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Martin Butler

Tin-Pan Ballet

Release Date 1993

Catalogue No. LNT104

Music by:

Martin Butler

Performed by:

Odaline de la Martínez (conductor)

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Hubert Culot

Tin-Pan Ballet (1986) for six players including a synthesiser, and Jazz Machines (1990), also for six players, are delightful, colourful pieces paying homage to jazz. They are good examples of this composer's happy nature. Jazz and dance rhythms feature prominently in these light-hearted pieces. They may not plumb any great depths but are very enjoyable in their unbridled, extrovert manner.

Surprisingly enough, maybe, the solo pieces are more substantial in spite of their hidden programme. Variations for solo violin, written in 1987 as the test piece for the Carl Flesch International Violin Competition, alludes to North American fiddle music but goes a good deal further than mere pastiche or parody of the hoe-down. It is a substantial piece, rather demanding from the technical point of view though the emphasis is more on style than mere instrumental virtuosity.

On the Rocks, composed in 1992, is a beautiful nocturne though the composer, rather humorously, refers to the piece as "Debussy playing cocktail lounge music". Once again there is no parody in this finely crafted atmospheric piece.

The mini marimba concerto Going with the Grain (1991) may be somewhat lighter though it has its fine moments, such as the beautifully dreamy slow movement. The outer movements abound with lively dance rhythms and with colourful scoring. It is a quite attractive, entertaining work in its own way; however, I feel that it somewhat outstays its welcome.

In short, no towering masterpieces here, but entertaining, expertly written works to be enjoyed to the full for what they are worth. After all, why should contemporary music always be deadly serious? Everyone here, the composer included, seems to enjoy him- or herself enormously and there is no reason why such joyous music-making should be ignored. Sit down, relax and enjoy!

William Humphreys-Jones, BBC MUSIC MAGAZINE

The nicely groaning pun in the title Tin-Pan Ballet points to two of Martin Butler's main concerns: unusual instrumentation and the exploitation of popular styles, in particular jazz and bluegrass. In fact, Butler's frame of reference is wider than that - the piece On the Rocks imagines Debussy playing cocktail-lounge music and his allusions are a point of departure rather than a matter of pastiche. What Butler does take from jazz - apart from some slick rhythms - is a sense of fluidity and possibility, which he employs with an imaginative playfulness. In the title piece, the disparate sextet - flute, trombone, cello, piano, synthesiser and percussion - is made to cohere tightly and tunefully, to create a sparkling and off-beam caper. By contrast, the violin competition piece Bluegrass Variations takes up the melancholy implicit in much of that kind of American country music, melding double-stopped drones, a plucked banjo style and pentatonic modes into an evocative meditation. The collection also includes the rigorous contemplation of jazz styles Jazz Machines,  and Going with the Grain, a three-movement marimba concerto in which the string and wind quintet imitate and sympathise (rather than compete) with the solo instrument's qualities.


Butler's work could not be better served than by Lontano (conducted by Odaline de la Martínez), who possess the appropriate wit and lightness of touch for this thoughtful and cheering music.






Martin Butler's music is really clever and worth hearing. Butler (b. 1960) is English and has taken the road less travelled 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, synthesiser 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.

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