Forget the gold watch: noted composer and longtime School of Music professor Christopher Butterfield is marking his UVic retirement with the March 31 release of his latest album, Souvenir. Performed by longtime musical collaborators Aventa Ensemble, the 70-minute Souvenir (Redshift Records) features four never-before-recorded large chamber pieces.
“Each piece was originally commissioned by a different ensemble in the country over a 20-year span—it’s like I’m doing my own musicology here,” chuckles Butterfield. “These have only ever been played live, and there’s a very singular reason why we could record them at all: Bill Linwood’s Aventa Ensemble. They have the capability of playing what is some fairly gnarly music, because they’re extraordinary players and they can do anything . . . in terms of musicianship and virtuosity, I’ll put this record up against anything, anywhere.”
Indeed, as this review of Souvenir notes, “[Butterfield’s] melodic material appears at first to be innocuous, or casually beguiling, but as his instrumental lines merge into each other they refuse to coalesce into a unified statement and as they continue to politely bicker amongst themselves the listener is kept constantly on edge, hoping for a resolution that may or may not arrive.”
Butterfield is particularly proud of the fact that the four epic tracks on Souvenir—1995’s “Souvenir” (21 minutes), 2001’s “Port Bou” (19 minutes) plus 2012’s “Frame” and 2013’s “Parc” (both 14 minutes)—are entirely BC-made, from the producing, recording and engineering right down to the CD’s design and manufacturing. Even the performers are all BC-based, with the sole exception of vibraphone player Rick Sacks, who guests on “Parc”—and was also part of Butterfield’s early-’80s Toronto-based new wave band Klo.
Wonderous & peculiar?
Souvenir’s promotional material notes that Butterfield “has long centred the wondrous and peculiar” in his diverse catalogue of work that “spans the accessible to the absurd”. Does he feel that’s an apt description?
“I don’t think I go out of my way to be ‘wonderous and peculiar’, but if that’s the way the music sounds, that’s fine, I’m glad there’s a story there,” he says. “I am very interested in harmony: I like to set things up and see what happens. Quite often it’ll appear to be a bunch of noise and then you’ll hear something that sounds very familiar, like a little coincidence. All music is heard in context of itself, so if a harmonic line jumps out, you hear it in terms of what you just heard and that will colour what you’re about to hear next.”
While Butterfield has been teaching composition at UVic since 1992, he first circled the Ring Road to study under renowned composer Rudolf Komorous and earn his Bachelor of Music in 1975, and has since helped launch the careers of a new generation of acclaimed composers like Anna Höstman, Cassandra Miller and Daniel Brandes.
“We’ve had a remarkable 40-plus years of building a reputation for composers who are looked at as rather remarkable . . . and nobody’s quite sure why,” he says. “Is it something in the water? Is it island life? Victoria has an extremely rich musical and cultural environment, but we’re also sort of disconnected and have to make everything up ourselves.”
Beauty in simplicity
Despite now having “at least” six albums behind him, Butterfield still has a back-catalogue of work—including a chamber ensemble, opera and “maritime ballet”—that has been performed live to great acclaim but never recorded. But he’s particularly pleased to see these four complex pieces released as a Souvenir set. “In terms of all these pieces, I don’t think I would ever write anything like them again,” he muses. “I’m afraid this is what happens as you get older: there’s a tendency towards simplicity—you realize you can do quite a lot with not very much.”
Ironically, that’s one thing he’s learned from his students. “Because I’ve taught the first-year composition course for years, I can see myself doing more with less. I had one student last year who wrote a piece that seemed to have absolutely nothing there . . . but when I played it back to myself, I remember thinking, ‘Gee, I wish I could write something like that.’ It was absolutely simple—but no less expressive because of that.”