Ben Ratlif's New York Times review of
"Secret Measures" at Experimental Intermedia

John Butcher - saxophones: Phil Durrant - live processing.

Processing Saxophone Sound With a Partner at a Computer.

The English improvising saxophonist John Butcher doesn't assign to the saxophone the functions that most people do. Rather than tone and melody, he prefers flutter-tonguing and reed-pops, high overtones, key-clicking and sometimes just untempered wind. But most of all he sees the possibility of altering and connecting these sounds, making music of them, through electronic processing.

Last Tuesday night at Experimental Intermedia, he played duets with Phil Durrant. Mr. Durrant was hunched over a Macintosh laptop computer, processing the saxophone sounds as they came through a microphone. Here and there, as you'd expect, there was a clinical dryness to it, but there was also a tremendous focus and an exotic beauty.

Building a saxophone language of incidental elements, you'd think, is like creating a style of poetry that uses semicolons, ellipses and other niceties but no actual words. Maybe so, but there was music in this. It proves itself on pure structural coherence and professionalism, not recognizability. And the show demonstrated that the new nonidiomatic improvisers (Mr. Butcher is among the best of them) really, truly shouldn't be judged by the standards of jazz playing. It is its own discipline.

At one point, Mr. Butcher played single soprano-saxophone honks, which, with Mr. Durrant's help, sounded a bit like shotgun blasts followed by a bullet's whistle. At another point, Mr. Butcher took the horn out of his mouth, held the bell of the tenor saxophone up to the microphone, depressed keys in the instrument's low register and produced perfectly anticipated feedback notes.

Even without electronic manipulation, Mr. Butcher can sound like a computer. He carves sounds out of the instrument that you didn't know were there. He and Mr. Durrant worked through one idea at a time. Even the most abstract music can benefit from an element of composition. There was a respect for the audience in this; if what they do is research, they're expert at presenting their findings.

© Ben Ratliff - New York Times - December 18, 2001