Secret Measures - Sound Projector, 1999

ED PINSENT'S review of Secret Measures

John Butcher - saxophone | Phil Durrant - electromanipulation

An outstanding example of fresh innovation in contemporary improvised UK music. Phil Durrant performs live electronic manipulation of John Butcher's saxophone playing - the familiar skronks of the improviser's brass-puffing are constantly and instantly pushed completely out of shape, pulled into a wonky dimension of otherness, and propelled into unprecedented spaces they could never reach alone. Sublime moments of music are achieved when Butcher battles it out with a titanic wave of white noise, or pipes a melodic parp over random bursts of burring, buzzing and beeping.
This is a bold artistic statement, a truly experimental gesture, and adds extra dimension to the art of improvising.

We might want to point out that this ain't necessarily a completely novel strategy, and in fact I think there was an interest amongst the true founders of improv in this country, in combining acoustic instruments with electronic music right from the start. There is, certainly, an LP issued by the ICA in 1968 which might be one of the earliest manifestations of this: Cybernetic Serendipity Music, it contains 'Infraudibles", a concert of music composed with the assistance of computers, generated by Herbert Brun of the University of Illinois. He used as source material an improvisation by Evan Parker, Derek Bailey, Gavin Bryars, Richard Hower and Bernard Rands. Evan Parker's commitment to sax and electronic pairing is a challenge he has continued to follow in his latter career.

But it is a gauntlet that hasn't been picked up as often as it might. Indeed, in the UK a school of thought emerged that insisted apon nothing other than acoustic recording of an improv performance as it happened with no post-production. By extension, this seemed to mean little or no live electronic variation would be permitted - although there were some exceptions (Bailey and his volume pedal). Apart from the occasional synth player or sampler being admitted to a Company Week, few have attempted this live electronic transmutation of another musician's playing.

And yet Secret Measures is more than simply adding electronic effects to enhance the sound: as Richard Sanderson states in the sleeve notes, it is "a real time duo recording as valid as any acoustic duo in the improvising sphere". The rules of this game demand immediate responses from both players; Durrant is reacting to a sound from Butcher, who in turn has to contribute more to work with the changes Durrant proposes. How can players get closer than this? An uncanny hybrid results, a real blending of the colours in a box of plasticine.

Who better to do this than Phil Durrant, a man with experience in the world of making electro records. However, this recording uses a comparatively simple set up, modelled more on the equipment that David Tudor used to modulate live piano performances... only partially controllable.

Startling and powerful, this is a truly excellent record. If they ever put a drum beat behind it then current media darlings Add N to X might start looking for another job (let's hope).

© Ed Pinsent/Sound Projector