John Butcher's work ranges through improvisation, his own compositions, multitracked saxophone pieces and explorations with feedback and extreme acoustics.
Originally a physicist, he left academia in 1982, and has since collaborated with hundreds of musicians - including Derek Bailey, John Stevens, Gerry Hemingway, The EX, Gino Robair, Rhodri Davies, John Edwards, Toshimaru Nakamura, Eddie Prevost, John Russell, John Tilbury, Paal Nilssen-Love, Phil Minton and Steve Beresford.
He is well known as a soloist, recently exploring unusual site-specific acoustics, and has released seven CDs of solo saxophone music.
He has toured and broadcast in Europe, Japan, North America and Australia, and was featured, playing solo, in the BBC TV programme Date with an Artist.
His compositions include pieces for Polwechsel, the Australian Elision Ensemble, the American Rova Saxophone Quartet, Futurist Intonarumori and "somethingtobesaid" for the John Butcher Group.
Recent projects include Thermal with EX guitarist Andy Moor & Thomas Lehn, and the wind trio The Contest of Pleasures with Axel Dörner and Xavier Charles.
He values playing in occasional encounters - ranging from large groups such as Butch Morris' London Skyscraper and the EX Orkestra, to duo concerts with Otomo Yoshihide, Fred Frith and Akio Suzuki.
John Butcher was born in Brighton, England and has lived in London since the late 1970s. After classical piano lessons at school, he started playing the saxophone at Surrey University, where he was studying physics. His first concerts were on keyboards in an ‘avant’ (for want of a better term) rock group.
Hearing musicians like John Surman, Stan Tracey and Louis Moholo triggered an enthusiasm for jazz, and he started learning and playing in various small and large groups - often with pianist Chris Burn; and sometimes with his brother Phil Butcher, on double bass.
In 1977 he began work on a Ph.D in the Theoretical Physics department of Imperial College. It was published in 1982 as "Spin effects in the production and weak decay of heavy Quarks".
During this period he continued to work in Burn’s large Jazz Ensemble (winning the 1980 "BBC Big Band" competition), and toured with a variety of projects (London Contemporary Dance Theatre, New Arts Consort, Extemporary Dance).
At the same time, he was struggling to find the ways of playing that eventually led him to a commitment to improvisation. Rehearsals and monthly concerts at the Workers' Music Association in Notting Hill Gate were an important ingredient.
After publishing his doctorate in 1982, Butcher left academia and went off with music; releasing the LP Fonetiks (1984) and playing in trumpeter Jon Corbett's Freelance (with Elton Dean).
He soon began working in a trio with guitarist John Russell and violinist Phil Durrant. They started the label ACTA to release their LP Conceits (1987) and were joined the following year by drummer Paul Lovens and trombonist Radu Malfatti to form News from the Shed.
In 1985 Butcher and Chris Burn formed the large London Improvising Ensemble (which evolved into Burn's Ensemble), for which he wrote funforall for the group's first CD, Cultural Baggage.
Numerous other performances in the 1980s included a soprano saxophone quartet in Rome (with Evan Parker, Trevor Watts and Lol Coxhill), a DDR tour with trombonist Alan Tomlinson, tours with the quartet Embers, duos with singer Phil Minton, and some performances with Derek Bailey.
Butcher later played in a number of Bailey's Company Weeks; produced a CD with Bailey and the tuba player Oren Marshall; and released a live duo with him on Vortices and Angels .
His numerous collaborations with Minton continue with the duo release - Apples of Gomorrah, whilst Minton's quartet has toured Mouthfull of Ecstasy - utilising texts from Finnegans Wake - throughout Europe.
The quartet Frisque Concordance, formed in 1991 with Georg Gräwe, meant more regular visits to Europe - whilst in London he joined what became the final version of John Stevens' Spontaneous Music Ensemble (with guitarist Roger Smith). A New Distance contains the SME's last recorded concert.
Other new projects around this time included duos with the singer Vanessa Mackness, and the multi-instrumentalist Steve Beresford. In 1993 Butcher toured Canada for the first time, with the Grubenklang Orchestra, and the following year with News from the Shed.
Solo concerts and recordings have long been a particular enthusiasm. Thirteen Friendly Numbers, his first solo release, from 1991, includes pieces for multitracked saxophones, whilst London and Cologne and Fixations focused on live performance.
Invisible Ear (2003) explores close-miking, amplification, multitracking and saxophone-controlled feedback, and Cavern with Nightlife includes a concert inside the vast Japanese Oya Stone mountain.
The Geometry of Sentiment (2007), is a collection of pieces from European and Japanese concerts - all site-specific to various degrees, a concern that gained focus during his 2006 Resonant Spaces tour of Scotland and the Orkneys. The new Resonant Spaces CD collects music from this tour.
Electronic music was an early influence on Butcher's approach to saxophone playing, and became explicit in his electro-manipulation duo Secret Measures with Phil Durrant, begun in 1997.
In the same year he joined the electro-acoustic Austrian group Polwechsel , which has released 6 CDs - including collaborations with laptop player and guitarist Christian Fennez, and with pianist John Tilbury.
Another electronic collaboration is with Austrian lloopp/laptop artist Christof Kurzmann.
During two visits to Japan he was pleased to play and record with no-input mixer specialist Toshimaru Nakamura. They have since played in London and Paris, and are preparing a new release.
In the trio Thermal, with EX guitarist Andy Moor and synthist Thomas Lehn, Butcher specifically works with the possibilities of amplification.
He has spent periods at STEIM and ZKM helping research a system for software recognition of his saxophone techniques with Californian computer professor William Tsun-Yuk Hsu.
In 2004 he collaborated with Newton Armstrong at Princeton University on interactive saxophone/electronic feedback manipulation.
Some commentators have described his wind trio The Contest of Pleasures, with Axel Dörner and Xavier Charles, as electronic music by acoustic instruments.
The "Contest of More Pleasures" adds sound recordists and manipulators Jean Pallendre and Laurent Sassi - to further explore the acoustic/electronic/real-time/recorded conundrum.
Begining with visits to the Vancouver Jazz Festival, collaborations with various North American musicians have developed fruitfully. In particular duos with drummers Gerry Hemingway and Gino Robair and a trio with Vancouver residents Torsten Müller & Dylan van der Schyff.
Duos have a special place in improvisation and also include long term partnerships with John Edwards (bass), Steve Beresford (electronics), Rhodri Davies (harp) and Eddie Prévost (tam-tam, percussion).
With Beresford, Butcher has also worked on the Christian Marclay projects: Screen Play, Graffiti Music and Shuffle.
As an improviser he values many occasional, sometimes just one-off encounters.
These have ranged from large groups such as Fred van Hove’s t’nonet - Radu Malfatti’s Orkestra - Butch Morris’ London Skyscraper - the EX Orkestra - Richard Barrett's fORCH project - to duo concerts with Fred Frith, Akio Suzuki, Carlos Zingaro, Max Eastley, Duck Baker, Otomo Yoshihide, Will Guthrie, Kaffe Matthews, Taku Sugimoto, Kevin Drumm, Jin Hi Kim, John Coxon, Martin Tetrault, Okkyung Lee, Paul Lovens and John Tilbury.
In 2006 Butcher began working with the Australian ELISION ensemble.
Tim O'Dwyer wrote Gravity for the group plus Butcher, and the following year they jointly composed Residue for a performance at the Qeensland Festival. In 2009 Butcher joined them at the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival for a hommage to Anthony Braxton.
The Huddersfield Festival also commisioned the composition "somethingtobesaid" for the 8-piece John Butcher Group. The 2008 BBC recording was recently released on Weight of Wax, Butcher's own label.
Some recent, less common, activities include:
The piece Asymptopic Freedom - a response to the theories of Gustav Metzger. For saxophone, snare drum, guitar, e-bow (one performer) at Rhodri Davies "Self-Cancellation" project in London and Glasgow.
A recording session for David Sylvian's installation "When we return you won't recognise us" - followed by an interview for his film Amplified Gesture, directed by Phil Hopkins.
A concert with Christian Wolff and AMM.
A commission from PERFORMA to write penny wands and native string for Futurist Intonarumori and saxophone. Performed in San Francisco and New York.
From 1993 - 1997 Butcher was a director of the London Musicians' Collective, helping to organise their annual festivals Around this time he also organised, with flautist Nancy Ruffer, two SoundArt festivals - programming contemporary composed and improvised music.
He has also given many workshops/lectures/master-classes on improvisation and the saxophone.
Royal Academy of Music, Vancouver Creative Music Institute, Barcelona Conservatory, Newfoundland Sound Symposium, Middlesex University, Princeton University, Parthenay Festival, Dartington College, Stanford University etc.