Friday 11th SeptemberSeptember 11, 2009
I am very pleased to get that week out of the way. I am day off tomorrow and intend to spend most of the day resting and soaking up music. This week’s listening time has been even more limited than usual, and even when I have been able to listen (and then write) my mental and physical state has not been strong enough really, and some of my writing here has been substandard. Never mind though. Tonight I listened to a CD that has been out a couple of months and has been very much on my radar, but for some reason I only got around to hearing the last couple of days.
The degree to which John Butcher’s Somethingtobesaid score dictates which sounds are played by which musician and when is unclear. Perhaps that was intentional, but certainly I would say it adds to my interest in the CD release of the first performance of the work, recorded by an eight piece group named John Butcher Group and released on Butcher’s own Weight of Wax label.
The recording presents one complete, hour long realisation of the piece by the group, made at the second performance of the piece recorded at the Huddersfield Festival last year. I was in Huddersfield on the night of the concert, but frustrating concert scheduling saw me across town at a Radu Malfatti gig at the time. I did however get the chance to talk to a few of the group in the pub later, and all seemed very happy with how it had gone. Since then I have been looking forward to hearing how it all came out, and as I missed a BBC Radio 3 broadcast of the performance of the concert a week or so later as well, this CD release of the BBC’s recording is very welcome.
From what I can tell, Butcher’s score dictates when and where the eight musicians should play, inviting them to improvise in smaller pre-selected groups for prescribed lengths of time, with differing degrees of dictated structure also imposed throughout. Butcher plays his saxophones, but also triggers pre-recorded material based on a ten year old answerphone tape and some multitracked wine glasses. The shape of the improvisation also seems to be dictated in some way by the use of these sounds, perhaps they were set up as a trigger for how the group should play when these particular elements were heard? Besides Butcher, the carefully assembled group consisted of a blend of acoustic and electronic musicians: Chris Burn, (piano) Clare Cooper, (harp and guzheng) Dieb13, (turntables) John Edwards, (double bass) Thomas Lehn, (analogue synth) Adam Linson, (double bass and electronics) and Gino Robair (percussion and energised surfaces). Throughou tthe piece we are presented with just about everything. There are jazz-infused sax solos, quiet hums, rattling piano, shimmering drones, dissonant patches of earthy noise, small acoustic duos and trios and other parts where a truly electroacoustic combination is involved. Here and there the disembodied answerphone voices appear, and when they do they seem to alter whatever direction the music has taken and it goes off somewhere else. Nothing stays still for long, but equally a sense of structure remains and the group never descend into mayhem. It feels as if no more than four or five musicians play together at any one time, and certainly a note sent to me by Butcher that accompanied the CD outlines some of the smaller groups heard, from the opening Burn / Cooper / Lehn / Linson quartet through assorted arrrangements to the final Butcher / Lehn / Robair trio.
In the programme notes for the Huddersfield performance, Butcher wrote that a concern for the composition had been that, as he chipped away at, and redirected the freedoms and responsibilities of improvisation, could he replace them with something as worthwhile? The obvious question of course is what is meant by worthwhile? If the resulting music is not so good, but the process of discovering this is of much value to the musicians could that be considered worthwhile? Although reknowned as one of the UK’s finest improvisers, Butcher has worked around the boundaries between composition and improvisation until quite recently in the group Polwechsel. Certainly Somethingtobesaid sounds little like a Polwechsel piece. In fact it is very difficult to pin down exactly what it sounds like simply because at different times it sounds like so many different things. Without knowing precisely where the composition stops and the improv begins it is hard to comment on Butcher’s question, but the recording here is fascinating to listen to, if only as a string of nine pieces (although one continuous piece there are nine track markers added to the music that roughly frame the different sections) by eight talented musicians, some of which result in more interesting music than others. When it hits the spot it really does. The Butcher / Edwards duo that makes up the second segment is exceptional, as are most of Thomas Lehn’s contributions. There aren’t really any sections that do not work at all, though some parts don’t really have long enough to evolve, and often are suddenly diverted elsewhere, presumably by elements of the score, or perhaps by the appearance of the pre-recorded sounds.
As an overall work, Somethingtobesaid may not sound focussed from an purely compositional viewpoint, and perhaps does not gel together as a complete hour-long work all that well, but I suspect it was never meant to. As a piece of music that tests the impact of boundaries placed on freely creative musicians and tries to see if the addition of fixed frameworks adds or subtracts from the overall end result it is a thoroughly fascinating and enjoyable experience. As an album presented to a listener without any knowledge of the composed elements I suspect it would be received as a mixed bag, almost like a compilation album, with some sections very strong, others less so. Certainly for this listener Somethingtobesaid is an intriguing and occasionally exceptional album. Next year the group perform in Berlin during the Maerzmusik Festival, some of which I hope to be attending. Fingers crossed that performance won’t collide with anything else of interest to me.
The cover art for the disc is also really great, a painting by (I believe) Butcher’s brother Philip painted back in 1976. Beyond its connection to Huddersfield and the North of England I’m not sure of the relevance of the loaf of bread in the painting, but the image is quite stunning. One that Brian O will, I suspect appreciate a great deal. The CD can be ordered directly from John Butcher here. Please do.