Toronto, the city in which I live, has recently installed audio-enhanced traffic lights, emitting sounds to indicate which light is red to assist the visually impaired. Various malfunctions of the electrical grid seem to produce similar effects. One sound is like an electric bird-song, but not a "pretty" bird (or "pretty bird") sound, more like a grackle (which sounds like its name, an abrasive "grack-grack") or a shrike (a rare bird) the song of which has been described as "a varied collection of squeaks, trills and chattering phrases. Calls include a ringing 'shree' and a nasal 'shack' repeated. Alarm cry is a dry 'chek-chek.'" (oiseaux) But the most remarkable aspect of the shrike's song is that it is able to imitate the songs of other birds for the purposes of luring and attacking them.
All of which brings me to the experience of John Butcher's music and a certain blurring of acoustic and electronic sound (and sensibility) and something of its special relations with space and time or the appearance thereof. A couple of days ago, listening to Second Zizoku, I heard a sound very much like that electric squawk from the tenor saxophone. Then just this morning, as I set out for a walk, I thought I heard those electric bird sounds again, only to catch a sudden movement, look up and see that they were coming not from a junction box but from a bird, and that a closer look might have revealed the bronzed coat of the grackle, as shiny and metallic as oil on water or perhaps a saxophone.
I do not know who was first to comment on the extent to which Butcher's acoustic preoccupations produce results that seem electronic, or whether it preceded his interest in electronic feedback and amplified saxophone. It's a resemblance that seems to go to the mystery and heart of his music and what I read as concerns with process, time, place and causality-feedback, yes, but feed-forward, too, as if what we have heard is somehow produced by what will come later, as if we ultimately await causality.
In John Butcher's practice there is clearly a concern with place - each location duly noted - just as there is a concern with variety - the alterations brought about by a series of performance spaces. His solo CDs are characteristically a selection of live recordings from varied sites - there is no special consistency of the auditory situation. The individual take is privileged, but the notion of a changing space (changing space) seems paramount too. A notion of sound reproduction as electronically conditioned is also paramount, thus the measured proximity to the microphone and the way in which it recasts the horn's harmonic profile. Perhaps it is the way in which the electronic magnifies the behaviour of acoustic space at the same time that it makes it invisible.
In Butcher's hands the saxophone's existence as a column of air, as a vibrating reed, as a system of keys and pads, becomes central, suggesting the saxophone as mechanism and intermediary, a kind of delicate and complex scientific instrument of measurement whether meant for the laboratory or, more likely, the voyage (saxophone and astrolabe made of the same metal). There is a photograph of John Butcher in a windy spot in Scotland holding his saxophone aloft and allowing the wind itself to play the saxophone, but the saxophone is also amplified and he appears to be playing the keys. This simultaneous space constructed of the acoustic and the electronic seems germane to where we place the Butcher performance, in which the recording itself involves averaging, chance or even transformative occurrences. It is as if the contours of the site of realization disappear into the work and the listener disappears into it as well.
In the present sequence there's a back-and-forth movement that suggests a stepped pyramid, the music beginning and ending in the lower voice of the tenor saxophone and in the most spectacular of spaces, then ascending through pitch to the soprano and to the quotidian worlds of London, Paris and electricity before descending on another side.
The opening and closing environments are so startling as to overdetermine the site of production, places so strange that they transcend our usual notions of environment, extending the notion of collaboration. The pieces join and extend a certain tradition of environmental saxophone music, primarily Swiss, that includes Werner Ludi's recordings inside the vast Lucendro dam and September Wind's recordings in an empty water cistern above Zurich.
The first two tracks were recorded in the Oya Stone Museum, an enormous geometrical space created by the mining of oya stone. The gallery is thus a space inside an absolute mass, enjoying, like natural caves, its own micro-climate. In the First Zizoku the space seems to harmonize and orchestrate Butcher's long tones. Then, playing oscillating arpeggio-like figures against (and with) the vast rock walls in the Second Zizoku, he builds a counter-wall of sound, playing with chromatic shifts to heighten the reverberations. There is a sense in which the sound is itself a living entity and that it draws that life from the stone as well as the human agency (the piece touches finally on those bird-suggestive squawks).
One of the unusual aspects of Butcher's use of electronic feedback is the extent to which it creates another series of illusion - rather than sounding specifically electronic - it will suggest other instruments, often a kind of underwater muffling. The soprano of A Short Time to Sing is to some degree percussive. There is as much sonic alteration in the acoustic But more so with its introductory motivic development in which a secondary line is suggested by slightly muffled microtones (the mutation of multiphonics). It eventually reaches an expressive peak in which the abrasive grit of the sound is seemingly dialed in and out (displacing, misplacing or even replacing the usual notion of what is giving expression to whom). That traditional pattern of development is also true of the early-going linear segment of Action Theory Blues (in which a glissando suggests the clarinets of the 1920s), while there is a moment in Soft Logic in which a sound in the environment appears to trigger an alarm in the saxophone.
The concluding performance takes place in the gasometer in Oberhausen, Germany, an enormous near-cylindrical form (it has 24 sides) constructed in 1929 to hold the gas needed by nearby manufacturers. A parody of a canister, the world's ultimate pressurized can, it is 117 metres high with a diameter of 68 metres. Rebuilt in 1949 after war-time damage, it was employed as a storage facility for coke gas until it was retired in 1989. Eventually renovated as an exhibition space, the gasometer has an extraordinary 8-time echo. We might be invited, I think, to view this as purely acoustic space (or carrier frequency) but it is a special kind of industrial archeology, a work of menacing scale and once perfectly toxic environment (the gasometer is a kind of Forbidden Planet) that has been reclaimed as a vertical theme park, a self-declared "industrial cathedral" (Christo exhibited a brightly-painted wall of 13000 horizontal oil drums there in 1999). Butcher's performance here exploits the gasometer's resonance for a work of solemnity and majesty, triggering a space in which each minutia of sound is magnified into a cataclysm. Each sonic gesture appears to be a very precise measurement, as if Butcher is surveying its time (the echo, history) as well as its singular space. How odd, too, that a gas chamber should sound electric.
© Stuart Broomer