Although he is no stranger to playing in larger ensembles (the Chris Burn Ensemble, Phil Minton Quartet and Polwechsel spring to mind), these days it’s unusual for John Butcher to release a recording by anything larger than a trio, with solo and duo releases being most common. So when he was commissioned to write a special hour-long composition for the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival and to premier it at the 2008 festival, Butcher went with an octet.
In doing so he combined long-familiar players with more recent acquaintances in an inspired blend of acoustic and electronic. Butcher is joined by (his collaborator of some 30 years) Chris Burn on piano, Clare Cooper on harp and guzheng, John Edwards on double bass, Thomas Lehn on analogue synthesizer, Gino Robair on percussion and “energised surfaces,” dieb13 on turntables and Adam Linson on double bass and electronics.
As an improvising ensemble, this would make a formidable, if cluttered, line-up. That’s why the composition is important here. Rather than specifying exactly what each musician must play, it controls when they play, thus avoiding “the cocktail party effect” leading to unfocussed cacophony. Commendably, in typically selfless fashion, Butcher does not hog the limelight or turn this into a concerto for saxophone. Instead, when he is to the fore, it is mainly as a partner in a duo.
In fact, the composition features an ever-shifting series of trios and duos, in line with Butcher’s recent discography. The transitions between these episodes are smooth and natural, giving the whole a sense of unity. If there is an overarching theme to the composition, it is the meeting of acoustic and electronic sounds, their interactions and imitations of each other – again, not surprising given Butcher’s own solo experiments with feedback saxophone. The inclusion of the two contrasting double basses – one treated, one not – was an inspired decision; they typify that theme and underpin the proceedings.
The piece is punctuated throughout by brief sections of recorded voices taken from a disused answering machine, which may explain its title. The inclusion of these voices gives it a pleasing human dimension. The most effective use comes soon after the mid-point when Butcher plays a duet with the disembodied words.
As the second release on Butcher’s own Weight of Wax label, somethingtobesaid maintains the high standard set by 2005’s Cavern with Nightlife.