Courtesy of John Butcher
Photo by Susan O'Connor
CHAT WITH JOHN BUTCHER
The following is an email interview I did with John Butcher, who is fastly
becoming one of my favorite players of late. There is not much I can think
of saying that will do justice to how impressed I am with Butcher. So
I will leave it to him. Enjoy folks, as always, unedited and in his own
FRED JUNG: Let's start from the beginning.
JOHN BUTCHER: The sequence of instruments (considerately leaving out school
recorder) was guitar, harmonium, piano and saxophone. Guitar because it
was cheap. It was 1968 and I was fourteen (although I'd wanted to play
clarinet for a number of years, but couldn't get one). Piano was basically
classical lessons and also improvising with my brother, who played double
bass (later electric, surviving, amongst other things, a year on the road
with Iggy Pop). Although we didn't really label it as such - some of this
improvising we did was "free," but coming from what we'd heard
in things like The Mothers of Invention, Stockhausen and Soft Machine.
Then we got into jazz - which I played and studied for quite a few "student"
years. Between school and university I worked night shifts in a bakery
to get the money for a saxophone. For three reasons really. The piano
was turning out to be a rather solitary instrument - and I really wanted
to play with other people. It had caught my ear the most in jazz and I
knew you could make quick progress on it (I was eighteen or nineteen).
You didn't need to have been playing it since you were seven. At university,
I formed a band working a little in the Henry Cow, Frank Zappa sort of
area, that eventually moved to modal jazz and then back through the years,
playing standards. At the same time, I got involved with the music department.
I remember doing some of Stockhausen's "intuitive" improvisation
pieces there and I met Chris Burn and played in his big band - doing his
own compositions and arrangements of Mingus pieces. We even got a BBC
award. But, like anyone around that age, this sort of activity is really
about listening to what you've searched out and stumbled upon around you
- and exploring more deeply the things that seem to mean the most to you.
Whilst I got a lot of pleasure from playing "like" various musics,
I knew it was not an end in itself, but a way to get to something that
felt more personally authentic. By the late '70s jazz, for me, seemed
to be more and more an historical music - and, principally, one from another
continent and society. I'd discovered a lot in it, but it made no sense
to pretend to be part of it. I wasn't part of the vanishing world it had
FJ: Wouldn't it have been easier to just play bebop or a derivative there
JOHN BUTCHER: If I'd been born thirty years earlier and discovered bebop
at the time it was really being created I'm sure it would have felt natural
to go with it. I've got a lot of respect for the generation of English
jazz musicians who did just that. But, you respond to the time you're
in, and I'd grown up with rock music and was also interested in the ideas
and sound world of contemporary composed music - and of the classic electronics
pioneers. None of these was enough for me in itself, though, and the free
improvisation I heard in the late '70s seemed to be where the real invention
and excitement was, where the advances were being made and where it was
possible to draw on, extend and challenge the complex, non-linear web
of music we actually lived in. There must be very few Western musicians
of the last few decades who really felt, when they were young, that they
came from a particular "tradition" of music making. Oversimplifying
quite a lot, free improvisation contained, for me - the possibility of
the "liberated" sound-pallette that "new" music and
electronics had been exploring for decades, a response to Cage's innovations,
the energy and interaction of jazz - but also types of interaction that
escaped from the role playing in jazz, the physicality of playing and
listening as part of the creative process, an extraordinarily subtle collaborative
ingredient, a rejection of traditional hierarchies, undefined boundaries,
and an unknown future (both over a piece and over
years of playing).
FJ: University educated, your life could have gone in a very different
direction, when and why did you decide to pursue playing music as a career?
JOHN BUTCHER: I published my Ph.D. thesis in 1982 and from then on concentrated
on music. The head of the department (Abdus Salam) had just got the Nobel
Prize for his work on the Electro-Weak Force Unification Theory. It was
an exciting time to be doing research. The department was full of amazing
people and, basically, I hung on by the skin of my teeth. But I had been
more interested in music for a long time, and the realization that I wasn't
doing much more than crossing a few t's and dotting a few i's of other
people's work tilted the balance. It was more interesting to try to understand
the big ideas than to get too involved in the nuts and bolts.
FJ: What was the musical climate like in England during the late Seventies
and early Eighties and was that climate conducive to your brand of improvised
JOHN BUTCHER: In around the mid-70s, I was going out and hearing a lot
of the "local" scene for the first time. Initially, people like
Stan Tracey and Pete King, who were more rooted in American jazz - then
moving on to musicians like John Surman, Lol Coxhill, Kenny Wheeler, Elton
Dean and Mike Westbrook, who were putting something a little different
into their work. Particularly exciting at the time were the South Africans
who'd come over with Chris McGregor - like Louis Moholo, Harry Miller,
Johnny Dyani. I think there was a hardcore of improvisers who kept themselves
pretty separate from jazz - some with the militancy necessary when new
ideas are developing - but there was also a noticeable mixing of different
types of players. Some of the ultimately more conservative got involved
for a while in the '"free-er" side of things. About 1975, I
played the Bracknell Jazz Festival (in Chris Burn's Big Band) - and I
think this was where I first heard John Stevens, Derek Bailey, Paul Rutherford,
Tony Oxley and Evan Parker (not together). It was basically a jazz festival,
but it seemed quite natural for it to include this element as well. I
was pretty intrigued by the free-improvising I heard, but was actually
more interested in jazz at the time. But what they were doing nagged away
at the back of my mind over the next few years. By the time I was doing
concerts of free-improvisation in the '80s, I don't know if the climate
had changed or if it was just hard for me because I was a newcomer. There
didn't seem to be much interest around. I suspect that quite a number
of the "pioneers" had moved on to playing abroad more than in
England - and by the mid-80s the jazz scene that was attracting attention
had returned to safer, blander territory - like Courtney Pine and Loose
Tubes. The free improvising scene continued in London largely through
musicians' own initiatives and things like Derek Bailey's Company Weeks.
FJ: Earlier, you alluded to your work with pianist Chris Burn. When did
you meet Burn?
JOHN BUTCHER: Chris and I met in 1974 and by 1980, we were both exploring
improvisation. He had almost completely rejected the piano keyboard by
then and was working with direct action on the strings. I was trying to
avoid anything that sounded like a "straight" saxophone note.
Part of this was an attempt to find "new" sounds, but, more
importantly, also a way of escaping from the instrumental habits that
we'd learned playing more conventional music. We'd played a lot of "straight"
jazz together in the '70s. Much of what I've developed on the saxophone
has been a direct response to playing with certain people. Chris developed
an extraordinary range of sounds with all kinds of subtle overtone contents
and types of attack. I tried to find material that made sense with this.
We rehearsed privately for quite a while. I'd attempt to forget I was
playing a saxophone and instead just think, what sound, what contribution,
would I like to make here - in response to what I was hearing. I might
not find it that day, but the seed would have been sown and something
would crop up when I was practicing or at the next session.
FJ: Does the same hold true for your sinfully unheralded trio featuring
Phil Durrant and John Russell?
JOHN BUTCHER: Phil Durrant and I met around 1983, at a workshop run by
Phil Wachsmann. He'd been playing with John Russell for a few years -
and invited me along to play in trio with them. Trio playing is perhaps
the most interesting in improvising. It has a different dynamic than the
dialogue nature of duos, but you can still work as individuals, equally
in control of the music. Overall, playing with string players was very
important for me. With John and Phil, even Chris, a saxophone could easily
swamp what they did. I tried to find a way of playing transparently, so
that their sounds could shine through my sounds. And I was inspired by
things like the way a violinist can use bow pressure to really change
the colour of a sound. And all the kinds of percussive attacks of Chris.
I tried to transfer these ideas to saxophone and I became very conscious
of how wind instruments have no sustain - independent of the physical
action that generates the sound, that is. A guitarist can allow a tone
to decay whilst articulating another, which opens up immense possibilities
in terms of flow, counterpoint and pacing. I try to create the illusion
of some of this.
FJ: You have frequently performed with Phil Minton, a vocalist unlike
any other, what are the subtle nuances of a singer that contrast with
that of another instrument and what are the similarities and how are you
as a musician affected?
BUTCHER: When Phil and I work together we're both very aware of being
breathers. Sometimes it reminds me of how women who live together are
said to eventually synchronize their menstrual cycles. We can go with
this or fight it. A singer can implement musical decisions very quickly
and Phil has such an extraordinary vocabulary that you can find yourself
moving through some amazing sequences of events. It can be a little like
this improvising with sampler players, but that often becomes dull because
there isn't the sense of unification in the changes - the sense of one
sound source - the voice. Also, the voice has a lot of emotional connotations.
Phil may be taking a sound that he's thinking of abstractly, but to a
listener (and maybe me) it reminds us of an emotional state.
Let's talk on your latest CD for the Meniscus label, Music On Seven Occasions.
BUTCHER: Dylan lives in Vancouver, and Jon Morgan, who runs the Meniscus
label, suggested we record together the next time I was over for the Jazz
Festival. We'd only previously played once, for 10 minutes in his practice
room - but I thought it would be a good combination. Saxophone and drum
duos (wind and percussion really) have a lot of musical history, which
I think we're both aware of. We didn't talk about what to do, but seemed
to move quite naturally between embracing and abstracting the instrumental
And your new Emanem CD, Vortices and Angels with Derek Bailey?
BUTCHER: Derek asked me to play a concert with him at the Vortex - a small
club in North London. The first half was solos, and the second half the
duos that are on the CD. I first played with him on the 1990 Company Week
in London, and around the same time we played our only duo concert before
this Vortex gig. I must have first heard him in about '75 or '76, and
of the innovators then playing in London, he was the one who took me the
longest to really hear what he was getting at on the instrument. I eventually
became a big fan and have really enjoyed our occasional encounters. The
second half of the CD is with Welsh harpist Rhodri Davies. He organizes
concerts in a church about 5 minutes walk from my house, so it's my favorite
gig. Obviously, the acoustic has quite an effect on how people play at
this venue (one of the strengths of free improvisation, as opposed to
importing set music into alien acoustics). It was the first time we'd
played in duo. What I like is that nobody, including us, had the slightest
idea of what a saxophone and harp duo should sound like - unless the saxophone
takes the voice role and my knowledge of that repertoire is pretty negligible.
So it's a different psychological situation than with Dylan, for instance
- ideal for a very non refferential approach to sound and interaction.
You also released Secret Measures on Wobbly Rail featuring Phil Durrant.
BUTCHER: This is my electromanipulation project with Phil Durrant, which
also has a newer release on Erstwhile (Requests and Antisongs). Phil and
I met at a workshop of Phil Waschsmann's in the early '80s, and have played
for many years in trio with guitarist John Russell - with Phil playing
violin. Phil's done a lot of work with electronics as well and in this
duo he only 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 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. Some of the material I like to use on saxophone
has developed because my ear was caught by a lot of the sounds of the
early electronic music pioneers. My acoustic sounds can be quite electronic
sounding anyway, so I think there is a useful ambiguity in the duo - unlike
the more standard electo-acoustic approach, where the conventional instrument
often sticks out like a sore thumb. Secret Measures was our first concert
- in Switzerland. One thing I like, that changes the usual improvising
dynamic, is that I can't always rely on sonic situations in the way I
might with an acoustic instrument. For instance, Phil might have an effect
on that is pitch dependent. I'm playing a low note, say, hearing Phil's
response and think a higher note would work well with Phil's sound. I
play it and that effect unit stops and I'm in a completely different sonic
environment that neither of us were actually aiming for. It's a little
like we're both controlling a slightly chaotic system, where small changes
in input can have substantial, unpredictable changes in output.
And Thirteen Friendly Numbers on your own ACTA label?
BUTCHER: This was my first solo CD and is actually quite old now. It was
a studio recording and there have been two solo releases since then -
both live, as I think this produces more consequent improvising for solo
work. The ACTA release did include my first multitracked pieces. They
were done direct to analogue tape, so have a feel of being played rather
than edited. I didn't want to sound like an ersatz saxophone group, but
wanted to work by synthesixing (in the original sense) new sonorities.
That and exploiting aspects of simultaneity that aren't possible in group
FJ: Improvised music is a oddity in music, where the collective dynamics
are just as important as the ability to sustain one's own self musically,
is there one you prefer over another?
JOHN BUTCHER: No, they're yin and yang to me.
FJ: What prompted you to form the ACTA label?
JOHN BUTCHER: In 1987 with Phil Durrant and John Russell - to release
our LP Conceits.
FJ: Do the rigors of running your own label take time away from your artistic
JOHN BUTCHER: Not especially. There's quite a bit of administration, as
the nature of this music means you're
dealing with a large number of small (but enthusiastic) distributors -
rather than one or two majors. Over the years, John and Phil dropped out
and as I'm travelling a fair bit, I've no time for organizing many releases.
What are the kinds of recordings you have been documenting on the label
and what would you like to record in the future?
BUTCHER: In the early '80s, it was very valuable for me to play and experiment
with a few musicians who were interested in (for want of a better term)
a more chamber approach to improvising. We were all of similar age and
invisibleness, and this way had a chance of developing your own music
rather than aiming to play with the names. ACTA has basically focused
on the work of these people, nearly all Londoners. Of course, the SME
release was a meeting with one of the true visionaries of improvisation,
John Stevens and the label has also tried to support some of the younger
Longer players - like Gail Brand, Rhodri Davies and Mark Wastell.
Having toured North America recently, what have you found is the most
irritating thing about the improvised music scene in the United States?
BUTCHER: Strange question. I don't think I know that much about the US
scene. The concerts I've done there have nearly all been good occasions.
They've mostly been grassroots type things, organized by musicians and
enthusiasts - which is much the same as in England. Since my first trip
in '95, I've found quite a few US improvisers who I really like to play
with. Gino Robair, Matt Sperry, Gerry Hemingway, Fred Lonberg-Holm, Michael
Zerang - for instance.
You played with Vinny Golia, a dear friend, how was it performing with
him and did you two make a record?
BUTCHER: Very nice. We did a little recording.
Obviously, "jazz" has had its day and holds on barely by a thread,
but is improvised music in danger as well?
BUTCHER: Well, the genie is out of the bottle. Improvisation has proved
itself as a method, not a style. You could select many things that seem
to fit the improvisation label, yet sound like they're from completely
different planets. In some ways, the music is propelled by a lot of very
individual, often idiosyncratic, players who have pretty definite opinions
about the music they want to play, but still meet up to realise their
music in a manner we call free improvisation. So the term clearly only
tells a bit of the story. There seems to be something intrinsic in the
process that necessitates evolution. A lot of the players from the early
days are still producing great music - and there are younger musicians
with quite a knowledge of the music's history, who are looking for their
own approach. What's not so interesting is new players coming along and
just covering the same ground as before - like with jazz now (I even saw
a free jazz improvisation play-a-long CD advertised recently). Then again,
a too self conscious search for newness can lead to a music that's not
much more than it's basic concept. I've heard a few things that sound
too much like someone just trying to trademark a particular sonic area.
A little like what happens in some of the more ephemeral areas of the
FJ: What is soundart and why did you start the festival?
JOHN BUTCHER: A festival that programmed new composed music and improvised
music on the same night. There are quite a few people interested in both,
but the actual concert going scene in London is a bit segregated. It worked
in bringing out a mixed audience - and I enjoyed what it revealed about
the different ways of making music. It's currently on hold - due to lack
of funding. I co-programmed with the flautist Nancy Ruffer.
Fred Jung is Jazz Weekly's Editor-In-Chief and likes the blonde one on
Sex In the City. Email Him.