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Victoriaville FIMAV 18
The Contest of Pleasures / CODA 2001

Axel Dörner - Xavier Charles - John Butcher

Victoriaville, Quebec 17 - 21 May 2001

There are always genuinely controversial performances at Victo, those that can galvanize and divide the most sympathetic audience. For this listener, the year's highest point came with one such performance, the improvising horn trio of British saxophonist John Butcher, French clarinetist Xavier Charles and German trumpeter Axel Dörner. It was a concert that will continue to evolve in memory. An all-acoustic trio in a sea of electronics, the group is unlike any wind group I've heard, eschewing the usual runs and echoing exchanges for a concentrated focus on sustained sounds, not merely tones.

Through the years, Butcher has developed a highly original style in which overtones, circular breathing, and sounds of oscillator-like purity combine in a meditative music that bears a striking resemblance to electronic music. In this trio he is playing with two other horn players whose musical conceptions are extraordinarily close to his own. In fact Charles and Dörner may be even more specifically electronic in their vocabularies, and the collective music is so pure it creates iliusions. Charles managed to create a crackling, hissing sound on clarinet that for long stretches resembled the high-level surface noise of the turntablists. Dörner passed air through his trumpet while clicking a mute against the bell to create a sound that perfectly mimicked the clicking of a saxophone's key pads. Sometimes the closest thing to a conventional timbre was the sound of a flute issuing from Butcher's tenor.

Such detail, however, may misrepresent the trio's cumulative music, which is focused profoundly on breathing and duration, its fundamental volume level virtually the sound of people breathing through instruments. The listening in the group (and the listening required) is so close that beat patterns and difference tones emerged in the room, creating "invisible" bass parts from the high-pitched horns. Victo was the group's third performance in two years, so they're unlikely to be playing your town any time soon, but their CD Contest of Pleasures is a document well worth seeking out.

© Stuart Broomer / CODA