John Butcher has been a singular force in experimental saxophone for over 30 years. His specialties include evokes drones, hums, and buzzes out of a sax, as well as amplifying his instrument. John recently answered a few questions from AMN.
Your career path is a fairly unique and interesting story – you earned a Ph.D. in physics and then set that aside to be an improvising musician. How did this transition occur? Were you active in music when you were engaged in academics?
I’d been making music since my mid teens, so it had always coexisted with the physics work. I never thought of any of this as a career though, it was just doing stuff I wanted to do. There was no plan. Mind you, I expect quantum chromodynamics and freely improvised saxophony is a course option somewhere now.
Anyway, most things in life happen at the wrong moment, and by the time I started the Ph.D I pretty much wanted to focus on music. I tried to meet more players who we’re looking for the things that are hidden around the corners. But this was also the start of the Thatcher years. Clearly an ideal moment to dedicate yourself to unpopular, unpaid, experimental music. After the doctorate I taught part-time for years, and slowly the musical possibilities expanded and the teaching contracted.
Have you kept up with physics at all?
I’ll read some of the non-specialist books now and then.
A number of your recent recordings are solo sax, duets, and small groups. Is this part of a “less is more” philosophy, or just how events turned out?
Well, last year I did concerts with Anemone (5 piece), Cranes and Freighters (7 piece) – but you’re probably right. Generally I prefer small groups. You can hear the people behind the ideas, larger groups usually need pre-structure, pre-composition.
Your solo sax recordings are rather engaging, with what seems to be a fairly well-considered “structure” accompanying an extent of improvisation. How preconceived are these efforts?
Not at all, except in the sense that I enter the process with a memory of past solo concerts. But I try to start with an empty mind, and usually feel equally as though I’m leading and also am being lead during the event. Years ago I used to map things out more, but soon found that “better” ideas than the ones I’d planned suggested themselves in the actual performance. I try to remain open to the uniqueness of every situation.
I recently listened to Bell Trove Spools again, and noted the diversity of sounds you managed to attain from your instruments. Did you also use the acoustics of these rooms in those recordings?
You can’t not use the acoustics you play in. It’s a matter of degree. How much you try to change the actual material of your music according to the space you find yourself in. An orchestra playing Beethoven has to adapt to the acoustics of the space – but an improviser can, in principle, change the very form and content for each different acoustic. Make pieces specially for a location.
Any upcoming performances or recordings that you’d like us to know about?
I’ve just finished constructing this “Tarab Cuts“, project, with 4 shows coming up in Bristol, Glasgow, Amsterdam, and Barcelona.
Also Anemone (Peter Evans, Paul Lovens, Fred Blondy, Clayton Thomas).
Plan to tour with The Apophonics (John Edwards, Gino Robair).