PEOPLEText: Garry Waller

Back in March, I moved into a 2nd floor loft apartment in Brooklyn, having been looking for a change of scenery from my last place of four years. It was only a matter of time before I heard bizarre noises coming from the first floor below that gave me a cause for curiosity. I later found out that the ground floor apartment was home to an artist by the name of Ken Butler, who’s self-made sculptural instruments and live performances have won him wide recognition, from the “downtown” music scene in New York as well as “high-art” circles around the globe.

It’s a bit hard to pigeonhole Ken as simply a musician as his work crosses a few disciplines, making it hard to pinpoint exactly what he is. One thing that is evident is Ken’s passion for performance and the energy that he exudes when he talks; he’s a keen communicator! Nevertheless, installation artist, sculptor, video artist, photographer, designer, film-maker, sound artist, composer, and poet, these are just a few of the terms he throws out on his website.

Ken comes from a background in the arts. He obtained an MFA in painting from the Portland State University in Oregon in 1977. It was around this time that Ken created his fist playable instrument by taking an everyday hatchet, adding strings, neck, violin tailpiece, bridge and some tuning pegs. Not only had ken just created the “Violin-Axe”, but also a blank canvas and an idea that would consume him over the next 27 years.

After getting a tour of his spacious loft space and seeing a few of Ken’s creations, I got the sense that he is someone who, if you stuck on a desert island with not much on it, would get busy creating something musical. His output has been extensive considering that he has built more than 400 instruments, some extremely elaborate like his ‘Urban Grand Piano’ which consists of slide projectors, radios, neon tubes, lights and tape recorders. Others, like the strip of plastic which he promptly reached for and let rip on in mid-conversation, sounded like a trumpet! I was curious to know his favorite from the whole collection and using the “desert island” scenario he simply said “the shovel” which he told me sounds great.

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