Interview: John Butcher
Having stacked up forty years of collaboration in a number of duos, trios and mismatched musical bundles, British saxophonist John Butcher has made all but a fraction of possible sounds that can be made on his instrument – both by blowing and through physical manipulation. A champion of free improvisation, he continues to create works that react to both other musicians and unique sonic spaces.
From 1997 to 2007, Butcher was a member of the Austrian quartet Polwechsel, a group that embraced the tensions of composition to improvisation. His bandmate, Michael Moser, described him as “a great listener”, an expressive player who could adapt to approach their minute and microtonal works as needed.
Butcher will join Polwechel’s hcmf// 2017 performance on Thursday 23 November, marking the first time in a decade they’ve played together. We spoke to Butcher about both his past life as a member of the group and his expectations for their reunion.
The hcmf// 2017 performance will be your first with Polwechsel in nearly a decade. With a ten year history of playing together prior, do you have any expectations of the sound or internal directions for how to perform with the group?
JB: During the ten years I was in Polwechsel, the characteristics were using loose compositional ideas and structures to explore the world of minute musical material and non-demonstrative interaction. I found that immensely stimulating, but towards the end of my period there I thought I’d exhausted what I could contribute to the group. That boils down to… I couldn’t think of anything more I had to work with in that area without just covering, personally, the same ground.
So I left, but in the intervening years the four of them have met quite regularly (which was a little bit easier, because I was the only non-German or non-Austrian member). They meet quite regularly and they develop a lot of things through discussion – still operating largely in the same kind of way.
What I think will happen now is that in a sense we’ve all learned a lot of new things in the intervening ten years – I think this concert at St. Paul’s will be a little like working with people you know very well, and people whose music you know very well, but like anything in life we’ve all changed through our experiences. So in a sense I think that’s why they’ve invited me into it – it’ll create a much fresher relationship between us.
It seemed to me that the group was maybe a bit of an anomaly for the way you played in other groups – in that it was slower, more microtonal and less expressive. When you come back into Polwechsel do you have to adapt to an element of restraint?
JB: I think I’d always been involved in groups that had elements in common with Polwechsel. Back in the early ‘80s, I was working with musicians like Radu Malfatti and Chris Burn’s Ensemble – we were working with something that didn’t have a name then, but it was sort of low-key chamber improvising. So when I joined Polwechsel it wasn’t such a change from things I knew about, but I think perhaps the difference was they had a more fully-formed concept of what they were aiming for.
I think, fifteen years before that, experimenting in those kind of areas, we weren’t really sure what we were looking for. Polwechsel seemed to be very aware of what they were looking for in this area and they explored it quite single-mindedly.
The other side to that question is that I choose who I play with because I value them as musicians, and that isn’t because they work in a particular style – the idea is always to draw on different sides of my own playing that I consider to be appropriate for those musicians.
But you don’t want to do it always with 100% agreement! It gets rather dull – so with the actual tension of the different playing situations I find myself in, it can sometimes be a bit of grit in my shoes.
One of my favourite things I’ve seen you say about improvisation is that it’s “music that you couldn’t really imagine before you find yourself in the middle of it”. I was wondering how it is when you have to improvise within something that actually has formal structure and direction.
JB: Yeah, it’s a grey area. Because if you’re playing a piece that’s someone else’s composition, then you in a way have a different responsibility – one way is to not let yourself get too much in the way of that composition. However fortunately the world of what it means to be a composer and an interpreter has changed enormously in the last twenty years.
And also, the nature of composition in Polwechsel was very non-hierarchical. I don’t feel that I’m going there to play a Werner Dafeldecker composition; I feel like I’m going to collaborate on some ideas that Werner is suggesting to the group. That doesn’t mean I’m going to put things that I can do and might choose to be in a free situation into those pieces – I hope to be sensitive to the intentions of the directions. I think the difference is, though, that it’s not someone telling me what to do.
Was the grey area between composition and improvisation something you’d experienced elsewhere, or was it quite unique to your time in Polwechsel?
JB: With things like Chris Burn’s Ensemble, we experimented quite a lot with compositional structures. It usually worked best when they were things that were not so easy to discern – it was tweaking improvisation in ways it might not go if everything was left completely open.
I still have, in my own life of music making, mixed feelings about working with composition, and did in the Polwechsel days – I used to find it very easy in the studio and making a record, and I think we did about five, but I found going out and playing it less interesting because it had already been done. I think the skill in this grey area is for the external ideas to have the stimulus for repeat performances, so you feel there’s still something you can try and work with. The process of finding things each time you play it.
Some of the Polwechsel pieces, including one you wrote, seemed to be more instructive in their composition – just when to play and when not to.
JB: It’s interesting, because if you’re working with musicians with a lot of ideas on their end you often only need to give very simple instructions and it will have a significant outcome on the piece. In those situations I was quite ambivalent about composition – it wasn’t until I was offered a commission, actually, by hcmf// in 2008, for an octet, where I felt encouraged to take on board in a more considered way what it means to tell people what to do and what it means to form something – what it even means to call something a composition that has an identity of its own with those qualities.
For me, as a hardened improviser of twenty years before, I learned a lot doing that. I’ve kind of revised my opinions on composition since I left Polwechsel, mainly through doing commissions for hcmf// and other places.
But you do need an idea if you’re going to call it composition! You’ve got to think ‘Is this idea better than not telling people what to do?’
You say that each time you perform you have to respect the situation and treat it as a new one. When you play with artists you’ve already played with at this length, do you consider working with that history as part of the process of playing or do you want to work from a blank slate?
JB: The most valuable thing for me in improvisation is long-term relationships I’ve developed with musicians. As you say, when you’ve got a history, joining up again but with new experiences, you’re definitely working on continuing your interrupted history with those people.
The blank slate thing almost never happens. In any situation, I think – occasionally you find yourself performing with someone you haven’t met before and have no idea what they do, but that is very rare.
I was wondering if you could talk about the group’s collaboration with [Christian] Fennesz – both how it came about and how you worked with the dynamics of his electronic music.
JB: The guitarist Burkhard Stangl was a member of the group at that time, and he was friends in particular with Fennesz. They studied on the same musical course in their early twenties and Vienna is a comparatively small scene – I think that collaboration was suggested by Jon Abbey at Erstwhile Records. It worked a number of different ways, but they gave me the wrong dates so they recorded half of it before I got to Vienna! So I ended up overdubbing, which I don’t like very much as it’s all of the take and none of the give – no one’s listening to you! Half of it we worked together on in the studio. As I recall there weren’t scored out pieces – there was a lot of discussion about the approach to take.
I used feedback tenor (putting a microphone in the bell of the saxophone and connecting it to an amplifier), so at a certain level you can use the tube of the saxophone to control the feedback and get tones to resonate at different frequencies. It’s a little bit awkward and cumbersome but I quite like that – you can feel the mechanics of the instrument. There’s no blowing – just microphone and amplifier feedback tones.
At the time you first joined Polwechsel you were also working with Phil Durrant on a call-and-response electronics/sax duo. Did that go on to broaden your ideas of improvisation and performance as you started to think about the saxophone as in a sense, not just a saxophone?
JB: He was doing live processing, and it was a very symbiotic thing in the way we had to rely on each other. He was working with filter modules – it wasn’t a computer but turning knobs. For me it made it quite interesting, in terms of how he could react to improvisation. A lot of the things I’d been looking at on the saxophone had been about exploring the different possibilities of colour and timbre on the instrument – extending it into new sounds. But the electronic processing side of it I was interested in, not for the changes in sound it made, but for the different ways it made you play.
As an example, he might have the gate which was pitch-dependent, and I could play a rising phrase that might be ring-modulated. If I went over a certain frequency the gate would cut out and that effect would vanish. I didn’t know that was going to happen and neither did he, necessarily, so it was like having the carpet pulled from underneath me – you can usually rely on the choices your partner makes. Like with a bass player, who might be involved in a multi-tone drone, you can roughly work out how long they’ll do it for – you don’t expect it to cut out like that.
Your output this year alone sees you playing against so many different types of set-ups, against field recordings and software, objects and toy instruments and in a more formal band set-up. Do you find you get different things out of your instrument from what’s around you?
JB: Definitely. Just working at different volume levels makes a great level of difference. The challenge for wind players is often to play more of the actual instrument while keeping it very transparent and quiet enough for the company. If Akio [Suzuki] is rubbing stones together, I’ve got to find material which will not cover his work. If I’m working with bass and drums with John [Edwards] and Mark [Sanders], the natural tendency is to go for a more vigorous music. But we’re also interested in pulling back from that.
It comes down to how much do you embrace what would be the natural thing to do in that situation, and how much do you embrace taking a different approach? If you destroy everything that’s natural about the situation you’re left with a very frustrating experience but if you go with what’s expected from those instruments, so is that.
Does this show up in solo playing too? On Resonant Spaces, you played in particular resonant outdoor spaces. Do you try and work in tune with spaces as a collaboration?
JB: Most definitely. In a sense all instrumentalists take that on board when they play. Even in notated music you play slightly different based on the acoustics for the music to make sense. But the thing with a more improvised aesthetic is that you can really create pieces for the space. I’ve found myself in a few extreme spaces and realised I couldn’t just go in and do what I might consider my solo music – I had to try and find something which made sense for the space.
You have to accept some things you might want to do aren’t always achievable. It applies to Polwechsel, because we’re working with quite ‘small’ material. You get a very detailed sound when we record, and the piece is in your head like that – when we perform it live it can be frustrating because some spaces will be wrong for that music.
Quiet music works so much better in some places than others, and in other situations I’ll just play different if it’s not working. I’m very pleased we’re doing this piece in St. Paul’s, because it’s the right place for the group.
Polwechsel + John Butcher + Klaus Lang
23 November @ 7:30pm
St Paul’s Hall
Tickets £17 (£14 concession / online)