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Inner compass Part I

img  Tobias Fischer

Musical careers rarely follow the perfect and regular incisions of historians and calendars. And yet, for John Butcher, the early 1990s really did mark the beginning of a new phase. Some of his London-based creative partnerships were fading away, as the Russell/Durrant/Butcher trio and his membership in the Chris Burn's Ensemble came to an end. At the same time, different, equally promising collaborations emerged. The new decade saw him turn towards groundbreaking electronic experiments with Austrian ensemble Polwechsel and deep explorations of brass and air in The Contest of Pleasures. He was also forging bonds with Gino Robair, John Edwards, Rhodri Davies, Andy Moor and Christof Kurzmann, all of which would last until the present day. All around him, too, the music scene was changing. Independent labels were gaining both in significance and confidence and what was formerly considered underground music was bubbling to the surface of the general public's attention. Synthesizers, samplers and PCs were becoming increasingly affordable, leading to an explosive growth in bedroom producers and a short phase in which, as music journalist and writer Simon Reynolds put it, the musical world seemed to completely shed its skin every six months. Even more importantly, perhaps, the CD had broken through as the main physical carrier, its comparatively affordable production costs allowing even uncompromisingly experimental acts to publish and distribute their music on their own terms - quite aptly, News from the Shed's eponymous album from 1989 would turn out to be the last vinyl release for Butcher for twenty-two years. Although the industry was thriving, stability had become a relative term and he made full use of the zeitgeist by diving headlong into the pool of potentials opening up in front of him.

Moving uphill: The 80s
The 80s had not been a bad period for Butcher by any means. Obviously, it had been the decade of Thatcher and Reagan, a time marked by a climate, as he puts it, "especially hostile to non-mainstream - and non-moneymaking – creativity". But in his personal life, things were clearly moving uphill. He had completed his Ph.D and was now free to pursue a career in the arts without any external distractions. He was surrounded by people with a similar interest in DIY aesthetics, a pure passion for music and a complete disregard for medial or public attention. And there were always plenty of exciting instrumentalists to engage and exchange ideas with. You were thus, in his own words, able to "just get on with your own work."

At the end of 1986, Butcher received a letter from the socialist DDR by one Jimi Metag. Metag had founded a jazz workshop in the tiny town of Peitz, just thirteen kilometres outside of Cottbus, and started organising small gigs without state support and outside of official cultural policy. Some of his bigger outdoor events would come to be feted as the 'Montreaux of the East' or 'Woodstock near the carp pond'. Writing in pencil on tissue-thin airmail paper, he now invited Butcher on a tour with West German drummer Willi Kellers (who would shortly after record with seminal free improvisation imprint FMP), double bassist Christoph Winkel (from an important circle of musicians based in Weimar) and Mancunian trombonist Alan Tomlinson. Butcher had never met any of these performers in person and, save Tomlinson, never even heard of them either. And yet, he jumped at the opportunity. A couple of months later, a plane ticket and a letter for the East German border guards arrived and he embarked on a trip, which, compared to his London appearances, would draw remarkably sizable audiences. It was right in the middle of this phase of busy group activity that Butcher released his first solo CD, 13 Friendly Numbers, an album which he would later refer to as 'a stimulation, a test, and a bit scary'. Fear is not a word you'd typically associate with Butcher. In this case, however, there was every reason to feel a little queasy.

Personal and timeless: 13 Friendly Numbers
1991. A year which, with the release of Massive Attack's Blue Lines or Nirvana's Nevermind, was all about big, universal statements. 13 Friendly Numbers was none of that. Contrarily, it was personal and timeless. And yet, it had something contemporary about it as well, marking the moment that free improvisation gained fresh momentum and the instant the London community found surprising points of contact with similar scenes which had gradually developed in mainland Europe and across the Atlantic. The early years of the 90s would turn out to be vital in this regard by putting a wealth of soon-to-be-influential musicians in touch with this radical and radically different music and intoxicating them with its virus. Guitarist Andy Moor, for example, had left Edinburgh at the turn of the decade to move to Amsterdam and join pioneering local formation The Ex. Introduced to the improv community by the band's Terrie Hessels, he was stunned to find a big, vivid scene of jazz and non jazz improvisers. Han Bennink, Ab Baars and Wolter Wierbos on the one hand and John Butcher and Derek Bailey on the other would turn into his first personal heroes. Butcher in particular felt like a revelation to Moor: "The sounds he was getting out of his instrument on 13 Friendly Numbers were sounds I'd never heard before coming from a saxophone. I found it really brave that a musician could release a CD like this."

Around the same time, young recording engineer Steve Lowe of London's Gateway Studios was taking his first, uneasy steps into free improvisation, listening to The Chris Burn Ensemble's Cultural Baggage and thinking to himself: "Why aren't they playing in time? Where have the chords and melody gone?" He could see a room full of instruments he recognised, but the sound coming out of the speakers was outright shocking. The shock hadn't yet subsided, when he met Evan Parker and spent three days over the New Year of 1991 recording some of the worlds greatest improv musicians for the Spirits Rejoice CD. It was then and there that the cookie crumbled. When Butcher, who had coincidentally been involved in the making of Cultural Baggage, came knocking on Lowe's door to ask for his help in recording 13 Friendly Numbers, his ears had become acclimatised.

Today, an album like this could easily be published early in an artist's career. In 1992, of course, as Butcher puts it, "it was difficult and expensive to release things, hard to believe now, which made you treat it as something special". And so his studio debut as a soloist only arrived a full eight years after his first LP (Fonetiks with Chris Burn) and a host of group efforts. Perhaps it is this remarkably long phase of refining his musical language which makes 13 Friendly Numbers seem so remarkably self-assured and potent. Everything's there: Moments of tender lyricism ("Notelet") and ghostly fields of drone ("Tolv two elf katere ten (it can't be)"), to-the-point minimalism ("Uncommon Currency") and expansive sonic territories ("Buccinator's Outing"), all but inaudible breaths and furious blasts created by means of multitracking different parts in the studio in real-time – when, as on "Bells an Clappers", Butcher concentrates four tenor lines into a roaring sheet of noise, you can almost feel a juggernaut driving through the room. It is not the only moment that the music takes on mimetic qualities. On "The Brittle Chance", Butcher forces his lines through a string of timbral transformations, ultimately arriving at bird song. But imitation is hardly an overarching theme here. Rather, an inseparable connection between thematic material and technical aspects is manifesting itself on the album, as well as their gradual conflation with each other. "Gigs were where all of these ideas started off", according to Butcher, while the studio situation allowed him to whistle them down to their essence. If 13 Friendly Numbers is today still considered a classic of not just his own discography, but as "a landmark record for improvised saxophone" in general (John Eyles, BBC Review), then this is because it is both a collection of individual, precisely realised ideas as well as a coherent album which can be enjoyed from beginning to end.

13 Friendly Numbers had been a daring project not just for Lowe, but  for Butcher as well. Although playing a handful of unaccompanied gigs each year had become almost customary for him since the mid-80s, he hadn't actually been preparing for a solo CD. Rather, the idea had formed slowly and gradually. While working with Chris Burn, he had toyed with the idea of writing pieces for multiple saxophones, which eventually led to the concept of multitracking himself in the studio. First sketches for these pieces had been committed to his brother's 4-track cassette machine at home and deemed promising. At the same time, the desire of working on something more personal had become stronger. And yet, the album was not the result of a single outburst of energy. Instead, Butcher would visit Gateway Studios a full five times in 1991 to record his pure solo tracks and Pathway Studios four times for the multitracks, recording one or two hours in between regular sessions to cut down on costs and recording direct to 4-track tape, re-using it if the results were unsatisfactory. Lowe tried his best to follow Butcher's explorations, as he was moving around the room, using the pads of the sax to create percussive sounds, working with multiphonics or differences tones or placing the bell of the instrument against his inner thigh to mute it. Using a single 'Coles Ribbon mic' for the main sound, and two U87s to capture the harmonics and ambient sound, Lowe had to put down the studio carpet to try and control the length of the reverb tail, as it was a little too long for what Butcher wanted. Dynamics were essential for the recordings to capture the full spectrum of timbres and techniques on display and Lowe ultimately decided to record the mics 'flat' and without equalising or compression, treating this, effectively, like a session of classical music and waiting for Butcher to create the dramaturgy, peaks and troughs of the music. The result was direct, powerful and on many occasions unsettling in a strangely inspiring way: "Some of these multiphonics and difference sounds can drive the inner ear mad … When John first did that, It felt like I had an insect crawling about in my ear." He laughs: "My ear drums would beat in opposite directions, ha! He's the only sax player that I ever heard do that!"

The outside world's reaction was equally caught between utter amazement and shocked bewilderment. In a now infamous review, an American reviewer described the music as "Butcher, plays for a while, then makes a mistake. Sometimes he repeats it, and then plays some more until he makes another mistake". For Andy Moor, meanwhile, 13 Friendly Numbers seemed like music from another planet. Hessels had bought the CD and to Moor, it was the very first time a work of improvised music was accessible and listenable away from the live experience: "John's 13 Friendly numbers, I could listen to it at home. Especially while working, cooking or painting. Each track was an amazing self contained and crafted song with a clear story and a concise and clear build up in tension and form … Till then I had only released records with a band, so the idea of putting something like that out was remarkable for me." Time seems to have solidified that impression and softened the revolutionary impact of the work. When Moor re-released the album on his own Unsounds imprint in 2004, the reviews seemed a lot more welcoming and open, suddenly recognising dashes of Eric Dolphy in its melodic lines where formerly critics had only perceived noise; clearly shaped arrangements where there seemed to have been nothing but formless experimentation. The album was even awarded an entry in Penguin's Guide to Jazz. And although sales of the original CD were slow, Butcher did notice that it seemed to have found its listeners in the right places. Suddenly, invitations for performances in mainland Europe were increasing considerably.

An end to comparisons
13 Friendly Numbers also contributed a lot to ending the comparisons of Butcher to Evan Parker. Admittedly, the link had been an easy one to draw for journalists. After all, Parker, too, had made his name as a fearless experimenter and dauntless sonic explorer. He had taken the saxophone to previously unimaginable places and turned into a pivotal point for the entire English improvisation scene. By the time of Butcher's first LP, Parker already had a lenghty discography to his credit. And when Butcher released his debut as a solo artist, Parker's Saxophone Solos and Monoceros had long been hailed as groundbreaking. Butcher did acknowledge the impact of Parker in a cover story interview for Jazz Review in 2004, claiming that "it is an inescapable influence, partly through the consistency of his approach, and the dedication, regardless of the content of the music. It permeates the scene. I'd been fiddling around trying to get the saxophone to do something else before I was really aware of Evan, and the first time I heard him it was very clear that he had really worked to take certain things to a very inspiring level of control." It wasn't until 1986, meanwhile, that he first got to play with Parker in a band put together by John Russell, followed by a short stint under the name as "Soprano Compass" for two performances in Rome – where they played solos, duos and quartets and stayed in the city for five days. And yet, the parallels were superficial at best.

With 13 Friendly Numbers, this became obvious, as a new generation of listeners discovered Butcher without the overburdening presence of Parker and were receptive to his own contributions and inventions. As Andy Moor recalls: "For me Butcher and Parker have more differences than similarities and it's the differences that I am more interested in. Technically they are both amazing players, but they are searching for very different things and in very different ways … John is incredibly elastic and flexible in his approach. He takes very sudden strange corners, changes direction, but  can also stay on one sound for a very long  time, slowly developing it. I can't pinpoint where his music comes from, it's certainly not jazz. It feels like it has some kind of connection with his past immersion in sub atomic physics, but I wouldn't be able to say how or in what way exactly. He's doing many things at once - research into some very minute microscopic sounds that he can create with his instrument, but also massive full bodied drones, strange melodies. He's searching like hell, but always making beautiful music while doing it - a rare thing indeed. When you see John play, you immediately sense this guy will probably do this for the rest of his life … his commitment is total. If you watch his face while he is playing, it's astounding, his level of concentration is written on every muscle in every expression. I think he goes out of his way out there when he plays, but he keeps his feet firmly on the ground. His sound fills the room … he senses the space and the resonance in the space very quickly and you can hear him and follow him working on this." After Butcher's first solo statement, more and more were becoming aware of this total commitment – and with it, the comparisons slowly started to fade away.

Global perspectives: London and Cologne Saxophone Solos & Fixations
As the 90s moved towards the new millennium, it was no longer just Europe which was opening up to him. Audiences in the USA, too, were discovering their taste for Butcher's music. Contrary to what one might have expected, interest didn't come from New York, Chicago or any of the major musical centres of the country. In fact here, expectations of a saxophonist were still very much dictated by jazz, whereas Butcher, as Moor had astutely perceived, was trying his utmost to distance himself from the shadows of the genre. Instead, it was in the Bay Area, where Butcher would discover a fertile ground and receptive ears for his music, as well as a pool of performers with strikingly similar concepts and aesthetics. Gino Robair was one of them. He had heard Butcher's Cultural Baggage album and been excited by its approach. When Butcher was invited over to San Francisco by Bill Hsu, Hsu also suggested the release of a new album on Robair's Rastascan imprint. This would lead to the publication of London and Cologne Saxophone Solos, the beginning of a life-long friendship and a mutually influential creative partnership. What Robair appreciated in Butcher's take on the saxophone was that it precisely reflected his own philosophy with regards to the drums: A tendency to overcome traditional perspectives and the conventional idea of a drummer as a propellant and a mere rhythmical backing for a melodic solo instrument. It was a seemingly bizarre realisation about such an accomplished musician - "He didn’t play like a saxophonist!" - which was so particularly appealing to him. At the same time, as Fixations would prove, Butcher had undergone an incisive transition in his perspective on music since his first solo statement.

Butcher has claimed that 13 Friendly Numbers and Invisible Ear were the only two solo albums he really ever explicitly set out to make, the others being "by-products of performance situations". And yet, in many respects, Fixations seems like a perfect continuation of its predecessors. Just like 13 Friendly Numbers, it is a highly varied and multi-faceted album serving as a condensed compendium of various aspects of Butcher's oeuvre: His search for new sounds; his work with space; his quest for a delicate balance between beauty and exploration. Only this time, rather than carefully mapping out these explorations in the studio beforehand, the record captures him in a wide range of live settings, ranging from gigs at a book store to the large space of a former Crocker Bank, from a four-track improvised suite at a festival to a performance in front of an audience of artists and philosophers ("There was certainly more discussion and questioning afterwards."). These different settings award each track its own distinct color and you can clearly hear Butcher working with and sometimes against the inherent characteristics of the room or performance situation. In all cases, meanwhile, his aversion against the term "extended technique" is becoming increasingly easy to understand. On some occasions, a lyrical motive is organically transformed by the gradual infiltration of overblown notes. On others, it is precisely the "extensions" which lend a "musical" feel and poignant hooks to a piece. The realm of what is generally referred to as "melody" and that of timbral-, rhythmical- or harmonic techniques are all part of the same continuum here, of a single, unified, personal space. Or, as Butcher explained in a 2008 interview with The Wire: "You wouldn't describe aboriginal music or Jimi Hendrix as using extended techniques. It's the music – the way people play instruments is an integral part of achieving their musical aims."

Many commentators have described the road from 13 Friendly Numbers to Fixations as "a progress from a purely scientific approach to a more emotional stance" (Paulo Scaruffi). To deduct from this that the latter is anything less searching and questioning than its predecessor would be a fallacy, however. Contrarily, there are perhaps more previously unvisited spaces, progressive approaches and surprising cross-references than ever before. On opener "Woodland Drift", the melody takes on the silhouette of a Webern theme ("The clarity, economy and integration of the instruments - moving between instruments in a single phrase - was part of Webern's appeal."). Two-part "The Train and the Gate", sees him performing at the Gare Bruxelles-Chapelle, a renovated, disused railway station. And on closer "Clarence", his high-frequency flageolets over a rhythmical airwave have a ghostly, almost disembodied quality to them. In many ways, the different recording situations reflected on Fixations are a precursor to his interest in space, as documented on later releases like The Geometry of Sentiment and Resonant Spaces. It would be overstating things to say that he had fallen out of love with the concepts of Cage and the composer's notion of just allowing sounds to be themselves. And yet, as Butcher realised, they could no longer be separated and had to be put to work. Fixations emanated from a phase of intense live performances and it was through these experiences that Butcher understood that he had left an all important factor out of the equation: "I realised that what made improvisation come alive for me was hearing the human being on the other end of the instrument, which is largely incompatible with Cage's later professed desire to remove his own personality from his music." Undeniably, the work had opened up a new chapter and set in motion a process of continuous transformation and change.

By Tobias Fischer
Image by Andy Newcombe.

This article continues in part 2.

Homepage: John Butcher
Homepage: Andy Moor / The Ex
Homepage: Gino Robair
Homepage: Steve Lowe
Homepage: Unsounds Records
Homepage: Emanem Records