Tonight’s CD is a new release on the Rastascan label named Apophenia by the duo of Gino Robair (Energised surfaces) and John Butcher (saxophones). Robair and Butcher have a long working partnership together. They first produced a trio alongside the late Matthew Sperry in the late eighties, and various other collaborations, including duo releases and Robair’s involvement in the recent ten-piece John Butcher Group followed. Sadly, and slightly embarrassingly, I’ve only ever heard the large group recording, so I can’t really comment on how the pair’s musical relationship has developed over the last decade or more. I do know that I rather like this new release however.
Apophenia was recorded at a US radio station back in 2009. There are four tracks, all quite gritty, earthy stuff with Butcher using motors on his saxophones on the first and last of them. I’ve unfortunately never managed to see Robair play live, so what he is exactly doing to excite precisely which surfaces I’m not certain, but his contribution here is a series of vibrating, drilling sounds that Butcher adds uncharacteristically deep, growling textures and drilling metallic abrasions to. On the first track, the excellently titled Knabble, he shifts from his usual style of swarming and sliding in and around his collaborator’s sound and instead builds blocks of abstract noise on top of Robair’s quite similar sounds. The end result is actually quite un-Butcher-like but a great listen, a quite dense, almost aggressive set of sounds that shift about, stopping, starting and changing gears but resist any sense of melody or tone.
The second piece steps back a little, and after a similar opening, Butcher lets his sax fly a little, scribbling shapes around what is clearly the sound of a snare drum rubbed and struck. This piece, named FainÃ©ant is a much lighter, breezier affair, though the darkly shaded sounds from Robair are still present, if not so heavily pressed. Here the two sound like they are pushing each other, trusting each other’s understanding, and yet forcing the music all over the place. Robair drops to near inactivity now and again, pulling Butcher into tight corners that he easily squeezes out of and puts Robair back on the ropes with sudden bursts of colour.
Jirble, the third track opens with the two musicians trading deep groaning lines that occasionally push hard down towards the subsonic. the piece moves slowly, often recalling the sound of animal cries, and building in intensity until the three minute mark when everything collapses into five or six seconds of silence, out of which Robair pulls a glowing metallic chime, which strikes a couple of times, its sound decaying very slowly, all completely at odds with what has gone before. From here the duo pare things right down, mixing bowed metals and soft rubbing sounds with low gurgled sax for a while with little bulges of intensity. Around the seven minute mark and some high pitched metallic bowing from Robair is instantly matched and held a while by Butcher, his piercing squiggles pitched exactly in tune with the percussionist.
The closing Camorra picks up where the opener left off with a fiery, abrasive opening that suddenly drops into a chasm of silence, from which the drilling, motorised abrasions reappear, quite beautifully here rather than aggressively. This closing piece is a masterwork of balance, the sounds from both musicians placed perfectly, weighing the music down in places, letting it fly elsewhere, both the timing and choice of sounds impeccable. After the early silence the sax is barely recogniseable, just a series of low gulping sounds giving it away amongst a mass of vibrating buzzes from both Robair and Butcher.
This is a great CD of improvised music from a superbly talented duo that know each other well, but clearly refuse to settle into one way of playing and instead push and pull at each other, bouncing in and out of comfort zones and making music that feels thoroughly alive and energetic. Subtle in places, fiery in quite a few others, and sometimes very surprising, this is a CD that may well get missed by the wider audience, but the music deserves to be heard. Don’t miss out on it.