Review: John Butcher – Resonant Spaces

“If you don’t aim to play to your own ideals, then everybody is sold short. Otherwise you might as well hand people a questionnaire as they come in, asking them what they want you to do.”

This is taken from Biba Kopf’s interview with saxophonist John Butcher, conducted for the liner notes of Resonant Spaces. Here, Butcher is talking about the audiences that gathered to watch his performances at these various remote locations across Scotland and Orkney – including an old water reservoir in Fife, an oil tank in Hoy, a Mausoleum in South Lanarkshire – many of whom were locals without any prior experience of improvisatory experiments such as these. Some audience members left after a while, particularly during the pieces that involved the prolonged emission of piercing high tones, but such is the price for a performance that doesn’t tiptoe anxiously around the potential displeasures of every person present.

Contrast this with Butcher’s relationship with the various performance spaces: each non-negotiable in its spatial restraints and acoustic profile, sucking the energy out of those sounds that fail to resonate and jubilantly dispersing those propositions whose frequencies strike the walls at just the right angle, co-steering the direction of these improvisations through a process of reverberant cold-shouldering and echoing encouragement, affirming the repeat of particular playing techniques and the forgo of others. Unlike the audience, whose enjoyment of the proceedings has no bearing on events, the judgement delivered by the space should be listened to and, to some extent, carefully heeded.

At another point in the liner notes interview, Butcher notes a particular frustration with wind instruments: “it’s a very on or off phenomenon, with the full sound either being there or not being there. You don’t usually get real decay or overlap possibilities, which is such an important part of music, like in Feldman’s piano pieces or Bailey’s guitar playing”. While the extensive echoes of many of these spaces partly offer a means of circumventing this problem – with reverberations loitering long enough for Butcher to duet with them, pressing strands of harmony through the blurred remains of former breaths – the binary on-off of woodwind, and the respiratory cycle that drives it, feels like a crucial component of these pieces. Exhale: a question unfurls, seeping out of the soprano like smoke, expanding in volume and splaying into space. Inhale: the response of the space is taken in, received and processed, funnelled partly back into the generation of the next outward gesture.

On “Calls From A Rusty Cage”, recorded at the Wormit Reservoir in Fife, Butcher’s initial sounds are quiet, almost cautious; the hiss of breath pattering gently through the air, gradually accompanied by bleats of note that become louder as Butcher reacts to the delightful splash of ghostly decay that follows each one. The sounds thicken, becoming louder, faster, spinning in arpeggiations that roll like a wheel around the reservoir walls, clambering up to the ceiling and back down, exploiting the invite of a space that both respects the definition of flurried small notes and the panoramic expansion of longer tones. “Wind Piece” is the polar opposite of this climactic whirl: an utter submission to environmental conditions, with soft breaths whistling out of the soprano and perching upon the blustering winds, ducking beneath the flights of bird song, trying to disappear imperceptibly into the gales that swoop, hammock-like, from beneath. Instead of vaulting and somersaulting confidently across the contours of his setting, Butcher melts into the rhythm and pitch of the weather.

Some of those fascinating moments on Resonant Spaces occur during the dramatic accentuation of harmonic feud. On “Close By, A Waterfall” (recorded in Smoo Cave in Durness), the notes often distort against the limits of their amplification, with quivering overtones ping-ponging back and forth across the walls. On “New Scapa Flow”, the higher pitches almost become moans of choral song, pooling into the damp air of Lyness Oil Tank, separating from the distinct shapes of outward breath to become an entirely separate texture, like the spirit levitating above visceral form (with the latter half of the piece becomes a playful ricochet of staccato, hurling short blasts of plosive and waiting for the delayed impact against the far wall, creating this double act of sudden convulsion and phantom mimicry). On the other end of the spectrum is “Frost Piece”, recorded in the small chambers of Tugnet Ice House in Spey Bay, whose frantic gasps and whimpers of feedback conjure a sense of hypothermic panic, snorting as the oxygen runs dry, curling up in the corner of a space whose invite for collaboration is anything but warm. After all, Butcher is a visitor rather than a guest; the space makes no promises of hospitality or accommodation. Make yourself comfortable.