Other Kinds of Feedback

Words by Phil Durrant
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Phil Durrant. Photography by Dennis Austin

Feedback, considered in many ways, has been central to my project with John Butcher. On stage, our music involves the live electronic treatment of his saxophone playing. From the beginning both John and I wanted to avoid the very linear, follow-my-leader approach to treating instruments electronically, to move away from the limitations of music where the saxophone sound comes first, the electronic treatment second. Instead, we wanted to create a dialogue, where we simultaneously co-author the eventual sound. This has meant that we have appreciated the full possibilities of feedback in our music – output returning to affect the input, where we are both responsible for output and input, and the eventual result is a synthesis of both, an interdependency.

It would seem likely that our sounds should always start at least with John’s playing. However, to allow that would immediately plunge us into a kind of master/slave relationship, with my treatment playing ‘second fiddle’ (so to speak!) to his saxophone. To avoid this, we set up parameters whereby my treatments have internal feedback which can be transformed and manipulated by an incoming sound. We do not, therefore, start with a blank page. In a sense, there is never a true ‘beginning’.

The communication John and I achieve on stage is a result of a long standing relationship, a relationship during the length of which we both have fed back to each other as musicians and friends. I met John in 1983 at the West Square Improvisation Workshop led by Phil Wachsmann. I was already playing with John Russell (guitar) in a trio with Mark Pickworth (saxophone). When Mark decided not to continue with the group, John Butcher took over. John Butcher and John Russell showed a commitment to our project, so that we had rehearsals together every week, where we could constantly feed back to each other. It is fair to say that the Butcher/Durrant/Russell trio became one of the most important and influential groups on the scene. It would be nice to think that we have fed into international improvisatory music.

These were important times, with everyone interested in exploration. It is possible that the political climes were a source of feedback, and our musical work fed back into the culture of the day. To continue the metaphor, we took as input the individualism of the Thatcher era, transforming it into an impulse to engage in group music, so that our trio was never about three individuals expressing themselves, but a mutual project.

There are other kinds of feedback too. The acoustics of the room we play in affects the kind of material we can use. A live room (a church, for example) creates more possibilities for acoustic feedback. Recently, John and I played in an old church transformed into a music venue in the centre of Liege, Belgium. Not only did the acoustics provide positive feedback but the sensitivity of the organisers cannot be underestimated in creating possibilities for our musical dialogue. The stage was positioned in the centre of the space, so that the audience were particularly aware of the mutual authoring of the sounds. They could see when John played and hear when music was being made when John was silent.

Studio recording provides a contrast to live performance. We have discovered a lot of material during live sets. At another gig, also in Belgium, this time Brussels, we found that material presented itself to us because of the acoustics of the room.

Much electronic music or electronic treatment results in a slow musical development, a continuous flattened soundscape. We have always wanted to retain the possibility of sharp changes in mood and material. We consider there to be a flexibility and dynamism to our music. Both John and I can change the mood, so that constant feedback is an important part of the sound we create.