Houston TX, 20 March 2002
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.
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:
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
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
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 meat
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
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 thatit is kind of an
inherent part of the improvisational process. You tend to think thatOh
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?
Completely surprisedalmost 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 isit tends to lose that if you
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 1970sfrom my perspective
at that period in time and being from Europewhen 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 mepeople who reinvented their instruments
a lotthey 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?
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
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
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.