Jack’s been thinking…about John Butcher’s Paul Hamlyn Composer Award

Jack Davies

Our Friday columnist Jack Davies considers the significance of this week’s Paul Hamlyn Composer Award

Saxophonist John Butcher is among the this year’s recipients of a major award from the Paul Hamlyn Foundation. Butcher is one of three composers who will receive £45,000 over three years to support themselves and their work. It is certainly significant that this award – the most generous arts award in the UK – has been bestowed upon a member of the British improvised music community (Butcher tends to avoid the word “jazz”).

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However, it was at a jazz festival in Norway that I first heard John Butcher – in the sweltering, packed out upstairs floor of a contemporary art gallery in the tiny town of Kongsberg. Butcher’s music centres on the exploration of sound (he has a special interest in unusual site-specific acoustics), and I was struck by his almost uncomfortable sonic bravery – performing one piece entirely by sucking on his soprano.

with Gerry Hemingway at Nickelsdorf, Austria.
Photo credit: Katerina Ratajova/johnbutcher.org.uk

Butcher’s unusual music might be in some part due to his unusual background – originally trained as a physicist, his PhD thesis concerned itself with “Spin effects in the production and weak decay of heavy Quarks”. He was to turn his back on physics (though perhaps it is a scientist’s curiosity that drives his interest in acoustics and electronics), and it is in the viscerally organic field of improvised music that he has made his name.

It is pleasing and appropriate that the Paul Hamlyn Foundation, whose aim is to “support new music and composers across genres and practices,” has honoured a member of the British improvised music scene.

The UK has one of the world’s leading free and improvised music scenes, producing musicians such as Evan Parker, who won a Hamlyn Award in 2008, Joe Harriott, Derek Bailey, Paul Dunmall, John Edwards, Ingrid Laubrock, Phil Minton, Tony Levin, and many, many others. Free music has been embraced by many in the younger generation too – with Kit Downes, Shabaka Hutchings, James Allsopp and Chris Montague all showing a strong engagement with this music.

It is a field in which Britons seem to be far more appreciated abroad than they are at home – a fact evidenced by the heavy emphasis on foreign touring in UK improv and free players’ schedules. The current UK improv scene seems to cling limpet-like to a few urban hubs, finding it hard to take root elsewhere.

In Dalston, London, free music is thriving – with the fantastic Vortex and Café Oto programmes offering international stars amongst (and often sharing a stage with) British musicians. Master drummer Mark Sanders told me that these are his two favourite UK venues to play at. Kings Place has been known to programme some fantastic gigs, and there are other less high profile North London improv venues too – The Oxford in Kentish Town regularly supports this music, as does Lumen (Tavistock Place), the North London Tavern(Kilburn) and The Others (Stoke Newington).

Birmingham is the site of another flourishing free music scene, with Tony Dudley-Evans at Birmingham Jazz championing the genre,alongside more grass roots support from the Cobweb Collective. Percy Pursglove and Chris Mapp’s recent Harmonic Festival also received great criticalappreciation, featuring Iain Ballamy and Thomas Strønen ’s improv duo ‘Food’ and Norwegian trumpet-scape master Arve Henriksen at the top of the bill.

In Manchester, Sheffield, Newcastle, Leeds and Cardiffthere is free jazz to be found, but is this music purely an urban phenomenon? The music was born in cities, but European (and in particular Norwegian) musicians have taken the music to extra-urban environs.

Is there improv to be found in the valleys, moors and highlands of Britain? It seems a shame that this world-class scene appears to be largely confined to a few highly localised, city-bound pockets of activity.Simon Thackray’s adventurous programming at The Shed in the Yorkshire moors maybe a solitary exception to this rule, while Butcher himself also broke this mould in a 2006 tour of the Orkney islands.

Let’s hope, then, that John Butcher’s award will result in his music being programmed at more UK venues, and that more British people will be exposed to, and appreciate his contribution to our musical landscape, both urban and rural.


The Jack Davies Big Band is at the Spice of Life on Sunday November 13th as part of the London Jazz Festival

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2 replies »

  1. Thank you anonymous…do tell us who you are and feel free to develop your point further.

    John Butcher also wrote in by email to draw attention to one beacon outside the main cities of the UK:

    Huddersfield. Or, more precisely, the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival – which commisioned me to compose a piece for 8 improvisers (somethingtobesaid, in 2008).

    It's been important in providing opportunities to produce work that extends beyond options available at other UK locations.

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