Interview with John Butcher
As a youth, John Butcher was drawn to certain musical qualities; the earthy otherness of country blues, the complexity and color of Stockhausen and the Mothers of Invention. Originally a pianist, Butcher picked up the saxophone in order to be able to make music with other people. He began playing improvised music in England during the 70s, at a point when an earlier generation of practicioners had developed a fragile infrastructure and a set of aesthetic priorities and proscriptions. However much of Butcher’s early development took place in the company of players his own age rather than on the bandstand with his elders. He first recorded with pianist Chris Burn in the mid-80s and went on to make a mark in an acoustic trio with Phil Durrant and John Russell. But before the decade was out the trio had begun forging connections with Europeans such as Paul Lovens and Radu Malfatti. Their album News From The Shed captures a moment just before the improvisational community split along the multiple fault lines of expressivity, dynamic extremes, and density, and on it you can hear some of those differences being negotiated. In the 90s Butcher began performing solo, which has become a key element of his practice. He also introduced electronics and some initial experiments with composed material into his practice, most notably in a duo with Phil Durrant and the Viennese group Polwechsel, and began touring away from Europe. In the past decade Butcher has pursued performances that explore the sonic qualities of non-standard settings and introduced a group bearing his own name founded upon a supportive, non-binding exchange between the composition and improvisation. But even as he moves ahead his ideas of how to work with groups and how to present his music, Butcher is still changing as a player. One of his latest releases, Apophonia, is a brief CD on American percussionist Gino Robair’s label. On two tracks Butcher applies motors to his saxophone, obtaining metallic vibrations that any synthesist would envy. Late in 2010 Butcher sat down with Nate Wooley, another man unwilling to accept the constraints that conventional practice might impose upon his instrument. This is what he had to say.
So, I'd like to start with having you talk a little bit about your biography and how you came to music. It's widely available on the internet through some other interviews but I think it would be of interest to talk about how you came to music, how you came to the saxophone specifically, and what events led up to the formation of the language of the music you're making now.
I came from a family where the early records in our household were Gilbert and Sullivan and Nat King Cole, although my father had been an amateur singer in shows and things in his earlier days.
I had a standard English upbringing of the Sixties. Dabbling a little in guitar. Getting excited about the Beatles. Having classical piano lessons at school. And getting enthused by, what at that time, was the readily available avant-garde. People like Stockhausen would be discussed in the mainstream media. They'd appear on the occasional arts program on television. So, somehow, a lot of music was mixed up in a period when the actual access to the different styles of musics was so much more restricted than it is now.
A little bit before that, the other exotica that came into my life was blues. I was a schoolboy at the tail end of the British blues boom, and because of that, there was an interesting radio program which played pre-war country blues, which, when you're talking about being a 13 year old in 1967, that's an aural opening to an exotic world as much as “Stockhausen's Greatest Hits”.
What kind of music was that? Can you give me some examples?
That would be things like Robert Johnson, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Booker White....that area of country blues.
But anyway, in the early times, what was particularly useful was my brother was three years younger than me, but in some ways he was more musically adventurous and kept kicking me in certain directions. We used to play together a lot, and he persuaded me, when I was about 18, to go on a jazz summer school in South London. This was run by a mixture of the more mainstream British players like Stan Tracey and people like John Stevens, Paul Rutherford, Mike Osborne; the kind of current generation, then, of new jazz musicians. I was still playing piano then. That's what got me interested in jazz. I probably got into it before I had heard more than a few notes of American jazz. What was happening in London at the time was enthusing me.
So, my brother was a bass player, and around 1970 we used to play together at home; partly playing tunes and working with riffs and stuff like this, but also working abstractly with sound. I recognize now that we were freely improvising, but we didn't think of it like that then. We were thinking of it as trying to make music that sounded like the weirder bits of the Mothers of Invention albums or bits that sound like Stockhausen...what we knew in our limited listening experience. And I used to work with tape machines, recording things and, you know, mucking about with the playback. I'd imagine this is a thing that most musicians experience; the fact that they freely improvise in the early days on their instruments without calling it that.
I'd be interested to know from you, as a younger musician, because the activity had had a name for a long time by the time you came to playing the trumpet, did you enter into it thinking “okay, I'm free improvising”, or was it something you just did without a name?
I think there was a tradition of “free jazz”, which had a specific connotation, and it grew out of that. It was another one of these situations where the people I was playing with and myself were playing a certain why and then someone [would tell us] “You should listen to John Butcher, or you should listen to Evan Parker, [Paul] Rutherford, or [John] Stevens”. Then it was kind of like “Oh, here are these people that are much further down the road” of the method of the way we were trying to do something outside of whatever the name was, and that's more how I came to it then hearing the records and going “I want to do that”. It was much more the other way around of saying “these people have already got a lot of this figured out”, and obviously I'm heading in that direction, so I should pay attention.
What was the impetus to begin playing saxophone?
When I went to university to study physics, it was problematic to play the piano, and it seemed like a natural move with my emerging interest in jazz to go into the saxophone, which I also found valuable because the piano is such a solitary instrument and I was interested in playing with other people.
Just because people have to come to you to play with you...
Yeah, but it also has a possibility of a much more solitary repertoire.
Although, it's interesting now that the way you play saxophone also has elements of the piano as far as the way you are able to play harmonically, and the fact that you play so many solo concerts.
Yeah, the desire to do that came later. There are two sides to that. Working harmonically grew out of trying to find solutions to different musical problems with the people I was improvising with, and playing solo is another thing.
So, sorry for the aside, let's continue where we left off, which I think would put you at university?
Yes, when I was at university, studying physics, I eventually joined a band, which was working in the sort of Soft Machine/Henry Cow mode of writing comparatively complex parts plus improvising, and I used to write music for that. Looking back on it, I got quite obsessive; meticulously notating everything and I wonder sometimes if the fact that I find that a very unhealthy thing to do, and did then as well, was an early indication of the temperament to go towards free improvisation, and certainly the temperament towards not telling people what to do.
During those university days I was also playing different kinds of jazz... standards, modal jazz, our own compositions, and learned a great deal from doing that. Principally, I learned how to play with other people. But, all the time I knew it was a student activity in the sense that I was doing it to learn about things. I was wearing somebody else's clothes, it wasn't me. I was just adopting stylistic traits of other people to discover what I could about that music through playing it. I got quite immersed in that.
By that time, when I was doing gigs and playing with some professional musicians, it actually became quite a struggle to change my mindset back into the freer mode of improvising that I had done as a youngster, having now gotten immersed in playing “proper” music. When I think back to those days, a lot of these breaks felt like real physical struggles to try and find something that felt more like what I wanted to do. Something that I could contribute, and that made sense in terms of the people that chance had thrown up that were available for me to play with. I was quite lucky in that respect, because, for instance, at university I met Chris Burn... a piano player, who I've continued to work with in the following thirty years. Very often I think half of what makes it possible to produce something, or not, is just the luck of who you find yourself in the company of in the early days. Chris and I used to rehearse at least once a week, trying to find a way of improvising which took us away from the jazz language which we had been working in.
There was a brief period where we attempted to play by jettisoning everything we knew about the instruments. That meant dealing with pitch in a very abstract way and dealing with rhythm in a very abstract way. This led him naturally to inside piano, and a lot of techniques which have come to form part of my own vocabulary came through attempting to work with the parameter of color, and to build a line through changes of color rather than through parameters of obvious pitch and rhythm.
So you're saying that your abstraction of pitch and rhythm at the time was more involved with setting those parameters to the side? In other words, thinking of the same way of structuring things but using a different set of language to produce the same results?
No, I think what I was hoping was that by using a different parameter with which to improvise, different structures and forms would come naturally.
That the whole thing would become different.
Yes, so attempting to find new sonic characteristics wasn't just for the sake of sound, it was for the sake of creating different relationships between the musicians and different forms within the music.
It's clear. If you're using the saxophone to play an envelope of sound, which you’re changing the partials in, to begin with you're going to have a different sense of momentum because you simultaneously have a static element and, on top of that, an evolving element with the color fluctuating, which is very different from thinking of pitch sequences.
Even more so than a Coltrane “sheet of sound” which is made up of a set of pitches, even though they're blurred. It's taking that sort of concept to its furthest realization as far as how the energy moves.
So what happened after you graduated from university?
When I finished I, by and large, went into music, doing teaching jobs part-time during the week to bring what money I could in. We're talking the early 80s here and I met the violinist Phil Durrant and the guitarist John Russell, both about my age. John Russell had actually been involved in the free improvising scene for some time then, and was probably the most experienced of us. We used to have weekly rehearsals, and this created another set of challenges for me. If the challenge I had been trying to work through with Chris Burn was dealing with energy in terms of manipulation of color, the challenge with Phil Durrant and John Russell was that, in a sense, we effectively had three melody instruments playing together. Three lines... everything becomes much more complex.
So, my work with them utilized some of the technical discoveries I had made playing with Burn but was much more functional about how to really use them to make music in that trio setting where you are hearing three voices. The saxophone can be incredibly overbearing in that company. So, I attempted to work at dealing with material which was transparent enough to allow the qualities of the acoustic guitar and the violin to come through.
Probably at that time, I also started using the ideas of violin and string playing, in particular how the pressure of the bow can really change the color of the sound, and I tried to work in similar ways with the saxophone. But, I also started thinking more about the pitch content of the color sounds I'd been using, thinking of them more like double and triple stopping on a violin. Being young and full of vim, I did a lot of work notating the pitch content of things I'd discovered for myself on the saxophone. That was valuable because what it led me to be able to do was to reconnect with the more conventional aspects of saxophone playing by having enough knowledge of these sound areas to incorporate them into the more linear, note producing aspects of the saxophone.
Can you give an example of what the process was, as far as taking the pitches out and transferring them into a more linear way of thinking?
Well, I might have a multiphonic which has two principle notes, a C and a Db a minor 9th above it. It will usually generate difference tones and complex colors within its spectrum, but those are the principle notes. Another multiphonic may also have a Db at the top but a G at the bottom. I would put both of those multiphonics into a category of shared upper pitches [the Db], so I then have a mental map on the instrument for that. Then I could create exercises that juxtapose these multiphonics with straight Dbs, Cs and Gs and work with the implications of the pitch movements. It was a way to slowly build up connections in the instrument which I could use.
So it's almost like creating your own harmonic system based on what would, in traditional tonal harmony, be a series of pivot chords or enharmonic modulations with shared notes. Essentially you're doing the same thing but it's based on the physical aspects of the horn as opposed to a historical set of rules.
Yes. Another side of this, as every musician knows, is that the more experience you have at listening to what you might once have classed as a kind of noise, the more you hear the pitch content in it. So, those become parameters you can use in how you shape what you may have once perceived more as just noise. It's like all of us, how we evolve in music. Things confuse us when we first encounter them, and then, I think literally, the brain and the neural networks do reset themselves with the experiences and enable you to go further into these qualities of sound, recognizing more and more.
This relates to a particular irritation of mine; people who put out books of just endless fingering charts of possibilities. There's a number of points to this: one is a technical one, that often it's only through going through certain sound aggregates that you can find the next ones. You can't just leap around, because you have to get your ear into them and you have to get the physiology of what's involved in playing them there. The whole way it came about for me was almost completely in response to playing with people. I would be in a group, hear something, and think, “oh, I'd really like to be able to make a sound that did this”. I'd half hear it in my head, probably not be able to do it in that circumstance, but there was a musical necessity for me to want to make that sound. So, if I remembered when I got home, I'd do some work to see how I could find it, and it slowly grew like that until I eventually systematized a certain amount of that information. It became part of my language through the process of playing.
It's an interesting idea to talk about and I don't know if it leads to this next topic or not, but I've been thinking a lot about language in general and in my own playing. How to put things together and how things come about organically, and one of the things I've noticed about your work is that there is this very personal language that you're using to improvise, and you're using it in a lot of different musical situations, from duo with Paal Nilssen-Love to working with AMM, and not only does it always sound like you, it never sounds like you are having to bend too much to make things happen. In my own mind, viewing the music around me, there seems to be an obsession with style and genre, and that's almost become the way people build their languages. You seem to have found a way to transcend the genre boundaries and yet it seems to work in all of these stylistically different situations. Is that something you've put work into specifically, or is it a product of your method of learning?
Well, I think you expressed, very articulately, that difference in approach, and when I was working with color and some of the less common parameters of music in my early music, I was very aware of the danger, as I saw it then, of just presenting sound for it's own sake. Sometimes I would make a discovery and think “this is a very interesting area... I can get this quality and this quality”, but if I introduced this into the music it was going to stand out too much. So, I think the point I'm trying to make is that, what came first for me back then was how to use these things to create musical sense, and perhaps my thinking about musical sense was quite conventional then. The situation of a lot of the younger musicians now is that their sound world defines the music that they make, and it's often been discovered and formulated and developed in order to play a very particular kind of music.
Rather than thinking about sound worlds, what was important to me in the early days was to find something flexible enough to function as an improvisor. This often meant playing with people who had arrived at their own very distinctive and idiosyncratic languages, and if the two are going to work together, you've got to make sure that your flexibility is built into the material you're using.
I've always had this idea of being an “improvisor with a capital I”. I think Paul Lytton calls it process based improvisation versus results based improvisation. How one chooses or is able to develop in this way has been interesting to me in that I feel like I've found a dead end in the genre hopping model. I feel now as if I've run up against the wall of playing what's appropriate in a very official way, responding to what other people play by couching materials in a certain set of historical parameters. What I hear from the people I like the most is that there is no need to do that, that things just tend to work. Like you are saying, the language is built to be flexible enough that you don't have to deal with genre specificity to make something musical happen.
And, we've got to remember that I still think of this as a performance activity, and it's something I'm often involved in many nights of the week. To maintain your own interest, I think you have to be working with material that has this mutability. Okay, at its worst there are musicians around who effectively create an aural copyright on a few stylistic traits and then make music with it. The actual material they're using can be very restrictive, and it might produce quite stunning music. But, I wonder how they can go out night after night, happily exploring that restricted language. It's not like a CD, which is a project where you have the artifact that involves that area of aesthetic of whatever you've developed, but to actually be a performing improvisor going out and doing it, how do you maintain the personal interest?
How much of that do you think is tied up in the saleability of things, the ability to reproduce what was on the record. I feel like people have different philosophies on that, but I wonder how much of the idea of “copyrighting stylistic traits” that you just mentioned comes out of a certain marketing of knowing what you're going to get as an audience member.
The audience do make some demands upon you. This has a positive and negative effect on one as an improvisor I think. The negative effect is that if you pay too much attention to the audience, you soon recognize, by and large, the elements in your playing that they clearly respond positively to, and you have to fight a little bit against just always delivering what you know is going to be successfully received. In a way, it's sort of built into improvisation that actually, most of the time, if you are improvising and forming your music in terms of what you're hearing from the other players you won't go that way, because there just isn't the opportunity.
Whilst we're talking about the audience, another reason you can't really pay too much attention is that... okay, I've been making records for twenty five years or so and playing for longer, and the music covers quite a range. So, of the people who like what I do, there are some that like this characteristic and some who like that characteristic. For example, I played in the group Polwechsel for 10 years and it is a comparatively austere, conceptual group working with low volumes and with very little conventional expressivity in it. And, I can remember, at an early Polwechsel concert, somebody who was more familiar with another area of my music coming up and saying “I usually like what you do, but that was absolute shit.”
It feels almost like what you're talking about, as it concerns audience expectations and how that can affect your playing, would be more difficult when you're playing solo, because you don't have the other performers giving you materials and possibilities in which to move. In a discipline, meaning solo playing, where a lot of people do highlight their specific sound world or language, how do you keep ideas fresh and away from this idea of fulfilling specific expectations at the cost of the improvisation?
Playing solo has to be about playing a mixture of what you do know and what you don't know. Too much of playing what you discover in the moment can be interesting for you yourself, but it can also be too much like just experimenting in front of an audience. Just because it's new, to me as a player, doesn't make it intrinsically interesting or valuable at that point. However, playing too much of what you do know just leads to playing routines and following trails you've been down too many times.
One of the things in my playing that intrinsically helps me is that I work with a lot of techniques which are just on the edge of stability. A slight miscalculation in terms of embouchure or fingering or breathing or whatever and it doesn't quite do what I'm expecting it to do. So, there's always an element of balancing with material that isn't quite happening as you want it. That leads you down some interesting creative paths, which is why it's almost impossible for me to improvise in the studio in front of just a microphone. Whether you stop or not, you always know that you can stop, but if you are in front of an audience you have to make sense of that evening's activity.
Part of keeping it fresh is trying to find new connections all the time within what I work with, and that's often differentiated gig by gig because you're playing in very different acoustics. So, physically, things that might have worked very well the night before aren't going to work well this night, and I think every improvisor, whether it's in a group or solo, has had this experience on tour. They do a gig and something great happens. The next night it's getting towards an area like that and they're trying to do it again and it just doesn't work, because, almost subconsciously, they were responding to the resonances of the room. So, solo, that is like your main partner, and in recent times I've exaggerated that trait by working in spaces that have very extreme or unusual acoustics where you have to effectively make a piece specifically for the space. Some people have compared this to sound art. I don't really think of it like that, because for me it's still a performance activity. It's just that I acclimatize myself to the space quite quickly and make the piece in real time, in the improvisation, and that's led to some very fascinating situations.
It started in Japan, where I was invited to play inside this mountain which had been hollowed out for stone building material. It was a kind of grey green lava rock which Frank Lloyd Wright used in a lot of his buildings. The interior of the place was like three cathedrals in size, and that enabled possibilities which I hadn't even thought about before.
And is that the same area where Cavern with Nightlife was recorded?
That's right, yes.
What do you get out of the extreme acoustic space mentally and technically on the horn?
You mentioned earlier about playing multiple sounds on the saxophone, and that has always been a major ingredient of mine because of the frustration of the saxophone being either “on” or “off” all the time. I developed my own way of working with multiple sounds to make that less of an issue. So, the most obvious way of dealing with resonant spaces is that you have moments of overlap of sound that you can work with, and that completely changes the dynamic of the music because you get the interference between the sounds.
I mean, that's the simplest way it works, but all of these different unusual acoustics have very different resonances, different parts of the instrument will respond to the room, other parts won't.
Then, there's the psychological impact of playing in unusual spaces. I did a tour of Scotland and the islands just to the north of Scotland, the Orkneys, which involved playing in a sea cave, in an underground metal reservoir, inside this giant World War II oil refueling tank... all very different acoustics and all giving a different atmosphere and psychological feeling to the event which effects the music.
When you go into a new space, for example the work in the Orkneys, how do you acclimatize to the acoustics of the space? Did you work through different registers of the horn and take stock of areas that worked or didn't work in the specific spaces?
Yes, definitely. Really, it's like an exaggeration of what improvisors do anyway, but taken, sometimes, to the nth degree.
There was one space that was a mausoleum in Scotland with a fifteen second delay. So, for instance, you can do very simple things and make them very effective, and if you start building in complexity you have to be very careful about what masking of sounds are occurring as they overlap. It makes you very aware of the different decay rates of different frequencies within the room.
One of the things that tends to happen with improvisors, especially ones like yourself who find themselves on the road a lot, are a series of concerts where you are playing with people you've never met before. Do you find that to be a similar psychological process of acclimatizing to a new musician as there is to new spaces?
In terms of playing with other people, there's probably fifty or so musicians whom I specifically choose to play with periodically because I really appreciate their music. This is world wide. Some of those will be always in a particular grouping. For example, with percussionist Gerry Hemingway, we play a duo, we've been doing it for ten years and we probably play three times a year. I greatly like these situations where you have a musical relationship with somebody, but you don't play with them too often, so when you do, you go back to that shared history and there is enough in both of your consciousnesses to influence what you do, but you're going to do something different from the last time you played together. That's my kind of ideal improvising situation. Then there are new players appearing who ask me to play with them and by and large I'm prepared to do that. Sometimes I know nothing about them or their music but generally speaking I try to find out something about it before the occurrence. Really, that's just to psychologically prepare myself. My aesthetic is one of complete faith in what happens when you make decisions in the moment. But, this is backed up by a sort of compulsive need to prepare, so I practice a lot, I think about who I'm going to be playing with next. All without ever preparing what I'm going to play. It probably means that I could have a happier life if I could cut off more of that activity, but I find it's necessary to have brought all of these things to my fingertips... my mental fingertips, so that when I'm doing that forty minutes which will never be repeated, I can deal with it.
Clearly, there are situations where you do find yourself on stage with someone you've never played with and that can be quite extraordinary. The memorable one for me was in Derek Bailey's Company. Company was an event in which he would invite maybe twelve musicians and then he'd put them into predetermined groupings and the process would go on for about a week of concerts in one place so that both the musicians and the audience could experience the changing relationships, how it affected the music, what music got better, what music got worse. But anyway, I found myself on stage with Reggie Workman, the American bass player and Jin Hi Kim, a Korean Komungo player. Reggie Workman, I know that he's a jazz musician. Obviously, you look at the Komungo and you have an idea of what it's going to do. But, in a way, that event demonstrated to me the strength of improvisation, because three people with different backgrounds and very different musical histories came together and played, if you like, truly non-idiomatic improvisation drawn from their own personal musicalities and cultures. That is, if you like, the other extreme of what we discussed earlier, where groups of improvisors work together in an extremely consensual way where they've decided that this is the music they want to make and these are the methods they're going to use to make it, when it's effectively a form of composition within which improvisation generates the piece within narrow parameters.
And that would be more of the way that a group like Polwechsel works.
Yes, without a doubt, and we live in an improvisational world where there are extremes, and there are aesthetic mutual exclusions between areas, and I guess it's a matter of personal choice where you draw your own lines.
That takes me back to something you said earlier when you were talking about being in one situation and playing that genre and in another situation and playing that genre, etc. Although I'm over ten years after the pioneers of improvisation, when I was getting seriously involved there was still an element, for me anyway, of it being an ideological choice. By choosing it you were implicitly rejecting other ways of making music. So, for the first period of my involvement in free improvisation it would have been inconceivable for me to play in a group playing chord changes, for instance. Also, I wouldn't touch any composed music. It felt very strong then that we were making a decision whose implications were that it was in oppositions to these other musics, both aesthetically and in terms of how improvisation challenged so many of the hierarchies within the process of music creation.
Including the sort of traditional and historical musical hierarchy you get in American jazz where you come down aesthetically through a lineage? That seems like that concept is gone in free improvisation and especially the British school of free improvisation. Did it feel like there was some kind of lineage built up in that school for you coming ten years later?
No, I mean I was involved in the activity of improvisation with my colleague Chris Burn before we really knew much about people in the British scene like Derek Bailey, John Stevens, Paul Rutherford, etc. As I became familiar with their music their effect on me was to inspire me to try and find my own voice. So, in that sense, that is a lineage, but what definitely was not on the table was attempting to copy any of them. Equally, I didn't want to play with any of them for many years, because I had my own generation of players and it felt like there was a way in which we could find something of our own and, for me, playing with some of the earlier pioneers would have diluted that youthful ambition. Of course it's clear that I have been influenced by them. It would be very vain to assume that one is not, but at the time, when you are younger, you're trying to fight against that.
So, following that train of thought, what was it like when you did start playing with John Stevens? In my mind there is a definite difference between that version of Spontaneous Music Ensemble and the version, say, that was duo with Evan Parker or Trevor Watts. It's obviously a very different aesthetic. So, first of all, how did you decide that this was something you were willing and ready to do, based on what you just said. Secondly, how was your specific language accepted by him in that situation, because he also seems to play very differently in that specific grouping.
During the 80s, I didn't want to play much with drummers because, being a saxophonist, it gave me too much of a connection with with jazz derived playing. The exception was Paul Lovens. We had a group called News from the Shed, which had Radu Malfatti in it as well. At the time it was my favorite group, and when I look back on it I'm quite fascinated by it because there was a tension within it. Radu later went on to effectively completely disown free improvisation and got very involved in, first of all, composition in a style more like traditional 50s and 60s avant-garde, and then eventually very minimalist composition. When we were doing News from the Shed in 1987 these things were beginning to surface. So, there was a tension of different methods within the group. Paul Lovens is a master from the first generation with his approach to improvising. Radu was approaching it with some antagonism towards that earlier thing. Myself and Russell and Durrant, were kind of the middle stage between where Lovens was from and where Malfatti was going. So, I thought it was very interesting, because there was no clear music that we were trying to make. I just brought that up because Lovens, in that context, played very coloristic percussion, and that got me interested in the drums again.
Actually, John Stevens asked me to play with him about 1990 and I, by and large, had only heard the music of his that was the more free-steaming jazz and declined the offer. Then, a couple of years later, he came to a gig and he had probably forgotten that he had invited me along to something before then, but he invited me again. So, I went to hear him play, and it was a duo with Derek Bailey. He was playing his small kit that he played with the SME. It was a side of his playing that I didn't know much about. One of the reasons I tell that story is that you can be deeply immersed in a scene and still be very ignorant at the same time. And I was. Somehow, I had missed the SME on my radar. And, I was just knocked out by this music. So, then I realized how idiotic I'd been and said “yes, sir, I would love to play.” (laughs)
It was a good time for me, because I think I was secure enough, and had enough experience in my own playing to bring myself to that group without feeling any sort of historical intimidation.
It's funny, because I came to the SME through the 90s version and some of the more abstract versions and then was surprised when I heard the John Stevens/SME/Bobby Bradford reissue at how free jazz oriented it was. I had the exact opposite trajectory through the history of the group. It's interesting really, how rare it is to find groups that, when you look at their recorded output, the language or parameters they use basically stay the same throughout.
AMM are the same if you start looking at their recorded output. There are some real surprises in there.
I mean, the thing for me was I heard so many players just through gig situations that I didn't really listen to the LPs that were coming out. Because of that I found quite a few surprises when I later did. I'd heard AMM live a few times, but had never heard one of their records. They’re quite a revelation. A fascinating one from this distance, digging back to 1966.
They're two very interesting groups to compare around that time, 1965 and 1966, meaning SME and AMM.
When I talked to Evan Parker he said the difference was that SME during that period was dealing with “atomistic” kinds of playing with quick, small interchanges of information, and AMM was more involved with “laminal” playing, positing longer duration sounds against each other, maybe a bit more architectural in thinking than contrapuntal. As someone that has now dealt with both groups, although I'm sure they both had philosophically changed during the periods you've been in them, did you get a feeling that there were inherently different aesthetics and philosophies that you had to follow when dealing with the music?
Not to the degree that you've suggested. Certainly when Evan and John Stevens worked together they did work in a very atomistic way, but you could find counterexamples of that, particularly if he worked with someone like Maggie Nicols which could involve long tones stretched out with very little propulsion, just coloristic elements there... not at all pointillistic or atomistic. So, I think the “atomistic” thing was very much a product of John and Evan. When I was playing with the SME, what I liked in particular was that John could create a beautiful propulsion in his percussion, but full of so much space that Roger Smith, the guitarist, or myself could do something quite subtle to change the direction of the whole group. So, every five seconds there could be these shifts in direction because you didn't need to bash anyone over the head with a big gesture to get a change.
AMM certainly work over longer time frames, and they're not involved, by and large, in dramatic shifts in direction. Things tend to evolve from one sound conglomerate, and then five minutes later you find yourself in another sound conglomerate, without knowing quite how you got there. But they have so many different traits as well. With John Tilbury you have a very strong melodic element. In the early version, from what I know from the records, where they're using contact mics on cello and piano and using transistor radios... it's a noise group.
Another example of how point A to point B is not always linear in the history of someone's music making.
I think it's dangerous to draw too many conclusions from the recorded output of improvised music, certainly up to the mid 80s, because it was quite sparse and it was just little snapshots of what was occurring. You could do this as an exercise. You could give one student a few carefully chosen SME records and another student a few carefully chosen AMM records... then ask them to describe what the groups do. See if they describe the authorized version.
Let's move on to more of your own specific work. I wanted to ask you about the new group that you have that you're writing for. I know your first record is out with that group, called “somethingtobesaid”. How did you think about structuring the composition on that disc? It's not really a linear kind of construction, which is how you might think of composing for a larger group. It seems to be more horizontal. How did you go about writing something for what seems to be a rather disparate group of musicians and somehow make the piece hang together?
I was given a commission by the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival in England to write a piece for the group of my choice of eight musicians. Semi-reluctantly I entered into it and, I must say, the process of doing it changed a lot of my perceptions of what the possibilities of composition are. For a long time, I've thought that we shouldn't distinguish most individual improvisors from composers, because they're equally creating a body of work bound by certain aesthetic considerations that are important to them. And, if you look at them over a period of time it adds up to a substantial individual and identifiable body of work. It's a compositional process. For me, where composition becomes very different is when you are telling other people what to do.
To be more specific about the piece, it's called “somethingtobesaid”, and I thought I'd try and grab the bull by the horns and make it something that was personal to me... address some personal issues, some of them musical, some of them extra-musical. I invited people whose improvising I admire, and who are also sympathetic to being directed. It was a mixture of long term colleagues and some more recent people I've been playing with.
So, I did some explicit structuring. I'd found an old answer machine tape with messages on it. Some of them from friends and family, some of whom have died, so to me that had a personal resonance. I took some fragments of that and took the pitches of what the voices were saying, and used that for the basis of forming the notated pitch structure. That was an abstract way of bringing something personal into it. But, I also actually included snippets of those voices throughout the piece on pre-recorded playback, which don't really mean that much to a listener but they mean something to me. Then I used them to generate the atmosphere of the music, around these voice segments.
I decided to either give precise instructions to what people had to do - this could be notated or verbal instructions - or specify completely free improvisation in certain groupings. What I find dangerous is when people are just asked to improvise between the points B and C in a composition. There's a tendency just to fill the space until the next instruction occurs, and so I wanted them to have a substantial period to give them a chance to take the music somewhere else. When you do that, you make combinations which you think about orchestrally. Your skills as a psychologist come in, thinking, “okay, from what I know of these three people if I ask them to play after this written section, how are they likely to respond?” Nothing new, it's the Duke Ellington thing of writing for people you know.
And, there were formal structuring things I had, like different kinds of playback... one was from multitracked wine glasses playing some of the pitches I derived from the answer tape, coming in and out and we had a computer screen with timeclocks on it and everyone would have to do certain things within certain time frames, which gave the sense of interacting with the pre-recorded tapes, although they're not. It's just done through the timings. There were a lot of different structures, and I was very happy with the way, first of all it worked formally in terms of the structure, but how much music people made in their own improvisations.
To what extent did the performance follow your idea of the piece as you were writing it?
There were a couple of surprises. One was dieb13, who's a turntablist. He was involved in the performance in a trio with Adam Linson on bass and Chris Burn on piano. Chris Burn, by and large, works as an inside piano player. In this section, I asked him to instead play the keyboard, and dieb13… I didn't ask him to do this... but he chose to use only piano based records. They worked with it so well that people listening to the record might wonder how the piano is doing all that, you know, it's so integrated between the two of them. If you didn't know the process you would think that someone was sampling somebody else and feeding it back in. And, although I wanted Chris Burn to play piano keyboard at that point, I had no idea that section would turn out like that.
Then, when we performed it at Huddersfield, which has an audience, mostly, of people who are interested in conventional composition, and who can be critical of improvisation, in the last section, Gino Robair who, generally speaking, is a very abstract percussionist started laying down a sort of semi-groove. It was a section where I was improvising with him, and I came dangerously close to playing jazz. I went with it, which was also something I never expected. Sometimes there's not a particular musical reason, but a psychological reason for doing something because of the situation you find yourself in.
There’s something intriguing about not taking the comfortable option in terms of what you're playing for a given audience. That was why the Resonant Spaces tour of Scotland was so interesting, because I was just playing to local audiences there. On the Island of Hoy, which has a population of four hundred, seventy people came, and they wouldn't have been able to give a name to what I was doing and probably wouldn't have classed it as music.
I read an interview where you said, and I think you said it earlier as well, that the decay of the guitar was something that you missed in the saxophone, and wind instruments don't have that kind of decay. Was the move towards feedback and multi-tracking to the desire to have that kind of decay and stretch the physical limits of the instrument to do what you wanted musically?
Multi-tracking and feedback probably came from slightly different directions, although there is some common ground in the motivation. Initially, the multi-tracking came from wanting to tackle some more compositional ideas, and I approached it in a few different ways. One of them was to work with four instruments interacting in a way that I wanted and working comparatively conventionally, but having myself play the four parts. I did this on “13 Friendly Numbers” by going into the studio, playing ten seconds of a line onto a four track tape machine, going to the next track, playing fifteen seconds of a line in response, whilst listening to the first, going to the next track, playing maybe twelve seconds, listening to them, and then just building the piece up, backwards and forwards. So, it kind of grew a bit like a four handed solo improvisation, but I had knowledge each time I jumped back onto the tracks.
I had to do this in a few takes. These days, when you can do as much editing as you like on computer, I don't think I'd be interested in that process. What interested me there was it cost me money, I was in the studio for three hours, I had to get it done. There's only so much winding tapes back and dropping in that you want to do. It wasn't edited afterwards, so it was comparatively spontaneous for a piece that isn't a free improvisation.
That was one side, and I think it did enable me to play sounds off against each other to get away from this “on or off” nature of the saxophone. But, then the other thing I got interested in was the layering of lengthy sounds with unusual sonorities which build up in very interesting and unpredictable ways. You know, fifteen years later, I discovered people like Phill Niblock who had been really exploring this area of activity with some depth. I was just, in my naivete, experimenting in my own way with it. That leads to generating certain structures, and it was the kind of thing where I couldn't have asked four saxophone players to do it, because there weren't four players who could do those things. And they'd all have different sounds, different mouthpieces, different reeds. You wouldn't get the same type of effect as me playing a multiphonic on one track and then playing it just lipped up a fraction on the next one so little bits of interference and phasing effects occur. This is a process that still fascinates me, and I dabble with it now and then. Actually last night, I was playing at Issue Project Room (in Brooklyn) where Stephan Moore has his fifteen speaker Max/MSP controlled system in the room, and I attempted to do a section of a piece which was a live version of that by sampling what I'm playing live and feeding it back into one of the fifteen speakers and then playing something which is fed back into another speaker and building up layers, which gave a different result, but to me it's still a fascinating process.
The other part of your question was feedback, which I first started using in the 80s, basically sticking the microphone in the bell of the saxophone. The mic goes into an amplifier and you use the different resonating lengths of the saxophone to control feedback. But, at that stage, I was only working with acoustic musicians and it always sounded out of place. I revisited it in the late 90s, when I started working with more electronic musicians. It was a way of getting into the loudspeaker world. It's hit or miss. Some rooms are impossible to make it work. If you're in a room where it does work it's fantastic, because it's slightly unpredictable, and after thirty years of really fighting to control the unpredictability of the acoustic instrument, it's interesting to be in a situation where I'm now 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? It's not until you do it that you hear what you're going to get, and you have to respond to that. So, it adds a different approach to improvising. And, to me, it still sounds like the saxophone. It's all based around a particular harmonic series. It's generated by the sound that comes from closing a keypad, for instance, so you hear that closing of the pads. The whole thing sounds like a saxophone. I'm much more interested in this approach to electrical extension of the instrument rather than bringing in effects units. I've done so much work on timbral possibilities, it seems kind of silly to bring something in that's just going to alter the sound of what I'm doing.
By Nate Wooley
Introduction by Bill Meyer