Home > Feature > Joe McPhee and John Butcher at The Hill

Joe McPhee and John Butcher at The Hill

photo copyright Tom Jenkins, courtesy Lisa Jenkins

May’s Cafe is the only business in Cornudas,
, a city with a population under ten. When you pull up, there’s a sign that proudly
announces that their Cornudas Burger is the best in town. It’s served on Texas
toast and features a big
slab of roasted green chile. Inside, a biker gang fills every table in the restaurant. After a while, they start
to wander out the door and the out-of-towners stroll in, asking about a concert
set to take place at 3 pm
in the surrounding desert.
Organized by Nameless Sound, a Houston non-profit dedicated to promoting
improvised music, the concert boasts two luminaries of the free improv world:
New York-based horn player Joe McPhee and British saxophone virtuoso John
. To the right set of ears, the pairing is quite enticing. On a recent April afternoon,
there were free improve aficionados at May’s who had made the trek from Albuquerque, Corpus
Christi, Houston and even Canada to witness the event, which carried a ticket price of $75.

big part of the attraction is the venue — a mysterious structure situated in
the desert near Cornudas and known only as The Hill. After working on oil rigs
in West Texas in the late 70s, Jim Magee decided to pick up a couple thousand
acres of land in the area, and start construction on the decades-long project
that had now brought us all to May’s. Eventually we find ourselves in a Toyota
RAV4, talking to Magee as he drives us along a dirt road leading to The Hill.

photo copyright Tom Jenkins, courtesy Lisa Jenkins

The complex of four stone buildings connected
by a cruciform walkway is a formidable presence in the midst of the flat, dry
landscape dotted with cacti and the occasional hardy shrub. The compound occupies well over an acre of land.
Each building rests on crisply
angled, altar-like platform constructed from the same rough stones that compose
the structures’ walls. Massive floor-to-ceiling doors, seventeen-feet-high, open on either
side of the buildings and onto the walkways. The open doors of the rectangular
buildings frame the desert behind them in each of the cardinal directions.

the structures, Magee has installed artworks that seem to have sprung from an
apocalyptic spirituality. (Rumor has it some locals think that the work has satanic origins.)
The artist is partial to both industrial and organic materials: steel, glass,
and black motor oil play against birdseed, paprika, straw, and honey. At times
the textures and emotionally fraught compositions recall Anselm Keifer at his
most abstract, while other passages in the pieces wouldn’t feel out of place on
the set of Blade Runner.

this may be his most ambitious concert placement yet, Dave Dove, director of
Nameless Sound, has been presenting improvisatory performances in singular art
spaces for years. In Houston, Nameless Sound has used the Rothko Chapel,
Richmond Hall, and the Live Oak Quaker Friends Meetinghouse, buildings
specifically designed for the artwork of Marc Rothko, Dan Flavin, and James
respectively. Dove explains that improvised music is “in a unique position
to address the space” in which the concerts take place. He goes so far as to
describe the spaces as active participants in the performances, as each
musician reacts to — and in turn activates — the acoustic and emotional
properties of the site.

photo copyright Tom Jenkins, courtesy Lisa Jenkins

Needless to say, the aesthetic of The
Hill is a departure from the
minimal meditations on light found in most of the sites Nameless Sound has
worked with in the past. In
the first building we enter, a grid of rectangular surfaces coated with a layer
of paprika and honey calls to mind a Martian landscape. Another larger work, a
composition of metal squares,
is perched on a stepped steel pyramid base rising three feet off the ground.

We cross the 187 feet between the stone
walkway and the second building. (Only two of the four buildings were open for
this event. The third takes at least four assistants to open and, according to
the artist, the fourth won’t be completed for at least another twenty years.) In the second building, Magee has installed the Vaccinations, a series of small glass-fronted
steel boxes with cryptic scrawls inside. A thick layer of  black motor oil has been poured inside each of them. The Vaccinations are hung in a line on the
three walls, enveloping another work, Jerusalem, which centers around a bundle
of barbed wire-wrapped cloth in a tri-partite metal frame.

photo copyright Tom Jenkins, courtesy Lisa Jenkins

leads us to this
piece and informs us that he will read us the title. He grabs a small book from
the other side of the room, and instructs us to look at Jerusalem as he stands behind us and recites the
title, a poem that takes several minutes to read. He tells us that, dating back to his time living in a
junkyard in upstate New York, his works have always had always had titles like
this. The title is a sweeping, dreamlike work in its own right. It
springs from a Protestant upbringing and reminds us that The Hill, though
saturated with an industrial aesthetic, is deeply rooted in a Judeo-Christian spiritual tradition.

the musicians are ready to begin their performance. Joe McPhee joins half the
audience in the second building (with Jerusalem), and John Butcher finds his way to the
first. The doors facing out into the desert are closed in each space, while the
doors opening onto the walkway between the spaces remain open. Each man takes
up a saxophone and a tentative collaboration begins. We feel as if we are
watching a solo performance with occasional, faint interjections from another
musician two hundred
feet away. Joe McPhee throws his fiery furnace blasts of sound up against the stone walls of The Hill
and punctuates them with whispered squeaks and the clicking of the instrument’s
keys. His playing highlights the emotional urgency of the artwork while subtly
playing with the acoustics of the building.

photo copyright Tom Jenkins, courtesy Lisa Jenkins

roughly twenty minutes, the musicians switch places and John Butcher brings us
his more circumspect acoustic experiments. Butcher leaves more space between
sound and eschews the fierceness that McPhee inherited from free jazz forefathers like
Albert Ayler. The industrial precision of The Hill becomes more pronounced when
the viewer is enveloped in Bucher’s sonic experiments, which at times can verge
on clinical. While his playing may have more in common philosophically with Dan
Flavin’s artwork, he has the ability to engage with the space and draw out
aspects of Magee’s geometry that remained dormant under McPhee’s more human
touch. Because of Butcher’s spacious playing, however, McPhee is able to cut
through the air between them and enter John Butcher’s performance to a greater degree.

the final portion of the concert, McPhee and Butcher take turns playing solos
on the walkway between the spaces, under the beating desert sun. Through this
process they inch closer to the final moment, a few minutes of playing which,
we find out later, is the first time Joe McPhee and John Butcher have shared a
stage. Though their improvisational styles contrast starkly, the intersection
proves powerful: spaciousness paired with emotional complexity in an arid

Ben Judson
is a freelance writer, web designer, and artist living in
San Antonio. He founded Emvergeoning.com in 2006, where he has been
writing regularly ever since. He also contributes to Art Lies and the
San Antonio Current.

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