10 Questions for Christopher Butterfield

Composer Christopher Butterfield has influenced a generation of composers through his teaching at the University of Victoria, where he is cross-appointed to the visual art department. One time choir boy at King’s College in Cambridge and member of the 80’s Toronto rock band KLO, in the coming months he’ll be singing Socrate, by Erik Satie, and mentoring the Arraymusic Young Composers Workshop. His opera Zurich 1916 was written to a libretto by John Bentley Mays; he is currently translating Théâtre, a collection of three plays by Georges Ribemont-Dessaignes. Compositional work in progress includes a piece for solo percussion and ensemble, for Rick Sacks and Aventa Ensemble, and the never-ending piano trio Madame Wu said… He is on this year’s jury for the prestigious Dutch Gaudeamus International Composers Award, and was a mentor at the Young Composers Meeting in Apeldoorn NL.

Of Contes, Butterfield writes,

Contes pour enfants pas sages was written just after the war by beloved French poet Jacques Prévert. Eight stories feature animals in various situations with humans and other creatures, some humorous, some absurd, some tragic. It’s certain Prévert intended them for children, but they make you wonder at their purpose – Prévert seems to want his young readers to know that the world is a cruel and unpredictable place as early as possible. Even so, their whimsical nature allows one to remember them as charming, if a little dangerous.

I ask Butterfield ten questions: five about himself and five about Contes pour enfants pas sages: 8 cautionary entertainments.

Christopher Butterfield composer

Composer Christopher Butterfield (photo: Ken Straiton)

1)      Which of your parents do you resemble (what’s your nationality / ethnic background)?

I’m definitely a WASP, my father’s father was English, he immigrated to Canada in 1911, to the Creston valley in BC. My mother’s family were from Ontario and Nova Scotia. Oddly, my father was born in the US, and my mother was born in the UK! My dad went into the merchant navy when he was a boy, and then into the RCN after the war. My mother’s father was a career soldier, so I’m very much from a military/naval background. I like to think I’m like my dad, who loved life, poetry, music, dance, people, the sea…

2)     what is the BEST thing / worst thing about being a composer?

The best thing about being a composer is being able to create music which does something that one doesn’t necessarily hear anywhere else. It’s not about originality so much as it’s about sonorities – I’m interested in harmony, and relationships that I hope continually surprise the listener. The worst thing is not composing enough. It takes a huge amount of discipline to be a composer, and I’m shiftless by nature. Teaching composition is a privilege, and something that I take very seriously, although my methods might be considered a bit offhand – there are many things to learn about being a composer and music is just one of them.

3) who do you like to watch or read?

John Cage

John Cage

I buy lots of books, usually on a whim. Sometimes I read them, sometimes I don’t. I read a good biography of Cage recently… also a good autobiography by Carolyn Brown, who danced with Merce Cunningham for 20 years. The last good novel I read was Hans Fallada’s extraordinary story of personal revolt “Every man dies alone”. I used to go to the movies lots, but I don’t anymore. I don’t watch television, or cable, I don’t play computer games, I dont’ have any hobbies to speak of… I don’t listen to recorded music very much… time seems to pass quite quickly regardless. I think what does occupy me are specific projects that I create for myself – I recently sang Satie’s Socrate, which meant I had to actually train my voice (I used to sing a lot, but haven’t for years). And I’m guest curating a show about John Cage at the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria in the fall.

4) what ability or skill do you wish you had, that you don’t have?

I wish I could sail a boat efficiently. I wish I could play the piano. I wish I was a better cook.

5) when you’re just relaxing (and not working) what is your favourite thing to do?

Wandering around downtown. This happens maybe twice a year.

Five more about  Contes pour enfants pas sages:8 cautionary entertainments

Jacques Prévert

Jacques Prévert (1900-1977), shown in 1961

1)    How does adapting Contes pour enfants pas sages  by Jacques Prévert challenge you?

It challenges me in the way any text that I think of setting to music does. I don’t want to be directed by the text, I want to bring pitch, duration, structure, and their resultant melody/harmony/rhythm to bear on the text, such that some kind of synthesis take place, which I’m not interested in knowing a priori. I always prefer to be in the dark, to make an accumulation of events (“music”) associated with a text that, with luck, combine over time to be more than the sum of the parts.

2)  What do you love about Contes pour enfants pas sages and this type of composition?


Accumulative Arman

When I was a student, I discovered the French artist Arman. He made what he called accumulations; collections of like or identical objects, that he would organise in very close installations (or, in one variation, the garbage of famous artists). I’ve always liked the idea of musical accumulation; movements or sections or modules that affect one another, but not in any way that I can predict. Contes is composed this way. It’s an accumulation, there’s no plan for its effect, it’s simply a set of eight musical/narrative events which may (or may not) add up to a whole. I’ve done this before: in my opera Zurich 1916, which took 10 years to compose because every time it started to make sense, I would stop working on it; and Jappements à la lune, settings of Claude Gauvreau’s sound poems, which didn’t take quite as long to compose, because the text in this instance was sound poetry.

3) Do you have a favourite moment in the show?

I wish I could tell you that I knew what the show was going to be! I don’t think I have particular a particular favourite – they all have different characters. And two I have never heard before…

4) how do you relate to Contes pour enfants pas sages as a modern adult?

The stories are bitter, funny and absurd at the same time.

5) is there anyone out there whose approach you particularly admire, or who has influenced you?

I like playwright/director Richard Foreman’s work, it amazes me that he isn’t better known. I think Webern’s music is extraordinary, it’s unbelievably moving, WHEN PLAYED THAT WAY (capitals mine). In other words, I think people still see it as an exercise in structure, when in fact it’s the only positive result of post-romanticism, and should always be played with enormous sensitivity. When I was a teenager my favourite music was electric Chicago blues – I love Muddy Waters, and Little Walter… I can’t help but be a product of my upbringing, though: English church music (from my education as a choirboy in the UK), GIlbert and Sullivan (from my dad), and post-war moderns, Cage, Stockhausen, Berio, etc. (from my undergraduate education).


Contes pour enfants pas sages: 8 cautionary entertainments by Christopher Butterfield
with Anne Grimm, soprano,
Benjamin Butterfield, tenor
918 Bathurst Centre  (918 Bathurst), May 27 & 29, 2012, 8pm
Tickets ($30 adults / $15 students, seniors & arts workers) available at the door. For more information please visit www.continuummusic.org, email josh@continuummusic.org or call (416) 924-4945

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