At the very end of this record by English experimental musician John Burton, better known as Leafcutter John, there is a burst of applause. It’s a reminder that Burton, for all his association with music producing software – his own Forester program being a highly regarded Max/MSP development – is most at home in the live setting. The antithesis of the email-checking laptop musician of journalistic cliché, a solo set by this most inventive of performers is as likely to see him sampling the noise of deflating balloons or playing with a slinky as jabbing at the space bar. Such are his chops in this setting that he found himself co-opted into the rather popular jazz group Polar Bear. And, for me, his contributions to that group (such as the strange sounds which populate the off-kilter “Drunken Pharoah” from Peepers) are actually the most interesting thing about them, even if I’ve noted at times his efforts are clearly being met with incomprehension by their audience – at one of their shows I swear I once heard someone describe his input as mere “farting about”.
An overly harsh verdict, clearly, even if the slightly subservient nature of his role in Polar Bear means that the subtlety of what he does isn’t always easily appreciable. That clearly isn’t the case with his solo records, which have always had plenty to grab and hold the interest, both in a musical and contextual sense; that is if the two can even be separated. For example, The Housebound Spirit used concrète collage to create a nightmarish soundscape reflecting the acute agoraphobia he was suffering from at the time, while The Forest And The Sea, in both instrumentation and inspiration, reached back to something more pastoral, with more traditional folk sounds used to score a leafy fairytale. However, given that so much of what he does is geared around the live setting, from the equipment he builds to the highly visual nature of his performance, it’s perhaps fitting that his new release Tunis is (with a modicum of after-the-event tidying up) a live album.
And it is not just a live album, but a live album constructed mostly from sounds that were recorded during Burton’s stay in Tunis for the Festival Echos Sonores de Tunis, which his performance was part of. So, he had turned up in the country a mere day or so before the performance without source material, relying on being able to accumulate enough found sounds from what little of the city he could actually visit in that short period to be able to create something useful from them. Thankfully, his confidence was justified. The album is in fact structured like one day in the city, from the glorious sunrise over the bay experienced during “A Slowly Growing Beautiful”, through morning prayer and the increasing cacophony of the second half (interrupted by siesta and its “I am sleeping” vocal refrain), to an evening alive with music, and finally culminating in a gradual fade to silence.
It’s to Burton’s credit, given the timescale, that Tunis sounds as good as it does, in particular that it manages to be as evocative of city life as it is without relying on the more obvious sound sources. The instrumentation, strings and percussion are, whilst I assume of local origin, all heavily processed, used to add light or shade to the atmospheres created. Significantly, there is no call to prayer sampled on the record (as far as I can tell), yet the vocal drones and repeated phrases on “Palm Reader” sound deeply spiritual; the holy minimalism of the likes of Arvo Part would be an obvious reference point (a less obvious – and more troubling one – would be another esteemed minimalist. Is the repeated refrain of what sounds like “my name is…” a reference to Steve Reich’s Daniel Variations, his response to the sickening violence which flowed from religious conflict?). The bustle and chaos of city streets is evoked not so much by the sounds Burton chooses, but by the way he repurposes them via frantic, fragmented cut and splice, turning them into twisted, bustling alleys, stuffed with life, and roads choked with diesel chunter. This is so clever, so inventive, so alive, that I come so close to joining in that burst of applause which greets the end of the set.