In 2007, I had two conversations with John Butcher, the improvising saxophonist. The first discussion was during the annual February Time Flies, and the second was during the TD Canada Trust Vancouver International Jazz Festival. Part One covers biographical aspects of his work and his choices in collaborators. Part Two covers his participation as a faculty member of the Vancouver Creative Music Institute and his work in a rather amazing trio with Dylan van der Schyff and Torsten Müller. Butcher is a calm, focused, and modest man who inevitably speaks in soft tones. One is always struck by his encyclopedic knowledge of not only the improvisational scene but of the great saxophonists of jazz.
Laurence Svirchev: You took a doctorate in physics. When was that?
John Butcher: That was a long time ago, in 1982. It was looking at spin effects of quarks. It was theoretical physics, about trying to understand the theory of the nuclear force of strong interactions, by looking at existing theory and how it compared with some experiments that been done at Fermi Labs in Chicago, SLAC in Stanford, and Cern in Geneva. They had published their results and I was examining the theory in a certain direction and comparing it with the data that existed.
The theory it developed from was quantum electro-dynamics, which had been a very successful theory proposed in the ‘50s by a number of physicists, one of whom was Richard Feynman. They produced this quantum theory of electricity and magnetism. This was then re-imagined into quantum chromo-dynamics which tries to explain the forces that hold the nucleus together.
It was an interesting theory and I did enjoy getting to grips with it. But the actual day-to-day work was really just hard mathematics, and not as interesting as trying to understand the overall theory. Undergraduate work is really interesting because you are learning what some of the great people have done. But when you are doing the actual research yourself, it can involve a great deal of drudgery.
LS: Given your scientific mind, why did you to transit into aesthetics?
JB: Both things existed side-by-side in me, so there wasn’t really a transition. In a way, music had been of greater interest for as long as I could remember. But there were also things that had to do with school and things that your parents preferred you to do.
Music and science entail quite different ways of behaving. In science all your theories don’t mean anything unless they match up to experimental evidence. In anything aesthetic, there is historical precedent and perceived wisdom, but there is nobody to say that your aesthetic doesn’t agree with nature.
LS: There might be people who don’t like a given aesthetic.
JB: I’ve been told by slightly irate people that I shouldn’t be allowed to play the instrument the way I do. Music is a passionate business, science can be too. This professor I happened to be studying with had just won the Nobel Prize, Abdus Salam. The department attracted some eminent physicists. Stephen Hawking used to come by a work with the researchers. There was passion at the scientific level and at the level of ambition, where perhaps it does have some parallels with the music world, people protecting their patch over less noble things as well.
LS: You work a lot with the dynamics of sound. Does the science training help you deal with those dynamics.?
JB: I understand the basics to do with interference, with beat phenomenon, how sound waves evolve, but then a lot of musicians do these days. The fact that I know that these phenomenon exist might influence how I play if I’m in a performance space that can use some of those consequences.
At one time I took an empirical approach to the instrument once I felt comfortable with the more conventional side of it. I asked myself, what would happen if I did this, or that. The sort of methodical, technical side of that, to do with exploring fingering combinations, embouchure, articulation and how they relate to what the instrument can do. I’m talking 20 years ago. I was looking at all the overtone possibilities of the instrument. That slowly fed into the music. You can make discoveries, but then you have to learn to control them and present them in a playing situation, and hopefully use them in a musical fashion and not just as a phenomenon.
LS: The duet you did with (drummer) Harris Eisenstadt was most unusual in an improvising context.
JB: I’m intrigued. Why is that?
LS: It seemed that the two of you would somehow play for a period of time, then a gap of silence which you both had found at the same time. It sounded like a traditional composition, a set of statements, with a silence-transition in between. It was as if you had worked together in the past. It was a very coherent musical statement, quite charming!
JB: OK! This wasn’t our first meeting, but I’ve only played with him in a larger group in London. I think there were two groups and we joined together at the end of the evening. In some ways, the structure you described is a possibility with duos that happen spontaneously. If you try it with a larger group you have to pre-organize to some extent.
My personal take on improvising is that I’m very interested in what can happen in the form of the music. I think it’s a mistake to try and make it sound like its got the form of some other kind of music. When it can really generate its own form through the process, through the working out of the activity, you can get some very fascinating shapes to a piece of music. It’s most interesting when it comes from the process, rather than something super-imposed from the outside.
LS: Do you ever work in smaller groups with preconceptions?
JB: Sure, we did that explicitly with a group called Chris Burn’s “Ensemble.” There were eight of us, based around London. For some years large ensemble improvising tended to go into the high energy area of things, like the Globe Unity Orchestra. Then there’s also the area of soup where there are so many ingredients it all becomes homogenous. So we developed structures to try and avoid this. I was interested in trying to conceive of schemes in which people can still breathe. We worked on these for a few years and learned enough about playing together to not have to use an external structure to still achieve the shapes, light and shade, breakings into sub-groupings, as well as orchestral kinds of playing. When you enter into the playing you don’t think of yourself as a solo voice, but maybe as adding an orchestral color to someone else in the group.
LS: Can you recommend a recording from that period?
JB: Martin Davidson put out a number of concert recordings on Emanem and I had a label called ACTA, which is finished now. There were about 14 issues. You can also look at Peter Stubley’s website www.efi.group.shef.ac.uk
LS: Is most of your work what we’d called free or spontaneous?
JB: In a way, no. I have a number of groups where I know the people and their method of playing quite well. These groups are chosen because I’ve been able to imagine the consequences of what the playing might be like and I enjoy that possibility. The group with Andy Moore and Thomas Lehn was very carefully chosen because of the musical personalities of the people. But the reality is that we freely improvise. We don’t make any suggestions about what we may play or not play and the music happens in an intuitive way.
You play and make decisions in consequence of what you’re hearing. After a few concerts it builds up into a mutually shared experience. That affects what comes next. If you’re working with great people like those two musicians, it’s not that you have things you do as a group, but you can enter into an area and there is a mutual understanding about that area. You can go with that area or challenge that area.
With something like Time Flies, certainly on the first night, you don’t have that because it’s mainly first-time experiences. But tonight, if any of those combinations reappear, we will play differently because of the experience of the night before. When you translate that into how a group might play over a number of years, it has a very big effect.
LS: I’m thinking about Derek Bailey’s convivial insistence on not repeating, a fascinating school of thinking in which he was quite astringent, almost in a humorous way. What you are suggesting seems to be the opposite of that.
JB: It’s clear that both possibilities exist. In a way, Derek explored both and I also am involved in both. I would not want to go in one direction exclusively. You can look at Derek’s playing with Tony Oxley in the sixties. He returned to that later after a gap of some twenty five years. There were certain people he would return to over and over again. But that said, his preference was to stop a group before it had settled into a particular way of playing. I suppose the crux of the matter is “settled into a certain way of playing.” But there is another side where longevity allows you to go deeper into a certain kind of playing.
The danger with occasional meetings is that you are always at the beginning point of something. You get a musician the quality of Derek and he could always transcend those problems with his musical vision. But with lesser players you hear them coming together the first time and they seem to be reinventing something that doesn’t need to be reinvented.
Both situations are very challenging. The first few times you do something, if it’s really working, you do sound fresh and intriguing and then it can atrophy. But with the right characters you can try and push it deeper and deeper. But with other people if you keep carrying on, it is only going to get worse and worse. In general, we do choose who we play with. I’m sure Ken Pickering and Torsten Müller (Artistic Directors of Time Flies) put a lot of thought into who to invite to make it work.
A certain element of my playing has to do with working with sound possibilities. Some ask “Why don’t you use electronics, or this or that.” I find it both frustrating and stimulating to stick with just the saxophone. Some days you just feel what you are doing you’ve done a thousand times before and you get dispirited about it. And then you make small breakthroughs, some small developments, and some new insight appears. If you swapped your instrument, you wouldn’t have these insights. Having these restrictions and limitations in your tools is your spur to how you channel your creativity. It appears like that with groups that have been going for a long time. They can go thorough doldrums, but sticking with the same people can reach areas never possible in a new situation. Its like relations with people. The first time you meet someone, you might have some great conversations. But a year down the line, the way it goes depends on the chemistry of the people.
LS: Can you give examples of experiences with your horns?
JB: About twenty-five years ago, I was trying to find a way to play which basically did not involve playing lines but rather playing melodic shapes. The first thing to do is fragment the lines, work with wide intervals beyond an octave, fragment the rhythms. But that ends up sounding like a pastiche of atonal composition. I started looking at concentrating on one sound, one note. And instead of moving along to make it a part of a line, I tried to change the color of that note. Cellists can do that. By giving a tone more blow pressure, it changes the color of the sound. You have the same note, but different proportions of overtones. The saxophone is an instrument in which people have their own sound. You hear Lester Young play an “A”, or John Coltrane playing an “A”, and the Ben Webster playing an “A”, it’s clear each are playing the same note, but they each have different colorations.
You can go further than that. I made discoveries about things to do with fingering, embouchure, breathing, shaping the vocal cavity. You do that and develop some new color attached to that note and you can recognize that as part of the color of a different sound you have somewhere else on the instrument Instead of playing lines as in the jazz tradition, you can make musical connections on the horn through other parameters, like color.
I can play a phrase. Not a phrase with an obvious melodical shape in space. It had a change of color through space. My own interest was then to extend these connections and use them in a way to develop flexibility in the same way that conventional playing has. In a way, that is forever a challenge.
I’ve quoted this before: Derek Bailey liked to say that he was forever involved in the search for material that was endlessly transformable.
You could say the same thing about Steve Lacy, that even though his ingredients were very different, through his manipulation of intervals he worked with something that was fluid, flexible and transformable.
You could almost say the same thing Sidney Bechet. But f you take away Bechet’s harmonic concept, you take away the intervals, then what is the language? That is something I’ve tried to explore. What is available if you don’t use those structures.
LS: What is the language?
JB: It’s aims are so different from the vast body of music-making. It’s a different method. In the improvisational world, there are also people who work with sound, and they are not interested in making connections, they are interested in a pure statement of their sound. There are improvising groups in which the improvisation moves slowly, is un-gestural, and very unconnected with the body. Some people hear it as unconnected with any form of expression.
This is also interesting as work. I do it sometimes myself. It is problematic with saxophone or any instrument which is connected with the process of the body, in my case, with breath. It seems to have some intrinsic expressive nature because one’s only producing sound through breathing and a piece of cane vibrating in your mouth.
LS: I was fascinated last night, during your duet with cellist Peggy Lee, by the volume you produced by tapping on the reed and opening/closing the keys.
JB: You could hear the slight changes in pitch out there? Close to the instrument where I am, I can hear the variation, but I’m not sure it goes into the room.
LS: I could hear the changes in pitch, absolutely. They were loud and distinct from where I was sitting in the front row, partially because the audience was quiet, transfixed on the music. I was aware of the sound before I was aware that your right hand was opening and closing the keys. I heard it and went visually looking for it. Originally, I thought it was all coming from tapping the keys and embouchure. It had a pleasing psycho-acoustic effect.
JB: I don’t want this discovering things on the saxophone to be “Here’s this bloke who can bicycle around the ring with a spinning ball on his head.” The reason for the search for these things is to find and to contribute a music of a some emotional consequence, or of a particular atmospheric consequence. I really like to be able to put this quality into the music. What may have stimulated me to use this technique last night was Cor Fuhler when he was damping the keys on the piano. If I had come in with a conventional saxophone line there, it would have taken the mood into a completely different state.
Sometimes, there is a thin line between things done for novelty and things that are done because they are needed in the music. I hope I’m on the right side of that line.
LS: I was talking to Paul Lovens recently in Berlin. Paul likened music to the river that starts as a mountain stream rippling over rocks, gains strength, then comes to a flatland and broadens out. It might look quite calm when the river is broad, but there are all kinds of things going on that would only be appreciated by someone who was in a boat on the river. The punch line was that “We think we are controlling the music, but the music is actually taking us someplace.” To a lay person that does not make a lot of sense, too mystical maybe.
JB: That has resonance for me in the sense of being in the activity of performing. I don’t know whether a listener would experience it like that and I’m not sure if it’s like that when I’m listening to other people’s music. If you enter into an improvisation, you discover things that no one of you could have imagined before-hand. If someone said, “let’s try and do this” you wouldn’t of done what you had just done. To try and nail it would have made it impossible to reach. There’s not many forms of creativity which so profoundly involve the simultaneous input of a number of people and the complexity of that reaches, in a way, beyond the possibilities of one person’s imagination. On a good day.
LS: I believe the same dynamic is true for individuals in an audience in their reaction to the music. I’ve left concerts not feeling an intensity from the music. Between sets, a person would say to me “How could you possibly leave?” When I thought about those situations, it had nothing to do with the music being created, it was my own emotional state. Did I open up or close down, was I even capable of opening up? From what the musician produces, you cannot predict the reaction in the listener, any more than you can predict what will happen on stage among the musicians.
JB: And is why you can never take into account trying please people!