New York

Ken Butler

Herron Test-Site

Superpowers would still be going at it with crossbows or flintlocks if new weapons were developed at the same rate as musical instruments. It is every violinist’s dream to own a Stradivarius made three centuries ago, and even aficionados of the electric guitar prefer Fender Stratocasters made before I was born. But if the history of musical instruments tends to slow to a standstill, Ken Butler’s show of “hybrid instruments” ought to set it moving again by leaps and bounds. Not exactly a musician, a sculptor, or a mad scientist, Butler is more a bricoleur who recycles castaway materials (ironing boards, toys, electronic gadgets, you name it) into new instruments that he likes to play in such hybrid extravaganzas of multimedia madness as his Two Fruit Flies: a micro opera, 1991.

There are good reasons why the violin form has remained largely fixed. Within the immanent limits of what a violin or a viola can be, the standard form represents the optimal configuration for extracting a certain sound. However well and good that may be, Butler’s instruments explore the million other sound potentials that lie between that Stradivarius configuration and the outer limits of the violin envelope. In Gun Viola 1991–92, Butler combines a black plastic toy gun with a viola neck. It looks bad-assed, but what’s uncanny is how readily the gun form fits within the viola envelope (like the gangster-film cliché of a machine gun hidden in a violin case). Their scale is virtually identical (owing, no doubt, to the requirements of standard arm lengths), and the shape formed by the gun’s handle and clip is able to serve the same purpose as the ear-shaped cutouts on a violin body (there to facilitate bowing). It is the discovery of these odd formal similarities that draws Gun Violain the direction of mad science, while its visual punch gives it a sculptural quality. It is also a fully functional musical instrument—amplified, the instrument can be bowed, tapped, scraped, or can produce a deafening rat-a-tat-tat when its trigger is pulled.

Though Butler often works with recognizable found objects (from toy guns to scraps of furniture) or forms (violins, guitars, pianos) some works push their envelope so far out as to lose all but the faintest similarity to standard instruments. For instance, Bike Handlebars/PanLid 1992, is an instrument about the size of a stand-up bass with no strings at all. It is made out of various forms of metal tubing: bicycle handlebars, the probe-head of a vacuum cleaner, part of a ski pole, the burner mechanism of a gas stove, and all sorts of other doohickeys. Essentially, it looks like a big Cubist collage. But how do you play this contraption? Just as instrument forms settle into rigid configurations within their envelopes, so too do ways of playing. A stand-up bass only needs strings if you take a narrow attitude toward making it produce sound. Butler’s hybrid instruments, on the other hand, force you to imagine hybrid ways of playing. Amplified, any edge of this metal tubing contraption can be bowed or plucked, any surface can be scratched, bent, or beaten like a drum. If an orchestra is a band of specialists, anyone playing Butler’s instruments is already a one-man band.

Keith Seward