Richard Sanderson's liner notes for
Secret Measures

John Butcher - Phil Durrant

A soprano saxophone weaves an almost jaunty figure through a landscape of Eraserhead neo-industrialism. A tenor saxophone buzzes and barks inside a hive of hyperactivite insects. What sounds like slow-sweep radio tunings at the deeper end of the short wave spectrum are gradually revealed to be precisely controlled twists and turns of the saxophone as layers of processing are stripped away. Lick-spittle splutters of reed tickling become indistinguishable from the glitching static that starts to surround it. Sudden orchestral bursts of rich harmony trickle away as whispering voices start to undermine their presumptuousness.

These are some of the moments you will experience on this CD.

This recording, I think I should emphasize, was not concocted in some state of the art recording studio over months, but recorded in front of an audience in Bern, Switzerland. John Butcher is playing the saxophones, Phil Durrant is responsible for 'live electronic manipulation and generation', a role which needs clarifying, mainly in terms of what he is not doing. He is not adding special effects to Butcher's solo - nor is he simply 'treating' the sounds, much as a record engineer might add reverb to a vocal or ‘gate' to a snare drum. The saxophone is routed through a series of comparatively simple electronic devices (delay, modulation, multi-effects processor and a filter bank) which create a vast array of sounds and atmospheres which Butcher then reacts to. The two are keen to stress that this is a real time duo recording, as valid as any acoustic duo in the improvising scene. The musicians work in a kind of intellectual feedback loop. Butcher plays a sound which Durrant instantly reacts to, transmuting the sound and returning it; Butcher reacts and the loop continues. The fact that both players are masters of instant reaction time, edge of the seat acoustic improvisation, such as in their trio with John Russell, ensures that nothing ever gets predictable or safe.

The other fact, that both have an interest in electronic music, is perhaps not so well known, although Butcher has long been interested in the peculiar sonorities - the heavily reverbed booms and twangs, ring modulation and so on - of the early decades of electronic music and musique concrète; and has experimented with studio techniques and multitracking on his own solo albums, with results that sound unexpectedly synthetic. Durrant on the other hand has been working with electronic music for the past two decades, both in free improvisation and in the world of ambient electronica and club music. He currently feels affinity with the glitch-ridden sounds coming from Vienna on the Mego label (echoes of which are on this CD if you're listening out for them). Although he's probably still best known for his violin playing, his solo CD Sowari on Acta introduced his electronics, and this recording brings us up to date with the most comprehensive demonstration of his anti pre-set approach so far.

The combination of technique and imagination alone on Secret Measures would ensure a rewarding listening experience, but it is the sense of research going on before your ears that makes it one you will return to. The musicians rarely rest, satisfied, but continue altering and twisting an ascending spiral learning curve. (A rare exception is the beautiful drone sequence near the end of Ample, where the duo seem reluctant to pass from the unforeseen pastorality - within minutes they have, of course). Frames of reference, like moods, are mostly jettisoned before they have a chance to pall, like the 'orchestral' interlude in Flex which soon disappears in bursts of meteorological static.

The result is an improvised music, which far from being some monstrous man-meets-machine music, finds both musicians equally explorative. Butcher, always one to explore the outer reaches of the saxophone rather than rely on the weight of its jazz history, finds himself pushing even further out as Durrant transforms delicate melodic flurries into landscapes of thudding percussion or a stentorian tenor roar is whisked into a telephone bleep. This is a disorienting landscape where a feather can weigh a ton and a pin dropping sounds like a bell. Where a fluting soprano saxophone can turn, growling, into a vicious electrical storm.

These are some of the moments you will experience on this CD.

Psychedelic. Kind of.

© Richard Sanderson (1998)