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Inner Compass Part II

img  Tobias Fischer

Alien frequencies: Invisible Ear
It is one of the intriguing discontinuities of Butcher's discography how recognisable Fixations feels compared to 13 Friendly Numbers – and how completely alien it sounds when placed to Butcher's next solo effort, Invisible Ear, only released a mere two years later. Part of this may be down to the album constituting a natural counter-reaction to its predecessor, to the desire of engaging in more compositional approaches after the pure improv stance of Fixations. And yet, there is more to the story than that. If Fixations feels like the personal diary of an artist operating in a realm of his own, Invisible Ear is a statement about how much Butcher was listening to what was happening around him, incorporating ideas and concepts of his band efforts into his solo playing and putting his finger to the pulse of the times. One part of it was the emergence of an aesthetic of quietude, slow movements and isolated sounds in Berlin, Tokyo and Vienna, which would leave its mark on the entire improv scene. Semi-seriously referred to by Noël Akchoté, in onomatopoetic terminology, as the "shhhfllllfffwsshhhpfft school of improvisation" it would lead many to reconsider the once self-evident modes of interaction within a group. Whereas, to some, these were fascinating, game-changing developments, Butcher wasn't entirely positive about the consequences. While he, in an essay for the book Reduktion, admitted to having enjoyed many performances of the music, he also considered it as an issue that this new approach of projecting single tones into the space resulted in a music in which the performers were frequently operating with too many unspoken, but ultimately agreed-upon rules for them to truly break new ground. On Invisible Ear, nonetheless, goals like transparency and attention to detail became more important than ever, resulting in a sound that was at once dynamic and tranquil, deep and direct.

The other decisive influence was the advent of electronics. Of course, Butcher had been no stranger to them before beginning to work with Polwechsel. In fact, in his early phase, his ideal had been to replicate the radical cutting techniques of experimental electro-acoustics and transfer them to his personal domain. Later, in some of his solo performances, he had simply inserted a mic into his sax bell and connected it to an amp to create volatile feedback mechanisms. It was a risky modus operandi and one which he had taken great care not to allow to turn into a circus act. Now, however, his perspective on electronics was changing: "I'd used it a bit on Fonetiks with Chris Burn in '84 - but found it didn't sit very well with acoustic instruments and it felt too inflexible for responding to my partners at the time. It cropped up solo now and then like on 13 Friendly Numbers and some concerts. Working with small amplified sounds came in again through playing in the electromanipulation duo with Phil Durrant - where, because of the signal processing, small sounds were suddenly on the same footing as more conventional saxophone volumes. And, also, this music tended to evolve more slowly. The qualities of slower evolution and low volumes must be what led me to work with more of this in Polwechsel - although it has to be said that most of Polwechsel 2 and 3 is acoustic playing (plus electric guitar) with merely some file playback. More generally, taking my sounds into the world of loudspeakers makes more of a point of contact with electronics players. It's a different quality of sound."

Effectively, one could say that in many cases his techniques were direct responses to electronics. And nowhere was this more apparent than on Invisible Ear. "Swan Style" was a response to signal generators, Butcher working with lip sounds whilst inhaling and amplifying them with the body of the sax. "Cup Anatomicals" referenced filtering, saliva sounds being filtered by the acoustic sax body through fingerings. And the otherworldly airstreams of "Dark Field" are derived from extremely quiet tones, with which, as Butcher puts it, "you notice the air more - and start to notice the pitch of the air sounds." As more and more electronic producers were discovering the beauty of software mistakes and glitches, Butcher was doing the same in the realm of hardware. "The sounds are a bit like the "unwanted" ones a conventional player half hears when playing quietly. You have to be right next to the instrument", he tells me, then sighs: "Unfortunately - I've got to say that some of these have become an annoying cliché with some players in recent years." At the time of the album's release, however, they still sounded excitingly fresh. In his review of Invisible Ear, Stuart Broomster claimed that some pieces resembled "nothing so much as a bank of oscillators", while Joe Panzner discovered "a new facet of the saxophonist’s work found somewhere between the lab coat tweaking of his Polwechsel work and the marine biology of Erstwhile’s Wrapped Islands". Panzner's evaluation that the record extends "equal nods to science and poetry" was particularly astute, confirming Invisible Ear as completing the gradual process of transformation started over the course of the 90s.

In many respects, the album fulfilled a mission. Contrary to many of his colleagues, who seemed to regard the solo setting as the most important territory, as a special occasion and the ideal opportunity to leave their mark, Butcher would increasingly come to regard them as fleeting moments which only on later reflection and in rare cases contained the potential to reveal something substantial about him as a performer or music in general. Even his much-acclaimed Resonant Spaces CD happened more by accident than as the result of meticulous planning and only after a befriended musician had been so enthusiastic that Butcher felt compelled to release it. Increasingly, his approach to solo playing became similar to that of his ensemble playing: A sometimes complex and sometimes straight-forward, but always challenging encounter with the moment, the performance space, the audience, his instrument and last but not least himself. As Andy Moor puts it: "John is one of the few improvisers I know who can do both solo and group improvisations equally well. In a group situation, he listens and he makes other musicians sound good, he leaves space and takes risks and his timing is pretty amazing. He is trying to make brilliant music whether it's solo or in a group and he succeeds again and again."

Butcher's solos are the result of his history, but he doesn't plan them out beforehand, rejecting the notion that they might be more composed than his group endeavours. Where do they come from, I want to know after a recent performance at the Issue Project Room: "I can get nervous the day before a solo concert - but, these days, not often when I'm actually doing it. Usually it's harder work when there's no audience - I need to feel the "real-time" nature of the flow of the music, which an audience forces on you. The Issue Project Room was a private afternoon recording on the last day of an exhausting USA visit, and I arrived without an idea in my head. You have to trust intuition in those situations. I still find it rather mysterious - where the drive comes from, even when you don't start out feeling much like playing."

Distinct identities: Trace, Winter Gardens, Bell Trove Spools
It seemed only logical, therefore, that Invisible Ear would be followed by a long silence in terms of solo releases. If one discounts the location-oriented, aforementioned offerings The Geometry of Sentiment and Resonant Spaces, it would take eight years before he returned with a trio of new solo publications: Trace, a tape released on cassette label The Tapeworm, Winter Gardens, a vinyl LP on Kukuruku and Bell Trove Spools on the Northern Spy imprint. All of these again feature material culled from live performances, all of them operate within the same parameters defined by previous solo efforts. And yet, all have their distinct identity. Trace, for example, which quickly sold out at the source but has subsequently been made available as a free download from The Wire's website, contains the modestly titled "More of an urge than an idea", a nineteen minute field sparsely filled with glassy overtones, tender saxophone tones and cool piano notes – a beguiling oddity in Butcher's oeuvre. Winter Gardens, meanwhile, feels less like covering new ground, but rather like an extremely concentrated effort of perfecting existing ideas and concepts, like a compression of his entire work into a single, condensed point. The album is split between a London and a Milwaukee performance, between a soprano and a tenor side as well as between two acoustic pieces and two tracks making use of  amplification. On the latter, Butcher is flirting with disaster, playful nudging the border between feedback and full-blown distortion, between focused sound and formless noise. There is a rhythmical impulse here, which occasionally takes on almost groovy qualities, as though these patterns were leading up to a traditional jazz workout – only to recede into silence again. On the former, far longer acoustic improvisations, recorded so up-close and clear that you can actually hear him breathing, Butcher is demonstrating his personal concept of virtuosity, based not so much on  speed or volume (although there are quite a few dizzyingly fast, spectacularly loud passages to be found here), but on the perpetuation of a flow of creation, one inventive approach taking turns with the next, sonic shapes and sounds appearing and disappearing like fireworks against a perfectly black sky. A winter garden is a place of contemplation and inner stillness and appropriately, the record feels like a short moment of rest in a discography otherwise mainly built on continuous re-invention.

Bell Trove Spools, which features the aforementioned Issue Project Room session next to one in Richmond Hall, Houston, Texas, sounds like the congenial follow-up. It is a good example of where Butcher's solo recordings could be headed for in the future, a perfect blend between spontaneity and planning, between experience and progressive momentum, between relying on his own devices and operating within a closely-knit team. Although he did indeed arrive at Issue Project Room without concrete musical concepts in his mind, Butcher had already been in touch with composer and recording engineer Philip White about recording an album here. As White recalls: "At that time I was Technical Director at ISSUE. We were in the process of moving to ISSUE’s new space, which is an amazing jewel box theater designed by McKim, Mead and White. The space was built as a chamber music hall with arched roof and all. John came and played a show at our old warehouse space and during drinks afterward, both Okkyung Lee and I basically said “you have to record there.” The room is absolutely beautiful for solo performers or chamber groups. I later did some sound treatment in there to make it more flexible, but at the end of the day, anything over 105dB starts to sound like mush because of the reverberation." Although he had broken his hand the night before and Butcher eventually assisted in setting things up, the resulting album perfectly achieves White's main objective – matching the live sound in this unusual space with the sounds he heard on his headphone monitors. Using an AKG 414 close up on the sax and a pair of Neumann KM-184’s in the room, the set-up closely resembles the one used by Steve Lowe a quarter century earlier in Gateway Studios. As a result, the album feels equally fresh and classic, a bridge between a proud past and a future which still promises to hold plenty of surprises.

What binds all of these releases together is something hardly a single commentator has picked up on, a reference which permeates all releases and awards them a coherent quality: Butcher's listening roots in the blues. Sometimes, as on the barely two and a half minutes short "A controversial fix for …" on Invisible Ear, this reference is clearly present. At other times, it is a mere backthought. And yet, hidden or outspoken, it is always present in some form: "If there is a language - it is just that", he says, "I didn't want to only present sounds - I wanted to say something with them." He adds, only half jokingly: "Unfashionable, I know." And yet, the way of the serious artist has never been about fashions anyway, but about trusting in oneself and following a personal, inner compass.

By Tobias Fischer

Part 1 of this feature can be found here.

Homepage: John Butcher
Homepage: Philip White
Homepage: The Tapeworm Tapes
Homepage: Kukuruku Recordings
Homepage: Northern Spy Records