Review of LNT104: Tin Pan Ballet: Music of Martin Butler
Taylor, American Record Guide
Martin Butler's music is really clever and worth hearing. Butler (b 1960) is English and has taken the road less traveled by many of his compatriots: instead of weighty, intellectual musings that have found few audiences, Butler's music offers surface grace and wit but not without profundity.
There's nothing particularly Tin Pan Alley about Tin-Pan Ballet (1986). but the score - for flute/alto flute/piccolo, trombone, cello, piano, synthesizer and percussion - conveys a sprightly, syncopated feeling that on the surface would seem to owe much to jazz but probably draws more from Stravinsky's dry. almost acerbic use of ragtime and jazz.
Bluegrass Variations (1987), for solo violin, was commissioned by the Carl Flesch Violin Competition. Butler writes that the work evokes American bluegrass fiddle music, but it doesn't really - just a few licks here and there. Butler seems to have approached bluegrass rather pedantically. But Bluegrass Variations, as a solo violin work, sounds good. Just don't mistake it for the real thing.
Jazz Machines (1990) is Butler's attempt, he tells us, to write music that is manifestly not jazz: not improvised. This is jazz as though played by machines: extremely strict, regular, sometimes bordering on the lugubrious. Machines couldn't have come up with the delicious sonorities, though.
On the Rocks comes with a note from the composer. which I reproduce in full: "What if Debussy, taking a break from writing La Mer in Eastbourne at the turn of the century, had wandered down to the lounge bar of the Grand Hotel and sat at the piano? On the Rocks attempts a synthesis of cocktail lounge music and Debussy's own unique piano style (incorporating one or two fleeting quotations), and was largely inspired by the sound of Debussy himself playing on old phonograph recordings." What if, indeed. Butler forgot to add one ingredient - himself - and the result is less Debussy and cocktail piano than the two filtered through the sensibility of a fairly quirky contemporary musician. Butler himself plays the piano on this recording and does a fine job.
I have to confess that I don't normally enjoy lots of marimba music - it's too rich, like an overdose of coffee and chocolate. Still, Butler's dry approach saves the work to a large extent. Going with the Grain (1991) is one of the few works for marimba that doesn't succumb entirely to sonority and instead integrates the marimba into the rest of the ensemble (flute/piccolo, clarinet/bass clarinet, violin, viola, cello). Pass the cream.