Christopher Butterfield: Souvenir

Sunday 26 March 2023

Christopher Butterfield catches you off-guard and continues to do so for the duration of this album. Souvenir (Redshift Music) collects four of his ensemble pieces, adroitly played by the Aventa Ensemble. His melodic material appears at first to be innocuous, or casually beguiling, but as his instrumental lines merge into each other they refuse to coalesce into a unified statement and as they continue to politely bicker amongst themselves the listener is kept constantly on edge, hoping for a resolution that may or may not arrive.

Souvenir (1995) begins with a steady shuffle and quirky counterpoint that immediately suggests the chirpy ‘post-minimalism’ (ugh) of a generation ago, but everything is too precarious and off-kilter to fall into the bluff certainties of that genre. In any case, as soon as you’re starting to get your head around it, it stops and then restarts in a different direction. Each new episode plays off divergent, hopping melodic lines against a pulse in the percussion that is never quite at tempo. To unsettle things further, a very faint field recording of tree frogs chirps away steadily in the background, at odds and indifferent to all around it. The piece peaks when most of the instruments fall away to spotlight a duet between horn and violin that is no duet at all, with each soliloquising oblivious of the other.

My prior knowledge of Butterfield’s work was limited to the disc of his music for string ensembles by the Quatuor Bozzini a while back. For this set, the presence of percussion adds a more tangible bite to his friable rhythms and meters. parc (2013) expands upon this in the form of a percussion solo, with Rick Sacks on vibraphone and Aventa running interference on each other. At one point, Sacks resorts to a small set of woodblocks instead of the vibes; the crude, limited gamut of pitches hints that any sophistication observed here is a veneer to more direct and basic impulses. Butterfield’s sleeve notes reveal his use of chance, serial procedures and malfunctioning electronics (the melodies in Souvenir) to shape his music. His confident handling of unreliable systems gives the capricious twists and turns in his compositions a sense of openness reminiscent of Cage, even while sounding nothing alike.

Cage is acknowledged explicitly in Frame (2012), a piece built on the premise of staggered unisons. Even as asynchronicity is a recurring feature in these pieces, Butterfield cites Cage’s Ryoanji as Frame‘s impetus (“he called it “Korean Unison,” although I’ve never come across the term anywhere else”). The piece begins with appropriate Cagean decorum but inexorably unravels until it spawns an obstinately erratic drum-kit solo that steps all over the meticulously uncontrolled counterpoint. Finally, Port Bou (2001) is probably the most elaborate piece in the set, using a mixture of techniques to collage together a richly coloured but poignant memorial to Walter Benjamin. In its seemingly arbitrary juxtapositions, Butterfield finds a pathos amongst the absurdities, giving and added depth to dispel any remaining suspicion that his musical language can be summarised simply as playfulness.

I’ve been sleeping a lot this month and I’m relieved this album arrived to wake me up.