In 2006, UK promoters Arika invited John Butcher to tour a number of out of the way spaces in Scotland. The venues, selected for their extreme acoustic properties, included a mausoleum, a wartime fuel storage tank and a cave. This resulting album grows out of the saxophonist's interest in escaping the acoustic confines of conventional venues - work with resonant spaces is documented on the earlier The Geometry of Sentiment and Cavern with Nightlife. Butcher plays tenor and soprano saxophones, sometimes adding feedback and amplification. Such site-specific performances are unrepeatable, of course, but the CD shows that you didn't have to be there to get what he's doing.
Also on the tour was Japanese sound artist Akio Suzuki and, at times, something akin to Suzuki's meditative attentiveness to spatialised sound is apparent on the album. But the exciting thing about the release is how Butcher attacks the spaces: each of the improvisations is highly attuned to the acoustic characteristics of the venue, with Butcher improvising dialogues with the ghostly sonic contours of the playing environment. Many of the tracks allow gaps between sounds for the venue's resonances to be heard, though "Calls from a Rusty Cage" suddenly leaps into whirling circular breathing with a flamboyant glissando (which, weirdly enough in this fairly extreme context, recalls the opening to Rhapsody in Blue). The feedback effects are particularly impressive, but everything from the skeletal rattle of saxophone keys to upper register whistles and stentorian foghorn blast is explored.
Importantly, Butcher's improvisations never sound as if the saxophonist is wearing a labcoat. The developing musical thought is always kept in view. What we hear is the performer interacting with unusual spaces, transforming our awareness of them as he does so. So you really didn't have to be there, you can buy this instead - it's a triumph.
© Will Montgomery - WIRE 299