything unprompted to say, but I'll be happy to attempt to answer any queries you have or comments you want to make as to the process.

Audience Question: Is the physical process different when you are playing sustained notes as opposed to when you are forcing air through the horn to achieve nearly atonal effects?

Butcher: The hard thing about the circular breathing thing isn't principally the breathing aspect of it. It is maintaining what we wind players call the embouchure, which is basically the muscle control of the lips as you are controlling the reed. With certain areas of the instrument, it is quite easy to play conventionally and circularly breathe, and other regions it isn't. At the very bottom and very top, it is quite difficult. The middle region is quite easy. As for other techniques with circular breathing, there is no straight answer. Some are quite easy and some are hard. But as with many things in playing an instrument, what may seem almost impossible becomes simpler with a few months of practice. If you work your way in at the easy end, you eventually get to the hard end, and you can hopefully take it somewhat further.

Audience Question: When sustaining that super altissimo sound, we are hearing these synthetic notes inside our ears. Do you hear those?

Butcher: Oh definitely. It can be a little disturbing. It is almost a physical sensation inside your ear, so I don't like to maintain it for too long. Nobody has sort of come up and served a writ on me—at least not yet. I don't practice it. This kind of room is perfect for it because there are so many reflections. When you are playing extremely high frequencies, you are never maintaining the exact frequency, so one frequency is coming directly out of the instrument, and a slightly different high frequency is bouncing back at you from the walls. They are interfering, and you couple that with this almost psychological effect of different tones in the ear, and it is quite a peculiar sensation.

Audience Question: Are the sequences planned or are they free improvisations?

Butcher: No, I try to treat them as free improvisations. I have been working in this way for many years, so the word free is probably not the most applicable word for the process. When I first started playing solo, I used to try to map out what I was going to do to play the pieces. But now, as with playing tonight, I was thinking: Shall I take a particular approach to this, and I decided no, and so I was trying to come out here with quite an empty mind. I was trying to empty it of considerations of where I was going to go. In these situations, I tend to be a comparatively organic player. It is a case of just starting and seeing where my imagination takes me. Of course, after all these years of doing it, I will come upon areas where I'm familiar with how I could work in those areas. And then I may decide to work with that area, or I may make a choice to go somewhere else.

It is quite peculiar if you are doing a series of solo concerts, as I am now doing on this trip, because quite often on another night or the next night, you will come upon some area, and just because you were there the previous night, you decide not to go with it. There is no real musical reason for you doing that—it is kind of an inherent part of the improvisational process. You tend to think that—Oh I did that last night and even though there is a completely different audience and nobody apart from myself is aware of that, something about the energy of the music is somehow lost if you go retracing previous steps. It is often more interesting to find a different response to a situation.

Audience Question: How often are you surprised by what you do?

Butcher: Completely surprised—almost never. I am very interested in making connections. So, a lot of the satisfaction for me comes from when I feel good connections are being made between the kinds of material in a way that makes musical sense. Because there is always the danger, when you are using conventional instruments in less common sonic areas, of ending up giving a presentation of what is possible on the instrument rather than playing a piece of music. And that is partly why these days I never plan out a piece, because then it seems to lose whatever mystery of performance there is—it tends to lose that if you map it.

Audience Question: What inspired you to become a free player?

Butcher: I started, after a number of student endeavors, as a kind of jazz player, and that was in a way a kind of student activity. And that was at a time, in the mid 1970s—from my perspective at that period in time and being from Europe—when jazz seemed very much to be a past phenomenon. It was something that had run its course. So I was very conscious of really just studying a music that had already been and gone, and to some extend I still largely believe that, depending on how you classify jazz. And at the same time I was very interested in new music and composed music of some of the experimental American workers like Cage and so forth. With a number of friends, I started experimenting with ways to try to bring some of this to the performance element or improvisational element of jazz through using the world of sounds that had been revealed through so many other forms of music. I think I was fortunate, because at that time in London, although I did not know it initially, there was quite a large scene of musicians about ten years older than me working in this area like Evan Parker and Derek Bailey and Tony Oxley. Going out and hearing them play was probably the final encouragement to go that way, and at that time it seemed to be where the energy had gone both in composed music and jazz, as far as I was concerned. Of course, things have changed enormously since then, but that was what it felt like in 1979.

Audience Question. It seems at the beginning of the 21st century that we are now at an intellectual precipice with post modernism and a lot of these intellectual movements. What you are doing with the saxophone seems very much like deconstruction and breaking things down to the essences. Do you think there is anywhere new technically where you can go with the saxophone?

Butcher: Working totally acoustically, yes, I think there are small areas where one can continue to work with, and there is always digging deeper into areas that have already been revealed. Although some people do view this as a deconstruction, I view it as sort of an augmentation of the instrument. In my sort of limited understanding of these terms, post modernism means to me more of working in a manner that is very referential to past artistic endeavors. And I think my activities are a little bit more old fashioned than that. My approach is actually trying not to be referential to other kinds of music; it's kind of horribly modernist, a sort of 1920s term to try to actually create something new. I think that was the motivation for a lot of the generation of improvisers before me—people who reinvented their instruments a lot—they were responding to this idea of trying to make music from scratch much like Cage did and much like what happened immediately after the Second World War at Darmstadt, where people would work in this total serialism where every parameter of music became a mechanic system of trying to escape from the history of the music. Those were impossible ambitions but they are ones where, if you stuck with it, there was value.

Audience Question: You mentioned Evan Parker and Derek Bailey. Are there any of their albums that absolutely blow you mind inspriationally?

Butcher: With those musicians, my experience is more going to hear them play live rather than listening to their recorded work. I must have played with Derek Bailey 30 times and seen him perform 200 times, so when you are in such close proximity to a musician, you really see all sides of them. You see good nights, you see bad nights, you see stunning performances, and you see situations in which nothing can be done to make the music work. He, for instance, is a musician who survives all those circumstances and even in the worst situations endeavors to work with creative responses to the circumstances. I cannot recommend a particular album, although I am very fond of a solo Derek Bailey album called Incus Taps, which is done in the purest way. He used to make these little 3 1/2 inch reel-to-reel tapes in about 1970 that he sold mail order. He sold about five of each of them. His philosophy was that improvisation is really a transitory act, so he was prepared to make individual copies for people who wrote to him for them. He was not going to go through all the effort to get them released on LP. So they kind of vanished into the world and curiously, they became collector's items. Somebody found all of them, cleaned them up, and has released them on CD, so they have now become the true artifact. They all contain great performances never intended to be made a monumental CD.

Audience Question: Do you enjoy listening back to your performances?

Butcher: Yes and no. In this area of activity, listening back to recorded music is part of the process of how you learn about things. When you are directly engaged in things, you have all sorts of responses; you might be so concerned with some technical aspect of your performance that maybe goes astray, and that piece of music might be ruined for you even though it is something nobody else will notice. So you listen back and see the actual music was not affected by that. There are times when you think everything is going great and you are doing something you wanted to do, and you listen back and you think, it sounds so bland, it is just the usual stuff. So you do learn from this thing. One of the things I have learned is that it is an incredibly different perspective of time when you are performing versus when you are listening. I can play things, which, I say to myself, God, this has been going on so long. I had better find something else to do, and I listen back and realize it was only twenty seconds of music, and I should have developed that further. I feel I have overcome this over the years, and part of that listening process was pacing and allowing the materials to have their natural length in music. Listening back is always a very valuable thing but not always an enjoyable thing.

Audience Question: Are you doing anything else other than performances?

Butcher: Now, I am not. My previous life was as a theoretical physicist. That finished about 18 years ago, and I carried on doing occasional teaching in it, but I stopped that a few years ago and concentrated on performance.

Audience Question: Does your physicist background have any bearing on your multiphonics?

Butcher: I don't think in any direct way. I have been very empirical with it. It has been really trial and error, making discoveries on them. I think clearly the kind of mind that is interested in that world of abstract research must contribute a little to why I found it interesting to look into all these possibilities, but I certainly have not done it from any sort of acoustical standpoint. Musicians very often have some mental enthusiasms in common with mathematicians and scientists, because a lot of music has to do with systems and patterns. I think the actual intentions of the two and the end results of the two are completely separate areas of activity. I actually breathed a great sigh of relief when I got out of the physics department and got into the real world and worked with music. Really I felt like a much better human being.