AAJ: We have talked about solos and duos, but what about larger groups?
JB: I have been very closely involved with Chris Burns' Ensemble and we started that back in the days when there were a lot of strong feelings about what was working and what was not working. Both he and I felt that large group improvising was nearly always a disaster. Everything always ended up sounding the same. Things followed very clichéd patterns of dynamics and ways of interacting. We tried to find a different way of interacting in a large group. Ninety percent of that was choosing the right musicians to play with, who were interested in that kind of approach. We set up a few concerts. It had about 20 people in it at an early point, and then it got whittled down to eight. Instrumentally and personality-wise, that seemed to be a good number. We developed a way of playing that is very interactive but very maneuverable. It could do those changes on a sixpence that small group playing can do. I like that sense that at any time any one musician can change the structure of the music '- not by coming in and playing some really powerful statement, but by a little touch of something that would be just enough to cause it to go a different way. And it worked like that. Like any long-term group, it developed its own clichés after a while, but it was a deliberate break from the more jazz-oriented large groups that were playing, and from the heavy, really free-blowing groups like Globe Unity. Although I wasn't aware of it at the time, John Stevens had also been doing quite a lot of work in large groups, often in workshop situations. I think he was trying to find different ways of getting large groups of improvisers to work together. It often ended up with him working with less professional musicians who had less obvious strength of vocabulary to put into the music. That was a different way of working. We wanted people who had very strong personal voices, but still find a way that they could interact together in a chamberish way. I still like that group very much. Some other larger groups I have played in, for shorter periods, have mixed composition and improvisation, like Georg Graewe had a group called the GrubenKlangOrchester, which was about 15 musicians; we half played compositions half improvised. Radu Malfatti's orkestra and Fred van Hove's t'nonet had other ways of working.
AAJ: You were involved with Butch Morris London Skyscraper...
JB: It was quite a high-risk thing. Half the music we played was pretty disastrous and half was quite exceptional. Often the bits that were good had nothing to do with how I felt when I was actually playing it; my own contribution. I could be playing in a way that I thought was great and the music would be horrible, and vice versa. It was a strange dynamic. You very much felt not in control of what was going on. You were there to fulfil his wishes, which is tricky. For instance, you might play three notes and he would signal to you to keep repeating them. You might not want to keep repeating those three notes, but OK, that was what you were there to do. So you might be thinking, "Shit, I don't want to be doing this. But then, what he built around it might turn into a very nice piece of music. Or it might not. It was very hard to find people who agreed about what was happening and what was good in it. Some people didn't like the way they were treated more as orchestral musicians without personality. That is the dichotomy of the whole thing; he wants to work with improvisers, but he doesn't always take account of the fact that they are people with quite idiosyncratic techniques and tastes, and the strongest music will probably come from exploiting those, using those strengths of those musicians.
AAJ: The London Improvisers Orchestra has really done that, hasn't it, with concerto pieces for particular musicians that have played to their strengths.
JB: The LIO is interesting. I like it as an idea and, if I'm ever in town when it is playing, I go along and play in it. Again, my playing experiences in it have very often not reflected what I have thought when I have listened back to tapes. There have been things where I have thought that nothing was happening, and yet when it has been recorded and you hear the whole panorama of the instruments there is a good piece of music. It engenders a certain amount of humility playing in that group because nobody can really control it that well, from inside. So you have to put a lot of trust in the other musicians, which sometimes is misplaced. (Laughs) I think it is good for London to have a group like that. There are a lot of musicians here, and it is easy for the scene to get fragmented and for everyone to go off into their own particular corners.
AAJ: Future plans?
JB: I have this weekend just sent off a CD that I have recorded for an Italian label called Fringes, which focuses on some stuff I have always dabbled in but never put to the front, things like very close-miking techniques and amplified techniques and feedback techniques for the saxophone. Back in 1984 when I recorded Fonetiks with Chris Burn there was one track using these feedback effects that you can get with a very close-miked saxophone and an amplifier. I've started digging a bit deeper into that and recorded a series of pieces that I am very pleased with. Now I am looking at ways that I can bring this into performance more. It is a tricky technique because controlling this kind of feedback depends so much on the acoustics of the room you're in. I have had this problem before; you set it up in a sound check, and then the audience comes in and the acoustic of the room changes and you can't really control the feedback, everything needs different settings and positions. Instead of the beautiful filigree effects that you got in rehearsal, you just get howling, screaming. So I've been looking at some of the technical issues involved in trying to transfer that into live performance. Apropos of that, a friend of mine who is a computer professor in San Francisco is interested in developing further some of the live processing things that I have been doing in the duo with Phil Durrant. He wants to actually write some software that will analyze much more the natures of my input and have algorithms that will produce responses that depend on categorizable saxophone qualities. For a few weeks we are going to go to this place in Holland, called Stein, which is an electronic music research facility. We will look at two sides of the thing; one is more my side; amplifying the instrument, dealing with feedback effects and so on, and the other, for him, is the software side of processing. It might bear fruit and appear in some live performance at some time. Then the rest of it is a mixture of groups familiar and unfamiliar. I have got a duo tour of the UK coming up with Rhodri Davies. We were talking earlier about the benefits of long-term playing relationships. Although he is a relative newcomer to the scene '- he has been playing for about five or six years '- we both know each other well as musicians and have played in many groupings, but rarely duo. There are some concerts with Polwechsel, the Austrian group, and in collaboration with Christian Fennez, with whom we've just released a CD. And then something quite a bit different from my usual playing. The Ex are a band from Holland who started off as a sort of punk band, 20 years or so ago. They have always been too radical to fit fully in that scene, and have become involved with improvisers in Holland. They have built it up into an occasional orchestra of about 20 musicians, mainly Dutch although they asked me and Phil Minton to join them on the last tour. They do their own songs and a whole mixture of things such as a Captain Beefheart instrumental, a piece from 1928 by the Russian composer Mossolov, some Ethiopian pop music from the early '70s. But it's not eclecticism in the negative way I was talking about earlier. I think it really coheres. Then there is a tour with the bassist John Edwards and drummer Fabrizio Spera, and I am going to Japan for a solo tour in November, the first time I have been there.
1984, Fonetiks, Bead 24.
1987, Conceits, Acta 1.
1988, Embers live, Acta 3.
1988, Bandes original du journal de Spirou, nato 1715/1774. Compilation album: one track with Steve Beresford.
1989, News from the shed, Acta 4.
1990, Cultural baggage, Acta 5.
1991, Thirteen friendly numbers, Acta 6.
1991, Thirteen friendly numbers, Unsounds U07; re-issue of Acta 6.
1991, The Place 1991, Emanem 4056. Chris Burn Ensemble.
1991/1992, Concert moves, Random Acoustics RA 011. Butcher/Durrant/Russell.
1992, The same elephant, These 7 CD. Duo with Steve Beresford on a compilation CD.
1992, Spellings, Random Acoustics RA 001.
1992, Flavours, fragments, ITM Classics 950014.
1992, Ohrkiste, ITM Classics 950013. Radu Malfatti.
1993, Fish of the week, Scatter 05:CD. Steve Beresford Group.
1993, Apollo and Marsyas, Apollo Records ACD 090217/8. Trio track of Butcher/ Minton/Hirt on compilation CD.
1994, Respiritus, Incus CD21.
1994, A new distance, Acta 8. Spontaneous Music Ensemble.
1994, Spellings, Jazzgalerie Nickelsdorf. Frisque Concordance track on compilation CD.
1995, A slightly upgunned selection, Tomorrow's Classics TOCD 6004. With Chris Burn, Martin Klapper and Jindrich Biskup.
1994/1995/1996, London and Cologne, Rastascan BRD 026. Live solo recordings.
1995, Two concerts, FMP OWN 90006. Minton Butcher Hirt.
1995, Trio playing, Incus CD28. Derek Bailey/John Butcher/Oren Marshall.
1996, Mouthful of ecstasy, Victo cd041. Phil Minton Quartet.
1996, Suite for B... city, FMP CD 88. t'Nonet Fred Van Hove.
1996/1997/1998, Music on seven occasions, Meniscus MNSCS004. Selected duos and solos.
1997, Navigations, Acta 12. Chris Burn's Ensemble.
1997, Tinfizzer, Thoofa 1. One track on Kev Hopper CD.
1997, Secret measures, Wobbly Rail WOB 006. Duo with Phil Durrant, electronic manipulation.
1997, Memory constant, Unknown public 10. Solo on a compilation CD.
1997, Tangle, Meniscus MNSCS003. One trio track on Gino Robair CD.
1998, Composition No. 30: Compilation III, Bruce's Fingers BF 27.
1998, The scenic route, Emanem 4029. Butcher/Durrant/Russell.
1998, Three scenes for five tenors, RES 6.2CD. One track on compilation CD.
1998, Polwechsel 2, hat[now]ART 112. With Werner Dafeldecker/Burkhard Stangl/ Michael Moser.
1998, 12 milagritos, Spool SPL 109/Line 9. Butcher/Robair/Sperry.
1998, Light's view, nuscope recordings 1004. Butcher/Graewe duo.
1999, Proceedings, Emanem 4201. London Improvisers Orchestra.
1999, Hit and run, FMP CD 116. Dunmall with Edwards with Butcher.
1999, Apples of Gomorrah, GROB 429. Butcher/Minton duo.
2000, Requests and antisongs, Erstwhile 007. Electromanipulation duo with Phil Durrant.
2000, Liverpool (Bluecoat) concert, Limited Sedition LSO26. Duo with Gino Robair.
2000, Guerrilla mosaics, 482 Music 482-1013. John Butcher/Miya Masaoka/Gino Robair.
1997/2000, Fixations (14), Emanem 4045. Solo.
2000, The hearing continues..., Emanem 4203. London Improvisers Orchestra.
2000, Relay eight, 2:13 Music CD011.
2000, Vortices and angels, Emanem 4049. Duos with Derek Bailey and Rhodri Davies.
2000, The contest of pleasures, Potlatch P201. Butcher/Charles/Dörner.
2000, Points, snags and windings, Meniscus MNSCS010. Duo with Dylan van der Schyff.
2000, The first two gigs, Emanem 4063. Burn/Butcher/Davies/Edwards.
2000, Shooters and bowlers, Red Toucan RT 9318. Duo with Gerry Hemingway.
2000, Intentions, nuscope recordings 1011. Butcher/Durrant/Lee.
2000, The All Angels concerts, Emanem 4209. Butcher/Hutchinson duo on compilation 2-CD.
2000/01, Polwechsel 3, Durian 016-2. Polwechsel.
2001, Tincture, Musica Genera mg 004. Butcher/Lonberg-Holm/Zerang.
2001, Freedom of the city 2001: large groups, Emanem 4206. London Improvisers Orchestra.
2001, New Oakland burr, Rastascan BRD051. Duo with Gino Robair.
2001, Multitracks, Unreleased mp3 recorded August 2001.
2001, Freedom of the city 2001: small groups, Emanem 4205.
2001, Horizontals white, Emanem 4080. Chris Burn Ensemble.
2001, Grain, DotDotDot Music 003. One (very) short solo track on this compilation.
2001, Songs, between the lines btl 024. Gerry Hemingway.
2001, Thermal, Unsounds U04. Moore/Lehn/Butcher.
2001, Clearings, ART.CapuccinoNet ART 008. Butcher/Irmer/Fernández
2001/2002, Optic, Emanem 4089. John Butcher/John Edwards duo.
2002, Wrapped islands, Erstwhile 023. Polwechsel/Fennesz.
1999; 2002, Invisible ear, Fringes 12. Solos with close miking, multitracking, etc.
2002, Freedom of the city 2002, Emanem 4090. London Improvisers Orchestra.
2002, Ensemble at Musica Genera 2002, Musica Genera mg006. Chris Burn's Ensemble.
2002, Equation, Spool SPF303/FIELD 3. John Butcher/Mike Hansen/Tomasz Krakowiak.
2002, Cavern with nightlife, Weight of Wax WOW 01. Solo + duo with Toshimaru Nakamura.
2003, I shall become a bat, QBICO 18. Duo with Steve Beresford on one side of LP.
2003, Gathering, Spool SPF305/FIELD 5. Smash and Teeny featuring John Butcher.
2003, Freedom of the city 2003: small groups, Emanem 4212.