Ken Butler plays a mean ax. And he plays a mean snow shovel. And, over the years, a hammer, a hockey stick, a golf club, a bicycle wheel, a broom, a toy Uzi, a toy handgun, a knife, a rocking chair leg, a motorcycle manifold and lots of things that are just hard to describe.
Just now, sitting in his upper flat in Ann Arbor, he’s interrupted a discussion of the life and art that, at age 55, have brought him some degree of notoriety in the art and avant-garde music worlds, not to mention his current teaching gig at the University of Michigan. He’s stopped for a bit of show and tell, triggered by the passing mention of a jazz trumpeter who played with a saxophonist who played with Butler’s brother. He was already enthusiastic, but now it’s as if a three-way light bulb has been clicked from bright to brightest.
Butler fishes frantically into his pants pocket and extracts — as if it’s a small treasure — the kind of metal container that someone else might use to carry aspirins or breath mints. Inside is a strip of plastic, three-quarters of an inch wide and 5 inches long. He anchors either end between a thumb and forefinger. He pulls the left end of the strip across his lips and stretches the right into the air, curling middle fingers back toward it as if to press the strings of violin. Then he lets loose with what sounds a great deal like a trumpet — and maybe a little like a balloon being twisted. And after blowing his Don Cherry tribute, he follows with a Miles Davis, concluding with the look of a magician about to let the audience in on a trick.
The Vibraband is not one of Butler’s creations. This simple strip of dental dam and the appropriate technique is the work of his old Portland pal and sometimes bandmate Stan Wood. But like the instruments Butler creates, it has what he refers to as hyperutility — use far removed from its workaday function.
On the other hand, where the Vibraband is simple and unadorned, Butler’s instruments, like the two dozen or so lined against a nearby wall, are celebrations of bric-a-brac, objects familiar and obscure cobbled together into art that makes music.
When he talks about these hybrids — as he calls them — it’s almost as if they asked to be made. And once made, he says, “They pointed me in a direction. There was an immediate feeling for the timbre, the sound quality that came out of them.”
Although most of the hundreds of instruments he’s created over the years are capable of producing sounds, about 45 are truly playable. He’s concentrated on playing 25 or so of the most musical with a special emphasis, in turn, on about half of those.
“They spiritually drew me to realize that to be able to play them was going to be very technically demanding,” he says.
Then showing a sort of bewilderment, he adds, “Trying to master 25 different instruments is insane. It’s crazy. Why would I try to do that?”
Well, you might say it all started with the ax.
The watershed in Ken Butler’s artistic life came in 1978 when he and his younger brother, John, were living in northwest Portland, Oregon, where, as John describes it, “the hippie contingent lived.”
The Butler brothers and one sister had grown up in an arts-friendly Portland household, children of a psychiatrist father and a mother trained to be a classical singer and pianist. Both brothers grew up as music lovers, and though Ken studied viola for a time, and played around with guitar, he was always drawn to the visual arts as well.
In separate interviews, both Butler brothers recall going to see bluesman Buddy Guy in the late ’60s when Ken was 20 and John was 16. It was Guy at his best, strutting down into the audience with his extra-long guitar cord, getting up in the brothers’ faces, bending notes and generally warping their time-space continuum. They came home so excited that their mother decided she had to go back with them the next night. Ken’s love for music and the blues tradition was ratcheted up. John was converted into a serious guitar student.
Ten years later John was a professional jazz musician. After studying art in the States and in France, and completing an MFA in painting from Portland State University, Ken was still trying to reconcile music and visual art. He was working with full body X-rays, making art that explored the relation between the human body and string instruments: “The head, neck, body, and the idea that the frets of a guitar are like the spinal column.”
But one night he was in the basement of the house and looking at an ax — which happened to fit perfectly and suggestively into the case of a violin that had been partially cannibalized for an earlier project. The leftover parts of said violin were also at hand. When the inspiration hit it took only about an hour and a half to transform the ax by adding a bridge and strings by means of a little drilling and gluing. And then Ken added a contact microphone to plug the contraption into an amplifier.
“And it sounded pretty damn good for an ax that I’d made in an hour and a half,” recalls Ken. “Suddenly the whole world opened up to me in terms of ‘That’s a cello. That’s a violin.’”
And with contact mics, any of these objects could be amplified.
“Everything you touch makes a sound. This was the solution for me artistically,” Ken says. “I could make collages that were instruments. I could play them. The ones that don’t sound great are just a sculpture. The ones that sound great I learn to play.”
That was roughly 400 instruments ago. About 75 are in the hands of private collectors and museums; about 25 are with him in Ann Arbor while the rest are stashed in his New York loft. But the demands of learning to play any instrument well are such that he says, “When making something new now, I’m almost hoping that it doesn’t sound very good.”
John — whose life has taken him to New York and Europe and back to Portland — recalls when his brother was “building instruments, coming up with all these crazy sounds. … We’d have friends over and wind up with everybody grabbing an instrument and just whacking.”
Adds John: “When you build one of these things, you’re not building it as an acoustic engineer. It’s sort of a chance thing — I think it became a magical thing in a way.”
Back when he was constructing the ax-violin and other early hybrids, Ken was only vaguely aware of the tradition he was joining. Nonetheless, he spends more time articulating his difference from the tradition than his affinities.
The movement’s patron saints have been the Russian physicist Leo Theremin and the all-American eccentric Harry Partch.
Invented in 1920, the theremin — named after its inventor — allows players to wave their hands in radio frequency fields to create the signature eerie ooo-wooo-whooo whine of ’50s sci-fi flicks and the Beach Boy’s hit “Good Vibrations.”
One-time hobo Partch set to work in the 1920s building what would eventually become a whole alternative musical menagerie — reconfigured string instruments, glass bell and metal bell assemblies, harp-like instruments, bamboo marimbas and more — all to accommodate a system of more than 40 tones to the “so-called scale” as Partch dismissively put it.
In the 1950s and 1960s, amplified keyboard instruments and later synthesizers began to come onto the market, and in many ways revolutionized music. But the descendants (speaking very loosely) of Theremin and Partch have tended to pursue other areas.
In 1985, Bart Hopkin, a Californian schoolteacher and instrument-builder, founded what he called “a very humble newsletter” out of curiosity about others who might share his interests. Experimental Music Instruments became a quarterly documenting an “extremely diverse” group of inventors around the world. It helped turn them “into a field, where before there had been scattered individuals,” says Hopkin.
They are often low-tech. They tend to avoid standard keyboards for controlling devices. They are often interested in non-Western music and non-Western tuning systems. If they plug in, they tend to go for analog rather than digital technology; sophisticated computers are another scene. Those are some of the tendencies.
Ken Butler’s work in some ways seemed a natural fit for EMI, and Hopkin also included Ken’s work first in a cassette-only compilation and later in the 1997 book-CD Gravikords, Whirlies & Pyrophones on the Ellipsis Arts label. (Gravikords includes a foreword from sometime instrument-maker Tom Waits.)
Clara Rockmore, Theremin’s virtuoso student, is on the record as is an ensemble led by Partch. There’s Jean-Claude Chapuis, who has invented an orchestra of glass instruments (following Benjamin Franklin, who invented a “glass harmonica”). There’s Michel Moglia, whose pyrophone is a set of 250 pipes, some as long as 30 feet, which are literally fire-powered. There are car-horn organs, a bamboo saxophone played on an obscure ’60s reggae single, flower pot marimbas.
Ken is represented on Gravikords by his New York debut, a performance at the Franklin Furnace from 1987, a year before he settled in New York. It begins with the clattering sound of a motor-driven bicycle wheel, picks mounted on its circumference, strumming a guitar string. Against the drone, Ken joins in, playing what looks like an oversized mutant banjo with another bicycle wheel as its body and a metal yardstick for its neck. He alternates fast and intricate runs with shimmering chords and haunting metallic sounds of spokes and attached metal objects being struck.
Stan Wood joins in on his Vibraband, sounding more like a reed or double reed instrument than a trumpet in this recording. Finally, John Butler rocks out at the end on a fuzzy-toned guitar built from a motorcycle exhaust manifold and part of a transmission case.
The Gravikords booklet also documents some of Ken’s far more elaborate installations. His 1995 Object Opera at New York’s Thread Waxing Space gallery is described as “a fascinating conglomeration of indescribable complexity … a riotous cosmos of layered sound light and motion” with more than 100 items rigged together so that a touch of a keyboard can trigger amazing action: “ … a red shirt, arms outstretched, twirls about in the midst of things, or street signs start to spin nearby.”
Of the artists Hopkin has anthologized and championed, Ken says: “I don’t necessarily feel a tremendous amount of connection with those people, although I do have an interest in archiving and seeing what they were doing. I think I had come to something from the opposite direction. The music was a byproduct of some visual relation. … I didn’t feel I was trying to bring new instruments to the realm of music.”
In contrast to Partch, whose massive instruments have to be trucked about, Ken notes that he can stack and slide 10 hybrids into a gig bag. He’s not a composer, he adds, and doesn’t want to investigate the physics of novel tuning systems. He’s more interested in the patina of wear an instrument takes on in actual use than by the fine inlays of artisan instrument builders. Beyond a little live sampling and other basic devices, he’s not much interested in electronics either.
“I’m still waiting to cry my first high-tech tear,” he says.
Overall, he puts himself in some nether region that’s between fine art and folk. “I feel I’m in my own strange category,” he says.
Ken virtually beams enthusiasm for his work.
“He’s got a lust for life that’s indefatigable and it comes out in everything he does,” says Greg Barsamian, a fellow artist and friend who met Ken around the time Ken migrated to the Williamsburg section of New York.
“He’s very much a performer. There’s something very childlike about Ken,” says his artist-girlfriend, Jenny Lynn McNutt, talking, like Barsamian, over the phone from New York. “He loves to share things with people, strangers as well as people who are close to him.”
Her impression on meeting him seven years ago, she recalls, “was an enormous warmth and charm and an openness, a great openness, which is part of the charm. And, particularly at a certain age, a kind of openness is particularly affecting, you know.”
Barsamian, McNutt and brother John all note Ken’s love of collage and music; they sometimes use language that makes the two hard to disentangle. The collages are defined by their sense of rhythm and composition; the music by the sense of being collaged.
Sometimes the serendipity of his life seems akin to a lived collage, found objects and all.
Take the story behind Ken’s record, Voices of Anxious Objects, on saxophonist John Zorn’s label, Tzadik. To Ken’s thinking, people who say, “I’ve got a film script,” are standing in the world’s longest line. Folks waiting for a record deal are the second longest, and Ken had never bothered to queue up.
Having moved to New York, Ken became part of the arts community and part of what’s commonly called the “downtown” music scene, as defined by musicians like Zorn and places like the Knitting Factory, Roulette and Tonic.
“I was on the steps of Tower Records. I was coming down the steps and John Zorn was walking up the steps,” says Ken of the lucky day. “He said he had just been to the Metropolitan Museum and he had seen some of my instruments. Typically, I said, it’s not the Museum of Modern Art or the Whitney, but it’s cool.”
Zorn asked whether Ken had any records. Ken said he was more interested in “a visual thing.” And right there outside the record store Zorn offered a deal with “a booklet with lots of pictures,” freedom for Ken to do what he wanted and a $5,000 budget. “That’s amazing, it just happened,” says Ken.
The University of Michigan appointment, likewise, came about without Ken’s queuing up.
Ken’s work was included in an group show at the University of Michigan’s Slusser Gallery, and Ken was brought in from New York for a performance.
“The art gallery in the school of art and design is not the kind of place you usually go to hear a concert,” says the school’s dean, Bryan Rogers, who was in the audience. “It was a knockout. It was really zany, high-energy stuff, and people were dancing and little kids were just glued on to it … and Ken is up there with his bag of tricks, keeping all of them riveted.”
Rogers asked that day whether Ken would be interested in coming to teach at U-M, and kept in contact and “nudged him a little bit.” (Rogers wanted Ken to come for two years; he’s agreed to one, and anything beyond that is up in the air.)
Rogers says in Ken he saw someone who was “good with kids of all ages, including adults,” not to mention someone who was part of that loose tradition of instrument builders — referencing Partch as “the most notable example.”
But Rogers also saw Ken in a wider context: “Ken makes a good example of making a life outside the box, and shows that endurance, plus talent, plus compulsion can come together. I wanted students and faculty to have an example of that kind of person around.”
Ken builds his musical performances layer-by-layer. Instruments like his snow shovel or his cane-racket, to cite a couple of examples, have strings that can be bowed, strummed or picked, and surfaces and doo-dads that can be struck or plucked. With his electronic sampling gear, he can generate any number of riffs and textures that repeat in layers while he adds more parts over the top.
As it’s evolved, the music has a vaguely non-Western feel, with sliding tones and quavers, but there’s often a strong rhythmic element. There are moments when you might think of surf guitar music from the Casbah.
But it takes a certain kind of musician to add to these musical assemblages — which leads to more serendipity. Ken arrived in Ann Arbor at the end of August, started teaching instrument-building in September, and started asking if anyone “knew a kind of world-music singer, abstract-improviser type.” There were plenty of shrugs, then recollections of an elusive Iranian singer, suggestions to call so-and-so and dead ends. Finally, a guitarist who happened by to see Ken’s instruments turned out to have her phone number. Which is how Ken made contact with Sepideh Vahidi, a 37-year-old Iranian singer born who now lives in Ann Arbor after immigrating to the States in 2002. She’s been trained in Persian music but is keen to mix that specific tradition with other forms — and making music that’s rather free-form. It’s music that as a woman she was barred from performing publicly in Iran.
When she came by his flat, they started off with her improvising while he set a kind of “quasi-tango flamenco” groove.
“It was unbelievable,” Ken says. “It was magic. … I’m getting this rush on my spinal column, I’m getting this rush of trading lines and the improvisational form. The sky kind of opened up in a certain way. And then we continued to play, and finally I very slowly faded out the groove on the mixer. It felt like we were floating.”
Or as Vahidi puts it more succinctly, “The music just made a fit.”
Three or four days later they played again and realized that the first session hadn’t been a fluke; without overrehearsing they’re hoping that the “spiritual or whatever energy” manifests itself in their upcoming Kerrytown Concert House performance, which, like the title of his CD, will be under the blanket title of Voices of Anxious Objects.
Asked what that means, Ken explains that the term goes back to the art critic Clement Greenberg, but that downtown musician David Weinstein first applied it to Ken’s work. It resonated. Ken says that while his music isn’t “nervous or anxious … there’s an anxious feeling to it even though I’m trying to be centered and emotionally in touch, and the objects have an anxiety, to a degree, to them.”
And asked what that means, Ken pauses, confesses that he doesn’t know exactly, pauses again, confesses again. Then with a wave of a hand toward the battery of hybrids arranged nearby, he begins riffing, coming at the question from different angles: Each of these anxious objects “has a life of its own. It kind of wants to be put into action. … They cry out to me to grab them. They want to be caressed and manipulated. They want to collage with me. They want to interface in a way. … They like the idea of doing something. I store them and take care of them and caress them and clean them and change their strings, and as a result they want to sing for their supper, and they speak in tongues to me.”
And through him to the world.
Ken Butler’s Voices of Anxious Objects is to be performed Friday, Jan. 30, at 8 p.m. at Kerrytown Concert House (415 N. Fourth Ave., Ann Arbor). Call 734-769-2999.
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