By Colin Green
John Butcher dislikes the term “extended technique” – a phrase that appears regularly in our reviews – as it suggests a hierarchy which for him, doesn’t exist. His exploration of the soprano and tenor saxophones has produced a vocabulary in which there is no meaningful distinction between a standard and extended means of producing sounds: they are all as one. His starting point is not notes but sonorities, and not just those of the saxophone but of the space in which he’s performing. He prefers not to know what that acoustic is where possible, and to discover its resonant frequencies and peculiarities while playing. In his solo work, the result is a cycle of vibrations encompassing ear, breath, instrument and acoustic, heard as a constantly renewed feedback of sound.
Things are rather different when he performs with others. According to Butcher, he’ll play with anyone once and see where it goes, but there are about fifty musicians with whom he feels he can play sympathetically. One of these is Gino Robair, with whom he’s performed often as a duo, in trios, and as part of larger ensembles. Robair takes a similarly broad view of percussion. In this performance – recorded in May 2012 at Left Bank, Leeds (a former Church) – in addition to drums, bells and cymbals, sounds are produced by mechanical vibration: the “energised surfaces” Robair is credited with playing, as well as a Blippoo Box. Butcher plays tenor and soprano (acoustic and amplified).
In a number of respects, listening to this album is a matter of what not to do. It’s tempting to identify who’s playing what and to think in terms of a duo. Is that a cymbal overtone, electronic whine or saxophone harmonic, or possibly all three merging into each other, maybe just feedback; was that staccato burst drums or Butcher’s use of plosives? Tempting, but probably fruitless, as it cuts across what’s actually going on. Whereas the distinctive character, phrasing and timbre of a musician often informs his or her contribution, in this performance musical personality is suppressed in favour of the overall aural landscape. It’s the sounds which count, not who’s playing them or how they’re produced.
There’s no denying that for some, this is all decidedly outré. There are no tunes or motifs, not much that could be described as dialogue, and no musical progression in the conventional sense (perhaps, not in any sense). As is often the case with improvisation, we’re required to adjust how we listen and our expectations as to what’s going on. A more profitable way of appreciating this is not to apply familiar musical categories, but to think in terms of contrasting and sympathetic movements and gestures, or different surfaces – rough, translucent, reflective, shattered. This is not to say that the function of the music is to conjure up a succession of mental images – ultimately, it’s about what we hear (and feel) rather than see, even with our mind’s eye – but it provides some understanding of the aesthetic at play, which requires considerable discipline and focussed listening by both musicians and audience.
There is emotional content: levels of intensity and invention, as well as subtleties – some events take place on an almost microscopic level – but there’s room for drama and contrast: textures can be carefully layered or just atomised, and there’s no shortage of variety. The performance doesn’t reach the heights however, of the quite superb On Air (Weight of Wax, 2013), recorded the day before, at the end of a European tour for which John Edwards (bass) was added to the duo, and who seems to have provided that extra spark.
Butcher has said that in the past he made a conscious decision to avoid some aspects of the jazz tradition, which have nevertheless crept back into his music. That’s not really apparent in this recording – the saxophone is still very much an inventor of sonic possibilities rather than inheritor of a tradition – but the expansion of his playing to include more recognisable jazz phrasing can be heard in in the recent video clip of the duo, below.
Bottle Breaking Heart Leap is a 180g vinyl only release (250 copies) with beautifully quiet surfaces – necessary to appreciate this kind of playing.