Aspen Times Weekly: Conduct Slip — Matt Butler leads Everyone Orchestra
Thursday, Nov. 14 at 9:30 p.m.
Matt Butler grew up in an extended classical music family. Not only was his mother a founding member and violinist of the Eugene Symphony, in Oregon, but Marin Alsop, a conductor who would go on to direct the Colorado Symphony and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, lived on and off with the Butler family when she headed the Eugene Symphony. Butler cites Alsop as a major influence on his own music career. “The way she would communicate to these very talented musicians, her charisma, the way she brought people together,” he said.
Watching Butler is action, Alsop might have trouble seeing the mark she left. Butler conducts music, but the similarities end right about there. Where Alsop conducts in concert halls for seated audiences, Butler conducts for dancing crowds in rock halls and clubs. While Alsop emphasizes well thought-out readings of music that has been precisely written down as much as several centuries ago, Butler cuts the composer and the composition process out of the picture. Everyone Orchestra, the ensemble that Butler leads, improvises from scratch the majority of its music. In the jam-band world — into which the group comfortably fits — Everyone Orchestra might be the ultimate jammers, with no set list and virtually no songs, just a rotating cast of musicians onstage with their instruments, willing to head into the unknown.
Leading the way is Butler. Dressed in a long black coat and top hat, Butler positions himself in front of the band, rhythmically waves his arms and twists his body, coaxing the music out of the ensemble. In a way, it is very much like what Alsop does with the Baltimore Symphony, which she still leads.
“I’m standing in a similar position. I’m asking for a similar set of things from the musicians,” Butler said from Washington, D.C., where he was preparing for a show at the Howard Theatre. “The conducting is the vortex between the musicians, the music and the audience. Whether it’s classical music or Everyone Orchestra, the role of the conductor is to bring it all together.”
Another profound difference between the classical orchestra and Everyone Orchestra is the make-up of the ensemble. A standard orchestra establishes its sound on continuity; it’s not uncommon for a member to spend decades in one orchestra. Everyone Orchestra is built on the opposite approach; a different combo is assembled for each tour, and the instrumentation can vary significantly. More than 600 musicians have taken a turn in the group. Most have come from the jam-band world — Jon Fishman, the drummer for Phish, has been one of the most frequent players — but there have been appearances by Ivan Neville, drummer Stephen Perkins of Jane’s Addiction, and Tony Levin and Adrian Belew of the prog-rock band King Crimson.
In its Aspen debut, Thursday, Nov. 14 at Belly Up, Butler will lead a group that includes guitarist John Kadlecik of the second-generation Grateful Dead band Furthur; fiddler Bridget Law from Colorado gypsy-folk band Elephant Revival; keyboardist Steve Molitz of Particle; and two members of the California rock band ALO, which has been connected to Everyone Orchestra from the first gig, 12 years ago.
Butler has no formal training as a conductor; his origins as a professional musician trace back to his days as drummer in a ’90s group called Jambay. “Like a West Coast Phish, but a couple years behind,” Butler, 44, said of his old band. Writer Ken Kesey adopted Jambay, much as he adopted the Grateful Dead in the ‘60s, and became an influence on Butler’s creative direction.
Butler found that his favorite moments with Jambay occurred when it wasn’t just Jambay. “The profound thing was when bands like Leftover Salmon would invite us all up and the unexpected would happen — more free, more exciting,” he said. “It cracked the experience open. It was the unknown, the spontaneity, pure celebration. And Kesey pushed the envelope, pushed us further than we’re we’d go as a band. He always wanted to get the audience involved in some way.”
For New Year’s Eve 2001, Butler was ready to step into that realm. Drawing on his experience leading such free-form events as drum circles and open-mikes, and on witnessing, in India, a multicultural open-mike where the participants didn’t speak the same language but communicated through music, he launched Everyone Orchestra with a gig at the San Geronimo Valley Community Center. The group featured members of Jambay, ALO and Zero — but not Butler, who was suffering from a popped appendix. “But the concept was truly born that night,” he said.
The core of the concept is improvisation. “We’re all composers in the moment. That’s what this is all about,” Butler said. Most performances feature a song or two — anything from the Police’s “Walking in Your Footsteps” to Phish’s “You Enjoy Myself” — but the bulk of the music is made up on the spot. “I try not to go in with preconceptions,” Butler said. “I embrace spontaneity, just be open to what comes forth.”
If the essence of Everyone Orchestra is talented improvisers doing what they do best, what then is the role of the conductor? Butler does offer some cues — often handwritten notes made on the spot, that might give specifics (“Funk in E-flat”) or something far more ambiguous (“Hey! Ho!”). He’ll call out the soloists to give each musician has a voice, and make sure the music doesn’t get bogged down in one key or one rhythm. Often he will shape the rhythm through the way he moves his body. Butler also serves as a conduit between the band and the crowd; sometimes he seems like the most privileged member of the audience, who gets to stand onstage and tell the musicians which direction he like the music to go.
“I want to have the audience participate in a way that the third wall gets broken down, so we all have this beautiful experience,” he said. “I’m always coming up with ways to get them involved — call and response, rhythmic clapping, the vocal chorus. The audience gets louder than the band at times.”
The earliest Everyone Orchestra gigs were a bit like a variety show. Each musician got to lead a bit of the show, and a portion of the show was Butler conducting the entire ensemble. Butler saw quickly what was his favorite part of the show.
“No one was completely owning the potentiality of what it was. I had to embrace it as my new instrument, make it a better experience for the audience, the musicians, everyone,” he said. “It would be very different without me. Me being there takes a certain pressure off the instrumentalists. They don’t have to lead the whole thing. I keep it moving in an interesting way.
“Something beautiful would happen if it was just the musicians improvising. But something different and magical will happen with me conducting.”
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