Christopher Butterfield just finished running the Aventa Ensemble’s annual composers’ workshop (with Michael Finnissy this year) at the University of Victoria. Recovering from an intense week, he’s preparing to head out to Montreal to perform Kurt Schwitters’ Ursonate and some of his own works at Innovation en concert. Interviewed here by Isak Goldschneider of Innovations en concert.
Can I start by asking you about your personal relationship to the Ursonate?
When I was a student, I discovered Schwitters (this must have been in the early 1970’s), and I had been looking at sound poetry, especially the stuff that came out of Zurich- Dada- in 1916 and then kind of went on with a few people. But Schwitters started making sound poetry in the early 1920’s, and created this monumental piece, this sonata, which is actually a perfect sonata form; it follows all the rules perfectly. Now, I’d been a singer, and I was interested in that world and things like this, so I learned it. I must have performed it for the first time in 1976, and I’ve been doing it ever since, sometimes more frequently, sometimes less. I haven’t done it for a couple of years, but it’s my “party piece”.
Has your relationship to Schwitters and Dada in general influenced your own artwork?
It’s funny, because once you become associated with a certain group, or you show an interest in them, people start thinking of you like that. And I think that I was interested in the whole period when Dada first appeared and how we don’t really remember too many of the artists- I’m talking specifically about Zurich; Hugo Ball, Richard Hülsenbeck, Marcel Janco, Emmy Hennings, and people like this. There really isn’t anyone who’s terribly well-known from that world except for Tristan Tzara, the Romanian who went to Paris. He was a real showman, so he put on a lot of performances and wrote a lot, and was a real self-promoter.
As to what it meant in terms of my own music, I think that if you scratched the surface a bit you’d find that I’m such a creature of structure and rule that I don’t have that much in common with Dada at all. Where I might have is that I’m prepared to set things in motion that I might not completely know the outcome of, and I think that that is probably something that Dada took into consideration. There’s a lot of speculation there, and a lot of things that are arrived at, you could say, by chance; but, you know, as they say, chance favors the prepared mind. Things are very seldom completely indeterminate, especially in art. They’ve usually been set up, hopefully in some kind of productive and elegant way, to give you the result that you want. So I suppose you could say that in that sense I have something in common with Dada. But… I’m not interested in shocking people. The original Dadaists were, especially in shocking the good bourgeoisie of Zurich during the first War. Still, while I’m not really making light music, I do like the idea of play, and of doing things that carry more than just a serious musical proposition.
You’re performing some of your own compositions in Montreal, too. I think that one of them is called Dark Set…
Yes. That’s an old piece of mine, from 1978. It’s a little musical performance piece. I sing along and interact with a recording of myself on a cassette tape. It’s basically a rhetorical account of how to fish for halibut, based on a summer I spent a long time ago working as a deckhand on a halibut boat on the West Coast. For some reason, that produced this piece! The curious thing is that the title doesn’t refer to halibut fishing at all- it refers to salmon fishing. But our boat was originally a salmon boat that we converted, and when you put the gill nets out at various times of the day, it’s a “set”. The morning nets are the “dawn set”, and then you have the “midday set”, and then you have the “dark set” which is the evening set. So for some reason I’ve combined salmon and halibut here.
…and you’re also doing three of your own short songs.
I wrote these to be sung and played by the same person. The funny thing is that wrote them in 2002, and the only place I’ve performed them is Bratislav, in Slovakia, to an audience that couldn’t speak English. So I think they were lost on them a little. They’re based on three texts that I found. One is by an American writer named Ruth Ozeki, who wrote a very good book about how Americans eat meat. Anyway, it’s from that; and then there’s a quote from an interview with an woman from Newfoundland who was a demonstrator at the Quebec WTO talks, easily 10 years ago. She talks about her experiences as an activist. And then there’s a third one that’s based on a leaflet that the Americans dropped on Afghanistan in October 2001 telling the Taliban that they should surrender, because the Americans are more powerful, they’re better, they know more, they shoot straighter- and it would be better if the Taliban just gave up.
The first song is called Song about Ignorance, the second Political Song, and the third one is called American Song — The thing about these three texts is that the English didn’t learn, the Russians didn’t learn, and the Americans continue not to learn, but that doesn’t stop them trying. I bumped into an elderly lady who’s a friend of mine at the University yesterday, and invited her to hear a run-though of the songs, and she was quite entertained. Hopefully everyone else will be too.
– Isak Goldschneider, September 18, 2011
attend Christopher Butterfield’s concert (with Kaie Kellough and Jason Sharp)
at Innovations en concert, Tues, 27 Sept 2011, 8pm
attend Christopher Butterfield’s lecture
at Innovations en concert, Tues, 27 Sept 2011, 1:30pm