Will Montgomery's WIRE review of Resonance and Psychogeography

John Butcher solo
Alvin Lucier "I am sitting in a Room" - by Lucy & Stuart Bannister

Southampton Castle Vault, Southampton, UK

Resonance And Psychogeography was the theme of this event, which was held in a vault in Southampton's 14th century town walls. It's a bare space walled with massive blocks of stone, similar to a railway arch in dimensions. It didn't seem, however, particularly resonant acoustically, the close walls giving the sounds a hard-edged, close-up quality. In a short introductory talk, a local historian advised us that the vault had served as an air-raid shelter for Southampton dwellers in the early part of the Second World War, when large areas of the city were flattened. However, any nebulous pyschogeographic aura was soon dispelled as the physicality of sound came to the fore in the two main performances.

The first was a version of Alvin Lucier's "I Am Sitting ln A Room", the work from 1969 that holds a prominent place in the emerging canon of sound art. Lucier's short text was delivered by speaker Lucy Bannister, and the subsequent playback and recording was handled by Stuart Bannister, who worked a pair of digital recorders, a mic and a mixing desk. The score stipulates that the recording is played back into the space and recorded repeatedly, with the voice gradually disappearing into a miasma of sound defined by the resonant frequencies of the performance area. On this night, harsh tones initially prevailed. At this early point in the performance, the piece seemed less to do with sound in space than with the way mechanical reproduction shapes the experience of listening. Then, as the voice moved further into the background, the piece took on a different momentum. Gradually, deeper tones came to the fore and a warm fluttering effect bathed the room, sub-bass physically perceptible to the listening audience. It was moving, in literally visceral ways.

Lucier's own performance of the piece used the blurred continuum of sound partly as a way of waging war on his stutter. Stuttering as a positive value, a rhythm of hesitation, was prevalent in the next performance. John Butcher has a long track record of site-specific activity - work that has blasted Improv out of the gig environment and into a kind of live sound art. He is primarily concerned in such performances with the movement of sound in space (which is why "I Am Sitting In A Room" made a good companion piece on this particular occasion). He started with drizzling, high-pitched glissandi before moving into a shattering sequence of staccato tenor barks that probed similar low-end resonances in the vault to those accentuated by the Lucier piece. It was thrilling to be so close to an acoustic instrument pushing out blocks of sound with such intensity. There followed a brain-rinsing tour through multiphonics, circular breathing on soprano, jagged upper-register runs, even some blurred, Shepp-esque tenor. Butcher has spoken approvingly of the awkward physicality of the saxophone, how it depends on the encounter of breath with reed. But at times he forgets even the reed, making sounds with the saxophone keys and feedback controlled with a volume pedal. At one hair-raisingly vulnerable moment, he vocalised into the instrument, setting sung tones against controlled feedback.

lt was a cold couple of hours for the listeners gathered in the vault, but the obdurate non-conformism of the sounds that filled the space served as some token of incoercible energy close to the dreary nonplace of Southampton city centre.

© Will Montgomery / WIRE