John Tilbury and Marcus Schmickler + John Butcher at Cafe Oto, 11 April 2012

John Butcher stood near Oto’s unmanned grand piano, exploiting its sympathetic resonance as the emphasis on a note from his tenor sax reverberated quietly in its strings. He then moved closer to a microphone, the better to transmit smaller sounds to his audience. He then held the bell of his horn over the mic, allowing each of a series of short plosive phooms to resonate. Stepping away again, he switched to a rapid sequence of trills, stridulations and angrily piercing chirps.

Butcher is unique in his ability to literally play a room like this. The manipulation of acoustic space, finding and exploiting unique acoustic properties to factor into a performance, is a central facet of his artistry. His solos consist as much of lip smacks, key clicks and skin slips as the air forced through reed and funnelled through brass, but he’s adept at amplifying these discrete sounds for an audience. He also masterful in the control of feedback, moving his unblown sax relative to the mic, and carefully calibrating and exploiting the looping surges of electricity.

Butcher’s work on soprano saxophone was more conventionally melodic. At times seeming to play abstractions of Gershwin melodies, he mixed fast multiphonic runs with breath-long notes and even a brief passage of circular breathing, which produced a cascade of fluttering, shimmering notes. When he was finished there were audible exclamations from the audience and the question was asked, not for the first time: “why does no one else play saxophone like that?”

Butcher was a late addition to this bill, which featured as its main event a duet from pianist John Tilbury and sound artist Marcus Schmickler.

Tilbury was a guest artist on Field (2009, Hat Hut), the last album Butcher made with the Vienna-based reductionist musical group Polwechsel. Butcher was also, at that time, a contributor to performances and recordings by the long-running improvisation group AMM, which Tilbury joined at the start of the 80s and has long since been a core member.

Tilbury’s presence made both Polwechsel and AMM, neither group exactly riotous to start with, yet more subtly contemplative, so the restraint of his duo with Marcus Schmickler wasn’t at all surprising, though it could have astonished anyone familiar with Schmickler only for his last appearance at Oto, which was an excoriating digital blast whipped up in cahoots with Peter Rehberg.

Schmickler (aka Pluramon) played seated behind his laptop, with a secondary panel of mixing controls cradled in his lap. A composer and sound designer as much as a performer, his contribution to the duo’s long unbroken performance had many of the qualities of a radioplay. Sound sources such as the rumble of mass transit and snatched conversation were intermittently identifiable, though these were only sparingly deployed. For the most part, Schmickler concentrated on fine-detailing a continual course-grained digital sound wash, an allusive narrative that invited Tilbury’s commentary.

Tilbury played Oto’s house grand with preparations, screws of various sizes having been inserted between its strings. He placed as much emphasis on the piano interior as the keyboard, by turns using a drummer’s mallet to softly hit the strings, landing the odd percussive strike against the frame to produce a boxy reverberation, or striking the top of one of the larger screws for a louder, more sonorous effect. He chimed in with Schmickler’s occasional rawer pitches by plinking on a toy piano, which sat on a small table at his side.

As the performance drew to a close, Tilbury playfully exploited the creaking of the grand’s pedal block, putting it under pressure not to modify a struck tone but simply to enjoy the sound of its construction under duress. A neat echo, this, of Butcher’s methodology. Tilbury seemed ready to play on, but elicited only a smile from Schmickler, who rightly sensed that the performance had reached its natural conclusion.

It was a pity, given Butcher and Tilbury’s shared history, that there was no time for a trio performance.

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