Ken Butler is an artist and musician whose Hybrid musical instruments, performances and other works explore the interaction and transformation of common and uncommon objects, altered images, and sounds as function and form collide in the intersection of art and music.
Butler is internationally recognized as an innovator of experimental musical instruments created from diverse materials including tools, sports equipment, and household objects. The idea of bricolage, essentially using whatever is “at hand”, is at the center of his art, encompassing a wide range of practice that combines assemblage art, live music, instrument design, performance art, theater, sculpture, installation, photography, film/video, graphic design, drawing, and collage.
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.
He has been featured in exhibitions and performances worldwide including The Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, The Prada Foundation in Venice (as part of the “Art or Sound” exhibition at the Venice Biennale in 2014), The State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Mass Moca, and The Kitchen, The Brooklyn Museum, Lincoln Center and The Metropolitan Museum in New York City as well as in Canada, 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 Commission, the New York Foundation for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Pollack/Krasner Foundation.
Butler has performed with John Zorn, Laurie Anderson, David Van Tieghem, Butch Morris, The Soldier String Quartet, Matt Darriau's Paradox Trio, The Tonight Show Band, and The Master Gnawa musicians of Morocco. His CD, Voices of Anxious Objects is on Tzadik records.
He won first prize in the 2016 international Guthman Musical Instrument Competition at Georgia Tech as well as best performance and most unusual instrument.
Works by Ken Butler are represented in public and private collections in Portland, Seattle, Vail, Los Angeles, Toronto, Montreal, Washington, Paris, Tel Aviv, and New York City including the permanent collection of The Metropolitan Museum of Art. He resides in Brooklyn, New York.
Created primarily from consumer detritus with a patina of use, the hybrid instruments express a poetic spirit of re-invention and hyper-utility as new associations momentarily create a striking and re-animated cultural identity for forsaken objects. String instruments become body, tool, weapon, toy, machine, phallus, creature, fetish, sculpture, icon, symbol, and voice. Pianos become cybernetic and symbolic architecture. Anxious objects speak in tongues.
Extensive biography (not current)
Ken Butler is an artist and musician whose Hybrid musical instruments and other artworks explore the interaction and transformation of common and uncommon objects, altered images, sounds and silence. The idea of bricolage, essentially using whatever is “at hand”, is at the center of his art, encompassing a wide range of practice that combines live music, instrument design, performance art, theater, sculpture, installation, photography, film/video, graphic design, drawing, and collage. He is internationally recognized as an innovator of experimental musical instruments created from diverse materials including tools, sports equipment, and household objects.
His works have been exhibited and performed in galleries, clubs, museums, festivals, and theaters worldwide including The Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, The Prada Foundation in Venice, The State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburgand, Lincoln Center and The Metropolitan Museum in New York City as well as in Russia, South America and Japan.
Education and awards
Ken Butler studied viola as a child and maintained a strong interest in music while studying the visual arts at Colorado College and in France at The Institute for American Universities in Aix-en-Provence, completing his M.F.A. in painting from Portland State University in 1977. He moved to New York City in 1988 from Portland, Oregon. His numerous grants and awards include multiple fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the New York Foundation for the Arts, The Pollock Krasner Foundation, The New York State Council for the Arts, and the Oregon Arts Commission, among others.
He has taught courses, workshops, and lectured at universities, schools, museums, and cultural centers in the USA, Canada, Germany, and France, and has collaborated with dancers, artists, designers, composers, and film-makers. Ken is fluent in French and has traveled extensively.
Other performance and exhibition highlights in New York City include The Kitchen, where he presented a major multi-media work “Insects and Anxious Objects” in 1996, and a large-scale inter-active audio-visual installation entitled “Object Opera” presented at Thread Waxing Space in 1995, as well as The Whitney Museum, The Wintergarden Theatre at the World Financial Center, The Brooklyn Museum, The Queens Museum, The New Victory Theatre, The Great Hall at Cooper Union, C-Space at the Citicorp Atrium, Exit Art, The Drawing Center, The Performing Garage, Roulette, The Knitting Factory, Tonic, Experimental Intermedia, Location 1, BAM Cafe, The Bowery Poetry Club, The Puffin Room, ABC No Rio, Florence Lynch Gallery, The American Gallery, Test-Site Gallery, American Primitive Gallery, Sideshow Gallery, and Franklin Furnace, where he presented his New York premiere, a multi-media performance called “Hybrid Antics” in 1987 with multiple projections and live music performed on his hybrid musical instruments with three musicians.
International music festivals include The NY Texaco Jazz Festival, New Music America 88 Miami, New Music America 9 and The International Cello Festival in Montreal, Printemps de Bourges Festival, Aix-en-Othe Festival, The St. Brieuc Art Rock Festival and Music-Action Festival in France, Instants Chavires in Paris, the Cave 12 Solo Festival and Festival de La Batie in Geneva, and the Bumbershoot Festival in Seattle. Ken’s work was featured in exhibition and performance for the award-winning Edgefest Festival in Ann Arbor, Michigan in 2005.
Other national and international highlights include a solo exhibition and a series of performances at the Aldrich Museum in Connecticut, as well as presentations (exhibitions and/or performances) at The Boston Museum of Fine Arts, The Maryland Institute of the Arts in Baltimore, The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, The Painted Bride in Philadelphia, The Rose Art Museum at Brandeis University, Images du Futur in Montreal, The Apollohouse in Eindhoven, Holland, Archipel Urbain in Grenoble, France, and a 6-city tour of Germany ending at Podewil in Berlin, Germany. In 2001, Buitler was invited for a month as Artist in Residence by the city of Hamburg, Germany where he presented a series of concerts and collaborations with local artists and musicians, sponsored by The Klanghaus.
Additional venues in the US include The Palmer Museum of Art at Penn State University, The Art Gallery of Ontario Canada, The Slusser Gallery at the University of Michigan, The Palm Beach Institute of Contemporary Art, and Barbara Tillman Gallery in Miami, The House, and The Dance Studio in Los Angeles, The Oakland Museum, The Portland Center for the Performing Arts, The Portland Museum of Art, Portland Center for the Visual Arts, The Art Gym at Marylhurst College, NW Artists Workshop, and Blue Sky Gallery, in Portland, Oregon, Tha Hallie Ford Museum in Salem, and On the Boards in Seattle, where he premiered his multi-media work “Hybrid Antics” in 1985.
His works have been extensively reviewed including in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Village Voice, New York Press, Artforum, Art in America, Smithsonian Magazine, Sculpture Magazine, Sports Illustrated, and People Magazine, among many other publications.
Butler has been featured on numerous national and international radio and television programs including a live appearance on NBC’s The Tonight Show with Jay Leno where he performed on his instruments with the Tonight Show Band in 1999, a live performance and interview on National Public Radio’s "New Sounds” with John Schaeffer in 2000, a radio feature, "Ken Butler's Hybrid Instruments" on Studio 360 with Kurt Anderson in 2004, both on WNYC radio, and a feature story on “City Arts” by Harvey Wang on PBS Channel 13 in 1995, in New York City. A recent online video from CNN's Great Big Story series about Butler, "The Junkyard Virtuoso", has nearly 6 million views.
Butler and his hybrid instruments were featured in live performance for 7 different Station ID’s for MTV (M2), “A Guide to (Really) Alternative Music”, produced by Monad Films, NYC, in 1997; He has also appeared on “Ripley’s Believe it or Not” on Fox TV , and was a contestant on NBC’s To Tell The Truth. Other TV feature stories include a story on CNN International by Jeanne Moos, CNBC by Alex Dawson (also run on NBC news) in NYC in 1998 and a feature story, “Another Story From Planet Earth” for Fuji Television, Tokyo, produced by Mado Productions in 1995.
His CD, Voices of Anxious Objects, with a 16-page booklet, is available on John Zorn's Tzadik label, and he is also he is featured on Gravikords, Whirlies & Pyrophones: Experimental Musical Instruments, along with a 96-page booklet and CD, on Ellipsis Arts. See his discography in Resume.
Since 1981 Ken Butler has played music (just once in many cases) with John Zorn, Laurie Anderson, David Van Tieghem, Butch Morris, The Soldier String Quartet, Matt Darriau's Paradox Trio, Anthony Coleman, Tom Cora, Cooper-Moore, Melvin Gibbs, Akim Funk Buddah, Jon Bepler, Terry Dame, Ed Potokar, Ferdinand Forsch, Jon Rose, Charles Burnham, Jason Hwang, Rob Thomas, John JB Butler, Stan Wood, Steve Koski, Tarik Banzi, Stomu Takeishi, Seido Salifoski, Jerry Gibbs, Will Calhoun, Jeff "Tain" Watts, Gene Jackson, Kenny Wollesson, Bill Buchen, Vin Scialla, 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.
Ken Butler: Background
At the time I created my first hybrid instrument quite by accident in 1978 by adding a fingerboard, tailpiece, pegs, bridge, and contact microphone to a small hatchet which I then played as a violin, I was working in a variety of primarily visual media including painting, photo/collage, film and slide animation, and inter-active sculpture/light installations. The axe-violin, which I have played at hundreds of live performances was both my first sound piece and sculptural object and further created the fusion of art forms and conceptual framework I was seeking – a transformative and poetic bricolage of form and function and cultural identity. Since that time I have created over 400 hybrid string (and a few percussion) instruments/sculptures from primarily found objects and materials, numerous inter-active sound and light installations, assemblage works, and live performances ranging from solo concerts to large-scale multi-media events with text, instrument-controlled multiple slide and kinetic shadow projections, and live music played on hybrid instruments by several artist/musicians.
Frequently asked questions:
Is Ken really an artist, an instrument designer, or a musician?
The very nature of the work bridges those disciplines. At its core is bricolage, improvising with what is "at hand". I could call myself a bricoluthier, a combination of a luthier, a maker of stringed instruments, and a bricoleur.
Bricolage is a term used in several disciplines, among them the visual arts, to refer to the construction or creation of a work from a diverse range of things that happen to be available, or a work created by such a process. The term is from the French verb bricoler, the core meaning in French being, "fiddle, tinker" and, by extension, "to make creative and resourceful use of whatever materials are at hand (regardless of their original purpose)". A person who engages in bricolage is a bricoleur.
How can I purchase a Hybrid Instrument or other artwork?
Aside from a small group of the very most playable, the Hybrid instruments are all for sale. Since 1980, I have sold nearly 120 Hybrids, and am represented in public and private collections in Portland, Seattle, Vail, Los Angeles, Toronto, Montreal, Washington, Paris, Tel Aviv, and New York City including the permanent collection of The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. Please email me to discuss a purchase of an instrument or any other artwork. In a few cases, I have work with art dealers.
How did he get started doing all this?
The path to the creation of my first hybrid instrument and ultimately performance work was begun in the mid-70’s while working with contact printing full torso x-rays onto light-sensitive diazo paper used by architects. The resulting images were extremely guitar-like (vertebrae as frets, and neck, etc.) and were used as a backdrop for a large wall installation utilizing an actual guitar and violin. Entitled "Harmony on the Critical List", the work had a musical/medical theme as well as dada-futuro-cubist qualities. As I was already musically involved with string instruments, I then began to think of the ergonomic and proportional relationship they bear to the human body.
In 1978 I was in my basement when I saw a small hatchet left by a former tenant. Something compelled me to pull it up under my chin as though it were a violin. Immediately I imagined it as a fully functional instrument and went upstairs to see if it would perchance fit into a violin case, which it did perfectly. I fitted a fingerboard, tailpiece, pegs, bridge, and contact microphone to the axe and was quite amazed when it sounded remarkably good played though my guitar amplifier. So I could really play my "axe". I was unaware at the time of the profound effect of this creation on my artistic life, initiating the idea of live performance. The Axe violin was both my first sound piece as well as sculptural object and further created the fusion of art forms I was seeking - a transformative bricolage or hybridization of form and function and cultural object identity.
What is his art and musical training?
I studied viola (and briefly jazz piano) as a child and maintained a strong interest in music while studying the visual arts at The Colorado College (BA studio art, 1970), The Institute for American Universities in Aix-en-Provence, France (1968-69), and completing his MFA in painting from Portland State University, Oregon in 1977. My mother played lots of piano and brother John "JB" is a jazz/world guitarist in Portland.
Are all his instruments playable or are they sculpture?
Any object that can be vibrated, with no exceptions, is “playable” to some degree in the hands of a skilled musician with some quality miking, engineering, and practice. Most of the Hybrid Instruments are not intended for performance and would be considered assemblage sculptures. The nearly 50 or so that are playable are designed to be amplified with contact microphones and have no acoustic sound. There are over a dozen that are extremely playable and are used in live performances and recordings. I made the first of nearly 400 hybrid instrument in 1978, the Axe Violin, and have been performing live with them since that time.
Is he trying to be absurd with the objects he uses?
Although there is certainly some inherent humor in my work due to the unusual objects I make and play, I select my objects exclusively for their visual relationship to the “bodies” or “necks” of string instruments, the ability to easily attach strings, the necessary rigidity to maintain string tension, and allowing access to the “fingerboard” to play different notes, not the acoustic property. Believe it or not, the humor and the sound are both “accidental” by-products of the visual and “practical” qualities of the selected objects.
What other kinds of art does Ken make?
I have been making paintings, collages, and drawings and playing music since I was a child. Currently, my principal 2-D medium is collage, referencing the Hybrid Instruments and made predominately with altered photos combined with drawing. Sizes range from 8 x 10 to 60 x 40 inches. In addition, there are 18 x 24 drawings. I have created large-scale interactive installations since the late 70’s that are often multi-media audio-visual environments controlled by a keyboard. These works evolved into sculptural “pianos”, some of which are interactive. In addition, I also make films, videos, and photographs.
How can I learn more about experimental musical instruments?
Great Music (no particular order, or reason)
Miles, Hendrix, Coltrane, Bartok, Monk, Dolphy, James Brown, Debussy, Taraf de Haidouks, McLaughlin, Aretha, Manitas de Plata, Ivo Papasov, Bulgarian Women's Choir, Dylan, Parissa and Dastan Ensemble, Buddy Guy, O.V. Wright, Odetta, Djivan Gasparian, Jeff Beck, Sam Cooke, Roland Kirk, Nusrat Fatah Ali Khan, Fred Neil, Steve Coleman, Maurizio Kagel, Elvin Jones, King Sunny Ade, Zappa, Django, Bill Evans, Sarah Vaughn, Ravel, Fela Kuti, Sonny Rollins, Jaco, Iva Bittova, Penderecki, Otis Redding, Zawinul, Wayne Shorter, Radio Tarifa, Paganini, Devo, Ornette, Eliot Carter, Gonzalo Rubalcaba, Clifford Brown, Oliver Nelson, Nina Simone, Ellington, Stravinsky, Zakir, Mingus, Chick Corea, Paco, Messiaen, Cannonball, Ayler, Mahalia Jackson, Parween Sultana, Piazolla, Dimi Mint Abba, Captain Beefheart, Harvey Mandel, Jobim, Eno, L. Subramanian, Carmen Linares, Beatles, Who, Zep, Andy Bey, Huun Huur Tu, Paradox Trio, Luiz Bonfa, Stevie Wonder, Cream, Milton Nascimiento, Prince, Sly Stone, Wilson Pickett, Fairfield Four, Joni Mitchell, Satie, Enescu, Albert King, Doors, Denilo Perez, Dafnis Prieto, Cesaria Evora, Yasmin Levy, Debashish Bhattacharya, ONB, Clarence Carter, Ramones, Anour Brahem, Frissel, Tristano, Shadjarian, Harry Partch, Oum Kahlsoum, Okay Temiz, Kurt Elling, Glen Velez, Bismillah Khan, The Bluesbreakers, Otis Rush, Lou Reed, Rom Narayan, Richard Bona, Fred Frith, Tom Cora, Aphex Twin, Horowitz, Sandy Bull, Stanley Clarke, Gary Burton, Joan Baez, Ian and Sylvia, Bert Jansch, The Residents, Cheb Khaled, Sussan Deyhim, Houria Aichi, The Allmann Brothers, Naked City, Masada Strings, Simon Shaheen, Teremeto de Herez, Freddy King, Percy Sledge, Cecil Taylor, The Yardbirds, Moby Grape, Taj Mahal, Bernard Hermann, Stan Getz, Gilberto Gil,
Great Movies (no particular order)
Woman in the Dunes, The Red Desert, A Raisin in the Sun, Personna, Brazil, Juliet of the Spirits, Latcho Drom, Metropolis, Black Cat White Cat, Vertigo, Rashomon, Das Boot, Aguire the Wrath of God, The Pawnbroker, Delicatessan, Children of Paradise, Beauty and the Beast (Cocteau), Battleship Potemkin, Outback, 1900, Rendezvous, 8 1/2, One-Eyed Jacks, Black Orpheus, The War Game, The Seven Samuri, Yojimbo, Dr. Strangelove, Forbidden Games, The Seventh Seal, The Virgin Spring, Prisoner of Second Avenue, The Red Sorghum, Twelve Angry Men, Tokyo Story, Caspar Hauser, La Notte, Morgan, Summer and Smoke, Alexander Nevsky, Suddenly Last Summer, Prospero’s Books, La Strada, Fitzcarraldo, Time of the Gypsies, Underground, El Topo, A Touch of Evil, Wavelength, City of Lost Children, Ballet Mechanique, Irma La Douce, A Thousand Clowns, Winged Migration, Shoot Louder I Don’t Understand, The Loved Ones, The Passenger, The Hustler, Network, Sahara, The Odd Couple, To Have and Have Not, The Chase, Birdman of Alcatraz, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Key Largo, City of God, Constant Gardener, Koyannisquatsi, Organism, Casablanca, Streetcar Named Desire, Flamenco, The Bicycle Thief, The Garden of the Finzi-Continas, The Birds, Vengo, Jules and Jim, 400 Blows, North by Northwest, Amarcord, The Night of Cabiria, Viridiana, Ran, Do-Des-Ka-Den, Maltese Falcon, The Station Agent, Goldfinger, Apocalypse Now, Citizen Kane, Treasure of the Sierra Madre, All Quiet on the Western Front, The Guns of Navarone, Asphalt Jungle, D.O.A., A Soldier's Tale, Paths of Glory, Hero, Lost Weekend, Far from the Madding Crowd, Blade Runner, Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, Good Morning Miss Dove, The Blandings Build a Dream House, Elvira Madigan, Captain Blood, Spartacus, Eraserhead, Blue Velvet, Emek Bakia, Ballet Mechanique, Andalusian Dog, How Things Go,
Great Visual Artists (lost on MySpace in the ether...)