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Ken Butler takes ordinary objects and makes musical wonders

Visions & Voices performance demonstrates that just about anything can become a musical instrument

Ken Butler
In Ken Butler's hands, just about anything can become a musical instrument. (Photo/courtesy of USC Visions & Voices)

A golf club. An umbrella. A snow shovel. What do these ordinary objects have in common? In the hands of Ken Butler, they — and just about anything — become musical instruments.

The Brooklyn-based sculptor/luthier/composer delighted a packed Newman Hall audience Sept. 21. Sponsored by USC’s Visions & Voices initiative, the show — titled “Hybrid Visions, Anxious Objects” — was organized by USC Thornton composer Veronika Krausas and USC Roski ceramicist Karen Koblitz. The two teach an interdisciplinary course, “Sound Art,” in which music and fine art students create unique musical objects.

Krausas first encountered Butler at a Montreal new music fesitval in 1990. “It was one of those moments in your life that completely changes your perspective on what is music and what is a musical instrument,” she told the Newman Hall audience.

Butler’s “instrument sculptures” bring together fine art, acoustical design and performance. A violist by training, he plucks, bows, strums and taps on an array of fanciful stringed instruments built on the chassis of old tennis rackets, hockey sticks, an umbrella, a toothbrush. Sometimes he just attaches a guitar pickup to unprepared objects, transforming them into exotic percussion instruments.

In his tour-de-force finale, Butler improvised on a kitchen knife, a paintbrush, the zipper of his jeans, even his own mouth and skull.

Ken Butler

Ken Butler performed with a variety of unique instruments at Newman Hall on Sept. 21. (Photo/David Johnston)


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