John Butcher and Joe McPhee in the West Texas desert
SIGNAL TO NOISE - # 58 Summer 2010


john butcher and joe mcphee

john butcher and joe mcphee

When most concert promoters look for a venue, they evaluate a few pragmatic factors: size, acoustics, convenience, amenities, and in some cases, reputation. Apart from the occasional historic concert hall, the less the audience thinks about the performance space, the better: Dave Dove, the director of the Houston-based non-profit Nameless Sound, has turned this logic on its head, selecting performance spaces without regard to practical concerns, instead seeking opportunities for the artists to engage in dialogue with the sites.

Perhaps not coincidentally Houston is home to the Menil Collection, which has built a number of art spaces that fuse art and architecture to an extent rarely seen elsewhere. At one time or another Nameless Sound has organized performances in almost all of them: Keiji Haino's first performance in Texas was inside the Dan Flavin installation at Richmond Hall; Tetuzi Akiyama and Jozef van Wissem played together in the Byzantine Fresco Chapel; Keith Rowe and Loren Connors performed in the Rothko Chapel. Through all of these concerts and many others, Dove has insisted that it is essential to his project to "honor the space" as much as the performer.
ln mid-April, Nameless Sound reached beyond Houston's city limits to present saxophonists John Butcher and Joe McPhee in what has to be one of the most inconvenient venues ever used: an art complex called The Hill, which sits in the middle of the West Texas desert, more than 60 miles from El Paso.

Painstakingly built over the last three decades by enigmatic artist Jim Magee (and with two more decades till its completion), The Hill consists of four buildings constructed with cut-stone from the area, joined together by a cruciform walkway made of the same stone. The buildings, each about 800 square feet, house Magee's artwork, which makes heavy use of steel and glass, as well as organic materials such as paprika, honey, sand, birdseed, and straw. Photography within the site is forbidden.
John Butcher is no stranger to playing in unusual environments. His album Cavern with Nightlife documents a 2002 solo performance in the enormous caverns within Oya Stone Mountain in Utsonomiya City, Japan. Since this performance, Butcher has appeared in a number of odd locales, often with acoustics that mainstream musicians would avoid like bed bugs in Brooklyn. Joe McPhee doesn't have such an explicit history of confronting massively resonant spaces, but his sensitivity and range is well-known, and was on display throughout his performance at this singular event.

Butcher and McPhee had never shared a stage before their performance at The Hill, which ended up being a tentative collaboration, alternating solo performances throughout most of the show.
The first part of the performance saw the two musicians divided into the two buildings on the north and south. The doors facing into the center of the complex, which extend seventeen feet from floor to ceiling, were left open. Thus, each audience member sat only a few feet from either Butcher or McPhee, but could also faintly hear the other musician playing about 200 feet away.

The space I ended up in started off with Joe McPhee on alto saxophone, punctuating his fiery blasts with passages of faint squeaks and moments of silence. Only in these moments could I make out Butcher from across the complex, his sparse notes occasionally cutting through the thin desert air. The emotional urgency of McPhee's playing was amplified by the harsh terrain as he moved from rough-hewn melodies to breathy whispers to ecstatic wailing.

After about twenty minutes, the performers switched spaces. Watching John Butcher perform felt a bit like watching a scientist at work: using his tenor saxophone, he probed the air; the walls, the entire acoustic environment. Slight changes in tone reverberated and revealed the space in a way that looking with the eyes alone never could. (Butcher told me later that he could "almost see the sound going out and coming back.")
Because of the spacious nature of this exploration, McPhee's occasional horn blasts, faint but distinct, wafted in and began to feel like a collaborative performance.

The second part of the concert was out on the cruciform walkway between the buildings. The walkway, elevated above the ground, formed a kind of stage with four seating areas on the raw desert soil.
The musicians took turns performing in the middle, and the buildings surrounding us, forty feet wide and seventeen feet tall, create a powerful open-air echo chamber. Butcher used the site initially to play a fascinating percussive piece formed of short pulsing notes and their echoes.
As the musicians each took their turn in the center, they responded subtly to the textures and moods from the preceding piece, but avoided explicit responses. Finally, at the end, Butcher and McPhee faced off on opposing legs of the walkway and performed for a few minutes together, fusing emotional density with open spaces. Both men put on powerful performances as they searched for common ground.

lf, as seems very possible, the performance site itself suggested this saxophone duet, Doves pairing of Butcher and McPhee at The Hill could prove to be a visionary move. A momentary pause became a slightly awkward ending, leaving the sense of an incomplete performance, as each performer seemed to wait for the next sound, which never came.
We can only hope that, like The Hill itself, this collaboration has another twenty years of work left in it.

© Ben Judson

Photo: Ryan Edwards.