Ken Butler

Ken Butler with the instruments he made. Image courtesy of the artist

What initiated your idea of creating your own instrument? Were the existing ones in the world not satisfying enough?

It had nothing to do with dissatisfaction with traditional instruments. At the time I created my first hybrid instrument quite by accident in 1978 by adding a fingerboard, tailpiece, pegs, bridge, and contact microphone to a small hatchet which I then played as a violin, I was working in a variety of primarily visual media including painting, photo/collage, film and slide animation, and inter-active sculpture/light installations. The axe-violin, which I have played at hundreds of live performances was both my first sound piece and sculptural object and further created the fusion of art forms and conceptual framework I was seeking ­– a transformative and poetic bricolage of form and function and cultural identity. Since that time I have created over 400 hybrid string (and a few percussion) instruments/sculptures from primarily found objects and materials.

Ken Butler with his hybrid musical instruments. Image courtesy of the artist

Regardless the variations of materials, the majority of your inventions are string instruments. What do you like about strings?

I studied and played viola as a child, followed in later years guitar and other stringed instruments. I’m not a wind player or percussionist. It’s comparatively quite easy to put a string on an object.

Your machine gun violin is a noticeable one. Inherited from the Dada and Surrealist movements, Bruce Nauman also put a direct reference to the similarity between violin/violence in a neon text piece. I wonder how much of your choice of materials were spontaneous, and how much were curated and conceptualized?

The origin of the relationship between violin and violence is an artwork by Man Ray in the Dada era which is where Bruce Nauman got the idea as far as I know. As far as the choice of materials for my instruments goes, I am always looking for objects that bear a physical resemblance in someway to the body of a string instrument. It is almost always spontaneous. The machine gun violin gets a lot of attention but it’s origin is no different than any of the others. I do appreciate a pun and the notion of turning “swords into plowshares”.

Ken Butler performing at the opening of the exhibition “Art or Sound”, Venezia, 5 June 2014. Image: Attilio Maranzano, courtesy of Fondazione Prada

You work with not only found objects, but also found sounds. My personal favorite is actually the piano with colored light bulbs and random retro voices at your studio. What kind of found recordings do you usually use?

I don’t really use any found a recording’s. The  piano you are referring to is called the “Urban Grand Piano” from 1998 and it plays eight radios tuned to eight different radio stations so the found sounds are all coming from live radios. Here is the description of the urban grand Piano. Urban Grand Piano, 1998, 72 x 48 x 89(with top open). The interactive keyboard is a grand piano sized multi-media assemblage constructed ofreconfigured objects, machine parts, and other audio-visual items of wood, metal, and plastic that makes music and projects images at the stroke of a key. Each key triggers a different sound, light, and/or movement activating such things as slide projectors, radios, neon tubes, lights, tape recorders, and motors strumming strings and other resonant objects and devices. The keyboard requires the viewer/participant to improvise the creation of a multi-media composition as function and form collide in a collage environment of hyper-active hardware; a one-person opera of objects and images.

 You once described your multi-media work “Insects and Anxious Objects” in 1996 at The Kitchen as your craziest project. What was so special about that experience?

Insects and anxious objects was my craziest project because of the amount of things I had going on in the performance there were a total of nearly 30 projectors, three projections screens and five other performers. It was crazy because of the amount of things going on simultaneously! I was so drained at the end of the show I could not remember the names of any of my collaborators!

Performance “Insects and Anxious Objects” at The Kitchen, 1996. Image courtesy of the artist

Congratulations on winning the first prize in the 2016 international Guthman Musical Instrument Competition. It must have been a great forum as well. What are other musical instrument makers interested in these days, did you see anything inspiring? What aspects do you share with them, and what’s unique about your own practice?

I was completely stunned when it was announced that I was the winner of the Guthman competition. I actually had no idea that this could have been possible given the relatively humble nature of my instruments compared to most of the very hi-tech and complex devices of the other entrants. Most of the other builders are using different systems to control and manipulate samples and electronic sound sources. I did see some things that were inspiring, none of them involving anything with technology. Perhaps my own practice is unique in that it is so simple and direct and uses recycled objects almost in the style of Outsider Art, Which is a great distance from almost all of the other competitors. I was stunned to win the competition.

What’s your favorite sound of all time (not necessarily music)?

My favorite sound of all time varies greatly from day to day I would guess. What first comes to mind is the incredible James Brown scream 2/3 of the way through the incomparable recording Cold Sweat. Perhaps it could be listening to a glass marble roll over some raised glass letters through a stethoscope here in my studio. Nothing can compare to thunder and lightning.

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