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beausievers on 04/25/2011 at 01:00AM

Okkyung Lee & John Butcher

Photo by Peter Gannushkin / DOWNTOWNMUSIC.NET

This Wednesday (4.28 FREE | RSVP) cellist Okkyung Lee will kick off her Artist-in-Residency at ISSUE Project Room with a free performance featuring collaborators Tom Rainey, Liberty Ellman & Skuli Sverrisson. In honor of the occasion, we’ve unearthed her duo performance with John Butcher from November 11, 2009.

Okkyung Lee and John Butcher’s improvisation can be read as an extended investigation of two strategies central to improvised music which are always in tension: frenetic processes, which create structure by harnessing and directing the physical energy of the performer across the instrument, and differential structures, which crystalize musical materials in memory. Lee’s playing is always set in motion, a flurry of physical activity which collides and interacts with the material form of her instrument, while Butcher’s playing is mercurial, sympathetic with Lee’s approach but never adopting precisely the same course. His choices are sensitive and antagonistic by turns, sometimes interfacing with Lee’s twittering machines and sometimes punctuating or disrupting their flow with interjections of pitched material rich with reference. Lee responds to these impositions physically, never letting her processes turn into a simple slipstream, but by pushing ground outward into figure, disrupting its borders. This performance makes audible the strain and stress of a physicality made subject to the grasping demands of memory.

John Butcher’s first set from this concert was shared on the Free Music Archive in 2009. John Butcher & Okkyung Lee's first set from the evening is below.

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andrewcsmith on 08/20/2010 at 03:00AM

John Butcher, in binaural glory

Photo by David Reid:

John Butcher improvises on the space he is in, using amplification as an instrument rather than as a transparent tool. He wrestles with the many enharmonicities present within a single saxophone tone, as if trying to either contain the sound or to lose himself in it. Rhythms begin to appear in seemingly static harmonies, and what starts as a centered sonic etude over a single tone grows more unstable as the improvisation progresses.

Butcher's improvisation is multiplication; in the addition of every new note, multiple others are created in the surrounding and related harmonic zones. It's not a matter of looping and layering over a singular idea but, like the best counterpoint, the sounds constantly shift one way or the next, without losing their continuity or their relationships to each other.

Over the next few weeks we'll be posting some binaural recordings from ISSUE's Floating Points Festival. Going on five years now, Floating Points has dedicated a month to works highlighting ISSUE's 15-channel hemispherical speaker system built by series curator Stephan Moore. A good chunk of the series was recorded in binaural stereo sound (which means: put on your headphones). For now, listen to a chunk out of the middle of Butcher's July 16 performance at ISSUE.

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mwalker on 11/13/2009 at 06:29AM

geometries of sentiments

So, on Wednesday night, British saxophonist John Butcher played a solo set at ISSUE Project Room. I've typed up a number of different openings for this post and still can't seem to come up with an approach that doesn't seem hyperbolic and purplish in to hell with it: Butcher, with complete modesty and humility, presented one of the most staggeringly-impactful, creatively-reaffirming, soulfully-rendered, gasp-worthily-virtuosic (seriously, listen in the recording for people incapable of suppressing grunts and exhalations of awe) performances I’ve had the privilege of being present for.

Let me back up a second to provide some background: John Butcher received a Ph.D. in Theoretical Physics in 1982 – his dissertation is titled "Spin effects in the production and weak decay of heavy Quarks"—before immediately abandoning academia for a steady life in music, thankfully for us. He’s jammed with a lengthy list of fantastic and varied musicians, from free-improv stalwarts including Derek Bailey and Gerry Hemingway to electronic experimentalists such as Fennesz and Toshimaru Nakamura to large groups including the Spontaneous Music Ensemble and Polwechsel.  I’ve actually only heard one of his studio recordings – 2007’s highly recommended solo outing The Geometry of Sentiment – but will certainly be checking more soon.

Butcher possesses a mind-blowingly masterful control of his instruments (tenor and soprano) and appears unparalled in his absolutely comprehensive command of the full capabilities of the horn(s). It seems as if Butcher has studied the most advanced techniques of electronic sound processing and found the means to (seemingly) effortlessly replicate such effects organically, with a degree of musicality and nuance unobtainable through a computer (though, he does employ simple electronics in the second piece – two mics and a mixer – to create mesmerizing feedback loops).

Faintly blues-inflected motifs are sent through a fluid stream of transformations, slipping smoothly from straight tone into harmonics, at first gently restrained, later wildly explosive and unreserved. Multiphonic shadings provide a subtle, added-weight of complexity to the constantly evolving sound – at times providing the bewildering illusion of there being two or three players present. Circular breathing allows him to gradually fray and fragment a single tone into complete unrecognizability. Near the end of the first piece, Butcher works a motive into such a furious frenzy of motion that it eventually explodes into a long chain of continuously varied percussive attacks, brimming with such forceful physicality that, even listening back to the recording, I feel as if my whole body is absorbing the shocks of their impact.

Despite how my description might read – this is not heady, abstract, and inaccessible music. Butcher works in narratives and processions of mood and feeling so clear, precise, and intentioned that the listener is carried along with a wholly-embracing sense of emotional engagement. However, I must say that as rad as this recording might be, it cannot approach the degree of intimacy and immediacy projected in the live setting. Luckily, he plays another solo set at the Stone on Saturday at 8:00. See you there?

Download two of the three pieces from the first set here and here. Sometime later, I’ll revisit his equally stunning collaborative second set with cellist Okkyung Lee.


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