Originally published by Glasstire.

May’s Cafe is the only business in Cornudas, TX, a city with a population under ten. When you pull up, there’s a sign that proudly announces that their Cornudas Burger is the best in town. It’s served on Texas toast and features a big slab of roasted green chile. Inside, a biker gang fills every table in the restaurant. After a while, they start to wander out the door and the out-of-towners stroll in, asking about a concert set to take place at 3 pm in the surrounding desert. Organized by Nameless Sound, a Houston non-profit dedicated to promoting improvised music, the concert boasts two luminaries of the free improv world: New York-based horn player Joe McPhee and British saxophone virtuoso John Butcher. To the right set of ears, the pairing is quite enticing. On a recent April afternoon, there were free improve aficionados at May’s who had made the trek from Albuquerque, Corpus Christi, Houston and even Canada to witness the event, which carried a ticket price of $75.

 A big part of the attraction is the venue — a mysterious structure situated in the desert near Cornudas and known only as The Hill. After working on oil rigs in West Texas in the late 70s, Jim Magee decided to pick up a couple thousand acres of land in the area, and start construction on the decades-long project that had now brought us all to May’s. Eventually we find ourselves in a Toyota RAV4, talking to Magee as he drives us along a dirt road leading to The Hill.

The complex of four stone buildings connected by a cruciform walkway is a formidable presence in the midst of the flat, dry landscape dotted with cacti and the occasional hardy shrub. The compound occupies well over an acre of land. Each building rests on crisply angled, altar-like platform constructed from the same rough stones that compose the structures’ walls. Massive floor-to-ceiling doors, seventeen-feet-high, open on either side of the buildings and onto the walkways. The open doors of the rectangular buildings frame the desert behind them in each of the cardinal directions.

Inside the structures, Magee has installed artworks that seem to have sprung from an apocalyptic spirituality. (Rumor has it some locals think that the work has satanic origins.) The artist is partial to both industrial and organic materials: steel, glass, and black motor oil play against birdseed, paprika, straw, and honey. At times the textures and emotionally fraught compositions recall Anselm Keifer at his most abstract, while other passages in the pieces wouldn’t feel out of place on the set of Blade Runner.

Although this may be his most ambitious concert placement yet, Dave Dove, director of Nameless Sound, has been presenting improvisatory performances in singular art spaces for years. In Houston, Nameless Sound has used the Rothko Chapel, Richmond Hall, and the Live Oak Quaker Friends Meetinghouse, buildings specifically designed for the artwork of Marc Rothko, Dan Flavin, and James Turrell respectively. Dove explains that improvised music is “in a unique position to address the space” in which the concerts take place. He goes so far as to describe the spaces as active participants in the performances, as each musician reacts to — and in turn activates — the acoustic and emotional properties of the site.

Needless to say, the aesthetic of The Hill is a departure from the minimal meditations on light found in most of the sites Nameless Sound has worked with in the past. In the first building we enter, a grid of rectangular surfaces coated with a layer of paprika and honey calls to mind a Martian landscape. Another larger work, a composition of metal squares, is perched on a stepped steel pyramid base rising three feet off the ground.

We cross the 187 feet between the stone walkway and the second building. (Only two of the four buildings were open for this event. The third takes at least four assistants to open and, according to the artist, the fourth won’t be completed for at least another twenty years.) In the second building, Magee has installed the Vaccinations, a series of small glass-fronted steel boxes with cryptic scrawls inside. A thick layer of black motor oil has been poured inside each of them. The Vaccinations are hung in a line on the three walls, enveloping another work, Jerusalem, which centers around a bundle of barbed wire-wrapped cloth in a tri-partite metal frame.

Magee leads us to this piece and informs us that he will read us the title. He grabs a small book from the other side of the room, and instructs us to look at Jerusalem as he stands behind us and recites the title, a poem that takes several minutes to read. He tells us that, dating back to his time living in a junkyard in upstate New York, his works have always had always had titles like this. The title is a sweeping, dreamlike work in its own right. It springs from a Protestant upbringing and reminds us that The Hill, though saturated with an industrial aesthetic, is deeply rooted in a Judeo-Christian spiritual tradition.

Soon, the musicians are ready to begin their performance. Joe McPhee joins half the audience in the second building (with Jerusalem), and John Butcher finds his way to the first. The doors facing out into the desert are closed in each space, while the doors opening onto the walkway between the spaces remain open. Each man takes up a saxophone and a tentative collaboration begins. We feel as if we are watching a solo performance with occasional, faint interjections from another musician two hundred feet away. Joe McPhee throws his fiery furnace blasts of sound up against the stone walls of The Hill and punctuates them with whispered squeaks and the clicking of the instrument’s keys. His playing highlights the emotional urgency of the artwork while subtly playing with the acoustics of the building.

After roughly twenty minutes, the musicians switch places and John Butcher brings us his more circumspect acoustic experiments. Butcher leaves more space between sound and eschews the fierceness that McPhee inherited from free jazz forefathers like Albert Ayler. The industrial precision of The Hill becomes more pronounced when the viewer is enveloped in Bucher’s sonic experiments, which at times can verge on clinical. While his playing may have more in common philosophically with Dan Flavin’s artwork, he has the ability to engage with the space and draw out aspects of Magee’s geometry that remained dormant under McPhee’s more human touch. Because of Butcher’s spacious playing, however, McPhee is able to cut through the air between them and enter John Butcher’s performance to a greater degree.

For the final portion of the concert, McPhee and Butcher take turns playing solos on the walkway between the spaces, under the beating desert sun. Through this process they inch closer to the final moment, a few minutes of playing which, we find out later, is the first time Joe McPhee and John Butcher have shared a stage. Though their improvisational styles contrast starkly, the intersection proves powerful: spaciousness paired with emotional complexity in an arid landscape.