John Butcher: faith in the power of improvisation
Michael Rosenstein

Magda Mayas + John Butcher + Tony Buck, © 2022 Cristina Marx/Photomusix

In the late 1980s, John Butcher, John Russell, and Phil Durrant launched his label Acta and in the span of a few years put out Conceits, the debut recording of his trio with John Russell and Phil Durrant; Embers, a quartet along with Marcio Mattos, Jim Denley, and Chris Burn; and News from the Shed with Russell, Durrant, Paul Lovens, and Radu Malfatti. While Butcher and Burn had been playing and experimenting together since the early 1980s, here were documents sent out into the world, signaling that a younger generation of European improvisers were entering into the mix. While well informed about the explorations of the previous two decades, this captured groups who were beginning to chart out their own strategies. Rather than reacting against what had proceeded or caught in the throes of reinventing approaches to their instruments, these younger players were synthesizing what they had been hearing from the malleable scene of free improvisation, an awareness of concepts put forth in contemporary composition, and a disposition toward unfettered discovery.

Butcher described it this way in an interview with Dan Warburton on the ParisTransatlantic site where he considered his background pursuing a PhD in theoretical physics and its influence on his music. “I don’t draw any special connection between that and my music; I think they occupy different areas, although as a scientist, there’s a certain searching-to-make-sense-of-things, a desire to persevere with something until you understand it, plus a desire to look around corners at seemingly abstruse notions to see if they’re relevant ... Possibly that exploration has some connection with a temperament that originally led me into science, though I think I wasn’t really searching abstractly but rather because I was encountering musical problems that I needed to find solutions for ... When I was working with Chris Burn in the late ‘70s, we probably played together most Sunday afternoons for a year or so before we did a free improvising concert. He’d rejected playing on the piano keyboard in favour of working inside the instrument, and at the time I’d rejected playing anything that sounded like a conventional note. I learnt a lot of techniques through the practical experience of trying to make some sort of meaningful music in those conditions.”

In the years since those initial forays, it has been next to impossible to keep up with Butcher’s activities. With well over 150 recordings, he has continued that quest of “trying to make some meaningful music” from ongoing examinations into solo playing to constantly evolving collaborations. In an essay that appeared a decade ago in PoD Issue 35, Butcher reflected on his ongoing approach to these activities. “The freedom that comes with improvisation is actually the freedom to recognize and respect the uniqueness of each individual playing situation. Doing this entails making specific and restricting choices, intimately connected to thoughts about whom you are playing with (and what you do and don’t know about them), the acoustics of the environment and your own personal history. Most decisions relate to concerns that have evolved over many years, but some are truly formed in the moment. Part of this means continually addressing the question of how to keep your own musical personality without bringing too fixed an agenda to each performance – how to get the right balance between playing what you know and what you don’t yet know.”

Which brings us to the batch of five new LPs released on Luxemburg-based Ni Vu Ni Connu, a film production company and record label run by Antoine Prum. The beautifully produced set, with silkscreened, gatefold sleeves, photos by Cristina Marx and sleeve-notes by Stuart Broomer, captures music from a two-night residency at the Berlin club ausland, celebrating Butcher’s 65th birthday along with a recording of a performance a few months before that. Butcher explains how the series came about. “I met Antoine Prum in 2013 when he asked to film a solo concert and interview for his film on the UK improvising scene, Taking the Dog for a Walk – Conversations with British Improvisers. In 2018 we met at a concert in Berlin, and he surprised me with this generous invitation to make a series of LPs for Ni Vu Ni Connu. He lives in Berlin, and, over the years, I’ve built relationships with many musicians there (since a 1987 tour of the then DDR) so we decided to base the recordings around some concerts in Berlin ... Coincidentally, I turned 65 a month before the ausland weekend – so the timing felt right.” Over the course of two nights in late November 2019, Butcher convened four groups, embodying his ongoing approach to collaborations. “Some constellations exist for decades, some are fleeting, some re-appear or mutate when the time is right.” A few months before the festival he was in Germany for two shows with a new trio with bassist Werner Dafeldecker and percussionist Burkhard Beins, and recordings from those shows are included in the set as well.

Across the performances captured on the five LPs, Butcher came up with groupings that drew from ongoing collaborations from over the last three decades. Butcher has worked with synth player Thomas Lehn and percussionist Gino Robair for over two decades as a trio and in various contexts. Others, like the trio with pianist Magda Mayas and drummer Tony Buck or the duo with pianist Sophie Agnel are more occasional meetings. While he’d worked with Dafeldecker and Beins as part of the group Polwechsel, the resulting trio sounds nothing like that group. And while he had previously collaborated with trumpet player Liz Albee, the quartet with Albee along with Ignaz Schick and Marta Zapparoli on tapes, turntables, and electronics is entirely new. Butcher explained his thought process in assembling the ensembles. “For small groupings I think more in terms of the players than instrumentation. It’s about choosing to make music with specific people. For ausland I didn’t want there to be drastic changes in aesthetics between the groups, but I did want combinations that would be likely to draw me along different paths. Plus, being the common ingredient over four sets I didn’t want to feel I was just inserting myself into different settings. I thought each group would discover its own collective personality – and they did.”

He goes on to discuss his approach to the weekend, playing two sets a night for two nights with different groups each set. “When you approach a whole evening of music-making you feel necessities that pull in slightly different directions. The real life of the music comes from the choices made according to where you find yourself moment by moment, which is always somewhat unrepeatable. You need to be true to this ever-changing present, but you must also have a feeling for shape, form, pacing, etc. which means engaging with memory and expectation. Somehow this seems to work well with a 40 to 60-minute set with one group –  preferably with very little playing before the actual concert. Improvising with another group the same night complicates the dynamic. Should I be considering what will happen in the next group when deciding on what to play in the first group? Should I think back to the first set when I’m immersed in the second? Can I even remember it? Then, at ausland, there’s going to be a second night and 4 records coming out. In the end there was so much to consider that I tried not to think about any of this and to play as intuitively as I could. I suppose it boiled down to having faith in the power of improvisation.”


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Burkhard Beins + John Butcher + Werner Dafeldecker
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Seeing the lineup of Butcher, Beins, and Dafeldecker immediately brings to mind the group Polwechsel whose 1995 release was seminal in charting a reductionist approach navigating the convergance of open form composition and improvisation. While Butcher wasn’t part of that first iteration, he joined in the late 1990s and Beins joined about five years later. Butcher reflected on that group noting “Polwechsel's not foremost an improvising group, though most of the gigs we've done have contained some free improvised parts, which I thought were very successful. It's very low-level, quiet, largely non-gestural, shall I say non-expressive (I don't know if that's the right word, since I'd argue that sounds are intrinsically expressive), in the sense of how improvisation often turns out.” In his liner notes to induction, Beins notes that the idea to work in a trio format “in a less conceptualized manner than we usually did in Polwechsel” was discussed but took a while to occur.

The four pieces on the LP were culled from sets the three performed over two nights. The 20-minute “circulation,” which takes up side one of the LP, begins with the metallic shimmer of struck cymbals joined by burred tenor multiphonics and bass arco overtones. What is striking is how the three players immediately synch in on the timbral interactions of their instruments. The first few minutes move with a slow focus. Then four minutes in, they begin to carve out clear sonic territories within the ensemble sound. Butcher’s reed flutters and stabs, Beins’ crystalline, metallic pin pricks and frictive surface abrasions, and Dafeldecker’s plucked, scrubbed, and struck bass ride a balance between more gestural interactions and collective, textural examination. But those sonic territories become pervious as reed pops and string resonance, arco harmonics and chafed percussion, bowed metal overtones and reed multiphonics meld across the mutable layers of activity. Halfway through, they move into areas of spare, nuanced textures which they let sit only to charge out again with flurried activity which ramps down to a conclusion of quiet hanging resonances. The shorter pieces on the second side of the LP tend to carve out specific sound areas which they patiently mine, but even here, the music is imbued with dynamic tension.


Sophie Agnel + John Butcher
la pierre tachée
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Since his early years playing with Chris Burn, Butcher has occasionally returned to saxophone/piano duos with partners like Georg Graewe, Claudia Ulla Binder, and Matthew Shipp. Butcher had played with French pianist Sophie Agnel a few times before their meeting at ausland captured here. Agnel proves a canny collaborator. Her strategies for the seamlessly integration of inside treatment of strings and soundboard, percussive volleys, and atomic control of attack and sustain of the keyboard provide an expansive timbral counter to Butcher’s scuffed microtones, oscillating flutters, and labyrinthine vortices. The opening “chemin creux,” starts with the focused accrual of knocks and scrapes of strings and stabbing tenor motifs as the two navigate the measured unfolding of the improvisation. The piece builds with stalwart intensity as the two build peaks of energy and then drop back to ebbs of spare textures, with Agnel’s scoured, damped strings and luminous high-end parries glinting against Butcher’s skirling soprano overtones, closing out with a stream of spirited whorls.

The 6-minute “double cure” is a compact study of buzzing piano preparations and low-end, raspy tenor punctuated with breath pops while the 5-minute “sillonner” distills things down to spare percussive pointillism. The 13 and a half-minute “shrieks in cups of gold” rounds out the set, starting with hyperactive intensity and then settling in to pensive studies which assiduously pick apart and reassemble micro textural motifs of plucked and bent strings, angular piano stabs, plosive reed pops, pinched breaths, and skittering saxophone flurries, closing out with a section of reflective scrutiny of atomic detail.


John Butcher, Thomas Lehn, Gino Robair
shaped & chased
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Of all the musicians Butcher drew on for the two nights at ausland, his associations with analogue synthesizer player Thomas Lehn and percussionist/electronics player Gino Robair go back the furthest. He recorded duos with the two in the late 90s and has worked in a wide variety of contexts with each since then. While the trio has performed together on and off since they first toured in 2009, shaped & chased is their first trio recording. Side A of the LP is comprised of the 20-minute “dorrying,” which kicks off with the multi-threaded orchestration of synthesizer, electronics, percussion, and Butcher’s braying tenor. The densities at play provide an effective complement to Butcher’s duo with Agnel which occurred the same evening. Lehn and Robair weave a rich soundscape shot through with coursing oscillations, chirps and blips, reverberant electronic squiggles, scraped metal, cymbal crashes and free-rumbling drumming. Butcher dives in with aggressive blowing then pulls back, leaving space for the shifting layers of his partners. A few minutes in, and the three hit a collective stride, building waves of activity that gather tension and density and then release into areas of more open interaction. While the contrast between conical bore reed instrument, full percussion kit, electronics, and synthesizer inform the sound of the group, they effectively ride the overlaps of the intrinsic palettes and the quality of attack and decay of sound of each of their instruments.

The 6-minute “tempren,” starts as a percussion and soprano duo, an area that Butcher and Robair have worked in frequently. For the first half, Lehn works in a more coloristic mode, shading the proceedings. But in the final third, his swooping gyres and low-end rumbles jump into the fray. Butcher’s instantly-identifiable tenor parries drive the initial trajectory of the 8-minute “halouen” while still applying a keen ear to the sparser collective development of the piece. The final “swough” builds more gradually, with synthesizer and electronics weaving an open web plaited with Butcher’s quavering soprano tones. Here, the natural resonances and decay of the saxophone, the rumbling patter of percussion, and the percolating electronics converge, mounting toward a lithe, circuitous conclusion.


Liz Allbee, John Butcher, Ignaz Schick, Marta Zapparoli
lamenti dall’infinito
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The quartet with Liz Allbee on trumpet, Ignaz Schick on turntables, sampler, and electronics, and Marta Zapparoli utilizing tapes, reel to reel tape machine, and antennas proves an effective addition to the sets. While Butcher had previously worked in various configurations with the other ensembles, this was a new aggregation assembled specifically for the event. In the liner notes to the disc, Butcher recounts “I knew everyone beforehand except for Marta, whom Tony Buck suggested. A little time on YouTube made it clear she’d be a great choice. That led to a two wind, two electronic idea. I’d heard and talked with Ignaz occasionally, but never played with him. I did a couple of concerts with Liz in San Francisco around 2010.” The pairing of reeds and trumpet along with two musicians utilizing electronics and abstracted playback mechanisms connects straightaway.

The 22-minute “sea of distortions” starts out with paired sax and trumpet held tones which become frayed with hiss, crackles, and samples in short order. There’s an overall density of sound to the ensemble with breathy reed tones and trumpet smears layered into striations of warped and looped tapes and records, percussion samples, and static hum. The four display a marked patience through the first third of the piece, moving into a sputtering, active section midway through with Butcher’s stabbing, pinched tenor tones and darting phrases and Albee’s billowing overtones, tarnished yelps, and fleet melodic kernels cutting across the caterwauling pops and stutters of Schick and Zapparoli. Then the piece settles back in for the final third, mining the collective resolve of the opening section. The relatively brief “dialogues in a shell” that opens side two is a restless study in sonic juxtaposition, followed by the 17-minute “molecular memories” which whispers its way, with oscillating radio signals, morse-code filigrees, spattered reed tones, and flitting trumpet. A central section for choppy reed pops and trumpet valve clicks morphs into an electronics duo of interlaced thrums and textures which gets woven back into a full ensemble conclusion which captures a “molecular” approach to sound construction. This formation is particularly strong, and one hopes it will reconvene in the future.


Magda Mayas, Tony Buck, John Butcher
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Pianist Magda Mayas and drummer Tony Buck have been working together regularly for closing on two decades as the duo Spill. In 2010, Mayas and Buck invited Butcher to join them for a performance at Café Oto and the resulting trio, under the working name Vellum, has continued to work together since then. In his liner notes to the LP, Stuart Broomer incisively probes the way this group operates, noting that “In the best groups, familiarity breeds difference, finer distinctions, more subtle intrusions, closer listening, broader ranges and kinds of response, whether mirroring, complementing, digressing or disrupting.” Those qualities imbue the trio performance captured on glints. In some ways, Mayas, Buck, and Butcher operate more like an ensemble than the other sets in this collection. That comes, in part, from the instrumentation, though they certainly don’t hone to conventions of reed/piano/drums groups. Like Agnel, Mayas plumbs the full range of her instrument, from preparations and string treatments to percussive attacks on the frame of the instrument. But she is a more active player than Agnel, matching Buck’s restive textures from his expanded kit and Butcher’s flutters, pops, and flickered interjections. The piece starts in a contemplative mode, as the trio members attentively let their voices accrue. Motifs are hocketed back and forth, all three intuiting a mutual arc as the improvisation unfolds over the course of 45 minutes.

Butcher gradually spins longer lines, accentuating an angular sense of phrasing against the resonant skeins of Mayas’ playing and Buck’s metallic chiming, abraded shudders, and pattering detail. The three display a collective composure, building gradually to a section 12 minutes in where Butcher unleashes tenor squalls against chattering drums and cascading sheets of notes. But rather than let that mount, there is a push and pull to the dynamics and densities as they mine the building internal tensions of the piece. Twenty minutes in and one loses track of the source of sound as shimmered bowed resonances, hanging harmonics, and evanescent overtones amass in mercurial layers. Then Mayas interjects a torrential pattern of hammered buzzing notes, setting up a tempest of Butcher’s circularly breathed playing riding the lissome swells of Buck’s drums. Then, like the clearing of a storm, the improvisation opens up to pinched, skirling saxophone, plinking prepared piano patterns, and muted percussion rumbles. The piece continues to ebb and flow, with a potent spare section of low-end sustained tenor, resonating tom rolls, and subtle piano colorations progressing to a gripping, considered conclusion.


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While the five groups captured on this deluxe LP set document a momentous occasion, a look at Butcher’s itinerary for the first half of 2022 reveals his usual penchant for a near-constant and diverse level of activity, with no signs of slowing down. In corresponding with Butcher about this set, I recalled my early exposure to his music starting with the initial releases on Acta, noting that aside from his solo recordings, many centered around set ensembles like the trio with John Russell and Phil Durrant, Chris Burn’s Ensemble, Frisque Concordance (with Georg Gräwe, Hans Schneider, and Martin Blume), and Radu Malfatti’s Ohrkiste. More recently (of course leaving out the last few years where all norms were exploded due to COVID) it seems that in improvisation, ensembles and collaborations have become more fluid and less fixed. Butcher mused that “as one travels and collaborates with more people the music develops through relationships amongst a set of musicians rather than specific groups. I think it’s particularly suitable for improvisation, as you can have shared musical histories that go back 30 years, but which haven’t become set in their ways, they stay fresh. If you look my Web site, you’ll see how interlaced it all is.”

There’s already talk about a new series of releases for Ni Vu Ni Connu. Butcher noted that “we recorded the next release already – an evening at Iklectik in London with Angharad Davies, Mark Sanders and Pat Thomas. My duo with John Edwards was planned at the same time, but he was ill – so we’ll record that as soon as we find the right situation. Then there will probably be a solo for which I’d like to find an interesting non-concert space/acoustic. There’s also some talk about recording in Japan with some of my colleagues there ... we’ll see.”


© 2022 Michael Rosenstein


Freedom and Sound – This time it's personal: an essay by John Butcher – PoD 35
John Butcher – Interview by Dan Warburton, Paris, March 13th, 2001 – ParisTransatlantic
John Butcher Groups – John’s Web Site


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