A Festival Of Underground, Experimental & International Music
April 2021
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John Butcher Interview By Stewart Smith



photo credit: Andy Newcombe

photo credit: Andy Newcombe

Considering John Butcher’s PhD in theoretical physics, it’s tempting to think of him as a boffin painstakingly investigating the possibilities of the saxophone. Yet there is nothing drily academic about the Londoner’s avant-garde explorations: the sounds he conjures are mind-boggling, but also moving in their beauty.

At Counterflows Butcher will performing Tarab Cuts, in which he and percussionist Mark Sanders respond to elements of 78rpm recordings drawn from Kamal Kassar’s vast collection of Arab classical music. Butcher spoke to Stewart Smith about the genesis of the project and the challenges it poses to him as a musician, composer and improviser.

Tarab Cuts follows on from a 2011 project by Tarek Atoiu, in which musicians responded to recordings from Kamal Kassar‘s collection. Were you given specific pieces to work with or did you choose them yourself? If the latter, what drew you to those particular pieces?
I realise this is a little tortuous, but ‘Tarab Cuts’ is a 2013 commission from Out of the Machine. ‘Between the Skies’ was the piece I made for Tarek Atoui’s project (a 2011 Performa commission). It was about 10 minutes long and part of a sequence of pieces that around 20 composers were asked to make for the project.

Graham McKenzie [of Out of the Machine] heard it, and asked me to make a full length piece expanding this idea. I researched further historic recordings from different sources, added live percussion (Mark) and composed a new 50-60 minute piece (which does rework some of the material from ‘Between the Skies’).

So – to answer the question. For the earlier piece I chose solo ney, violin and oud for the first half and Sufi drums (and a little voice) for the second. (I was sent copies of around 100 78-rpm sides to choose from.) I wanted to build new lines and textures from the solo instruments for the soprano sax to interact and entwine with, and then develop towards the Sufi derived part (+ tenor sax) for a more immersive engagement.

Calligraphy Square, Sharjah - as part of Revisiting Tarab

Calligraphy Square, Sharjah – as part of Revisiting Tarab

Tarab refers to an older form of pre-1930s Arabic classical music, but it also describes the emotional effect of music: ecstasy, trance. Do you try to capture such a feeling with Tarab Cuts?
If you set out too self-consciously to do this, you’re going to fail, and, obviously, every listener responds differently, bringing their own history and expectations.

But – most of my musical life has been in performance, where there’s a particularly close relationship with the listener, and I drew on this. I was certainly aware, in making Tarab Cuts, of trying to develop the flow and intensity in a way that draws the listener in, and, hopefully, takes them (and us) through changing levels of excitement and reflection.

Have you studied this kind of music at all? How did you approach the task of responding to these old recordings? Did you try to work within the tradition or did you come at it from a different angle?
Only a little. Making Music in the Arab World by Dr. A. J. Racy was a useful book to read.

And I looked into various Maqam (modes) – http://www.maqamworld.com/maqamat.html

But the piece is definitely not an attempt for us to imitate Arabic music in our own playing. I want the influence to be more subtle than that. I look at it as an interaction across decades and cultures that leads myself and Mark into places we wouldn’t otherwise find.

I appreciate that for many creative musicians the distinction is an artificial one, but would you say Tarab Cuts is one of your more ‘composed’ pieces, or does it have elements of improvisation and spontaneous composition?
It’s definitely more composed – in the formal sense of having a fixed structure and pre-arranged content – than most of my work. But improvisation is the true common ground between my, and Mark’s, musical lives and the possibilities of transcendence and audience empathy that Tarab music embodies. The piece channels our own improvising experiences and languages into new routes. As we do more performances, I also expect the structure to evolve, altering and adding to the playback recordings.

What kind of challenge, in terms of listening and responding, does playing alongside these recordings pose? I imagine it must be quite different to playing alongside ‘live’ musicians.
Yes – they don’t interact back – it’s a completely different feeling. You need to play in a strange mental state somewhere between plan and no-plan. Often, the best ideas come in the heat of the moment, but you need to start form a basic memory of materials and intentions. Also, I try to leave something out of the re-composed recordings – so that it makes sense for a live musician to add something further.

You use multi-track recordings drawn from old shellac 78s. Is this to open up the recordings and give you more acoustic space in which to work?
Just a few seconds of sound from such recordings can evoke a whole mood and context. And the patina of old recordings is important. I’ve re-composed them so that their world is brought to life by their sound – even when the syntax is completely changed. This quality drives the whole piece.

How does the addition of Mark Sanders on percussion change your relationship with the recordings?
The extra levels of interaction he brings are the most important. And I specifically chose a drummer, and Mark in particular, as their imagination and instrument will respond to different aspects of the Arabic recordings than mine. Then, we now have our own ‘live’ interaction together, which counters the danger composed pieces have of becoming too hermetic.

Finally, are you looking forward to Counterflows? Which other acts are you hoping to see?
Definitely – although I’m only there on Saturday. I’ve worked with both Maya Dunietz and Will Guthrie – so I’m particularly looking forward to hear what their projects are like.