Phil Minton may possess one of the most remarkable voices ever recorded, either in a musical or nonmusical setting. While he has had notable outings singing traditional lyrics, particularly settings of the poetry of William Blake, fans of improvisational music know him best for his plethora of vocal sounds not normally associated with singers—an assortment of mumbles, gargles, swizzles, burps, hiccups, and screams that many would be hard-pressed to interpret as artistic. “It’s remarkable how horrible it is,” Kenneth Goldman of the New York Press said about Minton’s solo CD, A Doughnut In One Hand, an album that does not contain a single musical instrument, not a single melody, indeed not a single musical note, at least not in any traditional sense, “but it’s equally remarkable how you can’t tear yourself away from it; it has the effect of a Warhol Electric Chair or a car crash: You know you shouldn’t look but you can’t stop staring… Minton, for the first time, forces us to ponder the musical qualities of noises that we’d rather not deal with and that fact alone makes this an important recording.”
Phil Minton was the product of a family of singers in the United Kingdom. His father and uncle were both members of a Welsh male choir in the town of Torquay, England, and his mother is reputed to have possessed an impressive soprano voice. “Singing and choirs were always a talking point in our house,” Minton told Brian Marley of Rubberneck. Minton displayed vocal talent from an early age, and not just as a singer. He was able to impersonate the voices of various celebrities and family members, and to produce a wide range of miscellaneous sounds, which quickly cut short his time at the local boys choir. “I was probably a bit too disruptive to be a choirboy for very long,” he admitted to Marley.
Minton wasn’t interested in much musically except singing and whistling until he turned 15. Around that time, he heard Louis Armstrong for the first time, which sparked a desire to learn trumpet. The decision was made easier, Minton told Marley, because a trumpet “had three valves and looked easier than saxophone.” He started listening to Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis and other contemporary jazz artists. But it was hearing John Coltrane on Davis’s album Cooking that opened Minton’s ears to the possibilities of jazz. “Coltrane’s sound was just about the most exciting thing I’d ever heard,” he told Marley. “I was completely and utterly hooked on music by then.”
Unable to find a teacher in Torquay who could explain the dynamics of the new jazz, Minton was forced to fall back on his own resources. He taught himself trumpet and singing while performing in local jazz and blues bands. His interests turned to improvised music, inspired in large part not by music but by the so-called “action paintings” of abstract expressionist Jackson Pollack, which Minton decided were exactly what music should sound like. Anxious to improvise, Minton
Born on November 1, 1940, in Torquay, England.
Learned trumpet as a teenager; member of the Brian Waldron Quintet, 1959-61; performed as trumpeter and vocalist with Mike Westbrook Band, 1963-64; singer and trumpeter with the English group Jonston Macphil-bry on Canary Islands, 1964-65; rejoined Mike West-brook Band, 1971; worked with theater groups Welfare State, IOU, and others, 1970s; formed group Voice with Maggie Niçois and Julie Tippetts, 1975; worked with artists such as Fred Frith, Roger Turner, Peter Brotx-mann and Junter Christmann’s Vario, 1979-84; performed in Konran Boermer’s opera Apocalipsis cum figuris, Lindsay Cooper’s Oh Moscow, and Sally Potter’s film Gold, late 1980’s; first worked with Vervan Weston, 1987; Weston and Minton’s Songs From a Prison Diary commissioned by the Le Mans Festival, 1989; SongsFrom a Prison Diary premieres, 1990; made guest appearances wih Georg Graewe’s Grüben Klang Orchester, Trio Raphiphi with Radu Malfatti and Phil Wachsmann, John Butcher and Erhard Hirt, and Oxley’s Celebration Orchestra, 1990s. Feral Choir project initiated in Stockholm and Berlin, 1994; toured the United States with Bob Ostertag’s piece, Say No More, 1994.
formed a group with two friends and began playing “action music” that saw him engaging in both vocal and physical gymnastics; he sang his repertoire of different mouth sounds while jumping and twisting across the stage. The group held a single public concert—which drew no audience. “Although it was very exciting to us, we didn’t quite know what we were doing,” Minton confessed to Paul Dutton in Coda. “I never thought I’d end up making a living doing such wonderful things.”
In the early 1960s, Minton played trumpet in English dance bands to earn his living. Then, in 1963, he was asked to join the Mike Westbrook Band, one of the seminal bands of the British free jazz movement. Working with Westbrook enabled Minton to focus on performing the kind of music he truly loved. “I then started seriously but tentatively to explore, and I tried to do it with my voice,” he told Marley. “I wasn’t too successful at first because I didn’t have the technique for it. So I stuck to the trumpet.” Minton was becoming dissatisfied with the limitations of the instrument, however. Listening to his shortwave radio, he had become aware of the range of techniques used by other singers: Italian opera, blues, Tuvan throat singing of Mongolia, Yojk music of Sweden, along with the song traditions of India, the Middle East and Africa. “I was hearing all this and I really couldn’t get the sounds I wanted on the trumpet,” he told Marley, “and I had basically to own up to myself what was happening. I’d learned trumpet to gain credibility, to give me … the confidence to do what I’d always been doing naturally since I was a kid, playing with my voice, making different sounds, different timbres and colourings, and techniques for producing my sort of music.”
Minton left the Westbrook band in 1964 and moved first to the Canary Islands where he played trumpet and vocalized with the group Johnston Macphilby, then to Sweden where he stayed for five years. He returned to England in 1971 and rejoined Mike Westbrook’s band. From the 1970s, Minton worked on a large number of projects, his own and others. He performed with most of the luminaries of the world improv scene, including Fred Frith, John Zorn, Lindsay Cooper, Loi Coxhill, Tom Cora, and the Tony Oxley Celebration Orchestra. A noteworthy collaborator was pianist Veryan Weston. Besides two albums of standards interpreted by Minton, they also composed Songs from a Prison Diary, a work, based on poems written by Ho Chi Minh while in French captivity. The work for 22 voices premiered in 1990 and a year later won the Cornelius Cardew Composition Prize.
Songs was an unusual work for Minton. It is “composed,” meaning that it exists on paper rather being a purely improvised work. The method of composition, however, was for Minton to improvise, which Weston then transcribed. Minton does not typically base his work on literary sources, although one of his most successful works, Mouthful of Destiny, recorded by his quartet in 1996, used sections of James Joyce’s Finne-gan’s Wake. But anyone who has heard Minton perform knows that he rarely sings “words.” Instead he produces a stream of—among other sounds—barks, squeals, coughs, hiccups, rasps, belches, snorts and screams, that Goldsmith, in a review that actually managed to praise Minton’s solo CD A Doughnut in One Hand in the New York Press, described as “the grossest noises [Minton] can possibly think of.” But, as Goldsmith notes, that is only because Minton is working territory no other musician is working.
In his review, Goldsmith perceptively compared Minton to a Samuel Beckett character slowly disintegrating before our eyes. Minton’s musical partners often become part of his devolutionary scenarios. Peter Brötzmann, for example, at a duo performance with Minton in Berlin abruptly found his clarinet in two pieces. Minton, however, never let up and Brötzmann finished the last three or four minutes of the piece squawking and braying through his bare mouthpiece, while Minton mimicked every sound he made.
Minton sees improvisation as “a natural state” for all musicians. “But music education knocks the improvisation out of most people,” he told Marley, “and people nowadays can go on jazz courses to learn to be 1950s jazz musicians, which is sad and rather tragic.” In response to this state of affairs, Minton began offering a vocal workshop called Phil Minton’s Feral Choir. Minton’s publicity material defines “feral,” as “in a wild state after escape from captivity.” He describes the workshop as “not only for singers but for anyone who takes a delight in the freedom to experiment… the courage to take a vocal leap and enjoy expanding the borders of your own voice will equip you more than any formal training.” The workshop has been held in Stockholm, Sweden, Berlin, Germany, Cardiff (United Kingdom), Rotterdam, Netherlands, Munich, Germany and Tokyo, Japan where 80 voices took part.
Minton stayed active during the 1990s by working with his quartet, comprised of Veryan Weston, Robert Turner and John Butcher. In 1993 he contributed to Bob Ostertag’s electronic piece, Say No More, as well as taking part in Ostertag’s tour called Say No More In Person. In 1996 he released his first solo album, A Doughnut In One Hand. Now in his sixth decade of performing, Minton continues to push musical boundaries.
A Doughnut In One Hand, FMP CD 91, 1996.
Up, Umea Blue Tower BTCD 07, 1969.
(With Mike Westbrook Band) Solid Gold Cadillac, RCA SF 8311, 1972.
Goose Sauce, Original Records ORA 001, 1977.
Bright as Fire, Original Records ORA 003, 1980.
The Cortege, Original Records ORA 309/Enja 7087–22, 1982.
Off Abbey Road, Tip Toe 888805, 1989.
(With Fred Frith) A Doughnut In Both Hands, Rift3/, 1975, 1980.
(With Lol Coxhill) Couscous, Nato 157, 1983.
Vario, Moers Music 02048, 1983.
(With Roger Turner) Ammo, Leo LR 116, 1984.
Dada da, Leo CD LR 192, 1993.
On Duke’s Birthday, Hat Art 2012/6021, 1984.
The Berlin Station, FMP SAJ 57, 1984.
Vario, Moers Music 02048, 1985.
(With The Ferrals) Ruff, Leo LR 138, 1986.
Plan Eden, Creative Works CW 1008, 1986.
(With AMM) IRMA, Matchless MR16, 1988.
(With GrubenKlang Orchester) Songs and Variations, Hat Art CD 6028, 1988.
Flavours, Fragments, ITM Classics 950014, 1992.
(With Lindsay Cooper) Oh Moscow, Victo cd015, 1989.
Sahara Dust, Intakt CD 029, 1992.
Trio Raphiphi, ITM 1465, 1990.
Concert Works, Random Acoustics RA 003, 1991.
Songs From a Prison Diary, Leo CD LR 196, 1991.
State of Volgograd, FMP CD 57, 1991.
AngelicA 91, CAICAI 001, 1991.
Cactuscrackling, FOR 4 EARS CD 411, 1991.
GoTo, Sans Soleil, 1991/1995.
(With the Dedication Orchestra) Spirits Rejoice, Ogun OGCD101, 1992.
(With Veryan Weston) Ways, ITM 1420, 1992.
Ways Past, ITM 1468, 1992.
(With Christian Munthe) Muntmunt, Blue Tower CD04, 1993.
(Bob Ostertag) Say No More, RecDec 59, 1993.
Say No More In Person, Transit 444444, 1994.
Verbatim, Rastascan BRD 029, 1996.
AngelicA 1994, CAICAI 006, 1994.
(With Tony Oxley Celebration Orchestra) The Enchanted Messenger, Soul Note 121284, 1994.
AngelicA 1995, A1 007, 1995.
(With John Butcher and Erhard Hirt) Two Concerts, FMP OWN 90006, 1995.
(With Jon Rose) Techno mit Stoerungen, Plag Dich nicht 002, 1995.
(With Phil Minton Quartet) Mouthful of Destiny, Victo cd041, 1996.
(With Roof) The Untraceable Cigar, Red Note 04, 1996
Trace, Red Note 7, 1997.
(With Bob Ostertag) Improvisation, Resonance 51, 1996.
(With David Moss) Time Stories, Intakt CD 054, 1997.
Verbatim, Flesh and Blood, SeeLand 512/Rastascan BRD 035, 1998.
(With André Goudbeek Quartet) As It Happened, WIMprovijf CD 310399, 1998.
Boston Globe, January 29, 1999.
Coda, September/October 1996.
New York Press, November 17, 1998.
Additional information provided by Phil Minton.
—Gerald E. Brennan
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