Ken Butler's Hybrid Visions Transcend Sound and Sculpture
  • THURSDAY, FEBRUARY 13, 2014

  • Posted by: Jake Saunders

As a music site, Baeble is always talking about new music on the scene that you should keep your eye out for. Sometimes it seems that over half of these bands are Brooklyn based, which is not surprising considering the Borough has become one of the major artistic and cultural meccas of the world for artists to hone their craft and gain recognition. The fact is, not all of those artists are just indie bands playing out of empty warehouses and DiY venues. There are thousands of artists ranging from painters, photographers, sculptors, dancers, graphic artists, and many more. Although we focus on one fragment of the huge artistic world that exists across the East River, we'd like to introduce you to one such artist who transcends just being a musician through his own creative form of visual art.

Meet Ken Butler. In his early 60s, Butler has been building instruments for the past 30 years out of his spacious loft in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. Having spent time as a studio intern for Butler in the past, I gained a fair share of knowledge of what Butler's work is all about, and I recently met up with him to discuss who he is, what he makes, and why he makes it on a more personal level.

To say the least, Ken is a character. His eccentricity adds a sense of mysticism and playfulness to his work, as well as his conversations. He has an album out on Tzadik Records, John Zorn's home for avant garde artists which include names like Mike Patten of Faith No More, and turn tabelist Yoshihide Otomo of the Japanese experimental band Ground Zero to name a few.




Before I sat down, he immediately decided to set the mood with Miles Davis' master piece, "In A Silent Way", a record that he introduced me to last year, and one which we would listen to on numerous occasions throughout my time in his studio. Miles is just one of his many interests, with a wide range of influences ranging from the avant-garde master Marcel Duchamp and R&B greats like James Brown to traditional Middle Eastern and Indian music.

Ken Butler is not just any old luthier (a maker of string instruments); he builds instruments out of...well just about anything he can find. His loft is filled to the brim with odd assortments of gadgets and toys and strange looking things. He has walls completely covered with his instruments, all completely built out of found objects. They are formed from just about anything you can think of that might be lying around the house to the dumpster out back; hockey sticks, shovels, an old boot, computers, golf clubs, tooth brushes, hammers, furniture, he even has a few built out of machine guns. What's even more exciting is they're all (or at least most of them) completely playable. He uses contact microphones to amplify the instruments, which adds a percussive element from any attachments he decides to add that might have sonic qualities (metal snaps, spring door stops, drum heads, etc.). One of his most impressive creations is the industrial keyboard; just an octave of midi keys, each key operates the various contents of the piano body which includes radios, lights, and noisemakers. The radios can be tuned to any station, causing the time of day to be a major factor on what John Cagian sound scape you create with the exciting instrument/sculpture. Walking into that room is always a magical experience.






Ken turned me on to the concept of "Bricolage", a term that he learned when he was living in France and also uses to describe his field of work. "There isn't really a very accessible translation in English to my knowledge," he explained to me. "The closest word would in a way be 'tinker', but tinker kind of has a negative connotation in English."

He went on to describe the "real definition, which comes from Claud Levi Strauss — basically it's the concept of using what is 'at hand' —it has an aspect of recycling. The more complex definition in a way embodies the notion of creating a whole new world by reorganizing [or] re-contextualizing...things that exist before and repurposing them both in terms of their meaning, their sociological and cultural identity, and iconography [to] create a new world by re-ordering them as opposed to wiping everything out and starting fresh with a whole new concept." For those of you who might not be as well versed in the English language as Ken —and few are, he speaks with a sophistication that is difficult to match —Bricolage is the idea of taking things from the environment and using them to create something completely different. "...Almost everything I've made is from something that somebody else made first...and I'm not even doing too much to it...it's a resourceful, perhaps ingenuity, with what's there."


One of the biggest questions that most people have when they're lucky enough to see Ken's instruments, whether it be in a gallery or performance, is just how the heck he comes up with the ideas in the first place. He says that the idea to re-contextualize his environment kind of just happened: "It was through a series of circumstances," he told me. "At one point I needed to make a clarification of whether I wanted to be a musician or a visual artist so it was through some experiments of that that I found the hatchet on the floor in 1978, and that's the whole story: Picking up the hatchet...[and] immediately realizing, visualizing a work of art that was both a sculpture and a functional instrument. It happened to fit in a little violin case, you can think of the blade...as a chin rest, the end of the axe already had a nail in it to widen the wood to press it against the actually blade...the shape of the handle of the hatchet allowed for the thickness of two tuning pegs, just as thick as the headstock of the guitar."

What's particularly amazing about his instruments and sculptures is that everything seems to have its place, although the objects are all recognizable as tools or things with other purposes, they seem to fit in perfectly with each other. When I mentioned this he went on to explain, "Well, that's what really got me interested, because everything that's man-made is basically about our proportions; the utilitarian things that we're able to do with objects that we make...what's more ergonomic than a musical instrument...so that idea of how it fits on your body would apply to some degree to [whatever is] man-made."



My next question regarded the relationship between the visual and sonic elements in his work. His instruments don't just sound unique, but they are visually striking. Many of his sculptures are flat pieces that resemble the shape of a stringed instrument, equipped with guitar necks, and bodies assembled from various items. "They all start with a visual thing first," Ken explained. "What I'm looking for in the body is some sort of iconographic shape or look that resembles the body of whatever stringed instrument that's ever been made historically...so the sound is truly an accidental byproduct of that relationship. In some cases I focus on thinking that it's really going to sound good, in other cases with odd juxtapositions of objects you end up with a situation that is unusual...[and] happens to have a particular sound quality or character."





Artists having grown up and lived during a time with no such means of accessibility that the internet provides for us today have often had to adjust and alter the way they make and produce their work. So much music we hear is aided by digital and electronic technologies that only mask what is truly happening. Our ears have become attuned to a produced sound that can only be achieved by computers. Most of us have embraced this new way of listening, in that anything that remotely sounds or appears lo-fi or do-it-yourself is reviled. Ken Butler rejects all of this. He coins the term ancient future, a concept "which embraces a kind of primitivism," comparing the juxtaposing ideas of a rustic past verses a chrome future. Ken Butler has no interest in recording or mass marketing his work through social media (although he has an amazing new website which can be viewed here). His work demands and provides awareness of the necessity of a physical presence to experience art. Because after all, when you hear the instruments it could be anything that he's playing, but it's when you realize that he's playing an umbrella —and what's more that the umbrella is a functioning instrument that you understand that what Ken Butler is doing is quite different, and quite fascinating.

So the next time you decide to throw out that old phone, or that broken pen, or a camera, or anything; you might want to think about what other uses it can have. Maybe it could be the inspiration to your own bricological art piece.

You can catch a free performance by Ken Butler this Saturday at the Ten10 Gallery in Long Island City, Queens.



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