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John Butcher

The art of overtracking

di Michele Coralli

At the beginning as a musician, did you have contact directly with contemporary music or mainstream jazz?

I had classical piano lessons at school, and became interested in contemporary composed music, like Xenakis and Ligeti - but listened more to music like Trout Mask Replica, early Frank Zappa and pre-war country blues. The first music I played with other people (on keyboards) was in the avant-rock area. I used to write the pieces. Then my brother Phil, a bass player, introduced me to jazz, but mainly what was happening in London. We'd go to hear Stan Tracy, John Surman and the South Africans who came here in the 60s, like Louis Moholo and Harry Miller. This got me interested in the saxophone, and I started listening to American Jazz as well, shooting off in all sorts of directions - back to Ellington and forward to Cecil Taylor.
In my early 20s I worked on jazz playing, but, as much as I enjoyed it, I knew it was a studying activity - something on the road to somewhere else. I played in big bands (with pianist Chris Burn - doing his pieces, and arrangements of Mingus), and also in small groups, some playing standards, and others where we moved into free-er areas.

You did talk about Stockhausen and Text Pieces. Can you remember something more about those compositions and about the way Text Pieces introduced yourself to improvisation?

They were from Aus den sieben Tagen, I think. A music lecturer at Surrey University (where I was studying Physics) - Robin Maconie - was a Stockhausen expert and got some people together to play a few of them. It was my first saxophone improvising working more with sound rather than with note systems, although I'd often freely improvised on piano. So it's not actually true that I came to improvisation through these pieces. I remember doing it at home, on piano and with tape machines, with my brother, in the early 70s. Although we didn't call it free improvisation then - it was more inspired by the 'weird' things we heard on records - maybe Beefheart or Cage, but also Revolution Number 9, from the Beatles' White Album.
The Stockhausen was the first time I came together with strangers - and started playing with only these text statements, so it felt closer to 'free' improvisation as I now know it - dealing with other people's input that you're unfamiliar with.

Other contemporary repertories that influenced you (Cage and Ives?).

Is liking something the same as it being an influence? You can have so many interests that feed what you do, in ways that you are often only partly conscious of - especially early on.
One example is tape/electronic music. In the 70s I was intrigued by the way tape splicing could move between quite different sound areas - and tried to keep this in my mind to get away from playing the saxophone as a single line, melody instrument. It led to trying to make musical decisions based on what I want to hear, rather than what is laid out for you in the saxophone's standard fingering. I mean, trying to make 'sound' decisions, rather than 'saxophone' decisions.

In Seventies, you knew also Bailey's theory about improvisation, a practice quite radical. Do you still feel close to this position. And if not, how did improvisation change for you?

The improvisation that's developed from the work of the 60s pioneers is now very diverse. There are many strands, even schools, though the need to search for new things (methods as much as sounds) still seems to be a driving force. I find improvisation allows you to bring in new musical ideas as and when they feel right - if you choose who you play with carefully. It's also a very practical way of encountering ideas that you don't already have, and responding to them in the same moment. Particularly if you're interested in playing with new musicians. Improvisation is a tool that can take you to music unobtainable in any other way - music that goes beyond the ideas of any one of the people in the group making it.

You used to be more a solitary improviser than a member of some ensemble. Is this the reason why you use lot of multitracks and electronics. Can you tall me something about this kind of experiences?

The solo work didn't come first. Before that (say 1980 - 85) I was working only in groups, with Chris Burn or Jon Corbett/Elton Dean or John Russell/Phil Durrant. In fact I'd developed various ways of playing that had more to do with avoiding the soloistic nature of the saxophone - but then I wanted to see if this, at the time, slightly fragmented language could somehow also work on its own. After a few solo concerts, new ideas about connections came up and it's now grown into quite a regular activity.

One reason for the multitracks was because I'm not so fond of the sound of multiple saxophone groups. Not things like the Ellington sax section, which I love, but solitary improvising groups. One thing I wanted to explore was an approach based around synthesis, through layering, to generate new sounds, as though I was playing a large imaginary instrument.

As for electronics - I've worked acoustically to find different colours for the saxophone which are often 'electronic' in sound, so I'm not interested in using electronics to just add yet more types of sound. I like using electronics in ways that pull me out of myself, rather than just augmenting myself. Working with Phil Durrant was ideal. In our duo he uses live manipulation of the saxophone sound, plus some of his own sounds generated by feedback between the effects units. There's no sampling and as little use of delay and loops as possible. Electronics are still rather sluggish in improvisation, and, we wanted the process to sound like a duo, with the ability to respond and interact in the fast, subtle ways acoustic instruments can. I think some of my acoustic 'electronic' sounds create a useful ambiguity in the duo - and avoids the 'conventional instrument sticks out like a sore thumb' syndrome.

In our former interview you said that to help your improvisation run you have to mind about some your personal techniques. Can you describe some of them, the prevalent ones.

Most techniques I've dug around with came through the practical experience of playing with other improvisers. They developed out of musical necessity, rather than abstractly looking for sounds. Its a long process, but hopefully you end up with a language you can use, rather than just 'sound-effects'.
A lot of my early improvising was with string players - violin, guitar and inside-piano. I tried to find ways to play so that the fantastic range of string colours could be heard 'through' the saxophone. So that the saxophone didn't cover them. This involved working at low dynamics, keeping space between saxophone sounds, using different articulations, finding 'unfilled' frequencies in the music, and getting away from playing lines.
Another thing is that the sax is a very on or off instrument. It doesn't have the decay of a plucked guitar string. A guitarist can build counterpoint, bring new notes in whilst old ones decay. I tried to find ways of doing this with multiphonics and multiple sounds - starting one note and then bringing other colours and sounds/notes in on top. Also changing the colour of a note, the way a violinist can with bow pressure - changing the proportions of the harmonics. You can work with a lot of string-like techniques through changes in embouchure, fingering and breath.

Company, Spontaneous Music, Minton, Russell/Durrant, Beresford. Which is you consideration about those musician you played with?

Russell/Durrant and Chris Burn were the musicians most important to me when I was beginning to improvise. We were all of the same generation - so it felt like we were making discoveries together. We could experiment and afford to make mistakes. With Burn it was often about rejecting the 'traditional' skills we'd learnt on our instruments and finding new sounds that led to different ways of interacting - with Russell/Durrant it was more about exploring how three 'melody' instruments could work together without getting in each other's way, or referring to other styles of music. I started re-introducing lines with them - but lines that involved my interest in articulation and multiple sounds.

Playing with musicians from the earlier generation feels different. Company, and playing with Derek Bailey in general, have been great times for me. I'm a big admirer of Bailey, and a fan of his guitar playing. His guitar language is something he can work with very deeply - rather than just present as a style.
With John Stevens in SME - well, he was a great pleasure to play with because he somehow had this great rhythmical drive that, at the same time, didn't force the other musicians to play in a particular way. You could work 'inside' his playing (rather than on top of it) and influence the music by very subtle changes - it didn't need big gestures to cause a change in direction.

Steve Beresford loves many styles of music and, although he stays on electronics and toys when we play, you feel that knowledge in it . There can be sudden changes of direction that pulls the carpet right out from under me. It's the opposite of a group like Polwechsel, where the music evolves inside quite narrow parameters and without obvious drama. I like both ways of working. Steve and I have a new LP out on the Italian Qbico label: I shall become a bat.

Concentrating on your last works: the most suggestive, and I should consider it one of the most inspired, is Cavern, from your new label. It sign also a big change in your language that seems more communicative, especially in solos. Different also from the performance with Toshimaru Nakamura which lies on the border of the hearable. Does this changing come from playing 60 m underground?

The underground part on Cavern with Nightlife involves what I nearly always try to do when I play a solo concert - respond to the acoustic and any other special aspects of that time and place. The "Cavern" was very cold and large, with people sitting a long way away, and I'm pretty sure I don't know how to 'read' Japanese audiences. So, maybe reaching out and communicating was a more noticeable factor here, compared to playing at a comfortable European new-music gig. But it's not a big change of direction - although this, and the Empty Bottle set on Fixations, are the only complete solo concerts I've released, so maybe it gives a clearer image of what an actual performance is like.
I'd certainly hope the gig with Toshi was different. Playing with other people, I don't want to bring a fixed 'me' to the music - what I do should grow from the situation. But you want your own playing to be coherent, and consistent with your own ideas - so this 'paradox' tests how flexible your language is. It should sound like 'me', but be shaped by the company I am with.

Then we got a free session with bassist John Edwards. A "traditional" duo, I mean in the tradition of impro-duets. Do you like this definition? I mean, can we start to talk about a mature, or even old tradition about improvisation scene?

Perhaps John and I play in what some people think of as an English tradition of close listening and fast interaction - which is not the same as fast playing, just being very responsive. I think it's one of the harder ways of improvising. It can be done badly, as there is an obvious way that only deals with the surface - just with the gestures, but you have to choose material and pitches and colour very carefully for it to make sense. And be prepared to follow each other down bumpy roads, not just the easy routes.

Invisible Ear is more experimental than others, especially for uses of feedback. Which is not so common between sax players. How does this feedback works?

With a microphone close to the saxophone bell, connected to an amp, you can use the saxophone body as a resonating chamber; changing the frequencies that feedback with key work and positioning. I first did this around 83/84 - but it was not so useful in all acoustic groups (although there's a track using it on the Fonetiks LP). And I developed it in some multitracks pieces on my first two solo CDs.
I came back to it, for concert work, in the late 90s when I was playing with more electronic musicians. I learnt to manipulate it with better range and variety, and Invisible Ear explores some of it's solo possibilities, along with close-miking (effectively amplification) techniques. I particularly like the way it becomes possible to work with the decay of sounds, and also how you're not exactly sure what will happen till you try it. I think doing all these things, multiphonics, extreme techniques, amplification of small sounds and even feedback, with just the saxophone gives the music a coherence. All the ingredients sound like a saxophone to me, and I like seeing what is possible when you push inside definite physical limits.

A very good work on sounds is Thermal with Moor and Lehn. It seems that you prefer to work with analogic comrades, "vintage" we can say, instead of digital, and I'm thinking of your colleague Evan Parker...

The first thing for me is the musician, not the instrument. Andy Moor is a great sound sculptor, and his experience in bands like the EX brings something to Thermal that takes it away from the more usual methods of 'improvised music' - especially rhythmically and in how the form builds, with a more song-like shape. Thomas Lehn finds things on his synth which do not exist in digital music, and he plays with the feeling and responsiveness of an acoustic instrumentalist.
If your question is about digital versus analogue - it seems that many digital players work with slow moving, continuous sounds - and are more interested in co-existence with other players, rather than building an interactive language. It's interesting to wonder if this comes most from the nature of the machines, or from the temperament of the player. I'm sure it's a feedback between the two, and the end result says a lot about how the body, how physicality affects improvisation. Different types of physical necessity in producing sound can create their own aesthetics.

How do you imagine the future of improvisation after more that forty years from the beginning?

I've no idea - but there doesn't seem to be any shortage of musicians wanting to work this way. The genie is out of the bottle.

Italian version on "Blow Up", n79, 2004: "Nuovi suoni all'orecchio (invisibile)" di Michele Coralli © altremusiche.it / Michele Coralli  
I n t e r v i e w s ' I n d e x  
Su am: vedi l'intervista a John Butcher ("Il sax multifonico")
Su am: vedi la recensione di "Thermal" di Moor, Lehn, Butcher
Su am: vedi la recensione di "Cavern with Nightlife" di Butcher