John Butcher 
Interview by Dan Warburton
Paris, March 13th 2001

I understand you come from a scientific background.


I did a physics degree at Surrey University, which is where I met [pianist and long-time associate] Chris Burn, and went on to do a PhD in Theoretical Physics, looking at mathematical models for quarks. I don't draw any special connection between that and my music; I think they occupy different areas, although as a scientist, there's a certain searching-to-make-sense-of-things, a desire to persevere with something until you understand it, plus a desire to look around corners at seemingly abstruse notions to see if they're relevant, which may have had an influence in terms of how I work on music privately. There have been periods in my life where I've been quite methodical about studying the possibilities of sound production on the saxophone, a tube of vibrating air with vents in it. Possibly that exploration has some connection with a temperament that originally led me into science, though I think I wasn't really searching abstractly but rather because I was encountering musical problems that I needed to find solutions for. When I was working with Chris Burn in the late 70s, we probably played together most Sunday afternoons for a year or so before we did a free improvising concert. He'd rejected playing on the piano keyboard in favour of working inside the instrument, and at the time I'd rejected playing anything that sounded like a conventional note. I learnt a lot of techniques through the practical experience of trying to make some sort of meaningful music in those conditions.


Radu Malfatti, with whom you recorded “News From The Shed” back in 1989, recently criticised today's improvised music as being stagnant, no longer progressive. Do you agree?


That hangover of 1950s and 60s modernism is no longer a particularly valuable way of judging things, I think. Progressive to whom? When you're first making a lot of discoveries, they can be exciting and they have a lot of musical life in them precisely because they're discoveries. If you're looking over fifteen years of playing, not as a composer but as a performer, you can't go out and do every concert with completely new material, so you have to ask yourself some difficult questions: what, among the things you are working with, have longevity in them? Derek Bailey once said that improvising involved searching for material which is endlessly transformable. I think most serious improvisors are engaged in that search. There is, though, a tendency nowadays for people to call themselves improvisors who have only really “trademarked” a few, often quite noticeable, sonic areas that they've explored. To me that's a rather shallow approach to improvising. You hear somebody and think “That's an interesting little corner they've marked out for themselves there..” and you hear them a second time and realise it's not exactly that malleable. If you're going to do that night after night, year after year, it soon becomes tiresome. They're presenting material which is appropriate for composition rather than improvisation. I don't generally like improvisation that tries to sound too much like composition. On the other hand, you have composers like Brian Ferneyhough, whose solo pieces so often sound like prepared improvisation, the difference being that everything is in place.


Isn't there a certain structural similarity between Evan Parker and Ferneyhough in that they're both playing “unplayable” music? Ferneyhough's scores are practically unplayable and Evan does things on the saxophone that nobody else can do..


I don't think that's a good comparison. There are people though who get on stage and try to make it sound like composition, and it's usually unsuccessful. It depends who's doing it, though.


Maybe that's what Jim O'Rourke was referring to a while back when he accused the Evan Parker Trio of playing Evan Parker Trio music rather than just improvising..


I'd look at that the other way round. It is possible for the Evan Parker trio – which works a lot and is clear about what it wants to do – to produce a music of depth that remains in more or less the same area, but it's no less strong as a consequence. It’s applying constraints to improvisation to produce a particular kind of music that the musicians have a consensus about. In a way its depth compensates for it’s lack of major surprises. In the way I like to work, I like this kind of rapport between musicians but I prefer us to come together occasionally. With John Russell and Phil Durrant [a trio that has been performing since 1987], when we first got together, we worked quite intensively, privately, meeting up and playing. That was the ground work for some sort of musical understanding. So today if we play four times a year (that's about all the concerts we do), it really feels like improvised music, but with an immense history that we're all aware of, a history we can dip back into, or react against. I know what I could do here to make it work, shall I make that decision or shall I make a completely different decision not knowing whether it'll work or not. You've got a sense that you want to deliver good group music, but you don't want to make it too easy. After you've been improvising for a while, you know how to produce a music that on the surface is going to sound good, but that's not the most interesting thing. Making choices that are going to push you into areas you haven't imagined before is what turns an adequate concert into a special concert. The input of three individuals who have developed in different ways between concerts feeds new input into the desire to make good group music.


I imagine there's a degree of compositional planning involved in the music on the Chris Burn Ensemble album “Navigations” (which also features John Russell and Phil Durrant) which you don't need in small group playing.


For free improvising I prefer smaller groups. With larger things I like it with certain people. The Chris Burn Ensemble took quite a long time to evolve its line-up. Chris and I invited maybe twenty people along to the first thing we did in 86, when it was called the London Improvising Ensemble, but it soon became clear that some people's interests in large group playing were very different from ours. I think almost always large groups require a certain amount of structuring – it can be the case that if you work on structures with a group for a lengthy period of time and then start free improvising, the music can be very successful, because of what you learnt working with structures, which influences how you improvise. For me, the interesting thing about Ensemble was to try to have that group sense of composition but to allow the strength of the individual voices to be heard. Not as individual voices as such, but to have something of the character of the individual players. I find that a major challenge, especially for me: the saxophone can really be like a bull in a china shop, because of its acoustic strength. With Ensemble I found I could work minimally with a reduced sound palette and integrate almost seamlessly with the strings, which I did once or twice, until I decided it wasn't necessarily the most interesting thing to do: I wanted to accept the natural quality of the saxophone and somehow feed that in, without dominating things.


What was your compositional method for the piece “No Stops, Only Commas” included on the “Navigations” album?


I suppose there are three ways you write for this kind of project: you can work like a composer, and provide a detailed score, you can “orchestrate” in the sense of saying “you, you and you play” and don't tell them what to do, or you can try and mix the ideas of composing and improvising. That piece had all three facets in it: some bits had definite instructions where I knew pretty well what it would sound like when they did it, others where I orchestrated in terms of certain combinations of people according to my knowledge of how those people play, and others which mix that sort of orchestral approach with some kind of instructions.


What kind of instructions?


Pitch ranges, timings, choice of material, interpretation of not obviously musical instructions like “indefatigable”, “pellucid”, “lissom”. There were parts where I select some people and do simple things like have some free improvising and then for ten seconds instruct a certain member of the group only to make a sound exactly when another member of the group is sounding. It adjusts the normal direction of free improvising, changes the flavour of the music.


Your work in the group Polwechsel [with Werner Dafeldecker, Burkhard Stangl and Michael Moser] is also very composed.


The new recording is, yes. Certainly Werner's two pieces. In one, notes, placement and duration are exactly notated, in the other I choose from a set of notes but the scheme requires definite timings and placements that depend on what everybody else is doing. There's an exactly correct way of playing it and an incorrect way of playing it. Other pieces combine instructions with improvisation and you can hear more of what I think of as “my voice”. I make some choices which I can recognise as being me rather than another saxophone player, but in Werner's I'm just “a saxophone”.


That must be a change for you!


My problem with composition has always been that there was a time when it seemed most composition that was happening wasn't as interesting as most improvising. Now, some people who have been immersed in improvising, like Werner – who are not composers perhaps in the sense that music colleges and Conservatoires would recognise – are now producing some of the most interesting notated works. “Polwechsel 2” was more involved with graphic scores, though the second piece on that [“Toaster”] is completely notated: it's a series of quarter-tones each lasting thirty seconds. Polwechsel's not foremost an improvising group, though most of gigs we've done have contained some free improvised parts, which I thought were very successful. It's very low-level, quiet, largely non-gestural, shall I say non-expressive (I don't know if that's the right word, since I'd argue that sounds are intrinsically expressive), in the sense of how improvisation often turns out; it's a very hard thing to work with live, because you need a very pristine, clear acoustic. We've just recorded “Polwechsel 3”. I've composed a piece for that which is basically a series of instructions of when and when not to play, synchronised with a multitracked recording I made with an old Korg analogue synthesiser.


Those simple instruction-based strategies remind me of the pedagogical work of John Stevens (who you of course played with). Were you influenced by his teaching methods?


At the time I new very little about his teaching work, but having been on the English scene for a long time, those things become influential purely through the act of listening, without necessarily knowing what schemes he may have devised behind. That feeds into it. Certain ideas become quite obvious.


How did John Stevens contact you to join the Spontaneous Music Ensemble?


In 1992, to play at a benefit concert for the miner’s who were on strike. Nigel Coombes had left the SME, and John asked me and Neil Metcalfe in. I think he’d heard me at a venue called the Duke of Wellington, in Dalston, which he used to pop into. I was extremely happy to play with him, but I think I was fortunate that the early improvising experience I had wasn't with established first generation players but with people like Burn, Durrant and Russell, where we could develop and make our own discoveries at our own speed.


Are there any other recordings of your work with the SME apart from the album “A New Distance” you released on your label Acta?


Not released. The long piece [“Stig”] on that album, which is a tremendous piece of drumming by John, was recorded at the Conway Hall. “To thyself be true” is written above the stage. It was an LMC festival and there was a really good atmosphere. What was characteristic playing with John was that he would make it clear to the audience that this was the only chance they'd get to hear this music: he'd get up and tell people to sit down and be quiet. This is two hours of your life and this is the only chance you've got to listen to this music. He generated an atmosphere that was very conducive to real music making. He was a strong, opinionated, engaging man. The musical world needs more people like him.


You created Acta back in 1987. Why?


To release an LP of the trio with John and Phil. That was in the days of LPs, which were difficult things to put out. Fourteen years ago, a record of new improvised music was a big thing. Now with CDs it's changed: recordings have become a little more casual. Some people seem to put out every concert they do. But I never wanted to do any more than put out a few things by me and my associates. I don't have the time to put in the admin effort. Acta's a very slow-moving label – fourteen years and fourteen releases. But it'll carry on like that. If there's some music that I think is good, and there's nothing like it out already, I'll release it.


Earlier on you mentioned “generations” of improvisors.. do you consider what you do to be second, third, or fourth generation?


I'd look at myself as third generation. The second generation is usually looked at as being the early LMC crowd: Steve Beresford, Paul Burwell, David Toop, Max Eastley.. I'm not happy with these “generations”, really. There are clearly waves.. some of the second generation was to some extent a reaction against the first (John Stevens, Evan Parker, Derek Bailey, etc.) which came largely from jazz and a certain concern with instrumental virtuosity. Some elements within the LMC reacted against this, in the kind of Fluxus tradition of overturning hierarchies, questioning the nature of skill in art, etcetera. The people I'm involved with I think returned to the values of the instigators of free improvisation, perhaps with the slant that we were drawing more from contemporary composition than from jazz. The whole thing is so multi-headed now – maybe within a country you can trace some lines, but if you look at the international scene, those questions are pretty meaningless. In England, there are some younger players in their twenties, like the harpist Rhodri Davies and cellist Mark Wastell, that we immediately signed up for [Chris Burn's] Ensemble, who I feel a sympathy with in terms of their approach to traditional instruments.


Can we still speak of national styles in improvised music with any precision, do you think?


Perhaps, in broad brush strokes. For instance, maybe you could say that Most English improvisors aren't hung up on formal notions of structure, and still work very much in the moment, whereas there's very little free improvising as such in, say, Holland. The collaborations I get involved with tend to come about because the musicians have some sort of mutual musical intention. I'm not a believer in the throw-it-all-together school of improvising. Whilst you could certainly pick representatives of national styles, they are in some ways both more diffused and more localised now. With a thirty-five year history, it's no surprise that styles and idioms that were once based around a handful of musicians (a few of whom probably gave rise to the stereotypes most people think of) have now become “learnable” – and people working in any particular area can be found in most countries. Twenty years ago it would have been very odd to present yourself as an improviser unashamedly sounding like someone else, but it seems to be less of an issue with some newer players.


As a British improvising saxophonist starting off in the early 80s, you must have been aware of the enormous towering presence of Evan Parker. How does a tenor and soprano saxophonist get away from his omnipresent influence?


I think I became more aware of the importance of his presence later. In the formative time when I was experimenting myself, I wasn't that aware of him. The earliest recollection I have of Evan was less to do with saxophone playing and more to do with being impressed at how he managed to bend the instrument to his will in a very unconventional way. The influence was less a technical thing, more that he’d shown that acoustic playing had a future, something I was doubting a little at the time. This was happening with a lot of people, how they were changing the nature of their instruments to do what they wanted. Changing the accepted norms of the instrument in terms of what they wanted to play. Early on, just by chance, I was more familiar with Derek Bailey than with Evan, and a lot of that drive came from listening to Derek.


Like Evan, you've concentrated on tenor and soprano, but whereas his tenor playing has developed along lines quite different from his soprano work, you seem to use the two reasonably interchangeably.


Quiet group playing is a lot easier on soprano, but for that reason I'll often go to the tenor. The soprano is more prone to superficial agility. It's very easy to produce fast, short sounds, because it's easier to move through the frequency range of the instrument through embouchure: you know the sort of sound you can get from soprano players who haven't exercised their imagination as much as they might, that standard swirling pointillistic soprano clichÈ.. Instruments lead you to techniques: it might be a technique which is valuable, or one which is useless. You've got to bring your awareness into differentiating between what is useful and what is just an easy solution to problems.


Do you practise a lot?


I have to. Otherwise it sounds terrible! Most practice I do is conventional practice, to feel at ease with the instrument. I've said this before, but there's such a small difference between getting a resonant multiphonic and a horrible squeak. It takes one small misjudgement of embouchure or fingering. You need an awful lot of preparation to be able to work with that kind of material in an improvising situation. A lot of the material I work with is right at the border of the instrument – the reed – seizing up and breaking down. It's on the edge of controllable sound.


What kind of reeds do you use?


I use plastic-covered Rico Royal Strength 4. I can maintain a more even dynamic spread throughout the frequency range. I don't mean in terms of different notes, but in terms of the overtones you can get on a single note. Like a string player can change the colour of a note by different bowing pressures, I do an equivalent thing on the saxophone, changing the colour of the sound, which is changing the overtone spectrum through embouchure pressures and sometimes through fingerings. That is something that requires practice outside of performing. I've got absolutely no interest in people doing their experimenting on stage. It might have been an interesting thing some years back, when people were looking at breaking down the distinctions between audience, musician, professionals and amateurs. For me, practice is all about being able to have the freedom to deliver the decisions I make during an improvisation.


What goes through your head while you're playing? There's a lot of talk of British improvising being “in the moment”, which I take to mean that the musicians are so concentrated on moment-to-moment details that they don't (or can't, or won't) “stand back” from what they're doing and try to imagine its place in a larger architecture, so to speak.


When I'm playing, I don't want to be thinking about very much at all – but to be able to do that you've got to be extremely well-prepared, psychologically and physically for forthcoming improvising. I'm not so interested in planning where things will go, because apart from very broad brushstrokes, you can't do that. You can do it through power and volume, that kind of thing, and you can do it through power of ideas, but then you're not really improvising, you're just imposing your form on the music. I think I am an “in-the-moment” player, and I'm very sympathetic to the sort of music that feels so delicately balanced that any participant could change its direction at any moment. Of course, if everybody's working like that, nothing might actually happen! With the trio it's three people each with their hands on the steering wheel, each of equal strength. The best ideas in improvisation – and you often don't notice this until you hear a recording – often come out of some tiny, almost buried, little thing that happened in someone's playing that prompts a new direction.


Do you listen much to recordings of what you do?


Nowadays, if a recording looks like it's going to be released, I listen a lot. I think that's a tool by which improvisors learn. I'm sure you've had that experience on listening, where you say “If I'd known that was going to happen, I'd have played that bit much better!” Improvisation is continually guarding against being caught off-foot: you've got to make your decisions quickly, so you've got to have the technical preparation to execute that decision, and so sometimes when you're improvising, you can be so involved with the moment, so involved with some of the technical aspects, there can be elements you're not aware of until you hear them later.


As your concert in Mulhouse last summer [with Axel D–rner and Xavier Charles] is shortly to be released on Potlatch, I take it you've been listening to that quite a bit, as have I. What do you think?


I was very happy with that. The curious thing about listening back to concerts is that you listen back remembering the atmosphere of the day, so for me this is very coloured by the feeling that existed in the Chapelle Saint-Jean, and the time of day – lunchtime can be a great time for doing a concert. I'm curious what somebody coming just to the CD will think of it. You were there, weren't you? I think it captures very well what happened that day. Sometimes though you've done a fantastic concert, with a great atmosphere, and there's something about the recording when you listen to it that doesn't regenerate the feeling.


The CD really shows how the three of you began to feel the acoustic of the chapel, and after twenty minutes when the high harmonics kick in, there's a real sense of having understood the architecture of the performing space, which I find comparatively rare in live recordings of improvised music.


The room coloured the music completely. And chapels are not easy to play in, for three musicians to blend together. Initially we've all got to make some statement, to make the music start.. I preferred the Mulhouse concert to the one we did the previous year at Vandoeuvre. All the developments are better, there's a much better sense of sequence, of why one thing led to the next. There are some unusual sonorities happening which are to do with the way the acoustic enables the instruments to blend. In Vandoeuvre it's a much drier space. One of the things about improvising is that, physically, certain phenomena can only happen in certain rooms, and when you recognise this as a player and get some sort of group sound, you can work with that group sound and generate music which would be impossible elsewhere. I'm sure you've had that experience when you're on tour, playing in a different acoustic every night, and something fabulous happened in the music one night and you try to return to that area next night and it sounds terrible, because the vibrations just aren't interfering in the same way.


Recent albums of yours (“Music On Seven Occasions” on Meniscus, and “12 Milagritos” on Spool) have found you in the company of American improvisors, including percussionist Gino Robair..


For a long time I avoided working with drums, because I didn't want to work with the kind of propulsion most drummers have. I worked with Paul Lovens on “News From The Shed”, but he was operating in a very spectral, coloristic manner. Playing with John Stevens from about 1992 got me interested in drums again, because he had such a beautiful sense of how to propel music from the drums whilst not forcing you to play anything specific, and leaving a lot of transparency. I think that came from his choice of kit, very miniaturised, a lot of it was sound without much sustain, so other sounds have a chance to come through, and – this is harder to pinpoint – his sense of propulsion, which could be suggested by quite small means. He could produce the emotional equivalent of somebody really steaming and charging and bashing but the ingredients aren't anything like that, it just generates that feeling. Gino has an interesting background, because he's not a jazz drummer. He's a classical percussionist, composer and rock drummer. He brings something very different to it. I've done some duos with him that have been very non-drummerly: he can spent five minutes on bits on polystyrene.. He's got a very good sense of colour, like Lovens has. The “12 Milagritos” CD [with Robair and bassist Matthew Sperry] was the first time we'd played together, and it really sparked my interest in trying to do a fresh take on that traditional sax/bass/drums trio.


Improvised music (as opposed to free jazz) seems to be taking off a little in the States. Do you see it as a slightly different kind of improvised music, coming as it does from a musical culture so heavily influenced by jazz and rock?


There was a time when I thought most American improvised music wanted to “play everything at eleven”, in a way – not just in terms of volume, but in terms of ideas. Everything had to be spelt out and clear, and there was no scope for ambiguity or uncertainty or anything less than the most definite. (I think it's the avoidance of the definite which I've often found so appealing in European, especially English, improvisation.) But I agree, it seems to have changed, possibly due to the influence of European improvised music feeding back into America. There's a youngish generation of improvisors there, quite distanced from jazz, who are looking mostly to Europe. Chicago's different: that scene around the Empty Bottle is much more conscious of an American jazz tradition within which it wants to work. But there are pockets of activity, out there on the West Coast, in Boston, where there's a real affinity with European playing.


What's happening in English improvising at the moment? Do you detect a new generation coming along?


Things seem to creep along in England in quite an unstructured way, which I think is quite positive for the music. There's a lot of musician-based activity, musicians organising their own concerts. It's shocking in a way how underground it still is, but the audiences are getting younger, and as a consequence younger players are coming to the scene. It's a very informed audience that really understands the subtle aspects of improvising. By that I mean, I don't do so many concerts in England, but if I do a solo concert there, I can play it with a knowledge that quite a lot of people have heard another solo concert of mine that year, so there's a kind of continuity, in that they're expecting me to push into something different from the way I was working the previous time. That kind of background knowledge and attentive audience is very positive for the development of the music. If you're chasing round the world doing a concert every day, you don't necessarily have that definite drive, that push for something different each time, because you haven't got listeners who have heard your last concerts. That makeshift thing in England where you can quite easily set up your own concerts means that you can play quite regularly and you'll get an audience of enthusiasts. That enables the music to develop, because you've got to come up with fresh things.


That reminds of the fact I always find American jazz musicians play better in New York than they do on tour in Europe. Do you enjoy playing big festivals as such?


Big festivals can be the worst for music making. I had a horrible experience at the North Sea Jazz Festival last year. I was playing with Lovens, [Phil] Wachsmann and Sebi Tramontana, and we might as well have been playing for the Opportunity Knocks [legendary and lousy talent-spotting show on British independent television] audience. I had no sense of what that audience was. It's because the event is so big, with people wandering around: I mean, there are six or seven groups on at the same time in different halls. Wynton Marsalis in one room, the MJQ in another, and then us! I enjoyed the music we made, but the atmosphere of the place provided no sense whatsoever of feedback. The context of the music was missing. We could have been in a space capsule playing to Martians.


Talking of market-driven events such as festivals and all-star albums, what do you think about the odd collaborative ventures that Derek Bailey has found himself involved in recently? Albums with Ruins, DJ Ninj, funk musicians like Calvin Weston and Jamaladeen Tacuma..


In principle, Derek's philosophy has always been one of a working musician who goes out and tries to play with other people. So this is a continuation of what he's always done. I haven't heard much of that work, but what I have heard has been problematic in terms of idiom: for me, his guitar style is very concerned with detail, not about a general broad sweep of what sound is like, but rather what use sound is being put to. I heard him with Ruins, and the bass guitarist was working much more with walls of sound, and for me it kind of annulled Derek's techniques: Derek's techniques didn't seem to add up to very much in that context because they had nothing to work with. I'm sure Derek did it because he'll play with anybody who seems interesting to him. He's not only looking for pure improvisors to play with.


As you say though, his sound is distinctly recognisable. Since you mentioned idiom, do you think his playing, and improvised music in general, has become idiomatic in spite of itself? You don't hear too many people in improvised music throwing A major scales and quotations from Beethoven in..


I'm quite happy about that.


So for you there are things which are admissible and not admissible in certain contexts.


Yes, definitely.


So you're happy with the idea that this is idiomatic music.


I don't know whether that makes it idiomatic. When I'm improvising, I'm always trying to make the right choice. The criteria behind that right choice might be quite simple or might be extremely complex. What is and isn't admissible is really how every musician is working: it depends what criteria are in play. There might be an absolutely beautiful moment to stick an A major scale in, in something that's occurring; if you stick it in to make a point like “I'd rather be playing music like this than this shit you guys are playing..” then that might have some sociological interest, but it won't be interesting as music.


But you must have had moments like this playing with Steve Beresford, who's well-known for throwing spanners in the works..


I always considered that to be the least appealing aspect of his playing. Recently, he doesn't seem to do that so much. I see you're getting me to talk about all my friends!


All right, to change the subject a little, who would you say were your favourite saxophonists, in terms of influence or otherwise?


This is the point where it's tempting to give a list of obscurities, but I think at one time or another I've liked most sax players I've heard who appeared before about '75 – by which time I think jazz had run it's course – in terms of new players at least. Favourites are probably Lester Young, Sidney Bechet, Paul Desmond, Brother Vernard Johnson, Roland Kirk, Dexter Gordon, Charlie Parker, Sonny Rollins, Albert Ayler and about fifty others. Influence is another thing all together, though, I think, when I hear someone really bending the instrument to play the music they want it works as inspiration, almost outside of idiom or style. Quite simply it's often just the old fashioned combination of playing the instrument well and having something to say that excites me. As far as influence goes, I'm never sure what the difference is between a saxophonist you like and a saxophonist who's influenced you.. are they the same thing? What is an influence? Is it an influence only if you consciously consider it to be an influence? When it gets closer to what I do myself, the more important influences have probably come from less tangible things than particular players. When I got into group improvising I was interested in breaking down the linear quality of the saxophone. I wanted to work with material which was more transparent and didn't dominate how the music should sound. I was mainly playing with acoustic strings at the time, with Chris, John and Phil Durrant, and wanted to try and approach some of the subtlety of string players, regarding dynamics and overtone manipulation. How a string player can change the timbre of a sound, the overtone proportions, in such a controlled way was quite an influence and inspiration on the experimenting I was doing at the time. Also the classic 1950s/60s electronic music that cut between material so effectively.


Brother Vernard Johnson may strike some people as being a surprising choice. Is it that gospel energy?


He's a fantastic alto player. I suppose it's the emotional directness of it that I like, plus the skill in delivering what sound like simple melodies, but are full of interesting qualities.


When you listen to your own music can you sense that same emotional directness? For many people, improvised music can come across as rather cold and technical.


I don't know how you yourself can assess whether you're being emotionally direct or not. Can you? Do you go on stage and say “I'm going to be emotionally direct tonight!”? Just because you go on stage and make a lot of noise, get your blood pressure up, get your adrenalin pumping, does this mean that you're being emotionally direct? If you get too conscious of these things it becomes emotional acting, which is something I really dislike in music. If you take someone like Vernard Johnson, who on the face of it could appear quite kitsch, it isn't emotional acting. I've heard other people play saxophone in that idiom and it really falls flat.


In listening to different kinds of music, do you come across something which you think you'd like to do yourself – not in the sense of replicating the idiom, but in terms of a particular musical effect?


Everything you listen to, whether it's the quality of the sound, or something formal or structural, feeds into it somehow. I think that's true for every musician, though I know a few people who want to listen to less and less, like only Morton Feldman. One musician I played with in Canada told me he only listened to natural sounds now. The Cageian thing.


Steve Lacy once said that it was a musician's duty to listen to his contemporaries. What do you listen to when you're at home?


There's listening you do for information, and there's listening you do for pleasure, and sometimes they overlap. What do I listen to for pleasure? It's very undisciplined.. When you're sixteen or whatever, you're continually discovering new things, and later in life you're always half-wishing you could recapture that, find some music that really knocks your socks off. If you're listening tastes are in response to your mood, what comes along is going to be very erratic. I don't really listen to music for relaxation. I listen to a lot of contemporary composed music, a lot of improvised music (I get sent CDs and swap CDs with other people, of course), jazz (after a few years of leaving it alone), a fair amount of globe trotting, early flamenco singing and Greek clarinet recently, and I return quite often to what was one of my earliest pleasures, country blues. I've always regretted not being more interested in pop music, because I think it must be a very light pleasure, but I've never managed it.

Thank you for visiting Paris Transatlantic. If you enjoyed this interview, you may also be interested in reading our talks with the legendary Sunny Murray, or with Misha Mengelberg, Dutch jazzer and avant-garde pianist/composer/improvisor. Dan Warburton, our indefatigable Paris Editor, also produced an excellent interview with Fred Frith. And for the German/French avant-garde, see our interview with "musiktheater" director Heiner Goebbels. Copyright Paris Transatlantic Magazine 2001.