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improvisation & film

Concert Review: John Butcher and Gerry Hemingway

by Wyman Brantley

Madison, WI: Frederic March Play Circle on the UW campus

Date: Thursday, 2-17-00
Butcher: Soprano & Tenor saxes;
Hemingway: Percussion and electronics

This gig consisted of two main parts: live musical interact while a film was shown, and then a "traditional" musical performance, after a break. Thus, the first aspect makes it a bit unusual, even within the already unusual world of free improvisation.

The strategic issues of playing along with a normal motion picture revolve around the fact that the film is not being improvised, while the music is. The question arises: do we allow the film to influence or playing consciously? Furthermore, in what sense would that be free improvisation? Should we, perhaps, set aside this pretense of free interaction, at least for this gig?

Notice, however, that such questions do not usually arise in regard to the audience, thought they might. Why, one might wonder, does one rarely see a gig in which the players stare out at the audience, and play music as a reaction to what they see? Why do such things only happen when there is a film, or some other artwork?

I hope I can be forgiven for not yet explicitly mentioning Butcher and Hemingway. However, the above are the sorts of issues their gig raised, for me. They, as the reader might have guessed, did treat the presence of the film in some of the expected ways. They began the music by placing notes rhythmically in ways that were clearly related to the action (Butcher) and by creating an atmospheric electronic backdrop that served as an appropriate soundtrack (Hemingway.)

To their credit--though perhaps partly due to the nature of the film--they eventually moved out of that mindset. Once they did so, and the music began to cook on its own, the question became: What is the relationship of the music to the film? What justifies our thinking of the music and film as being parts of a whole? Perhaps, at certain points, there was no such justification; or perhaps the only relation was in the fact that we all did think of the two as an artistic whole.

Theoretical questions aside, what the audience takes from such a show is a feeling of whether "it" worked or not. The music clearly worked, once the players got past the pretense of reacting to the film. Butcher was more "American" in his playing than usual, perhaps driven to the more emotive, gutsy territories by Hemingway’s lightning barrages. After all Hemingway is one of Braxton’s major collaborators, which means that he had to learn to create "clouds of garbage-cans" to back up Chicagoan sax howling (to quote Braxton himself.) Hemingway’s speed at several points was astounding, as was his ability to conjure novel sounds from a standard drum-kit.

The film, however, was barely tolerable. It was called "Slow Arc Walk," and its title alludes to the fact that it was a one-hour static shot of a man performing a slow, methodical "walk" up and down a room. I suppose that the idea was to choose a film that was simple enough not to distract from the music. I suppose that the film was no more boring than the walls or the stage itself. Perhaps we, the audience, were being prodded to ask ourselves why we were bored with the film if we were not bored by these surroundings. Fair enough. But these sorts of simple, abstract messages have been sent by countless other works, e.g. Cage/Tudor, Duchamp, Fluxus, and so on. Derivative boredom is just that. And so we were all quite primed for the excellent music interlude that followed the break.


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