Markus Müller's liner notes for Two Concerts

Phil Minton - Erhard Hirt - John Butcher

In 1937, when John Cage prognosticated that “the use of noise to make music will continue and increase until we reach a music produced through the aid of electrical instruments which will make available for musical purposes any and all sounds that can be heard” he could hardly have calculated that in 1997, a trio would record a CD on which a singer, a saxophonist, and a guitarist would engage in a competition to do just as he had predicted: use every perceptible sound available.

If Erhard Hirt uses electricity to transform his guitar into an interactive noise library, John Butcher and Phil Minton refuse any type of electric aid; nevertheless one has the impression that there is nothing, absolutely no sound, that is not available for use. The special virtuosity (which, in the case of Phil Minton, borders on the ability of his voice to oscillate between Schubert and an aluminium shredder, to traverse the intersection between a travelling circus and the Three Tenors tour) is only worth mentioning because it leads to musically fascinating results within the framework of improvisation, as here undertaken.

Butcher, Hirt and Minton have played together a good six years. Minton, who is known as a legend among English improv musicians, has again and again over the last 20 years redefined the voice and its role in music. Whereas he has often used song structures in his long lasting partnership with Veryan Weston, in contexts such as this trio, he uses sounds and noises as a form of scat singing. This has little to do with Ella Fitzgerald: one should rather imagine that one is completely stoned and listening to the sound of a clogged drain. It is striking that the result is not only comic, but also shows that this trio has tremendous group dynamics and is very musical.

Hirt is, in the best sense, the guitar professor of improv. His two solo albums, recorded within the last 13 years, evince the Webern attitude (see liner notes to Gute und schlechte Zeiten). Hirt does only what is essential - he knows very well what his colleagues are capable of. In the trio with Butcher and Minton he is often the backbone and background on which the musical process develops. He plays what is necessary, with regard to the sound material as well as to dynamics and structure. Upon first listening, one notices Hirt’s playing right up front: it provides an expanse for the other musicians: the sounds that he holds out offer Butcher and Minton a playing field. Thanks to diverse sound effects, the sounds are occasionally as hard to classify as Minton’s singing: a guitar is a sampler is a synth is an organ is a guitar. While listening, it is clear that Hirt and Butcher are ideal playing partners because they have congenital ideas of how often, how long, or how densely something should occur. They open and concentrate the possibilities of music. Minton illustrated and sets pulses: he is the Cage-coincidence-generator that affects and powers the others.

Butcher, whose sexy sound analysis I have (somewhere else) called the shape of new English improvisation, plays shattering saxophone; over time, he has conversed often with Minton, using flutter-tonguing and a universe of blowing techniques. In this particular trio, Butcher displays his beguiling breathing methods. he arrays microtonal, multivoiced sound levels in the room, out of which Hirt and Minton develop new formats. Accompanying these new formats he plays lovely MELODIES on the tenor and soprano saxophone: melodies from the family of Marsh, Desmond, Lacy and Braxton. Along with Hirt, he is the architect of the beautiful moment - and sometimes Minton trucks in his wrecking ball (I should probably say Minton “deconstructs”). It is important that the listener is unable to categorize the sounds immediately. One is uncertain about the source of the sounds, but has the certainty of experiencing a coherence.

That also means that the three have to organically organise the sounds despite the diversity of the material. The requirements for this musical process are a schemata of comprehensible actions and reactions, with obligatory rules as well as permissiveness. So on one hand, a linear development is made clear; on the other, possible alternatives for the listener are conveyed. The listener then hears him(her)self - and the process is an ever-renewing one.

© Markus Müller
Translated by Allison Plath-Moseley and Nils Plath