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, Okkyung Lee, John Edwards, Toshi Nakamura, Paul Lovens, Eddie Prevost, Mark Sanders, John Russell, 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 is a collection of site-specific performances collected during a tour of unusual locations in Scotland and the Orkney Islands.
His first solo album, Thirteen Friendly Numbers ('91), includes compositions for multitracked saxophones, whilst later solo CDs focus on live performance, composition, amplification and saxophone-controlled feedback.
HCMF has twice commissioned him to compose for his own large ensembles. Other commissions include for Elision (Australia), the Rova (USA) & Quasar (Canada) Saxophone Quartets, reconstructed Futurist Intonarumori (USA), "Tarab Cuts" (based on pre-WWII Arabic recordings, and shortlisted for the 2014 British Composer's Award) and "Good Liquor .." for the London Sinfonietta.
In 2011 he received a Paul Hamlyn Foundation Award for Artists.
Recent collaborative projects include The Apophonics with Robair and Edwards, Anemone with trumpeter Peter Evans and two trios with Tony Buck (+ Magda Mayas or Burkhard Stangl).
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, Claudia Binder, Thomas Lehn, Fred Frith, Ute Kangeisser, 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.
Butcher was born in Brighton but has lived in London since the late 1970s.
After school piano lessons he took up the saxophone at Surrey University, where he was studying physics. His first concerts were on keyboards in the avant rock group Habilis.
Hearing gigs by musicians like John Surman, Stan Tracey and Louis Moholo fed an interest in jazz and improvisation which he explored with pianist Chris Burn and sometimes his bass playing brother Phil Butcher.
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".
At the same time he continued to work in Burns Jazz Ensemble (BBC Big Band winners in 1980), and toured with London Contemporary Dance Theatre
& New Arts Consort.
Monthly concerts at the Workers' Music Association in Notting Hill were an important laboratory, leading to his first LP Fonetiks 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 releasing 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, releasing over 10 albums since 1991.
The first, Thirteen Friendly Numbers, included pieces for multitracked saxophones, whilst
later releases tend to focus either on live performance (often in unusual acoustic locations) or composition.
Invisible Ear structures close-miking, amplification, multitracking and saxophone-controlled feedback.
The Resonant Spaces CD collects music from a tour of special enviroments in Scotland and the Orkneys.
Others include performances inside the giant Utsunomiya stone mountain in Japan, Oberhausen's massive Gazometer, Houston's Dan Flavin Gallery, Brooklyn's Issue Project Room and the Hall Egg Farm, Fukay.
Certain electronic music was an early influence on Butcher's saxophone playing, becoming explicit in his electro-manipulation duo Secret Measures with
Phil Durrant ('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.
Other longstanding duos include partnerships with John Edwards (bass), Mark Sanders (drums), Rhodri Davies (harp) and Eddie Prévost (percussion).
Occasional encounters range from large groups such as:
Fred van Hoves
tnonet | Radu Malfattis
Orkestra | Butch Morris
EX Orkestra | Richard Barrett's
to duo concerts with;
Fred Frith, Akio Suzuki, Carlos Zingaro, Max Eastley, Claudia Binder, Tony Buck, Angharad Davies, Matthew Shipp, Otomo Yoshihide, Kaffe Matthews, Taku Sugimoto, Kevin Drumm, Jin Hi Kim, David Toop, John Coxon, Fred Lonberg-Holm, Seymour Wright, Ute Kangeisser, Paul Lovens and John Tilbury.
In 2006 Butcher visited Australia to play in Tim O'Dwyer's Gravity, written for the ELISION ensemble. He was then commisioned to write (with O'Dwyer) Residue, for the Queensland Festival - the beginning of a new interest in compositional work.
In 2008 HCMF commissioned him to write "somethingtobesaid" for the 8-piece John Butcher Group.
Earlier that year he performed Asymptotic Freedom - a response to the theories of Gustav Metzger - for saxophone, snare drum, guitar, e-bow.
Activities from more recent years include:
"When we return you won't recognise us" for David Sylvian.
"Amplified Gesture", interview in Phil Hopkins' film.
AMM with Christian Wolff concert/recording.
"penny wands and native string" commissioned for Futurist Intonarumori and saxophone (New York & San Francisco).
Solo (and with Joe McPhee) in the West Texas Dessert at artist Jim Magee's The Hill.
A week at the Whitney Museum, NY, interpreting Christian Marclay pieces.
A chapter of the book Aspekte der Freien Improvisation.
Solo at the Godspeed You!, Black Emperor curated All Tomorrow's Parties.
"Beneath the Skies" in New York. Commissioned 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 in Aldeburgh on the music for Christian Marclay's Everyday.
"Beneath the Skies", in Sharjah, UAE & The Serpentine Gallery, London.
The Apophonics - A tour and BBC broadcast.
"Balance" - a composition for the Quasar Saxophone Quartet (Montreal).
Joining the John Cage Night Prom at the Albert Hall.
"Isola": A HCMF commission for Cranes & Freighters.
A driving tour in southern U.S.A. with Thomas Lehn and Gino Robair.
Live music for Sylvain George's "Vers Madrid" 145min 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: A commission expanding my work with Arabic and Sufi recordings into a concert length piece.
A fourth tour of Japan, organised and promoted by Hisashi Terauchi.
Tarab Cuts in Bristol, Glasgow, Amsterdam, Barcelona, Rio de Janeiro.
"Routing Lynn" - AV Festival with Rhodri Davies plus recording work by Chris Watson.
Solo concerts: McGill University, Montreal - Dunston Staithes, Gateshead - Newhaven Fort, Sussex - Sibelius Museum, Turku, Finland - Cafe Mir, Oslo - Queen's University, Belfast - The Amersham Arms, Deptford.
60th birthday concerts at Cafe Oto.
Appearance in the film "Taking the dog for a Walk" by Antoine Prum.
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, Goldsmiths College, Dartington College, Stanford University, Queens University Belfast, Musik Akademie Basel etc.