Butterfield’s pieces suggest an unschooled or outsider’s approach. In actuality, we hear an unsettling union of chance and specificity. Titled deceptively, the string sextet Lullaby starts quietly, almost atmospherically, and suddenly stumbles upon a descending sequence which elsewhere might serve a harmonic function but here seems to be purely decorative. Clinamen requires that the solo violinist navigate at will across 80 short phrases printed on cards. The brief gestures, some immediately repeated, make for nearly 15 minutes of ambiguous restlessness. Evidently Butterfield rails against form and traditional logic.
Written for the Quatuor Bozzini, fall repeats chords derived from a four-note cell, except the players have randomly chosen dynamics which disturb the voice leading and create an illusion of harmony and motion. Trip, also written for the Bozzini, serializes pitches but applies durations using chance. Dynamics and structure were finalized later. A radio broadcast emerges in the first movement, and the final movement dwarfs the preceding three. If the first three were perky bagatelles, the finale is slow and disconsolate. The Bozzini deliver with aplomb, and yet it’s hard to know what to make of it all.
In Japan there is a tradition of women pearl divers (ama). The sound they make as they return to the surface to breathe is called isobue or beach whistle, in a loose translation. The solo cello alternates slowly between high and low (like the divers), held tones, and rasping pizzicato. Most of the other pieces give off motion and end unexpectedly, but stay rooted to the same place. Beach whistle is uniquely descriptive among this curious collection.