John Butcher is the saxophone's most intrepid current explorer, building on explorations in multiphonics that began in the 1960s with free jazz players, most specifically Pharoah Sanders though touched on by John Coltrane, Eric Dolphy and Albert Ayler.
The clear antecedent for Butcher's activity is fellow Englishman Evan Parker who for three decades now has performed solo soprano saxophone concerts in which multiphonics and circular breathing combine to suggest virtuoso keyboard music or a flock of songbirds. It's John Butcher's particular genius to have taken Parker's techniques in an utterly different direction, using similar methods of circular breathing for continuous sound production and multiphonics, multiple tones and lines created by false fingerings, over-blowing, etc. Butcher assembles layers, complex and subtly evolving sounds with granular textures that resemble nothing so much as a bank of oscillators.
He has explored it both in various improvising ensembles (among them the Spontaneous Music Ensemble, Chris Burn Ensemble, Phil Minton Quartet) as well as in duo and solo settings, working in both electronic and acoustic contexts. At the centre of a school of British improvisation that includes pianist Burn, violinist Phil Durrant, and harpist Rhodri Davies, Butcher has advanced the logic and practice of spontaneous music in a direction that often sounds like electro-acoustic composition.
Invisible Ear - issued in an edition of 600 copies - marks a fairly dramatic turn for Butcher's work, representing a fresh emphasis on electronic processes: close-miking; multi-tracking; and amplified feedback. The results are continuously arresting, and I don't think listeners would rapidly guess that a tenor and soprano saxophone are the sources of Butcher's palette. Just as striking as one sound might be, it's amazing that Butcher finds so many different kinds of wind, string and drum timbres within his horns. It's a major way-station in the process that began in 1993 with the first Butcher solo CD, the recently reissued 13 Friendly Numbers (originally on Acta, now on Unsounds) which simultaneously launched Butcher's overdub work.
There is a kind of evolution here, from the exotic to the seemingly conventional, though there are pieces that will undercut that, suggesting the movement is otherwise. The CD begins at its most minimal and demanding. "swan style" sounds like a whistle of air escaping from a (digital) balloon, while "cup anatomical", introduces a repeating texture, a grained, flute-like sound of air in a column. The extremely close miking magnifies the saxophone's microscopic events within the continuum of Butcher's circular breathing, creating a journey into the minutiae of the horn that suggests a science fiction element - an Incredible Shrinking Man or Fantastic Voyage - as Butcher (his doctorate in physics) points out the lacunae of his horns' acoustics.
The exercises in amplified feedback pick up on the instruments' key-pads, distorting them until they become underwater gongs and gamelans - lambent, bending pitches. The quality of Butcher's spontaneous manipulations is really at a very high level. The combined bending and cut-offs of sound in "streamers" suggest water bowls and strings or elastics, while "a controversial fix for..." mimics blues harmonica, fuzz-box electric guitar and even bass clarinet. "magnetic bottle" sounds almost like a Farfisa organ.
The overdubbed pieces have a tremendous cumulative power. "what remains", with five tenors and three soprano saxes, is an intense wall of sustained sound, bagpipe banshees or a dark glade in which insect voices magnify to monstrous machines. The concluding "atelier", for three soprano saxes and resonant room, is singularly beautiful, a high clarion brassiness that ties the horns together with a consonant orchestral richness.
This is work of high accomplishment. However unlikely Butcher's means might at first seem, the music here testifies consistently to a spontaneous composer making whole music - structured, meditative, deeply involving.
© Stuart Broomer/Musicworks