Defining The Edge:

The Musical World Of Fred Frith

by Sander R. Wolff

The Long Beach Union Newspaper


Fred Frith is a man whose work is not easily classified. His career as an improviser is only surpassed by his career as an instrumentalist, except for his career as a composer, which may, at this point, have surpassed both.

His work with other groups and artists just adds to the confusion. He's a fixture in John Zorn's Naked City, which is a jazz/be bop/hardcore cut-up band. He's lent his distinctive guitar playing to The Residents, Brian Eno and The Violent Femmes, to name but a few. His own band, Keep The Dog, began as a retrospective group.

"The group is constantly evolving into things we don't expect," Frith said. "In one sense, it's a traditional group, in as much as it's like bass, guitar, drums and keyboards, but on top of that, with the accordion, which is very important in the group, we have a quaint, Cajun influence sometimes.

"We went through this business of me writing out all the parts for these old songs from Gravity and Speechless and we'd been performing that, but we don't do that any more. We're now concentrating on things I've written more recently, especially dance pieces I've written for Bebe Miller or old pieces I've written with Ferdinand Richard for a record of ours that just came out. We played some gigs in Switzerland a couple of weeks ago and it was the first time I really felt the group was really a band in the sense of something I could write for," Frith said.

Frith has recently released Step Across The Border, the soundtrack to the film of the same name. It's a collection of works that span 10 years, but also has pieces written for the C.D.

"It struck me as not very interesting just to take what was exactly in the film and stick it on a C.D. and put it out as a soundtrack. Apart from anything else, the function, when you listen with the image and when you listen without the image, is very, very different.

"One of the things I particularly enjoyed doing was taking raw sound from locations during the film, like the candy machine, and writing pieces of music to go with them, which is totally unnecessary within the context of the film, because they have their own logic. On the record, the effect that it has is to create a parallel narrative which tries to conjure up the feeling of what the film was like, but using musical resources. For me the C.D. has a very strong narrative quality. In the film, the candy machine is there, and you hear the noise it makes but the image was so strong that there was no need to do anything with it. On the record there was no point of sticking the sound of a machine on there, because it wouldn't mean very much," Frith continued.


Two of the pieces on S.A.T.B. are part of a larger guitar quartet, titled 'The As Usual Dance Toward The Other Flight To What Is Not.' Frith creates a special kind of melodic movement.

"Well, I like, very much, fragmentation. I think that one of the things that influences me most as a composer is to what extent I can deconstruct and reconstruct the material that I'm working with. And particularly now, I am working on compositions primarily for other people to play, I'm very interested in the way of writing where I write something first and then completely take it apart and scatter the parts among the different players and reconstruct it through the medium of the different players putting it back together again. I've recently written a saxophone quartet for The Rova's, and this guitar quartet, which was written for a group in Montreal."

He also wrote a sax quartet for Curlew's George Cartwright, 'Person to Person.'

"He played it alone. That's what inspired me to write for the Rova's, actually," said Frith.

Frith has been involved in many different projects. He's just completed writing the music for an opera which was commissioned by the French Government. I asked him what it's like.

"Well, pretty wild! It's the kind of project only the French government could dream up. They pay me to go and live in Marseilles for six months and they then pay fifteen 20 to 23 year old rock musicians to come and work with me 9 to 5 every day. The idea, at the end of this, is that they will have had a music course with me as their teacher, but also, I will have written an opera in conjunction with the theater company in Marseilles, with three trained singers and 8 actors and these young musicians.

"The director wrote the libretto and I wrote the music. It's already been performed. It's now playing in different cities in Europe over the next six months. I think people are kind of shocked by it. To give you an idea about it, the very first thing that happens in the whole piece is the curtain goes up, one of the lights that's hanging above the stage actually falls down and smashes on the stage and then the actors come in and start dismantling the set in kind of an hysterical frenzy. That's where it begins!"

On the last two albums with The Art Bears, Winter Songs and The World As It Is Today, he played all the instruments except drums, which were handled by long-time compatriot Chris Cutler. Dagmar Krause adeptly handled the complex vocal parts.

"The World As It Is Today was done incredibly quickly. Looking back on it, I find it extraordinary because I had just finished Speechless at that point. In fact, I had just spent 2weeks in France working with Etron Fru [LeLoublan], and then we'd gone to Switzerland and spent two weeks remixing everything. We spent a whole month working on this one album and it was just finished. We were scheduled to start World As It Is Today right afterwards in the same studio.

"So the day after we finished Speechless, Chris handed me the lyrics to W.A.I.I.T. and I went upstairs to the piano and two days later emerged with all the songs. And we then recorded them in a week, pretty much doing everything one at a time, over-dubbing everything. It went so fast, I don't even know what happened, really."

I asked him if he found it difficult to envision the music as a whole.

"If you write songs you have an idea how they're going to sound. Some things don't wind up sounding like you'd expect, which is just as well. The totality of a record is usually beyond ones ability to imagine when you start working on it, but the component parts are, usually, fairly clear one way or another. What they all add up to is something quite mysterious."

One of my personal favorites is Gravity, an album he released in '80. Finally out on C.D., and sporting several extra tracks, Gravity weaves beautiful melodic lines into complex rhythmic structures taken from different folk music cultures. I asked him if he wrote out all the parts.

"Well, it was quite funny actually, because that was the idea that I had. But I didn't realize, in the case of Zamla, that they didn't read music. So, when I arrived in Uppsala in Sweden with all my nice charts they kind of laughed at me and said 'Just play it to us!' So, I had to play it to them and they played it back by ear. That's their tradition.

"I was just stunned by their ability to hear the details, especially the rhythmic details, that I had written. Most musicians have a lot of difficulty going out of 4/4, for example, or 3/4, and since most of Gravity is written in things like 15/8,not be cause I wanted to be complicated but because that is actually.... All the time signatures we used on Gravity were taken from folk music cultures, where those kinds of time signatures are quite normal. It was, actually, quite interesting how quickly Zamla could pick those up by ear without any problem.

"To give you a counter-example, my first encounter with Bill Laswell was when I first came to New York in 1978. His group was rehearsing in a basement on the day I arrived from the airport. They were rehearsing a piece I had written from the Art Bears record and they had managed to translate all the 15/8's into 4/4, which was actually an achievement in itself, although not quite the same kind of achievement."

One of Frith's own achievements was Skeleton Crew, a band consisting of him and cellist Tom Cora. They managed, somehow, to play guitar, violin, cello, bass and drums at the same time. They blended elements of rock and improvisation. The group had been in tended as a quartet, but the other two players both suffered collapsed lungs within two weeks of each other.

"First, one went into hospital and the other one went into hospital, and shortly after one of them came out he had a second collapsed lung, and so there was a whole period of a couple of months when we couldn't actually rehearse because they were in hospital or recovering. At some point Tom and I looked at each other and made the frivolous suggestion that maybe we should just play the drums ourselves. It would be a lot quicker. From there we thought, 'Well, why the hell not?' So we did! After Zeena [Parkins] joined, we actually became quite competent, which was kind of a turn up for the books. We actually started to sound like a normal rock and roll band so it seemed kind of pointless to go on at that point."

Another part of Frith's big picture is his solo and duo improvised work. He has teamed up many artists from varied backgrounds. Sax player Lol Coxhill, ex-Henry Cow drummer Chris Cutler and guitarists Rene Lussier and Henry Kaiser are but a few. I wondered what it was, specifically, that Frith worked toward in his improvised work.

"I don't know if I'm striving for anything that I can put into words. Improvised music involves a lot of intuition and I like developing intuition. I like the speed of it. I like, very much, playing in duos, because it's a very refined form of communication. You have to be very, very much aware of what the other person is doing and not doing. It's like a form of play, in a way. It's got a lot of play elements. It involves a high degree of alertness. You are, very much, seeing what happens, so on the one hand, you're in control and on the other, you're not.

"You could say that everything the musicians have learned and known over the years, all of their technical resources, are in a dialogue with the things they are discovering every time, as if it was the first time. So there's a tension between this kind of knowledge and this kind of discovery that's going on in the performance, and this can lead in any direction.

"For example, Chris [Cutler] and I play in a lot of different contexts. We play melodic music, we play songs, we play all kinds of things and when you improvise you don't just shut out different languages, you use all the languages that you have. Not necessarily in one concert, but they're all there to be used if you want to use them. There's an awful lot of resources that can be drawn upon in an improvised music concert."

Fred Frith will be giving a solo performance this Thursday at Beyond Baroque, in Venice. The film Step Across The Border is showing at The Newart Theater in Santa Monica this Friday and Saturday at 9 p.m. and 2 p.m. respectively. See you there.


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