John Butcher Group - Somethingtobesaid by Julian Cowley in WIRE 306 (August 2009)
John Butcher Group

Somethingtobesaid was created by saxophonist John Butcher for the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival in 2008, an hour-long composition realised by musicians who mostly follow his instructions and at times are invited to improvise. Shortly before he joined the multinational octet for this performance, Californian percussionist Gino Robair told me how he felt strong affinity with Butcher's taste for generating electronic timbres and textures with purely acoustic means. Much of the musical action here takes place around that interface.

The group features Thomas Lehn's analogue synth wizardry, Robair's 'energised sufraces' and turntable input from dieb13, along with Butcher's saxophones, Chris Burn's piano and the sinewy springy double bass combination of John Edwards and Adam Linson. Some of the composer's directions took their bearings from sound now audible in the performance - ghostly vocal snippets retrieved from a disused answering machine; the frictional hum of multitracked wine glasses. Occasionally chains of acoustic events tumble together, swirl and disperse in ways that suggest the dynamics of studio-produced electronic music - there's a very good example about five minutes in from the start. But Butcher is guiding the instrumental cross-currents too, regulating combinations within the group, keeping the music shapely, cohesive and uncluttered without sacrificing vitality.

Wired and unplugged sound sources find common ground, but it's not a matter of mimicry or camouflage. Rather it's a means of focussing and concentrating the flow of energy from technique, and the outcome is singular and often strangely beautiful music. Substantial too - like the loaf of bread in Philip Butcher's splendid painting on the cover. Something said; something really worth saying.

somethingtobesaid by Stuart Broomer in
Somethingtobesaid is an hour-long composition for octet commissioned by the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival where this performance was recorded in November, 2008. For Butcher it’s an opportunity to merge his usual improvisational practice with composed elements in such a way that composition might lead improvisation into new areas without inhibiting it. Notated pitches and playing intentions were developed from voices on a ten-year-old answering machine tape, a source that surfaces occasionally, and other pre-recorded elements include the sound of multi-tracked wine glasses as well as some sounds from the ensemble’s musicians. Somethingtobesaid is intimately tied to processes of memory, including repetition, transformation and expectation. It’s performed/created by an ensemble of both players long associated with Butcher (pianist Chris Burn, bassist John Edwards, percussionist Gino Robair and synthesist Thomas Lehn) and more recent associates (dieb13 on turntables, Adam Linson on bass and electronics and Clare Cooper on harp and guzheng). There’s a mingling of acoustic, electronic and pre-recorded elements that blurs both time and source. These interests in time and the relationship with language parallel Butcher’s 1997 composition “No Stops, Only Commas” for the Chris Burn Ensemble, from Navigations (Acta 12), but Somethingtobesaid represents a significant step in both scale and methodology.

The piece unfolds like a topographical map of an area both new and oddly familiar. Its very first sound is a drone that defies identification, yet the occasionally surfacing, slightly muffled, voices will resonate with shared experiences of telephone messages and dreams. Different combinations of improvisers create shifting textures and layers of association and density, from the vague and skein-like airiness of “Part One” with Burn, Cooper, Lehn and Linson, to the sudden hurly-burly and grit of Butcher’s multiphonic tenor and Edwards’ bass as they emerge from “Part 2,” reminding one why this was recorded and broadcast by the BBC’s Jazz on 3 (this suggestion of jazz reappears on “Part 8,” with Butcher’s phrasing and tone seemingly more rooted in customary modern jazz practice than one might expect, this in itself apparently an element of memory). These emerging sub-groups highlight the sense of continuous evolution, while underlying compositional elements seem to create a sense of foreboding, made explicit in the cryptic and fragmented words. There’s even a sense of time coming apart, as in the conclusion of “Part 5” where there’s a sudden collocation of voices, low register-bass and the chirping upper-register of Butcher’s soprano saxophone. That disintegrative process is still more explicit in “Part 6,” where there’s a “duet” between Burn’s live piano and a recording evidently manipulated by dieb13, sound seemingly becoming substance in a distorting mirror.

Clearly the improvisation takes on different dimensions and assumes new directions based on the composed elements, and the ultimate shape of the piece has coherence and depth compounded of the two methodologies and their abilities to reshape one another. Somethingtobesaid is important and powerful work, mixing mystery and certainty in subtle and sometimes disturbing ways.