Interview: Phil Minton

The first time I saw Phil Minton – a vocal improviser from Torquay – was in August 2014 at Supernormal Festival in Oxfordshire. I was aware that he’d been running a workshop over the weekend, although I had no idea what to expect when I turned up for the finale performance on the Sunday. Suddenly, around 30 people were sneezing, laughing and gagging in vague unison, with Minton occasionally lunging to the fore to babble and splutter into a microphone. Some members of the crowd were left bewildered, others were audibly amused. Everyone came together in a ferocious applause at the end. 

Minton is performing at Cafe Oto this Friday (February 5th 2016) as part of Lost Property’s “Non Plus Ultra” event, which celebrates 100 years of Dada. Below, Minton fires back some quick, impulsive answers to my questions on the Dada movement, the Feral Choir workshops and the affect of age on the voice.

You’re performing at Lost Property’s “Non Plus Ultra” event on Friday at Café Oto, which celebrates 100 years of Dada. Do you feel any personal connection to the Dada movement?

Dada, like all the artistic movements of 20th century, has certainly had an influence on me and most of the musicians of the world involved in improvising, but I have no personal connection with the originals.

Does you have anything special planned for the event?

I may play something I bought in a shop.

You’ve been running your Feral Choir workshops for decades now, through which non-professional musicians explore the possibilities of the human voice and perform in a concert at the end. What sort of developments do you witness in your participants over the course of the workshop?

A few people leave in the first 15 minutes, but mostly people stay for the three days of workshops and really go for it when we perform.

You take these workshops all over the world, and you’ve previously noted that choirs in every country invariably arrive, via the shedding of cultural inflections, at the same sort of sound. Is it part of the choir’s intention to reach this point?

It was not my intention, but something I thought might happen.

My cultural background, until I was 14, was male voice choirs and Methodist Sunday school. I always felt this was laid on me and not my choice. I wanted to live in Africa and sing and dance with drummers.

Why do you start the workshops with laughter?

Most people know how to do it. And it’s a good warm up for the bits and pieces we use to make sounds.

Speaking of laughter – when I saw you perform at Supersonic, a lot of the audience seemed find amusement in some of the sounds coming out of your mouth. Do you have any thoughts on why people might often find non-verbal sounds humorous?

YES, because there are no words! That’s stupid or like an animal, but a lot of people don’t think like that these days (don’t thank god).

What role does practice play in your creative process?

I’m trying stuff all the time, but avoid doing it airports: “sorry sir, you’re unfit to travel!”

I had a wonderful time reviewing your A Doughnut’s End album last year, which is the fourth in your series of vocal improvisation records that began back in 1980. Have you noticed any particular developments in your own voice over this time, in terms of the sounds you are capable / no longer capable of making?

I could do a bell canto top B when I was in my 20s. Now I can just squeeze out an A. But in the last 50 years, I’ve found a whole cosmos of stuff that I never new existed. I’m much happier with my voice now than I was back then.

By the way, I never use Phlegm or mucus. It’s all flesh and muscle shaking about. (ATTN – I suspect Phil is correcting some of the assertions made in my review of A Doughnut’s End).

You note that A Doughtnut’s End is “less optimistic than forty years ago”. Does this depletion of optimism – or in fact, your mood on the whole – make a distinct imprint on how you approach your vocal improvisation?

Of course, but I hope its still interesting.

What records, if any, have you been listening to and enjoying as of late?

Peter Evans, Warn Marsh and John McCormac.

Other than Non Plus Ultra, what else is on the horizon for you?

A vortex gig with John Russell, then off to south America with Bob Ostertag and Audrey Chen.