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In the hands of machines Part I

img  Tobias Fischer

Electronic music was a significant influence during John Butcher's formative years as an artist. He had always been fascinated by the seeming ease with which composers of early Musique concrète could juxtapose radically contrasting materials, slicing from one section to another within seconds. And yet trying to emulate their techniques on his saxophone only served to strengthen his bond with it, as he found that the narrow timbral range of the instrument lent his pieces a strong musical coherency. And so, for the first fifteen years of his career, he restricted his explorations into electronic territory mainly to working with multitracking. Thirteen Friendly Numbers, for example, had developed from recordings of experiments at home on his brother's 4 track cassette machine, using relatively primitive feedback mechanisms. For the latter, Butcher had simply inserted a microphone directly into the bell of his horn, routed it into an amplifier and then worked with the different resonating lengths of the saxophone to control feedback. Within a context of acoustic musicians, it had consistently sounded out of place. But even when the 90s arrived and feedback began to offer a "way of getting into the loudspeaker world" it remained, as he admitted, a 'hit or miss' affair, with the mechanism proving unpredictable at best or outright unworkable. Nonetheless, he remained intrigued by its potential: "It's interesting to be in a situation where I'm not too sure what will happen if I push this key down. Am I going to get some horrible howl of nasty feedback I don't want, or am I going to get nothing?"

A question of choice: Historic precedents
Importantly, then, not working with electronic musicians in a more explicit way before 1997, when he and Phil Durrant published Secret Measures, was never a question of technological expertise or interest for Butcher, but one of choice. He was well aware of the fact that there had been various precursors to electro-acoustic improvisation, as it would eventually be called. Some of them dated back to the mid-60s, when, for example, the Institute for Contemporary Arts in London organised an exhibition called Cybernetic Serendipity. For his contribution "Infraudibles", German composer Herbert Brün made use of recordings of Evan Parker (Saxophone), Derek Bailey (Guitar), Gavin Bryars (Bass), Richard Howe (French Horn) and Bernard Rands (Cymbalon), creating a dynamic montage of quirky electronic pointillism and the occasional section of seemingly unprocessed, free ensemble improvisation. Butcher himself had already collaborated with Durrant as early as 1989, but on News from the Shed, the latter's focus had still firmly been on the violin and his occasional use of the mixing board merely a colorization of an acoustic sound.

At the turn of the century, meanwhile, things began to change. In Switzerland, For 4 Ears, a record company set up by percussionist Günter Müller, issued Zeitzeichen, on which a still fairly conventional constellation of drums, bass, trombone and trumpet was enhanced by Müller's electronic experiments – the label would henceforth continue to document and stimulate the scene's developments for almost thirty years. Earl Howard's album Pele's Tears (issued on Random Acoustics, a platform Butcher had also previously released with as part of all-acoustic quartet Frisque Concordance) contained two improvisation pieces between Howard's live electronics and tapes on the one hand and performances by Frank Gratkowski (Alto Saxophone), Melvyn Poore (Tuba) and Hans Schneider (Bass) on the other. In Japan, finally, Otomo Yoshihide and Sachiko M had pushed for the inclusion of electronic sounds into a jazz-rock context as part of the band Ground Zero; they would later go on to found the short-lived, but important platform Amoebic.

None of them, however, was even remotely as influential as Mego, an outfit founded in Vienna in 1994 by Ramon Bauer, Andi Pieper and Peter Rehberg, whose works of tiny sound snippets, fragmented beats, sonic impurities and digital "errors" formed the basis for a new aesthetic. It would soon turn into the focal point of a sound seemingly at odds with everything else around or before it – Yoshihide even went as far as labelling it 'computer punk music', a quote which was eagerly picked up by the press, but which Rehberg, for one, was never particularly happy about ("It was horrible rock music dressed up as rebellion", he insists, then continues, somewhat more conciliatorily,"However, I would say the period AFTER punk was interesting in that many groups got together probably out of sheer disappointment from what punk had to offer."). In any case, as Butcher put it, "quite a few of those people didn't feel too inhibited by history", which instantly endeared him and Durrant to the Mego aesthetic. Much less than an intellectual stimulus, it was a gut reaction, a real pleasure in the new tools, processes and possibilities used to create the music: "I just really liked the soundworld and the 'aesthetics of failure' - see Kim Cascone's piece", says Durrant, referring to an article actually published after the fact, in 2000, "Improv has always utilized noise, feedback, hum, broken equipment. Glitch was part of that aesthetic."

His sentiments were shared by a sizable amount of listeners with wildly differing musical backgrounds. It is telling for the general atmosphere of departure that the duo's first album would be released by Mac McCaughan of rock band Superchunk, who had read about Butcher in places like the Wire and faintly remembers being introduced to him by Butcher's colleague Ken Vandermark. His memories of his engagement in the record's release reflect the pervasive feeling of anything-goes at the time: "I was excited to be involved with a project so different to what I had been working with up to that point, and different to what most people were doing in the "improv" or "jazz" world. Of course, there were precedents to this kind of thing, but I really loved it and John and Phil certainly created their own world. But I never saw "improv" as a one-lane road anyway, so I think it was natural for new offramps  to form and eventually become merged into the overall landscape."

What did he think of the music? "My first reaction to the recordings was probably surprise, as it's pretty stunning music. Beautiful in its way and also really intense and extreme at times."

Beyond control: Secret Measures
Intense, extreme and beautiful seem like perfectly apt adjectives to describe an album, which is as playful as it is uncompromising and very much a document of a collaboration in progress. Prior to the gig at the Kunstmuseum in Bern as part of the Ton Art Festival, Butcher and Durrant had merely practised a little at the latter's house and, as Butcher saw it, things still had a touch of chaos theory about it - precisely what they'd been searching for. The two had first discussed the idea of working on a duo in the last stages of the trio with John Russell and it had always been vital for them to avoid merely sounding like a saxophone solo with the addition of a handful of electronic effects. Butcher's interest in 'another intelligence to engage with' and Durrant's desire for a more electronic soundscape (first brought to perfection on his Sowari album the same year, where the violin would frequently only act as a trigger for the electronic action) resulted in a process every bit as engaging and lively as on their previous projects – it is not for nothing that Richard Sanderson's liner notes stress that this was a real-time duo, that the musicians were not working with pre-prepared materials, samples and loops, but responding to each other's cues in the moment and on the spot.

The album opener "The Ice Trade" is almost like a demonstration piece in this regard, with Butcher's licks being fed through Durrant's filter boxes and then sent back at him as bewilderingly morphed, mutated and mutilated messages. While "The Ice Trade" is a strikingly transparent piece, things quickly get more complex over the course of the concert, with the processes turning into entities in their own right, occasionally slipping beyond the players' control: "It created the odd situation where I might respond to something I was hearing  coming from Phil - which was derived from what I had just been doing - but when I changed pitch, for instance, a gate would cut out that effect - and I'd no longer have that context to play with“, Butcher remembers, "So it was very different to acoustic improvising where you can rely on a certain continuity from your partners. The carpet was continuously being pulled from under me."

Butcher and Durrant can't quite agree on whether the audience reaction to the concert was good (Durrant) or rather demure (Butcher). Butcher does remember, however, that its confusion of cause and effect didn't appeal to a few people from the corner of the improvisation scene. And yet, it would turn out to be a quietly influential recording to a select group of people. As Burkhard Beins told me, for example, Secret Measures was exceedingly important for him and many of the musicians of the Berlin Reductionism group. And after Jon Abbey, who had founded his Erstwhile imprint in 1999, had heard the record, he instantly realised there was potential for a follow-up, inviting the group to Moat Studios in London for the sessions to Requests and Antisongs, which he still today considers a "good document of the duo". Clearly, it shows a group which, as Durrant puts it, had gone through a very steep learning curve: "Requests and Antisongs used more feedback systems than Secret Measures. In terms of live playing, the sound of the room had a profound influence on how these feedback systems worked. Unfortunately, It was not practically possible to use all the equipment that I used on Requests, so I felt some gigs were compromised because I had less gear to use. The feedback systems also pushed the music into a more AMM 'laminated' approach, rather than the post Webern 'linear' style that you can hear on News From The Shed. Using a Powerbook was easy in terms of carrying equipment, but in those days there were still issues with CPU considerations, so the amount of processing and how it was controlled was an issue." The issues eventually seemed to draw the pleasure out of a project founded on instinct: Only two years after Requests and Antisongs, Butcher and Durrant pulled the plug, playing their last gig together as a duo.

By Tobias Fischer

This article continues in part 2.

Homepage: John Butcher
Homepage: Phil Durrant
Homepage: Wobbly Rail Recordings
Homepage: Erstwhile Records