Ken Butler is an artist and musician whose hybrid musical instruments, collage drawings, performances, and installations explore the interaction and transformation of common objects, altered images, sounds and silence.
His works have been featured in numerous exhibitions and performances throughout the USA, Canada, and Europe including The Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam and Exit Art, Thread Waxing Space, The Kitchen, The Brooklyn Museum, Lincoln Center and The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City as well as in South America, Thailand, and Japan. His works have been reviewed in The New York Times, The Village Voice, Artforum, Smithsonian, and Sculpture Magazine and have been featured on PBS, CNN, MTV, and NBC, including a live appearance on The Tonight Show. Awards include fellowships from the Oregon Arts Commisssion, the New York Foundation for the Arts, and the National Endowment for the Arts.
Ken Butler studied viola as a child and maintained an interest in music while studying visual arts in France, at Colorado College, and Portland State University where he completed his MFA in painting in 1977.
Since 1981 Ken Butler has played music ( just once in many cases) with John Zorn, Laurie Anderson, Butch Morris, The Soldier String Quartet, Matt Darriau's Paradox Trio, Anthony Coleman, Tom Cora, Cooper-Moore, Akim Funk Buddah, Jon Bepler, Ferdinand Forsch, Jon Rose, Charles Burnham, Jason Hwang, Rob Thomas, John Butler, Stan Wood, Steve Koski, Tarik Banzi, Stomu Takeishi, Seido Salifoski, Jerry Gibbs, Wil Calhoun, Jeff "Tain" Watts, Gene Jackson, Kenny Wollesson, Bill Buchen, Satoshi Takeishi, Michael Evans, Ed Potokar, Terry Dame, Christine Bard, Hearn Gadbois, Rowan Storm, Rufus Cappadocia, Michelle Kinney, Martha Colby, Nioka Workman, Avram Fefer, Graham Haynes, Bradford Reed, Mike Delia, Steven Marsh, Chris Cunningham, Michelle Kinney, Brad Shepik, Miki Navazio, Mark Ribot, Jean-Francois Pauvros, David Simons, Raphael Mostel, Eugene Chadbourne, Julia Heyward, Dina Emerson, Judith Ren-Lay, Rebecca Moore, Shelley Hirsch, Tim Hill, Marie Afonso, Sepideh Vahidi, Heather Mabin, Lisa Karrer, Krystle Warren, Christoph Grund, Wolfgang Von Steurmer, Essiett Essiett, Glen Moore, Peter Herbert, Mark Helias, Emmanuel Mann, Gary Kelly, Jaron Lanier, Reza Derakshani, Hans Tammen, Ben Neill, Roy Campbell, Avram Fefer, Michael Attias, Daniel Carter, Tom Chess, Yosvany Terry, Bert Wilson, David Watson, Masahiko Kono, Judy Dunaway, Steve Sandberg, Kwakye Obeng, Jojo Kuo, John Mettam, Sam Bennett, Raquy Danziger, Manongo Mujica, Chocolate Algendones, Peter Basil, Loretta Roome, Eric Feinstein, Michael Stirling, Martin Zarzar, Tom Grant, Tod Carver, Mike Denny, Cam Newton, Ric Soshin, The World Drum Trio, 3-Legged Torso, The Tone-Art Ensemble, The Master Gnawa Musicians of Morocco, and The Tonight Show Band with Kevin Eubanks.His CD, Voices of Anxious Objects is on Zorn’s Tzadik label.
Works by Ken Butler are represented in public and private collections in Portland, Seattle, Vail, Los Angeles, Toronto, Montreal, and New York City including the permanent collection of The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
His hybrid musical instrument sculptures, collage/drawings, performances, and audio-visual installations explore the interaction and transformation of objects, sounds, and altered images as function and form collide in the intersection of art and music. A spirit of re-invention and hyper-utility attempts to reveal hidden meanings and associations, momentarily creating a striking and re-animated cultural identity for common objects.
String instruments become body, tool, weapon, toy, symbol, machine, phallus, creature, sculpture, icon, and voice. Keyboards become cybernetic architecture. Anxious objects speak in tongues.
Contemporary urban life is a bewildering collage of multiple images, ideas, sounds, and objects in a constant state of flux as information overload becomes the touchstone of our age.
As we move from the mechanical to the electrical, this churning mass chews up and spits out material with re-assigned priorities and updates. The resulting detritus is a living corpse - a random and chaotic body of juxtaposed and deconstructed items and associations. From this storehouse of forsaken objects and hardware Ken, the urban bricoleur, further dismantle and reassemble the consumer society into functional assemblages in the form of musical instrument/objects, then coax them to sing for their supper.
Here is something Ken Butler came up with when asked recently to talk about how he felt about music right now:
“In these difficult days ahead, with the waters rapidly rising forcing abandonment of our homes, leave behind the books and paintings, dancing shoes, all the electronics, cash reserves, fancy clothes and attitudes, but please don’t fail to bring along your musical instruments. It’s all we will need."
What are the challenges and benefits of today's music scene?
1. Music should not be a competition and a business, it’s an art form and a spiritual practice!
2. A life of endless self-promotion is morally bankrupt and de-spiriting.
3. Carrying around a hundred pounds of equipment and instruments for a 15 minute gig for $15. is insane.
4. In a way, no experimental instrument builder has ever really made a lasting impact on the history of music. OK, maybe Theremin.
5. Hmm, I thought I could maybe make at least a little bit of a living doing this if I put 24 hours a day into it.
1. In an artistic climate of relative confusion and density, almost anything can “go”. Also a dis-advantage though.
2. Though it is constant transition, there is a very active and supportive music scene here in Brooklyn.
3. The internet and social media can simplify advertising gigs and events, and getting the music “out there”.
4. Modern communications technology also allows access to diverse musics and musicians from all over the globe.
5. I have been around for long enough that at this point, who cares what happens as long as I can make stuff and play once and a while.
What's your best musical experience?
Hmm, I have to say it was a solo performance I played on my hybrid instruments in front of over a hundred developmentally disabled high school students at a school in Manhattan many years ago. I had played there before, but for some reason that afternoon was a life-changing experience for me as they held on every note, were all dead quiet and rapt with absolute full attention at times, and then would burst into uproarious applause. At the end, when I invited about a dozen of them one at a time to come up on stage and improvise on my K-Board along with me. (It has piano keys that fret an amplified string and turns on lights). That room simply exploded with unbridled self-expression, dynamic creativity and invention, and a kind of un-inhibited exuberance of feeling that I have never experienced before or since. Wow! . Later, alone on stage breaking down the gear I knew it had somehow changed what was possible.
What’s your most crazy project?
Well it must be the performance I did in 1995 at The Kitchen in New York “ Insects and Anxious Objects", when I brought out alsmost all of the arsenal: The K-Board, wired up to numerous mechanical sound and motion devices, The Octavator controlling 26 slide projectors (some borrowed from Laurie Anderson), a 4’x8' miniature set with HO scale buildings for live video projections of walking mechanical dinosaur models, an additional 2-projector slide dissolve set-up, a vocalist, drummer and cellist, three others manipulating props and video, and fifteen of my hybrid instruments. Crazy!
Can you describe a sound experience that you believe contributed to your becoming a musician?
Hmm, what comes to mind is a dark night in college in Colorado in the late sixties, when a bunch of us went out partying in a (smoke-filled) van and while cruising around saw a train coming in the distance. We decided to drive down into a meadow near the tracks, got out of the van to watch it pass at high speed. Much to our surprise (and delight) one of the wheels way at the back of the train was frozen, shooting immense sparks nearly 40 feet in the air and making the most amazing grinding, screaming, overtone-rich sound imaginable. It was just awesome.
Dream about a perfect instrument.
Welcome to my life. Interestingly enough, and oddly, after building nearly 400 hybrid instruments, admittedly not all intended to be functional, but occupied none the less in that world, I have recently come to the conclusion that there really isn’t too much wrong with existing instruments and there is a solid reason they have stayed relatively unchanged for some time. Every musical instruments is unlimited in its potential and modern music proves this.
What is your relationship with other disciplines such as painting, literature, dance, theater ...?
I consider myself to be a multi-media artist and think of the hybrid instruments as existing in the realm of sculpture. I have a masters degree in painting and have been making art for nearly 40 years now. I feel I am influenced more by painting, photography, theater, and film than literature and dance. Perhaps my notion of the stage as an art installation might have been easier to realize under the banner of theater, as a typical club gig allows a 10 minute set-up and tear down.
Where are your roots? What are your secret influences?
I played viola in grade school, loved building models, and wanted to be an automobile designer, fascinated by Italian and German sports cars as a teenager. I still follow European LeMans racing and some F1 somewhat and love that environment although it may seem counter-intuitive to my found-object assemblage folk sensibilities. I am continually fascinated with the early 20th century and the origins of experimental art and music in the Dada, Futurist, and Constructivist era. On another note, I would love to sit next to Quincy Jones on a plane if he were in a chatty mood. Maybe Dave Hickey.
If you could, what would you say to yourself 20 (or 30) years ago, about your musical career?
Dude, focus a little bit more once in a while. I’m not so sure that deciding not to take music lessons is such a good idea. Hey, there is more to music than rhythm and melody. And by the way, make some effort to find a good gallery and sell some artwork once in a while. Don’t forget there is more to life than art and music.
Which living or dead artist would you like to collaborate with?
Leonardo DaVinci. Maybe Man Ray or Picabia. OK, Miles.
What is some valuable advice that someone has given to you in the past?
“Ken, given all the directions and technologies you seem to be into, and your high energy productivity, my guess is that in a while you will have somewhat of a burnout. You need a hobby. Something that is obsessive but without the need to invent and be creative”.
What do you like the most about being a musician?
Being a visual artist is the best part of being a musician. As far as being a musician, the best part, when its all working right, is being allowed to make people feel something that you are feeling without words. I believe there might be something even more profound going on at times that science has yet to discover. Sometimes there is a kind of communal magic that happens that is undefineable. Also visual artists never get any standing ovations.
Slide Rude Guitar
What projects are you working on now and what does the future hold?
Along with occasional performances on the hybrid instruments around New York, most recently I have been making a body of artworks that are not intended to be played but reference instruments and pay hommage to the 100 year anniversary of Cubism, during which Picasso and Braque extensively utilized imagery of the guitar and violin. I hope to find a venue in the area to show them along with many new hybrid instrruments and other pieces. This year has been quite amazing and full of interesting events and opportunities, especially considering the blank calender staring me down last year around this time. I was invited to spend spring in Venice for an exhibition and performances and I will be doing the same in St. Petersburg and Moscow in Russia this November. The future is a mystery of sorts as I am always making an effort to stay in the present. Interestingly, considering the last 30 years of only focusing on my own creations, I have been playing a lot of “normal” guitar lately and have amassed a nice group, including a Guild S-300 A-D and a great 1961 Gibson 125 TC.
The bentwood chair legs give this one a kind of animal horn "African" vibe, maybe
Talk me about your work as luthier.
I like to think of myself as an artist/musician who practices bricolage, which is difficult to translate from the French, but means using what is “at hand” to create a new and transformative object or idea from those existing parts. As I am making object/instruments that intentionally bridge art and music and are not all designed to be played (although any object is “playable” to some extent, right?) I might call myself a bricoluthier. It may be confounding to many, but it’s none-the-less true that the sound they produce is an “accidental" by-product of some visual, proportional relationship that the chosen object has to the “body” of a stringed instrument, be it a violin, viola, mandolin, guitar, sax, oud, ukulele, cello, bass, etcetera.
Red Lawn Mower Guns
The guitar most specifically can be viewed as a potent social (and even religious) symbolic icon linked to much of the psychic upheaval in our culture; it still dominates rebellious experimental music and is a potent androgynous image for the female form, male phallus, and hand-held weapon. Sex and death, and a formula for a post-apocalyptic reconstruction.
One of the underlying themes in the work is that of hyper-utility; the desire for objects and images to work together in varying ways. The hybrids are both unique playable musical instruments and assemblage sculpture; they are constructed mostly from readily available objects made to perform a different function; they are built to human scale and even the largest pieces are designed to be easily transported and set up - much effort has been spent on systems design to simplify the inherent logistical problems of performing regularly with over 15 instruments at a time.
Skull Figure acoustic guitar, street-found objects, 2013
All the hybrid instruments are amplified with small piezo transducers (contact microphones) attached to the instruments near (or as) the bridge. It is because of these mics that resonating chambers are not necessary, although the resulting sound is directly influenced by the acoustic properties of the material of the body/neck. A pre-amp box, guitar amplifier, and various sound processing effects are used to manipulate the sounds. The entire body of the instrument becomes touch-sensitive enabling the player to pluck, tap, stroke, or bow the various parts to create a variety of percussive sounds as well as those produced by the vibration of the strings. As far as the music itself is concerned, most of the material was derived from the "feeling" of the initial sound of each piece when it was first plugged in. Within certain simple structures, the music and the playing methods are improvised (as is the creation of the instruments themselves).
Voices of Anxious Objects, Tzadik Records, TZ 7402, 1997.
Live at Zebulon 2005, Hybrid Visions Music, 2006
KB’s Greatest Hits 1993-1996, Hybrid Visions Music, 2005
Live at Kerrytown Concert Hall, (trio w. vocals) Hybrid Visions Music, 2005
This is It: Live at Zebulon Volume 1, includes “Par Twelve”, CD, Zebulon, 2005
Out of Nowhere, Judith Ren-Lay, CD, Knitting Factory Records, 2003.
Improsculpt, Collaboration with Oeyvind Brandtsegg, http://teks.no/oeyvind, 2002
Gravikords, Whirlies & Pyrophones: Experimental Musical Instruments, Ellipsis Arts, 1996.
An Artist in The Civilized World, Ric Soshin, Phantom Records 4321, 1996.
Testament: Conduction #23, Lawrence D. Butch Morris, New World Records, 80482-2, 1995.
AS IS, Loretta Roome, Eric Feinstein, (guitar tracks), self-produced cassette, Brooklyn, NY, 1994.
Experimental Musical Instruments, Nicasio, Ca., From the Pages, cassette Volume III, 1988, and Volume VIII, 1993.
Improvisations, Ken Butler and Dina Emerson, Gargoyle Mechanique, New York, sampler cassette, 1990.
Film & Video Production
Hybrid Visions, (2-hr. DVD of excerpts 1993-2006), Hybrid Visions Music, 2006
“Hand Song”, 16 mm animated film selected for Ann Arbor Film Festival, 1974.
“Hybrid Antics”, video produced at Rogers Cablesystems, Portland, Ore, 1984.
Art Directed Gus Van Sant’s first film “Mala Noche”, Portland, 1986.
2014 Hermitage Museum Russia, Prada Foundation Venice, BRIC Brooklyn, Firehouse Space Brooklyn
2013 WYE Cyberfest Berlin, Airplane Gallery Brooklyn, Maker Faire NYC
2012 Islip Art Museum, Ethan Pettit Gallery Brooklyn, Portland Stae University
2011 Antigel Festival Geneva, Sideshow Gallery Brooklyn, Hamptons Art Market LI
2010 Mass Moca Mass., Gallery 2B Budapest, Mulvane Art Museum Kansas, Dam/Stuhltrager Gallery Brooklyn
2009 KRAAK Festival Belgium, New Museum NYC, Western Gallery Wash.2008 Pollock/Krasner Foundation Grant,The Dayton Art Institute Ohio, Compiegne Library, France
2007 Art Gym at Marylhurst Univ, Hallie Ford Museum, Elizabeth Leach Gallery, artMoving Projects
2006 Mass MoCA, Sideshow Gallery, The Lab, Light in Winter Festival
2005 Lancaster Museum Pa, The Avampato Museum NC, Dowd Fine Arts Center, NY
2004 De Paul Univ. Chicago, Michigan Theatre, 2B Gallery Budapest, Kerrytown Concert Hall MI
2003 Collective Unconscious, The Knitting Factory, NYC
2002 The Aldrich Museum, CT.,F. Donald Kenney Museum NY, (color catalog),
2001 The Klanghaus Hamburg, Rose Art Museum Brandeis, Paris, Radio Bremen.
2000 Exit Art, Florence Lynch Gallery, The Boston Museum, BAM Cafe, The Kitchen
1999 NYFA Fellowship, The Brooklyn Museum, Smithsonian Magazine, The Tonight Show .
1998 Wintergarden Theater, Citicorp Atrium, Met Life Windows NYC.
1997 Metropolitan Museum of Art, Art Gallery of Ontario, Oakland Museum, Knitting Factory, CD on Tzadik.
1996 The Kitchen, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Soho Festival NYC, Portland Center for the Performing Arts.
1995 Lincoln Center, Thread Waxing Space, Experimental Intermedia, NYC, Maryland Institute of the Arts.
1994 Printemps de Bourges and Art Rock St. Brieuc Festivals, France, Podewil Berlin, Cave 12 Geneva, Whitney Museum NYC.
1993 NY Foundation for the Arts Fellowship, Exit Art, Thread Waxing Space, Performing Garage, The Drawing Center, Roulette, NYC, Images du Futur, Montreal.
1992 Test-Site Gallery, Generator, NYC., Portland Center for the Performing Arts, Gallery Nishiasabu,Tokyo.
1991 Metropolitan Museum of Art, Great Hall at Cooper Union, NYC, Music-Action Festival, France, ICPNA, LIma, Peru, Jamison Thomas Gallery, Portland.
1990 Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam, New Music America Montreal, Roulette NYC.
1989 NEA InterArts grant, The Apollohouse Eindhoven Holland, The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, The Painted Bride Art Center in Philadelphia.
1988 The Kitchen NYC, New Music America MIami, NW Artists Workshop, Portland.
1987 Franklin Furnace, The Knitting Factory, NYC, Portland Center for the Visual Arts, New Langton Arts Multidisciplinary Project Grant.
1986 The Art Gym, Portland, On the Boards, Bumbershoot Festival, Seattle, Dance Studio, LA.
1985 On the Boards, Seattle, The House, Santa Monica, CA.
1984 Littman Gallery, NW Artists Workshop, Portland.
1983 NEA Artist Fellowship, Oregon Arts Commission Fellowship, Portland Art Museum, Portland Center for the Visual Arts.
1982 Elizabeth Leach Gallery, NW Artists Workshop, Portland, Rosco Louie Gallery, Seattle