BACKto Solo   /    HOME
Biba Kopf's liner notes for
Resonant Spaces

John Butcher

The 19 foot megalith towering above John Butcher is being stubbornly ungiving, as his tenor trips out a row of staccato blasts in an attempt to provoke some response from its weathered face. But if he's getting any echo back at all, it's lost in the wind blowing in from across the loch. John is participating in an impromptu daytime recording session at the four surviving Standing Stones of Stenness, a 5000 year old circle on a particularly exposed mainland stretch of the Orkney Islands, organised as a replacement for the evening's performance at the neighbouring Ring o' Brodgar, reluctantly cancelled because of a storm forecast promising 45-60 mph gales. The blustery wind notwithstanding, right now it's a beautiful midsummer morning, with a few streaky clouds scarcely indicating the bad weather making its way down from the North Sea. Getting so little back for his efforts on tenor, meanwhile, he switches to soprano and attempts a higher frequency attack of piercing multiple sounds, much to the quizzical delight of the sheep who, along with the gulls, briefly join in.
But the session really takes off after he lowers his soprano from his lips. Suddenly his ears prick up to the eerily disembodied Aeolian harp like effects produced by the stiff gusts blowing across his instrument's tone holes and triggering resonances inside its miked up body. There follows the extraordinary sight of John prodding his instrument into the face of the wind to shape a fragile, achingly beautiful sound sculpture from the interactions of feedback, fluting tones and percussive effects amid the noisy, rustling movement of air across the mic. Reacting to the moment, creating something out of nothing, is exactly what Resonant Spaces was all about.

Organised by Barry Esson and Bryony McIntyre of the Arika Organisation in June 2006, Resonant Spaces took John and Japanese sound artist Akio Suzuki to six places around Scotland chosen for the special acoustic properties they offered the musicians. Taking in both natural and manmade environs, carved or constructed out of rock, stone and metal, and ranging in scale from the gargantuan interiors of the Lyness Oil Tank and Smoo Cave, Durness on Scotland's remotely populated northernmost coast, through to the claustrophobic confinement of Tugnet Ice House in Spey Bay, each presented its own special challenges.
Another significant factor, of course, was how Resonant Spaces began its trek far off the beaten track of most tours, giving some spectators, perhaps curious about the goings-on in their local landmark, their first experience of free improvisation and/or sound art.
The experiment produced the odd casualty, even in the Orkneys, which, despite their remoteness, play host to the annual St Magnus music festival and a regular stream of folk and roots musicians. Of the 70 (out of Hoy's population of 400) people attending Lyness, a few older non-initiates found the dense maelstrom of harsh sounds inside the tank too much. "Yes, some people left," recalls John. "I was trying to start a feedback piece, and noticeably failing because I hadn't plugged in properly. I got frustrated with fiddling about and switched to blowing some loud high pitches, the kind that make you feel as if something is moving around inside your ear. Some people find it disturbing, but as a 20-year tinnitus sufferer I'm cautious, and it seems safe.

"The performer/audience relationship on this tour wasn't that clear," he continues. "Especially in the outlying areas where the audience is local and might be less aware of what the event is trying to get at. That's not a disadvantage, but if you don't aim to play to your own ideals, then everybody is sold short. Otherwise you might as well hand people a questionnaire as they come in, asking them what they want you to do."

The historical resonances attached to the original uses of these sites also impacted on the players. Even given his background in physics, John found he wasn't entirely unsusceptible to the emotive suggestion of a particular place's atmospherics, remarking on how the military equipment housed inside Lyness Oil Tank, now converted into a museum from its wartime use for fuel storage during WW2, might well have prompted him to direct his flutter-tongued tenor salvoes around its cylindrical interior for the slow motion rat-a-tat ricochets they produced. After the cancellation of the Ring o' Brodgar event, the Hoy performance was Resonant Spaces' first date proper and the tracks here document the saxophonist working with the space's 15-plus second echo. On the ricocheting tenor piece New Scapa Flow, he takes full advantage of it, pummeling the metal wall with full on blasts; the feedback soprano of Sympathetic Magic (metal) is a much more delicate sounding of the interior, circulating sweet, teargas-like wisps through a concussed zone.

The title evokes the disembodied effect of John's feedback saxophone pieces. "Sympathetic magic is a term used for when you, say, stick pins in a voodoo doll, and it affects a person at a distance," he explains. "And working with feedback feels a little bit like that, not blowing into the saxophone, I'm depressing the keys to change the resonances, and suddenly the room is filled with this sound, which seems to be happening at a distance from any instrument, where the cause and effect is very unclear."

Its companion piece, Sympathetic Magic (stone), was recorded inside Hamilton Mausoleum, an absurd phallic shaped folly constructed to immortalise Alexander, 10th Duke of Hamilton (1767-1852). In both the cylindrical shape of its interior and its long echo, it recalls Lyness, but its symmetry is disturbed by the alcoves cut into its walls, producing, says John, its distinctive, unusually warm acoustic properties. Indeed, the results he obtained here through his feedback method were so rich, he has since been reluctant to deploy it in conventional venues. "The feedback produced all these interesting high-pitched twitters, which I've never had before," he says. "The whole thing was responding to some ultra-high frequencies, and that's what led to the title because it was such a surprise to get that. I have never heard that kind of feedback from any instrument. It's completely to do with the place, my technique was the same as I've used in other places, but with a very different effect."

Playing inside the monument to the vanity of a long-dead aristocrat had its macabre comic side. "Its monumental nature is expressed through the acoustic properties of the place," comments John. "The caretaker relished slamming the door for the enormous thud that rattled round the place. It's created to do that. Practically speaking, you have to play quite slowly, otherwise it's just mush... It was a bit Hammer Horror at one point," he concedes. "I played a low frequency feedback piece, which really vibrated this massive volume of air, and it was bringing down the loose plaster on the walls like falling confetti. Unfortunately the recording couldn't capture the sound, it missed the very physical, bodily experience of being in the room." Which is why it sadly didn't make the final cut here.
The soprano piece from this date, aptly named Floating Cult, fugue-like sets a gently reverberating tone in pursuit of its slowly drifting echo, which it occasionally catches up with to form chords. "I found I could play a pure tone and it would just sit there for 15 seconds," recalls John. "And then I didn't want to do anything complicated. I just used quite simple tones, allowing them to interact in the space, so very often the sounds you're hearing I've already finished blowing.
"One of the frustrations of playing any wind instruments," he elucidates, "is that it's a very on or off phenomenon, with the full sound either being there or not being there. You don't usually get real decay or overlap possibilities, which is such an important part of music, like in Feldman's piano pieces or Bailey's guitar playing."

The other two manmade spaces visited by Resonant Spaces didn't immediately suggest themselves as people-friendly venues. Wormit Reservoir in Fife had to be accessed through a small manhole, which deposited you inside a large, rectangular, rusting iron reservoir that used to supply Dundee its water. "It wasn't like the mausoleum, where you had a space fertile with possibilities," says John. "It produced a more aggressive, attacking quality. Although you could play some quiet sounds and almost locate them in different parts of the room. Eventually I got into layering different strands and rhythms, pushing their shape around. It's not a piece with much space," he continues, describing the soprano track Calls from a Rusty Cage recorded here. "It's more about the harsh coexistence and interaction of multiple sounds." That's certainly an accurate description of John's method but it hardly does justice to a piece that, after he's laid its foundation, bubbles up into a Gershwin-like rhapsody to utterly ravishing effect at odds with the dank subterranean zone that produced it.

The feedback soprano track Frost Piece was created inside the series of small, dark chambers making up Tugnet Ice House, Spey Bay, which was originally built to store fish. The resulting track is perhaps more in keeping with its claustrophobic surrounds for the way it sometimes sounds like it is gasping for air. "It was very claustrophobic," concurs John, "and it had a sizeable audience scattered through four or five rooms, listening around corners. You'd hear the sound coming back from all directions. The recording does feel cold, enclosed, it fits an ice house."

As already indicated, the relationship between performer and spectator in an unconventional, not to say uncomfortable space, was partly what Resonant Spaces set out to explore. Smoo Cave, Durness, set the party a particularly rigorous series of challenges, not the least of them being the relative indifference with which the tour's arrival was greeted. The problem facing Barry Esson and his team was how to get the sound and lighting equipment down the dirt tracks to the cave mouth when the promised local support failed to materialise. In the event, American military personnel deployed at the nearby live blasting range helped get equipment down, while volunteers from the audience helped take it back up afterwards. The gargantuan nature of the cave limited the yield of its echo and reverb, leaving John to engage more with the natural sounds of the waterfall coming from its second chamber and the cawing seagulls wheeling overhead on Close by, a Waterfall. But the spitfire tenor attack of Styptic gets some return from the rockface, as if he was trying to create a sound diagram of the cave-dwelling bats' echo location method. "The interaction with Smoo also had something to do with its coldness," remembers John. "And the feeling of that barrier of the stream, with people looking over from the other side. And my pedal sliding into holes in the ground.

"I did worry I was working too hard here," he concludes. "I suppose I could have played quite minimally and let the performance be more about the sounds of the environment, but after all the effort people had put in to set it up I really wanted to make something happen. If I have a philosophy about this kind of situation, it's that it needs some friction. I mean, between forcing your usual musical concerns onto the place, and allowing the setting to direct the actual result. I don't want to just demonstrate each space's sound. It should be an encounter between a musician and a place that gives a fighting chance to drawing something new from them both."

© Biba Kopf