John Butcher's work ranges through improvisation, his own compositions, multitracked saxophone pieces and explorations with feedback and extreme acoustics.
Originally a physicist, he left academia in 1982, and has since collaborated with hundreds of musicians - including Derek Bailey, John Stevens, Gerry Hemingway, The EX, Polwechsel, Gino Robair, Rhodri Davies, John Edwards, Toshimaru Nakamura, Paul Lovens, Eddie Prevost, John Russell, Mark Sanders, John Tilbury, Christian Marclay, Andy Moor, Phil Minton, and Steve Beresford.
He is well known as a solo performer who attempts to engage with a sense of place. His first solo CD, Thirteen Friendly Numbers, also includes compositions for multitracked saxophones, whilst later releases focus both on live performance and amplification and saxophone-controlled feedback.
Resonant Spaces is a collection of site-specific performances collected during a tour of unusual locations in Scotland and the Orkney Islands.
In 2011 he received a Paul Hamlyn Foundation Award for Artists.
His compositions include pieces for the Austrian group Polwechsel, the Australian Elision, the Rova and Quasar Saxophone Quartets and Penny Wands for reconstructed Futurist Intonarumori.
Two larger scale commisions have been premiered at the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival - somethingtobesaid (2008) for the John Butcher Group and Isola (2012) for Cranes & Freighters.
Recent collaborative projects include Anemone with trumpeter Peter Evans, The Contest of Pleasures with Axel Dörner and Xavier Charles, Way Out Northwest with Torsten Muller and Dylan van der Schyff, and The Apophonics with Gino Robair and John Edwards.
Butcher values playing in occasional encounters - ranging from large groups such as Butch Morris' London Skyscraper and the EX Orkestra, to duo concerts with Otomo Yoshihide, David Toop, Kevin Drumm, Christof Kurzmann, Thomas Lehn, Fred Frith, Okkyung Lee, Matthew Shipp and Akio Suzuki.
© john cameron
feedback soprano: smoo cave, durness, 2006.
© amalia pistilli
company week, london, 1990.
CANDY, chiba, japan, 2002.
© laurence svirchev
vancouver festival, 1999.
John Butcher was born in Brighton, England and has lived in London since the late 1970s.
After piano lessons at school, he started playing the saxophone at Surrey University, where he was studying physics. His first concerts were on keyboards in the avant rock group Habilis.
Hearing musicians like John Surman, Stan Tracey and Louis Moholo triggered an enthusiasm for jazz, and he began playing in various groups - often with pianist Chris Burn - and sometimes with his brother Phil Butcher, on double bass.
In 1977 he began a Theoretical Physics Ph.D at Imperial College - published in 1982 as
"Spin effects in the production and weak decay of heavy Quarks".
During this period he continued to work in Burns large Jazz Ensemble (winning the 1980 "BBC Big Band" competition), and toured with a variety of projects (London Contemporary Dance Theatre,
New Arts Consort,
At the same time, rehearsals and monthly concerts at the Workers' Music Association in Notting Hill Gate were an important musical laboratory, and, after publishing his doctorate, he left academia and went off with music; releasing the LP Fonetiks (1984) and playing in trumpeter Jon Corbett's
Freelance (with Elton Dean).
He soon began working in a trio with guitarist John Russell and violinist Phil Durrant. They started the label ACTA to release their LP
Conceits (1987) and were joined the following year by drummer Paul Lovens and trombonist Radu Malfatti to form
News from the Shed.
In 1985 Butcher and Burn formed the large London Improvising Ensemble, which evolved into the long-standing Chris Burn's Ensemble.
Other collaborations in the 1980s included a brief soprano saxophone quartet (with Evan Parker, Trevor Watts and Lol Coxhill), a DDR tour with trombonist Alan Tomlinson and tours with
Also duos with the singers Vanessa Mackness and Phil Minton, the multi-instrumentalist Steve Beresford, and some performances with
Butcher later played in a number of
Bailey's Company Weeks; and released 3 CDs with him.
formed in 1991 with Georg Gräwe, meant more regular visits to Europe - whilst in London Butcher joined what became the final version of John Stevens'
Spontaneous Music Ensemble
A New Distance contains the SME's last recorded concert.
Solo concerts and recordings have long been a particular enthusiasm.
His first solo CD Thirteen Friendly Numbers (1991), includes pieces for multitracked saxophones, whilst
later releases tend to focus on live performance.
An exception is Invisible Ear (2003) which explores close-miking, amplification, multitracking and saxophone-controlled feedback.
The 2006 Resonant Spaces CD collects music from a tour of unusual and extreme acoustics in Scotland and the Orkneys.
Other releases include performances inside the giant Utsunomiya hollow mountain in Japan, Oberhausen's massive Gazometer, Houston's Dan Flavin Gallery and Brooklyn's Issue Project Room.
Certain electronic music was an early influence on Butcher's approach to saxophone playing, and became explicit in his electro-manipulation duo Secret Measures with
Phil Durrant, begun in 1997.
In the same year he joined the electro-acoustic Austrian group
Polwechsel, producing 6 CDs - including collaborations with Christian Fennez, and with John Tilbury.
Other electronic collaborators include lloopp artist
Christof Kurzmann, EMS synthist Thomas Lehn and no-input mixer specialist Toshimaru Nakamura.
In the trio Thermal, with EX guitarist Andy Moor and synthist Thomas Lehn, Butcher specifically works with the possibilities of amplification.
He has spent periods at STEIM and ZKM helping research a system for software recognition of his saxophone techniques with Californian computer professor William Tsun-Yuk Hsu.
Some commentators have described his wind trio The Contest of Pleasures, with Axel Dörner and Xavier Charles, as electronic music played by acoustic instruments.
Begining with visits to the Vancouver Jazz Festival in the early 90s, collaborations with various North American musicians have developed fruitfully. In particular duos with drummers Gerry Hemingway and
Gino Robair and Way Out Northwest with Vancouver residents Torsten Müller & Dylan van der Schyff.
Duos have a special place in improvisation and, for Butcher, additionally include partnerships with John Edwards (bass), Mark Sanders (drums), Rhodri Davies (harp) and Eddie Prévost (percussion).
In 2006/9 Butcher worked with the Australian ELISION ensemble.
Tim O'Dwyer wrote Gravity for the group plus Butcher, and the following year they jointly composed Residue for a performance at the Qeensland Festival. In 2009 Butcher joined them at the HCMF for an hommage to Anthony Braxton.
As an improviser he values many occasional, sometimes just one-off encounters.
These have ranged from large groups such as Fred van Hoves
tnonet - Radu Malfattis
Orkestra - Butch Morris
London Skyscraper - the
EX Orkestra - Richard Barrett's
fORCH project - to duo concerts with Fred Frith, Akio Suzuki, Carlos Zingaro, Max Eastley, Tony Buck, Angharad Davies, Otomo Yoshihide, Will Guthrie, Kaffe Matthews, Taku Sugimoto, Kevin Drumm, Jin Hi Kim, David Toop, John Coxon, Seymour Wright, Martin Tetrault, Okkyung Lee, Paul Lovens and John Tilbury.
Some highlights from recent years include:
Asymptotic Freedom - a response to the theories of Gustav Metzger. For saxophone, snare drum, guitar, e-bow (one performer) in London and Glasgow.
A Huddersfield Festival composition commision - "somethingtobesaid" for the 8-piece John Butcher Group (released on Weight of Wax).
Recording for David Sylvian's installation "When we return you won't recognise us"
An interview for the film Amplified Gesture, directed by Phil Hopkins.
A concert and recording with Christian Wolff and AMM.
penny wands and native string, a commission from PERFORMA to compose for Futurist Intonarumori and saxophone. Performed in San Francisco and New York.
A solo concert in the West Texas dessert at artist Jim Magee's The Hill.
A week at the Whitney Museum, New York, interpreting Christian Marclay pieces.
Two weeks touring in Japan with Eddie Prévost.
A commission to write a chapter of the book Aspekte der Freien Improvisation in der Musik.
A solo at the Godspeed You!, Black Emperor curated All Tommorow's Parties.
Composing Tarab Cut for Visiting Tarab - Tarek Atoui/Performa's project based on Kamal Kassar's archive of classical Arab Music.
Three USA tours - playing with Gino Robair, John Shiurba, Jason Roebke, Lou Mallozzi, Denman Maroney, Ellen Fullman, Tom Dill, Jim Black, Thomas Lehn and Peter Evans - to name a few.
Working for a week in Aldeburgh on Christian Marclay's Everyday.
Two more 5 hour performances with Visiting Tarab, in Sharjah, UAE and The Serpentine Gallery, London.
A Euro-tour and BBC broadcast with The Apophonics.
A visit to Montreal to hear the Quasar Saxophone Quartet play my composition Balance.
Taking part in the John Cage Night Prom at the Albert Hall.
A HCMF commision to write "Isola" for Cranes & Freighters.
A rare driving tour in southern U.S.A. with Thomas Lehn and Gino Robair.
From 1993 - 1997 Butcher was a director of the London Musicians' Collective, helping to organise their annual festivals Around this time he also organised, with flautist Nancy Ruffer, two
SoundArt festivals - programming contemporary composed and improvised music.
He has also given many workshops/lectures/master-classes on improvisation and the saxophone.
Royal Academy of Music, Vancouver Creative Music Institute, Barcelona Conservatory, Newfoundland Sound Symposium, Middlesex University, Princeton University, Parthenay Festival, Montreal University, Dartington College, Stanford University etc.