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Interviews

John Butcher

By Published: June 11, 2005

AAJ: On that issue of rhythm, what are your reactions to things like Derek Bailey's Ballads or John Bissett and Alex Ward's Pocket. You have worked in improvised settings with each of them before.

JB: I have heard a bit of Ballads but I haven't heard what John has been doing. I guess there are quite a few things lying behind all of that. From what I understand about it, if you look back to the '60s, with Derek Bailey and people, there was a sense of making quite a radical break. To make a radical break necessitates maintaining quite a dogmatic aesthetic, because you are doing something in opposition to something else. When I was getting involved in this at the end of the '70s, choosing what I was doing implied the rejection of lots of other things. I felt very strongly at the time that it was necessary to reject a lot of other ways of making music as less satisfactory, not only for me personally, but in some broader aesthetic sense. It is necessary to make the personal change and to have the confidence to pursue what you are pursuing, and to recognize that part of what you are doing means criticizing other things. But after a while the battles tend to be won (or lost, or irrelevant, or outdated) and, for me, it has become less necessary to be so exclusive. Anyway, Derek playing ballads seems a natural development because his thing has always been a lot about playing the guitar, rather than playing an idiom. And when you've got that history behind you, the commercial work in the '50s, it doesn't seem such a drastic step to revisit some tunes, in his own way. John Bisset I know less about. I think he came more from the rock world and has always had an interest in that. There have always been musicians around, like Steve Beresford, who have been working in the pop world alongside improvising. My natural disposition is towards a certain purity of approach. As a performer I'm not particularly interested in an eclectic approach. I was very drawn to all the early ideas of trying to reinvent music, which were around in the air in the '50s and '60s, I guess. A bit like the Darmstadt people were doing with total serialism after the war, starting again. I always found that rather attractive. That meant there was so much you didn't want to do. The problem was finding things that you did want to do.

AAJ: What is it like playing with Phil Minton in that duo? He is such a dramatic performer, isn't he?

JB: I know some people can't watch him.

AAJ: It was noticeable yesterday that some people looked physically uncomfortable. It is so much a performance. To experience it live is very different to listening to it. What is it like playing with him?

JB: I think it is, except he is not trying to put on a performance. I have worked with Phil a lot and people respond very strongly to his performances. People who have only ever heard him on CD often don't get what is really going on. That is like an exaggeration or an extreme of the whole nature of improvised music. In many respects you have to be there to get it. Although some stuff records better than others, and can be translated and you can put it on in your living room and enjoy it. There have always been discussions about whether it makes sense to record improvised music. You do get some kind of image of the event. With someone like Phil, it is not just watching him perform; there is something unique about vocal sounds. They have a particular emotional resonance; to him, he may be using it as an abstract sound, but it is built into our evolution that you recognize these sounds as having other meanings because they are connected with the human voice which connects directly with the emotional states of being a human being. Some people don't like that because it is too direct; a cry sounds like a cry, a whimper sounds like a whimper, even if they are acted or we disagree on interpretation. It's very rare for Phil to use those kind of sounds referentially. He is using them abstractly, but they still have that resonance. When you see someone performing like that, and there is no instrument between them and the audience, and you focus on their physical movements, it is a very powerful thing. We pick up so much from little body signs; we may not be consciously aware of them, but we are interpreting all the time like that in a performance. I have always liked working with singers.

AAJ: Yes, Vanessa Mackness has a similar sort of intensity to Phil. She produces sounds that can be interpreted in human terms.

JB: She is a visual artist, untrained as a singer, untrained as a musician. So she works very intuitively, whereas Phil has been a professional musician for 40 years; he started out as a trumpeter. Because voice and saxophone have the connection of the breath, it is always interesting for me. You always have to stop to breath. I know I can do certain cyclic breathing things but I don't use that very much with Phil or Vanessa. So things tend to fall into phrase lengths. There is a danger where everything starts happening together. (Sings.) Duddly-duddly-duddly-duuh, Duddly-duddly-duh. You are breathing together. You can play with that, going with or against that kind of thing. But I have worked with Phil in a lot of contexts, some straighter than others, so I think we know each other very well as musicians. But it is a tricky thing voice and saxophone; they don't blend particularly well. It sounds like two distinct things; it can be quite rough.



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