John Butcher started playing the saxophone at Surrey University, where he was studying physics. Originally a physicist, he left academia in 1982, and has since collaborated with hundreds of musicians including Derek Bailey, John Tilbury, John Stevens, The EX, Gerry Hemingway, Polwechsel, Gino Robair, Rhodri Davies, John Edwards, Toshi Nakamura, Paul Lovens, Eddie Prevost, Mark Sanders, Christian Marclay, Otomo Yoshihide, Phil Minton, and Andy Moor.
In 2011 he received the Paul Hamlyn Foundation Award for Artists.
Tarab Cuts is a new concert-length work by John Butcher working with Mark Saunders, combing composition and improvisation layered over 78rpm archival recordings of traditional Sufi music.
“In Arab culture, the merger between music and emotional transformation is epitomized by the concept of tarab, which may not have an exact equivalent in Western Languages…Today, the direct association between music and emotional transformation pervades the performers’ and listeners’ world. Modern Arab musicians and musical connoisseurs stress that above all. Arab music must engage emotionally. Frequently heard are statements such as ‘al-fann ihsas’, which means ‘art (namely music) is feeling”.
In 2011, John Butcher was commissioned by Performa to compose a 15 minute piece inspired by this concept. This was for part of the 5 –hour performance, Visiting Tarab, conceived and programmed by the Lebanese musician Tarek Atoui as a modern day response to the classical music in the enormous private collection (7000 78s dating from 1903-1950) of a Kamal Kassar in Beirut).
Butcher wrote Tarab Cuts for Soprano and tenor saxophones, plus a multi-tracked recording derived from some of these shellacs. The live playback reworked elements of solo ney, oud, violin and Sufi drumming and signing. He has performed this piece as part of Atoui’s project, in New York, Sharjah (UAE), The Serpentine Gallery (London) and as a separate piece at the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival.
The notion of tarab is rooted in a pre-1930’s repertoire of Arabic classical music, largely thought to be thereafter diluted and diminished (although it has been argued that its essence remains alive in Egyptian Sufi chant). Tarab Cuts takes its inspiration from these qualities, but is not an attempt to copy this music. It is an interaction across decades and cultures, an exploration of the contemporary musical practice of Butcher and Sanders. A meeting of distant voices with their own, in pursuit of both common and unfamiliar ground.
Commissioned by Bristol New Music, Tarab Cuts received its UK premiere performance on 21 February 2014, at Arnolfini, Bristol. It was performed by John Butcher and Mark Saunders.