John Butcher's work ranges through improvisation, his own compositions, multitracked pieces and explorations with feedback and extreme acoustics.
Originally a physicist, he left academia in '82, and has since collaborated with hundreds of musicians - inc. Derek Bailey, John Tilbury, John Stevens, The EX, Gerry Hemingway, Polwechsel, Gino Robair, Rhodri Davies, John Edwards, Toshi Nakamura, Paul Lovens, Eddie Prevost, Mark Sanders, Christian Marclay, Otomo Yoshihide, Phil Minton, and Andy Moor.
He is well known as a solo performer who attempts to engage with the uniqueness of place. Resonant Spaces ('06) is a collection of site-specific performances collected during a tour of unusual locations in Scotland and the Orkney Islands.
His first solo CD, Thirteen Friendly Numbers ('91), includes compositions for multitracked saxophones, whilst later releases focus on live performance, composition, amplification and saxophone-controlled feedback.
In 2011 he received a Paul Hamlyn Foundation Award for Artists.
HCMF has twice commissioned him to compose for his own large ensembles. Other commissions include Elision (Australia), the Rova (USA) & Quasar (Canada) Saxophone Quartets, reconstructed Futurist Intonarumori (USA), and, most recently "Tarab Cuts" (based on pre-WWII Arabic recordings).
Recent collaborative projects include The Apophonics with Gino Robair and John Edwards and Anemone with trumpeter Peter Evans.
Butcher values playing in occasional encounters - ranging from large groups such as Butch Morris' London Skyscraper and the EX Orkestra, to duo concerts with David Toop, Kevin Drumm, 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 his brother Phil Butcher on double bass.
In 1977 he began a Theoretical Physics Ph.D at Imperial College - published in 1981 as
"Spin effects in the production and weak decay of heavy Quarks".
He continued to work in Burns large Jazz Ensemble (winning a 1980 BBC Radio competition), and toured with London Contemporary Dance Theatre
& New Arts Consort.
At the same time, monthly concerts at the Workers' Music Association in Notting Hill Gate were an important musical laboratory, and, post doctorate, he left academia and went off with music; releasing the LP Fonetiks ('84) and playing in
Freelance (with Elton Dean).
In '83 he formed a trio with guitarist John Russell and violinist Phil Durrant. They started the label ACTA to release their LP
Conceits ('87) and were joined the following year by drummer Paul Lovens and trombonist Radu Malfatti to form
News from the Shed.
In '85 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 soprano quartet (with Evan Parker, Trevor Watts and Lol Coxhill) in Italy, a DDR tour with trombonist Alan Tomlinson and concerts with
Embers, 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.
Frisque Concordance, formed in '91 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.
Butcher has explored solo music in a number of ways.
His first CD Thirteen Friendly Numbers ('91), includes pieces for multitracked saxophones, whilst
later releases tend to focus either on live performance (often in unusual acoustic locations) or composition.
Invisible Ear ('03) structures close-miking, amplification, multitracking and saxophone-controlled feedback.
The '06 Resonant Spaces CD collects music from a tour of special acoustics in Scotland and the Orkneys.
Other releases include performances inside the giant Utsunomiya stone 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 '97.
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 researching 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.
Beginning with visits to the Vancouver Jazz Festival in the early 90s, collaborations with North American musicians have developed fruitfully. In particular duos with drummers Gerry Hemingway and
Gino Robair and the Way Out Northwest trio.
Duos have a special place in improvisation and, for Butcher, 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. First in Tim O'Dwyer's Gravity, then in a commission written with O'Dwyer, Residue, for the Queensland Festival and in '09 a homage to Anthony Braxton at the HCMF.
In '08 HCMF commissioned Butcher to write "somethingtobesaid" for the 8-piece John Butcher Group (released on Weight of Wax).
Earlier that year he performed Asymptotic Freedom - a response to the theories of Gustav Metzger. For saxophone, snare drum, guitar, e-bow.
Butcher 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:
Recording for David Sylvian's "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 PERFORMA commission to write for Futurist Intonarumori and saxophone. Performed in San Francisco and New York.
Solo in the West Texas dessert at artist Jim Magee's The Hill.
A week at the Whitney Museum, NY, interpreting Christian Marclay pieces.
An invitation to write a chapter of the book Aspekte der Freien Improvisation.
Solo at the Godspeed You!, Black Emperor curated All Tomorrow's Parties.
Beneath the Skies: A PERFORMA commission for Tarek Atoui'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.
Collaborating for a week in Aldeburgh on the music for Christian Marclay's Everyday.
Performing Beneath the Skies, in Sharjah, UAE and The Serpentine Gallery, London.
A Euro-tour and BBC broadcast with The Apophonics.
Composing Balance for the Montreal Quasar Saxophone Quartet.
Taking part in the John Cage Night Prom at the Albert Hall.
Isola: A HCMF commission for the group Cranes & Freighters.
A rare driving tour in southern U.S.A. with Thomas Lehn and Gino Robair.
Improvising live music (Milan and Belgium Film Festivals) for Sylvain George's "Vers Madrid" documentary and Caroline Strubbe's "I'm the Same, I'm Another" feature film.
Yoko Ono's Meltdown, South Bank, with Thurston Moore.
Duo concerts with Andy Moor in Italy and Switzerland.
Tarab Cuts: An "Out of the Machine" commission to expand my work with Arabic and Sufi recordings into a concert length piece.
A fourth tour of Japan, organised and promoted by Hisashi Terauchi.
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.