Audible Edge 2019 composer-in-residence Andy Butler shares thoughts on his work for the festival, Now and Then. The piece will be performed by Butler along with Annika Moses, Djuna Lee, Josten Myburgh and Jameson Feakes on January 28 at the Old Customs House.
When I started to write Now and Then, I had in mind something quite personal — a slow song reflecting thoughts and anxieties about different kinds of uncertainty. After writing lyrics and beginning work on an accompaniment, I quickly became attached to the piece’s musical forms at the expense of its lyrical-melodic content, which I decided to erase. From that point onward, I developed the work as an instrumental piece removed from the themes that motivated its conception. The only thing leftover from the early compositional period is the title, which I kept as a nod to what I removed. It felt appropriate to do that, because the erased material did nevertheless do something important: it inspired and guided the structure and nature of the music, and so it maintains a shadow existence in the bones of the piece.
So far as the music is concerned, I think it is best conceived of as a reflection of my practice as a solo-improviser; as an application of similar processes and contents to a notated, ensemble setting. Described simply, this approach involves the selection of a fairly small number of ideas, which are then repeated and reordered throughout a performance, usually with very limited variation of the ideas themselves. In Now and Then, I employ this approach by limiting the musical raw materials to eight ideas, which are articulated and rearticulated throughout the work in an uneven, disorderly sequence. The ideas themselves began as transcriptions of improvisations, which I fine-tuned and orchestrated for harmonium, guitar, voice, electronics, saxophone, and bass. This instrumentation struck me as a good combination to express what I’d transcribed — a sound-world of soft, layered long-tones.
Because my creative work is mostly undertaken in an improvised setting, my capacity for musical expression is usually constrained by my limitations as a spontaneous creator and keyboardist. Reimagining my work in a notated, ensemble setting is appealing because it allows me to surpass these limitations. New timbrel possibilities emerge, so does the possibility to express my ideas in a way that is communal, rather than individual. I find this communal element especially appealing, partly because I enjoy working with other musicians, and partly because performers’ interpretations of my ideas often lead to interesting reworkings of that content, shedding new light on what is, to me, very familiar material. This latter point motivated many of my compositional decisions in Now and Then. For example, I have generally afforded a lot of rhythmic latitude to the performers, there are passages of improvisation, and certain melodic phrases are expressed as vague outlines, leaving many consequential decisions to the performer.
My aspiration is for Now and Then to provide an opening to a particular sort of consciousness. I associate this kind of consciousness with my most memorable experiences playing improvised music, times where it felt as though the music was playing itself. During experiences like these, no forethought underlay any of my decisions and there was the sense that I was simply executing ideas that were being relayed to me from some other place. As a process it is deeply intuitive, almost sensory. It is a state of mind that I have also experienced as a listener, albeit in a more passive way. In these cases, the feeling is one that is strongly opposed to any analytical or intellectual impulse; it is something I associate with a feeling of immersion, a relieving sense of switching-off. I hope Now and Then manages to take people to similar places.
When I was asked to reflect on the two-year anniversary of my album, A Gold Ring in a Pig’s Snout, it forced me to reckon with the chasm between myself today and my former self. I was a fairly nervous, untrained musician, recording with a handheld recorder taped to the back of a chair (in lieu of a microphone stand). I had some sounds in mind, and more importantly, a conceptual framework for the record shaped entirely around my experiences with gender. I was barely two years into medically transitioning, had largely rejected any form of traditional masculinity in both presentation and behaviour, and found myself labouring to establish my new understanding of my gender in the eyes of the world. That mindset of ‘gender work’, of pushing myself physically and mentally so I could be ‘read’ ‘correctly’ by others for who I wanted to desperately be, is splattered all over this record.
In many ways, I did not fully register how strained I was in my task of convincing others of who I truly was. I perceived Gold Ring as a political record, one which allowed me to align myself with concepts of womanhood I have often held close, despite not being able to consciously and publicly access them for the majority of my life. In many ways, that is still the case, but my relation to the pressures of gender conformity and upholding some kind of universal standards of womanhood has dramatically shifted. The exhaustion became overwhelming, and bodily, and I found myself squirming out of some of the boxes I had placed myself in. This record allowed me to establish myself in the experimental music community, to publicly claim spaces that had been previously denied to me, and to begin exploring myself through sonics in a way I had never previously managed. But the key word here is begin: I have since continued exploring, and found myself in an entirely different part of the forest.
By a nice bit of chance, my second solo album Overlapping Magisteria is being released a few days after the anniversary of Gold Ring. This album also marks the beginning of an exploration in its own way, but one of the ways in which my queerness and transness intersect with my experiences as an occupied-Palestine/Israeli-born Jewish immigrant in Australia. I honed in on both clarifying and challenging my relationship with Judaism, one which has simultaneously been lifelong and yet highly disconnected. I was rebuilding spiritual synapses that had long atrophied, both in my musical and everyday practice. This was my first experience of sitting with my own sounds and letting them speak to my life. It was my first time letting sounds name themselves through me, using my experiences as a lens. In many ways this record was the opposite of Gold Ring - abstract rather than political, a leap of faith into mystery rather than a concrete plan executed with just the right amount of failure. There I was, nervous, untrained, with a handheld recorder carefully balanced on the back of a chair. My two selves, superimposed, working towards placing themselves within a world that has so little room for them.
A Gold Ring in a Pig’s Snout was named one of the Top Experimental Releases of 2017 by Music Australia.
The initial cassette release sold out in the first year and has now been reissued in an edition of 50 blue cassettes. Shoshana’s latest release Overlapping Magisteria is out on January 29th, 2019.
The same questions, asked to different improvisers in Perth. Credit for the idea, and some of the questions, goes to the Addlimb archive.
Photo by Josh Wells Photography.
What led you to improvised music?
Mr Bungle. I discovered Bungle in the early 1990’s, up to this point I was listening to mainly rock and metal music. From here I started investigating 1980’s Downtown music and then worked my way backwards into jazz.
What instrument or equipment do you use to improvise, and what is your relationship with this equipment?
I play a standard drum set and an assortment of percussive instruments including cymbals, chimes, bells, gongs, kitchen utensils, tin cans, sheet metal, chains etc. I also improvise with digital electronics on a laptop. I have played the drums since I was 12 years old and naturally enjoy a deep connection with my instrument. There have been moments along the journey where the drums have ruled me and those where I have sought to assert myself over them. Today we share a healthy working relationship! I have no real connection to equipment as such. I am not a drum-nerd. My interest and enjoyment comes from getting the best and most interesting sound from the equipment I happen to be playing at any given time within the context of a given performance.
What keeps you improvising? What do you think makes this music important, either personally, socially, politically, etc.
The sheer excitement of creating something new with each performance. The unpredictable nature of improvised music keeps things fun and interesting, when done right. It is the challenge of doing it right, the joy of getting it right and the people I meet in the process that keeps me going.
What are your feelings on the relationship between planning and spontaneity in improvisation?
Everything is planned to the extent that ones playing will inevitably be shaped by ones own life/musical experience. My main area of interest over the past few years has been in composing for improvisers. I am always looking for ways to provide compositional frameworks that give performers scope to improvise while blurring the discernable line between pre-composed and spontaneously composed/performed music.
How do you evaluate or reflect upon improvisations you’ve played? How does the evaluation of a recording differ from the evaluation of a performance?
I try not to be overly critical of my own performances. The days of oppressively grilling myself are, thankfully, long gone. I tend to reflect on the over-arching nature of a performance - vibe, momentum, colour, shape, energy, purpose.
A recording can obviously be played back and allows you analyse every aspect of a performance in fine detail. Critical analysis of recordings is a very effective way to improve - provided it is done positively and constructively. Celebrate the good bits, work on improving the not-so-good bits and always strive to be a better musician.
Do you think there is room for discursive thoughts in improvisation? Can these thoughts whilst playing be productive rather than distracting, and if so, do you have an idea as to when this might be the case?
I am not certain I understand this question. Discursiveness negatively connotes aimlessness, so in this respect discursive thought is generally unproductive and distracting in the context of making music. The best music to my mind, whether it be spontaneously composed/performed or otherwise, moves with purposeful direction.
Can you name three albums/pieces/experiences that inspired you to start improvising, and three that are currently inspiring you?
It is very difficult to restrict each list to three, so I will stretch this answer out.
The music of Ornette Coleman. I discovered Ornette’s music in the mid 1990’s. ‘New York Is Now’ was a highlight - so raw and intense, Elvin absolutely kills it! About fifteen years later in 2009, I saw Ornette perform live at the Meltdown Festival in London. I was lucky enough to study at the School of Harmolodics program that formed part of the festival during which I met and performed with a host of incredible artists including Fred Frith, Patti Smith and David S Ware. Needless to say, this was an inspiring week.
‘Funny Valentine’ by Massacre (Fred Frith / Bill Laswell / Charles Harward). Still my favourite improvising noise rockers. These guys play with an unnerving focus. Loud and direct.
‘Topography of the Lungs’ by Evan Parker / Derek Bailey / Han Bennink. This is a seminal work in ‘freely improvised’ music. I would see Evan Parker as often as I could during my time living in London. He is a true master and a constant source of inspiration to countless people. His live performances are often spellbinding.
‘The Compass’ by Álvaro Domene. I am constantly inspired by my good friend Álvaro Domene. His latest solo recording is phenomenal. He is a guitarist based in New York who has developed into an extraordinary musician through sheer determination and hard work. Together we run a record label and have performed on a few albums over the past years. I am always checking out his latest performances and recordings and am inspired by them all.
‘Hotel Grief’ by the Tom Rainey Trio. Tom Rainey (drums), Ingrid Laubrock (tenor) and Mary Halvorsen (guitar) are each inspiring musicians, their individual output is always worth checking out. This and their other trio recordings are a few years old now, to my ears they reach a virtuosic pinnacle of spontaneously composed/improvised music.
‘Volition (Live at Café Oto)’ by Alex Ward Item 10. Alex is a guitarist and clarinet player based in London. He studied with Derek Bailey and is a total bad-ass improviser and composer. He leads his own big and small ensembles of improvisers, his music is always exciting and hugely inspiring to me. This album is bursting with energy, truly breathtaking stuff.
What do you feel should happen next to see further growth in exploratory music practice in Western Australia?
Those involved should just keep at it. Perform, practice, collaborate and listen, listen, listen. We have a very healthy scene despite our geographical constraints. It would be good to see more local performances by master improvisers from around the world. Albums and video footage are great but nothing comes close to seeing a master improviser perform live. It is life changing.
Original Past Life - Inference/Interference on Tone List: https://tonelist.bandcamp.com/album/inference-interference
Michael Caratti and Álvaro Domene’s label Iluso, featuring many of his own recordings: http://ilusorecords.com/
Photographs and recordings by Josten Myburgh, Simon Charles and Katie West. Thanks to Katie and the Vancouver Arts Centre.