Perfect Sound Forever


interview by Jason Gross
(January 1998)

If you've ever been in the front of the Knitting Factory, you've probably noticed all of these strange items that have been turned into instruments hanging on the wall- tennis rackets, guns, brooms (ED NOTE: as of the new millennium, these things are sadly gone from the Knit). You probably thought 'what an interesting idea but no one could possibly play those' but you'd be wrong. Ken Butler has crafted these hybrid instruments for years now, having them displayed in museums and galleries around the world as well as using them for performances. As you might have guessed from the KF showcase review, he is an amazing live performer, using any object on him (including his body) as musical instruments. His CD on Tzadik, Voices of Anxious Object, features many of these instruments (featuring many illustrations of these). Most importantly, Ken supports these innovative ideas with his own sweeping melodies and tunecraft.

PSF: When you began to make hybrid instruments, were you dissatisfied with conventional instruments? How was this related to your work in visual arts?

At the time I created my first hybrid instrument quite by accident in 1978, by adding a fingerboard, tailpiece, tuning pegs and bridge to a small hatchet which I then played as a violin. I was working in a variety of visual media including photography, film, and installations as well as painting and drawing. The axe violin was both my first sound piece and sculptural object (it sounded decent amplified with a contact mic, and I had played viola as a child for a couple years), but it had nothing to do at the time with dissatisfaction with conventional instruments. So the first hybrid was a work of art and I had no concept at the time that it would ever be used for performance.

PSF: How do you create hybrid instruments?

Almost all of the hybrids are derived from objects that bear some formal relationship to the shape and proportions of a standard stringed instrument. The objects are arranged like a collage (with some ergonomic and functional considerations) and assembled together with screws or nuts and bolts (mostly). The resulting sound (achieved by the placement of a piezo transducer mic(s)) is a by-product of this process, but over the years my instincts and experimentation have gradually improved this aspect.

PSF: How do you decide what would make a good instrument?

Basically, I seek objects that are relatively strong and lightweight and allow for the placement of a tuning peg and string(s). Aesthetic decisions, of course, are based on years of art and design study (I have an MFA in painting).

PSF: Your work is displayed in museums and galleries- do you design instruments with visual appeal in mind?

Definitely, yes. They virtually all originate as visual ideas.

PSF: How do you work on the hybrid's without it becoming a novelty?

Good question. First of all, when I perform I try to play them with all the passion and emotion I can muster and make the music as honest as I can. There is built-in novelty of course, and I walk a delicate balance between art and entertainment. Humor plays a role in the equation, but the way I see things I am simply doing some uncommon things with common objects. Believe it or not I never thought it was funny to play a toothbush violin, it was simply another object that had the head-neck-body proportions that I was looking for. Again, the resulting sound simply happened more or less by chance to be interesting. Weren't all instruments (and inventions) a novelty at first?

PSF: Why not try to make modifications on traditional instruments?

Not that visually interesting/ not that original of an idea/ for the most part they're way too bulky to carry around/I'm not as interested in modifying sound as I am shape (believe it or not).

PSF: In the future, do you hope to have ensembles of hybrid instruments?

Over the years I have performed with ensembles of up to 15 of my instruments (Dave Soldier wrote some music for a concert at Roulette in 93), and it certainly is a dream of mine to stage more events of this scale. More recently I determined that the quirky nature of the hybrids is too much of an adjustment without lots of practice and its just not practical (financially and logistcally given my resources). Also, when I work with musicians I want them to play what they play the best.

PSF: Like you said before, instruments that are standard today were once novel- do you hope that the hybrids go through the same progression?

I'm not really trying to "expand" the world of instruments as much as I am trying to transform existing objects and perceptions about what an instrument or sculpture is or can be. It's hard for me to imagine playing a hockey stick cello could ever be standard.

PSF: How do the particular hybrid instruments have distinctive sounds that effect compostion/performance?

Again, the distinctive sounds are somewhat accidental and actually not terribly different (in most cases) than those that could be tweaked from a standard string instrument with contact miking and experimental playing techniques. The particular quality that affects the music is the instant and ergonomic access to a variety of diverse electro-acoustic sources of sound on certain instruments. Quick changes from plucking as a bass to bowing as a violin to thumb piano (kalimba) to whammy guitar to conga drum to sitar string bending on the same instrument is the thing. I also use live looping (of only live vibrating objects) to create compositions on the fly with these different sources.

PSF: What's the next step with hybrids? Using other unconventional means?

Continue to attack the daunting challenge of trying to meaningfully play about 20 of these things all with different string lengths, not to mention configuration. As there are well over 200 instruments, I'm not cranking out too many new ones these days.

I will continue to work with large scale keyboard-controlled interactive installations where the viewer/participant activates numerous light, sound, and motion devices. I recently built a grand piano-sized sculpture full of radios, mechanical sounds, lights, motors, etc. that plays and projects images on the translucent piano top screen. My strongest desire is to stage more multi-media performance/theatre works involving my hybrids that control real-time slide animation, video projection, and music in a dramatically lit sculptural stage environment. Most recently I have completed several suites of collage/drawings on paper for exhibition along with the instruments.

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