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John Butcher / Gino Robair: Apophenia

John Eyles By

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The partnership of John Butcher and Gino Robair dates back to 1997, their first joint release appearing soon after. It is some years since they released their last duo recording— New Oakland Burr (Rastascan, 2004)—but Robair was part of Butcher's seven-piece group, which recorded somethingtobesaid (Weight of Wax, 2009) at the Huddersfield Festival in 2008. Now comes Apophenia, a radio recording originating from KFJC, California, in October 2009. That source may explain its relative brevity—it just tops twenty-eight minutes. It also explains the high quality of the recording which consistently captures every nuance of each player.

On New Oakland Burr, the pair used extended techniques plus electronics and assorted items to good effect, producing soundscapes that did not obviously originate from saxophone and drums. On Apophenia, they build on that, with Butcher using motors with his saxophones and Robair credited with "energized surfaces." Further investigation has revealed that the "motors" in question were borrowed from Robair and are vibrating rubber-coated items that resemble sex toys. Butcher inserts them into the bell of his saxophone and says that they vibrate the air inside without him having to blow through the reed, and the pitch of the note can be varied by normal fingering of the keys. Robair energizes the surfaces of his drums or other objects using such motors, other electric vibrators, a saxophone mouthpiece or even drum sticks—but rarely by actually striking them.

The album opens with sounds that are not immediately identifiable as sax or drums, some obviously being motorized vibrations, interspersed with other breathier tones that close inspection suggests are from Butcher. Although individual sounds are occasionally attributable to sax or a vibrated surface, altogether it seems best not to question the source of each individual sound but to enjoy the whole sound collage that they create, an effective mix in which contrasting tones and textures overlap and complement one another.

On "Fainéant," there is a shift in the soundscape, with more recognizable sax and drum sounds. The two interact more, engaging in back-and-forth call-and-response, working well together. For the last three minutes of its nearly nine minutes, they very effectively play overlapping tones, with Robair constantly vibrating a drum head and Butcher sustaining notes. "Jirble" opens with darker low frequency tones from each player which evolve slowly and intensify until a resounding silence followed by struck metallic tones from Robair signal a switch to a new direction characterized by the ringing sound of bowed metal. On the closer, "Camorra," Butcher again employs the motors. The roles of percussion and saxophone effectively become interchangeable and the piece could well be mistaken for a percussion duo.

Since John Coltrane's Interstellar Space (Impulse!, 1967) there has been a small but ever-growing canon of albums pairing saxophonists and drummers. This album deserves its place in that canon but Butcher and Robair continue to radically redefine the relationship between sax and drums for the twenty-first century—and long may they do so when it sounds this good.

Track Listing: Knabble; Fainéant; Jirble; Camorra.

Personnel: John Butcher: saxophones, with motors (1, 4); Gino Robair: energized surfaces.

Title: Apophenia | Year Released: 2011 | Record Label: Rastascan Records

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