john butcher group "somethingtobesaid" - 2009
John Butcher Group - "Part 4" (somethingtobesaid)
Although he is no stranger to playing in larger ensembles (the Chris Burn Ensemble, Phil Minton Quartet and Polwechsel spring to mind), these days it\u2019s unusual for John Butcher to release a recording by anything larger than a trio, with solo and duo releases being most common. So when he was commissioned to write a special hour-long composition for the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival and to premier it at the 2008 festival, Butcher went with an octet.
In doing so he combined long-familiar players with more recent acquaintances in an inspired blend of acoustic and electronic. Butcher is joined by (his collaborator of some 30 years) Chris Burn on piano, Clare Cooper on harp and guzheng, John Edwards on double bass, Thomas Lehn on analogue synthesizer, Gino Robair on percussion and "energised surfaces," dieb13 on turntables and Adam Linson on double bass and electronics.
As an improvising ensemble, this would make a formidable, if cluttered, line-up. That\u2019s why the composition is important here. Rather than specifying exactly what each musician must play, it controls when they play, thus avoiding "the cocktail party effect" leading to unfocussed cacophony. Commendably, in typically selfless fashion, Butcher does not hog the limelight or turn this into a concerto for saxophone. Instead, when he is to the fore, it is mainly as a partner in a duo.
In fact, the composition features an ever-shifting series of trios and duos, in line with Butcher\u2019s recent discography. The transitions between these episodes are smooth and natural, giving the whole a sense of unity. If there is an overarching theme to the composition, it is the meeting of acoustic and electronic sounds, their interactions and imitations of each other - again, not surprising given Butcher\u2019s own solo experiments with feedback saxophone. The inclusion of the two contrasting double basses - one treated, one not - was an inspired decision; they typify that theme and underpin the proceedings.
The piece is punctuated throughout by brief sections of recorded voices taken from a disused answering machine, which may explain its title. The inclusion of these voices gives it a pleasing human dimension. The most effective use comes soon after the mid-point when Butcher plays a duet with the disembodied words.
As the second release on Butcher's own Weight of Wax label, somethingtobesaid maintains the high standard set by 2005's Cavern with Nightlife.
By John Eyles
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Phenomenal electro-acoustic improvised music from this octet of master musicians assembled by John Butcher. Sonic textures are suggested by playback of pre-recorded sounds (fragments of speech from an old answering machine, sounded wine glasses) and passed through changing small sub-groups as directed by Butcher. The first track (the first indexed section of a single piece in various parts) is a great example of these structuring elements at work. The piece starts with close interval beating midrange tones, presumably the wine glasses, soon joined by various instruments easing in with matching sounds, adding to the slowly flowing tones. Brief solos, more active yet still subdued flurries of sound -- the sizzle of wind ripping through saliva as it escapes a saxophone mouthpiece -- bubble up out of this calmly undulating sea. Muffled speech samples (the answering machine) make a brief appearance, setting the tone for these minor eruptions: bumpier texture but still static sound. Bowed styrofoam again disrupts the smooth texture, calling the group to action -- critical mass has been reached. But the group flurries quickly settle into string harmonics accompanied by piano plunks, both subtly mimicked and matched by electronics. It becomes clear we are in stasis, and it makes no sense to follow the particulars of the flow. The slowly shifting texture continues to be passed around the group, morphing as different instruments sustain it. We are dwelling in a single space, a good space. Non-developmental alternation between sustained sounds and eruptions of rougher texture continue until a slight ebb in energy cues the end of the piece. There is an airy electronic hiss, similar to the momentary saxophone solo early in the piece, followed by a quick fade to silence.
So far the music has followed in the tradition of Butcher's playing with groups like Polwechsel -- controlled playing creating a group texture without clear individual voices or instrumental sounds. It is interesting to note that the second half of the first track was actually an open improvisation by Burn, Cooper, Lehn, and Linson, though they functioned as a tightly unified organism, and seamlessly continued the tone set by the composed music for octet. While the first track epitomizes the best of the textural playing on this disc, the second track contains the meatiest musical movement. The track opens with the sound of a dot matrix printer, and a thick instrumental texture quickly builds around it with more intensity than has yet been heard on this disc. It's dark ambient improvised noise reminding me of AMM's heavy textures. I am thrilled to hear the crackle of vinyl coming out of my speakers, intuitively coming from the playback medium, but of course actually from dieb 13's live turntable performance. But then, about 3 minutes in, a very twisty, skronky horn line leaps out -- an unashamed saxophone. No more questions about which instrument is making which sound. This outburst silences the rest of the group, and various players rejoin the action in a sparser European Free Improv (post-free jazz) mode of operation, appropriately enough as the three lead players were all operating during the twilight (if not the heyday) of that movement (begun by John Stevens and Derek Bailey, both now deceased). There's a bit of piano, but mostly it's Butcher on tenor sax, and John Edwards on double bass -- manly double bass, the kind of playing at which Edwards excels -- buzzing arco punctuated with hard percussive hits on the strings -- fast and aggressive. Butcher is working with the complex, constantly shifting multiphonics for which he is well known. After three minutes of this, the extended saxophone sounds give way to scales, then lines, now pushing toward free jazz -- unabashedly even more "musical" than EFI. Edwards starts stretching out into arco drones, and the duo fades away. An awesome duo from two masters of genre.
A little more than a year ago, in June 2008, I had the opportunity to see Butcher lead sfSound in what was perhaps a prototype for this group composition. Paralleling this Butcher/Edwards duo, the highlight of that concert was an extended duo of Butcher and Gino Robair. It's evidently a very effective approach to group improv structure, breaking the group down into the small groupings with which improvisers are most familiar, especially into duos and trios with years of playing experience. Robair and Butcher especially shine together. Their recordings together are the highlights of each of their discographies. Unfortunately, this duo doesn't have its moment on this album. The lack is only felt, however, if one is already familiar with the extraordinary possibilities. This album sounds great as it is, and there are plenty of other albums with which to revel in the Butcher/Robair genius.
These first two tracks are the finest moments on a very fine disc, and the other best sections follow similar forms. #3 and #9 are both more textural pieces, #3 notably being a very tight piece, structured by notated pitches and pre-recorded wine glasses, which greatly aids its efficacy in heaping up mounds of musical doom. #5 is another free instrumental piece, mostly consisting of a double bass/guzheng duo exploring the similarities of these two large stringed instruments. Edwards again effortlessly moving through his impressive repertoire of techniques, matched by Clare Cooper in a conversational sort of duo. The players stay united in their wide-ranging sounds, whether they be traditional bass sounds, or unexpectedly percussive and trashy extended sounds. The most sublime moment occurs about 4 minutes in, when a minor frenzy cuts to silence, the bass locks into a contrastingly slow and stark beat, with even sparser guzheng noise punctuations. Soon the speech samples return, and the saxophone joins in, serving as the voice's partner in a double duo. Then quickly the piano enters, establishing a brief EFI trio (sax/bass/piano), but having forced the saxophone into interaction with the live musicians, it exits as quickly as it entered, relinquishing its place once again to the guzheng.
John Edwards emerges from the group as a powerful voice and guiding force, but for the most part the octet functions as a unit, very well-balanced in its constantly shifting groupings and sounds. John Butcher deserves a lot of credit for keeping the music under control, as do the seven other very tasteful players. Butcher wrote of his concern in composing this piece, "...as I chip away at, and redirect, the individual freedoms and responsibilities of improvisation, can I replace them with anything as worthwhile?" This is, of course, the most important question in composing for improvisers. In regulating a group of potentially unwieldy size, and producing wonderful music, Butcher has succeeded.
somethingtobesaid is indeed a very successful project. It's rare to hear a large group of improvising musicians, and rarer still to enjoy it. Congratulations to John Butcher and Group for pulling it off wonderfully. Hopefully we'll hear from them again, but economic realities sadly leave that doubtful.
posted by Jacob Felix Heule
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Somethingtobesaid is an hour-long composition for octet commissioned by the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival where this performance was recorded in November, 2008. For Butcher it's an opportunity to merge his usual improvisational practice with composed elements in such a way that composition might lead improvisation into new areas without inhibiting it. Notated pitches and playing intentions were developed from voices on a ten-year-old answering machine tape, a source that surfaces occasionally, and other pre-recorded elements include the sound of multi-tracked wine glasses as well as some sounds from the ensemble's musicians. Somethingtobesaid is intimately tied to processes of memory, including repetition, transformation and expectation. It's performed/created by an ensemble of both players long associated with Butcher (pianist Chris Burn, bassist John Edwards, percussionist Gino Robair and synthesist Thomas Lehn) and more recent associates (dieb13 on turntables, Adam Linson on bass and electronics and Clare Cooper on harp and guzheng). There's a mingling of acoustic, electronic and pre-recorded elements that blurs both time and source. These interests in time and the relationship with language parallel Butcher's 1997 composition "No Stops, Only Commas" for the Chris Burn Ensemble, from Navigations (Acta 12), but Somethingtobesaid represents a significant step in both scale and methodology.
The piece unfolds like a topographical map of an area both new and oddly familiar. Its very first sound is a drone that defies identification, yet the occasionally surfacing, slightly muffled, voices will resonate with shared experiences of telephone messages and dreams. Different combinations of improvisers create shifting textures and layers of association and density, from the vague and skein-like airiness of "Part One" with Burn, Cooper, Lehn and Linson, to the sudden hurly-burly and grit of Butcher's multiphonic tenor and Edwards' bass as they emerge from "Part 2," reminding one why this was recorded and broadcast by the BBC's Jazz on 3 (this suggestion of jazz reappears on "Part 8," with Butcher's phrasing and tone seemingly more rooted in customary modern jazz practice than one might expect, this in itself apparently an element of memory). These emerging sub-groups highlight the sense of continuous evolution, while underlying compositional elements seem to create a sense of foreboding, made explicit in the cryptic and fragmented words. There's even a sense of time coming apart, as in the conclusion of "Part 5" where there's a sudden collocation of voices, low register-bass and the chirping upper-register of Butcher's soprano saxophone. That disintegrative process is still more explicit in "Part 6," where there's a "duet" between Burn's live piano and a recording evidently manipulated by dieb13, sound seemingly becoming substance in a distorting mirror.
Clearly the improvisation takes on different dimensions and assumes new directions based on the composed elements, and the ultimate shape of the piece has coherence and depth compounded of the two methodologies and their abilities to reshape one another. Somethingtobesaid is important and powerful work, mixing mystery and certainty in subtle and sometimes disturbing ways.
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Village Voice Jazz Critics Poll 2009
Stuart Broomer (/All About Jazz-New York/, pointofdeparture.org)
1. *Evan Parker: /The Moment\u2019s Energy/* (ECM)
2. *John Butcher: /somethingtobesaid/* (Weight of Wax)
3. *Sun Ra: /Live in Cleveland/* (Golden Years)
4. *Peter Evans: /Nature/Culture/* (Psi)
5. *Joëlle Léandre & George Lewis: /Transatlantic Visions/* (RogueArt)
6. *Die Enttäuschung (Axel Dörner, Rudi Mahall, Jan Roder, Uli
Jennessen): /Die Enttäuschung/*(Intakt)
7. *Fast 'n' Bulbous: /Waxed Oop/* (Cuneiform)
8. *Samuel Blaser: /Pieces of Old Sky/* (Clean Feed)
9. *John Hebert: /Byzantine Monkey/* (Firehouse 12)
10. *Komeda Project: /Requiem/* (WM)
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John Butcher Group
Somethingtobesaid was created by saxophonist John Butcher for the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival in 2008, an hour-long composition realised by musicians who mostly follow his instructions and at times are invited to improvise. Shortly before he joined the multinational octet for this performance, Californian percussionist Gino Robair told me how he felt strong affinity with Butcher's taste for generating electronic timbres and textures with purely acoustic means. Much of the musical action here takes place around that interface.
The group features Thomas Lehn's analogue synth wizardry, Robair's 'energised sufraces' and turntable input from dieb13, along with Butcher's saxophones, Chris Burn's piano and the sinewy springy double bass combination of John Edwards and Adam Linson. Some of the composer's directions took their bearings from sound now audible in the performance - ghostly vocal snippets retrieved from a disused answering machine; the frictional hum of multitracked wine glasses. Occasionally chains of acoustic events tumble together, swirl and disperse in ways that suggest the dynamics of studio-produced electronic music - there's a very good example about five minutes in from the start. But Butcher is guiding the instrumental cross-currents too, regulating combinations within the group, keeping the music shapely, cohesive and uncluttered without sacrificing vitality.
Wired and unplugged sound sources find common ground, but it's not a matter of mimicry or camouflage. Rather it's a means of focussing and concentrating the flow of energy from technique, and the outcome is singular and often strangely beautiful music. Substantial too - like the loaf of bread in Philip Butcher's splendid painting on the cover. Something said; something really worth saying.
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