Concert Reviews

John Butcher plus Alvin Lucier’s I am sitting in a room, Southampton 28.02.11

March 2, 2011

IMG_0565An extra post then to write up last night’s concert that I drove down to Southampton to watch. Now, generally speaking, Southampton is less of a hive of avant-garde musical activity and more a seemingly endless array of grotesque shopping malls by the sea, but it was really great last night to drive down and find not only a healthy audience of maybe seventy or so people, but some really admirable people who had worked hard to put the concert together, jumping through all kinds of hoops to be able to gain access to the space, which was a twelfth century medieval vault hidden below the ruins of the city’s castle. Having been at a gig in central London a couple of days before that attracted about one tenth of the same number of audience members it was really inspiring to see the hard work of a few dedicated people determined to do something in their locality supported so well.

The concert was billed as an extension of Butcher’s work in resonant spaces, following on from a series of concerts he has done in caves and old disused buildings around the British Isles. It turned out however, that despite this old stone vault’s remarkable appearance it wasn’t actually all that resonant. Don’t get me wrong, it sounded an awful lot better than Café Oto would have done on a Monday night, but the sound in the room wasn’t quite so full of echo and vibration. i’m not sure why… the room is just about big enough, is built in an arch shape and is made of old stone, so it seemed like everything was in place, but in the end, as Butcher put it to me himself, the concert would be a one held in a special, atmospheric space rather than a particularly resonant one.

First though, we had a rather nice performance of Alvin Lucier’s most widely known work, I am sitting in a room. It must be ten years since I last attended a performance of the piece, and yet somehow I feel I know it very well, perhaps as a result of listening over recent years to assorted concerts and CDs that have taken Lucier’s composition as a starting point for other work. For those that do not know the piece, a spoken word part, maybe a couple of paragraphs in length is read to the room, captured on a microphone and recorded. The recording is then immediately played back to the room through the PA system, and this playback is then recorded, and then played back and so on, so the original spoken piece becomes slowly distorted, dissolved into a stream of gradually blurring feedback and distortion. Last night’s performance was realised by Stuart Bannister using two Edirol handheld recorders to loop the sounds quickly. The spoken part was given by a woman whose name I have embarrassingly forgotten.

The female voice gave the loops of gradually degrading sound quite a high frequency, at least for the start of the performance. The recording was played back and recorded maybe about fifty times until all that remained was a blurred mass of high and low frequencies that filled the room. I tried to count the number of loops the sound went through, and noted my ability to relate to the sounds as they progressed. It took about a dozen passes for the sound to lose all shape of words and sentences, though if I had been asked blind I think I would still have spotted that the sound originated from human speech. After about thirty passes all that remained really was just a fluctuating blur, a mix of basically two sets of sounds, as all of the detail of the speech, and other sounds picked up in the room split into two, high pitched wavering coming from the remains of the sprightlier spoken parts, and a gradually intensifying bass part building from the combined mass of room tones, and other aural detritus thrown into the blender.

This was a really nice performance of the piece. Bannister did well to keep things in check. Here and there digital clipping emerged, the danger obviously being that this sound would head into the loop and multiply in ways that might have spoilt the desired effect of the music, but somehow (I have no idea how) Bannister smoothed these out through his small mixer and, without any noticeable impact on the piece kept things from going off at ugly tangents. As the recordings blurred, so the volume was increased, and by the end of the set we were stood in this damp, eerie setting full of dripping water lit only by a couple of spotlights, somewhat engulfed by the sound. A nice realisation then of a classic, always interesting composition.

There then followed Butcher’s solo, which he split up into several parts, switching between alto and soprano sax and also utilising his feedback sax set-up, of which I am a huge fan. A John Butcher solo is rarely not great, but this was maybe the best I have ever seen. He kicked off with the alto and an almost viciously violent series of stabbing attacks that lead into streams of loud abrasive abstraction that just didn’t sound like a sax. There are some wonderful saxophone players in improvised music right now, but none sound quite like John Butcher. Across the four or five pieces he played last night he worked primarily with abstract, non-idiomatic sounds, with the odd moment every now and again hinting at jazz phrasing, but each moment of this type quickly subsumed into the multi-layered, quite frankly impossible to perform without several windpipes soundworlds. Butcher did whatever it is he does with a low microphone to bring about the feedback floods that he shapes and hammers into new, percussive directions by opening and closing valves vigorously. The sheer physicality of his playing, coupled with the choices of sounds brought together in often surprising, unexpected combinations makes John Butcher sound like nobody else. His music is technically impressive, but its not the circular breathing, or the feedback pyrotechnics or anything like this that make the music so great, its the spirit and passion of his musical voice that does the job. Last night, watching Butcher stand, adorned in a fedora hat as water dripped from the ceiling around him, and in front of such an eager audience he was on fire, pushing hard to try and get every inch of additional sound he could from the room, playing faster, louder and full of more detail and sudden dynamic shifts than I think I have ever heard from him live before.

This was a great gig, recorded by the ubiquitous microphones of Simon Reynell, so perhaps the music might live on outside of that dark room somewhere yet. For now though, I am very pleased indeed I made the effort to drive down and will keep an eye on furtehr activities down on the south coast in the future. Sadly, none of my pictures cam out in the dark other than the one above. A lot of camera flashes went off though, so perhaps someone out there has a photo or two I could post here? This concert in particular is one that would benefit from some photographic illustration.Bang the bore.

Comments (12)

  • Seth

    March 2, 2011 at 9:53 am

    Hi Richard. Chuffed you enjoyed the event, and thank you for the review. We’ve been going for a couple of years and I think this is the first review we’ve had… cheers!

    A couple of things… the reader for IASIAR was Lucy Bannister, artist and dialogue editor for Axisweb ( and respectively). She’s married to this bloke, who was hanging around in a corner on Monday fiddling with things:

    Apparently JB plays tenor, not alto sax. That was drawn to my attention to Mr. Reynell… I wouldn’t know myself. Being a drummer, I’m only qualified to hit things with sticks.

    I’ll send a photo or two your way when I’ve got the chance… I’ve got to give Will Montgomery and Lisa Blanning first dibs, but I took a few so there’ll probably be something you can use if you like.

  • Jacques Oger

    March 2, 2011 at 10:18 am

    I wish I could have been here, especially if JB played alto saxophone ! :-)

  • simon reynell

    March 2, 2011 at 10:35 am

    I think John was using a new extending technique whereby the alto takes on the dimensions and acoustic properties of a tenor saxophone. Extraordinary.

    It was a really good concert though, and in a great venue.

    (By the way the speaker’s name in the Lucier piece was Lucy Bannister)

  • Brian Olewnick

    March 2, 2011 at 12:43 pm

    Never understood how one can do a live performance of the Lucier without contradicting the text. At least if performer and audience are sharing the same space.

    Sounds like a great show…jealous!

  • Jacques Oger

    March 2, 2011 at 1:52 pm

    ah ah !
    it opens new horizons

  • Mark Durgan :: Bang the Bore

    March 2, 2011 at 8:31 pm

    […] written a complimentary review of last Monday’s Resonance and Psychogeography event for his Watchful Ear blog. Believe it or not this is the first review we’ve ever had of one of our events, so […]

  • Richard Pinnell

    March 2, 2011 at 9:36 pm

    Sigh…. you make one little mistake and suddenly you get more comments than the last month added together 😉

    It was dark in there OK? 😉

    Thanks all for the comments.

  • Lucy Bannister

    March 3, 2011 at 12:11 pm

    It’s a really good review of an excellent show, it deserves a few comments I think :-)

    I just wanted to respond to Brian’s point above, I altered the text to reflect the fact that I was in fact standing, not sitting, in the same room, and it wasn’t me that was recording the voice. It does say in Lucier’s instructions that you can use any text. An artist, Catherine Bertola, will be experimenting with this by reading a text from the Bronte sister’s diaries for an installation based on ‘I’m Sitting in a Room’ at the Bronte Parsonage Museum in Haworth from April as part of if anyone is interested.

  • Lucy Bannister

    March 3, 2011 at 12:21 pm

    Sorry I failed on the HTML there – it should say Art in Yorkshire, the link works though.

  • Brian Olewnick

    March 3, 2011 at 1:36 pm

    :-) thanks, Lucy!

    I didn’t know there *were* instructions by Lucier aside from the text itself. I wonder if he came up with them after the fact, when the piece became popular enough that people desired to perform it. Interesting that, in a way, *any* text performance using the basic technique with the tapes becomes a Lucier!

    The most interesting variation I’ve seen was Phil Kline’s “Whole Lotta”, wherein he used ten boomboxes, going to the first, singing the Led Zep refrain, “Woman, you need LOOOOOVE” into it, recorded it, went to the second box and, as the first one repeated, sang the same into that one, recording both his voice and the first box, etc. and so on, creating an enormous maelstrom of faux-Plant.

  • stuart bannister

    March 6, 2011 at 10:00 am

    After playing around with the piece in the empty space beforehand I was very aware of the impact the high audience turnout had on the room’s resonance. I wondered if the previously dominant bass frequencies in particular would ever appear!

    A quite opposite situation to sound engineering at ‘rock box’ venues in Leeds, where one would hope for a full house just to make the room sound less awful!

    I am in no way complaining though, or suggesting that sandstone coats and hats should have been provided for the crowd. I thoroughly enjoyed performing the piece with an audience present, especially one so attentive. It was a great listening experience.

    Thanks to Seth for putting the event together, and Richard for your excellent write up. A pleasure to see John play twice in one day too!

  • Alvin Lucier’s I Am Sitting in a Room :: Bang the Bore

    October 16, 2011 at 12:54 pm

    […] The image below is of Remnant by Southampton artist Chantal Powell, created specifically for the Castle Vault and re-exhibited there for Resonance and Psychogeography. […]

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