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Ground zero

Fred Frith's amazing explorations of texture, sound, and style lift off from the blue-collar world of rock.

By Derk Richardson

If you develop an ear for sounds that are musical ... you begin to refuse sounds that are not musical and that way cut yourself off from a good deal of experience.

John Cage

'I LIKE DIRT ," Fred Frith says. That admission cuts to the heart of what makes the British-born musician one of the most fascinating and versatile guitarists and composers of this era. The stolid Yorkshire native is talking about sound. He makes his living padding around the fringes of the classical music world, teaching music at Mills College, and composing new music for adventuresome ensembles, choreographers, and opera companies here and abroad. He performs as often as he can. But he's on a constant mission to muss things up. "Sometimes," he notes, "I need to ask classical players to be 'tasteless' to get close to what I'm looking for."

If the modern creative musician needs to be stylistically flexible and fluent in a variety of musical languages to flourish in a global culture increasingly cordoned off into categories and cul de sacs, then Frith's idiosyncratic manifestations of "tastelessness" might constitute a paradigm for survival and growth.

In the past three years, on the recording front alone, he has released more than a half dozen extremely different CDs, ranging from solo guitar (Clearing), a guitar-drums-electronics duo with longtime collaborator Chris Cutler (2 Gentlemen in Verona), and a live set with trio Massacre (Meltdown) and Jean-Pierre Drouet and Louis Sclavis (I Dream of You Jumping) to major compositions for Ensemble Modern (Traffic Continues) and Rova Saxophone Quartet (Freedom in Fragments) and the brand-new Maybe Monday release (Digital Wildlife) with koto player Miya Masaoka, saxophonist Larry Ochs, and guest cellist Joan Jeanrenaud. Other recent projects include a piece for string quartet and electric guitar; contributions to the soundtrack for Peter Mettler's epic film Gods, Gambling and LSD; "Setaccio," a collaboration with French juggler François Chat, to be premiered at the Théâtre du Chatelet in Paris in November; and the establishment of Fred Records, to bring out archival and previously unreleased material.

Complex identity

Frith arrived at this variegated artistic state by way of formal violin training as a child, singing in the choir at church, self-initiated piano studies, and a deep immersion in blues, folk, and rock as a teenage guitarist. Devout fans of British art rock of the late 1960 and '70s think of Frith as a godhead of the movement, thanks to his role as cofounder of the legendary cult bands Henry Cow and Art Bears. However, even when those bands were extending the boundaries of songwriting, cross-genre experimentation, tape manipulation, and improvisation in rock, Frith was challenging himself on new frontiers. In 1974 he recorded his seminal Guitar Solos. By the end of the decade he was in New York City, participating in the advent of the "downtown" scene.

All along the way, Frith has run up against conventional musical ears that can't quite wrap themselves around his musically dirty mind. "Being 'musical' comes with all kinds of problems," he says. Fifteen years ago, when a student group proposed inviting him to Oberlin College, the head of the music department suggested they go talk to the entertainment committee. Even today at Mills College, where Frith just signed on to teach for three more years, the school's administration would just as soon have heard that the music department had hired Dave Brubeck to teach composition and booked Philip Glass to perform in next year's concert season.

Finding himself marginalized or lumped in with one scene or another comes with the territory for Frith. Because his musical output has been so diverse, critics find it easier to identify him by whom he works with and writes for. It's an impressive list, including John Zorn, Bill Laswell, Dave Douglas, Henry Kaiser, Tom Cora, Ikue Mori, Richard Thompson, Zeena Parkins, Bob Ostertag, René Lussier, Rova, the Abel-Steinberg-Winant Trio, and the Arditti Quartet. But it doesn't exactly narrow the musical field, so observers must do it for themselves.

When Frith moved from England to New York in 1978, critics deemed him part of the "no wave" or "avant-noise" movement. Today in the Bay Area, where he has lived for the past three years after a long artistic residency in Germany, he is primarily perceived as an improvising guitarist who plays with the instrument on his lap or a table, coaxing strange sounds from it by dropping chains or rice on the strings or stroking them with a paintbrush, and processing the textures through electronics. This is indeed a crucial cog in the perpetual motion machine that is Fred Frith. Along with England's Keith Rowe (of seminal improvising group AMM), Germany's Hans Reichel, and Americans such as Kaiser, Eugene Chadbourne, and Davey Williams, Frith ranks as one of the major innovators of extended techniques and improvisation on the guitar. But he is limited to this identity locally, he believes, only because he has rarely been able to present the kinds of larger-scale compositions – as well as his Guitar Quartet and Tense Serenity and Que d'la Gueule ensembles – that more typically find financial support in Europe.

What's really amusing to Frith is being called a jazz player. He has never played jazz, per se, but believes writers have resorted to the tag because, in the hierarchical constructs that limit too much thinking about music, jazz ranks just above rock and roll, and certainly Frith's art must be too sophisticated for the latter plebeian category. But in many ways, rock is the key that opens the door to the continuities in 30 years of Frith's music. Granted, other than the two late '80s-early '90s albums recorded by the short-lived cult supergroup French-Frith-Kaiser-Thompson (with former Captain Beefheart Magic Band drummer John French and British folk-rock icon Richard Thompson) and certain churning Massacre moments, little in the post-'70s Frith catalog veers very close to recognizable rock and roll. Nonetheless, rock attitude and methodology inform even his most "sophisticated" avant-garde and "new music" compositions.

For one thing, in comparison with straight-ahead jazz and straight-laced classical music, rock is dirty. You might think of the Rolling Stones or Nirvana as prime examples. Frith singles out John McLaughlin's guitar tone on the 1969 Tony Williams Lifetime jazz-rock album Emergency!, which has an exhilaratingly nasty edge to it. After that recording, McLaughlin cleaned up his sound considerably, even in the fiery Mahavishnu Orchestra, and thus became less interesting to Frith. "Without Emergency! there would have been no Massacre," he says of the influentially noisy power trio he cofounded with bassist Laswell and drummer Fred Maher.

Playing around

Listening to Frith's recent recordings and compositions, dirt appears to be just one essential aspect of his broader concern – as a composer and a performer – with texture. His sonic palette can be lush and lyrical, as in the extended suite Freedom in Fragments he composed for Rova (just released on Zorn's Tzadik label); bright and bristly, as in many of the solo guitar pieces on last year's brilliant Clearing (Tzadik); or densely layered, cloudy, and thorny, as on Maybe Monday's Digital Wildlife (Winter and Winter).

Whichever form it takes, Frith's way with texture leaves a lasting impression on his collaborators. Jeanrenaud, who left Kronos Quartet in 1999 to pursue solo endeavors with more of an improvisational bent, played in the ensemble that performed some of Frith's compositions at Mills College earlier this year. She became the guest fourth member of Maybe Monday for the recording of Digital Wildlife and the band's upcoming concerts. "Fred's sensitivity to sound is so great," Jeanrenaud says. "It's remarkable how he uses his instrument in an unconventional way to produce sounds that aren't necessarily associated with a guitar and are really quite beautiful. And the sound environment is a really strong element in all his pieces."

San Francisco-based composer and electronic musician Bob Ostertag agrees. He has often played with Frith, who, like Ostertag, arrived in New York City in 1978. He points to Frith and Rowe as two seminal figures who explored "the idea of what we really have here is a stick of wood with strings that vibrate and are amplified; now what are we going to do with that?" More personally, Ostertag says Frith is one of the few musicians he's worked with who could keep finding fresh ideas over an extended period of collaboration. "Fred was the first guy I met about whom I thought, 'OK, I can play with this guy night in and night out and still discover something new,' " he recalls. Too many other improvisers, he says, tend to get caught up playing a continuous line or repetitive rhythm figures. "It's not so often you find somebody whose approach to their instrument has really taken them so far into a textural realm that they can lose that can kind of [linear and rhythmic] thinking entirely."

If the sounds and textures Frith engages as raw material are unusual, the methods he employs to organize them are equally unconventional. Again, rock is the relevant point of departure. In contrast to the rather dictatorial system of traditional classical music, played from the page under the baton of a conductor, and to jazz, in which players typically approach their projects with an agreed-on stylistic language and a heavy reliance on virtuosity, rock offers a context in which, according to Frith, "no one asks you to do something you can't do," and you can play from "your own contextual framework."

He likens his preferred style of working to that of a rock band. The musicians show up, set up their instruments, and start generating material. "Everybody contributes what they want, and you gradually build up a piece," Frith says. With some significant tweaks, that's the way he, Ochs, Masaoka, and Jeanrenaud put together Digital Wildlife. They gathered in Myles Boisen's Guerrilla Euphonics studio in Oakland and recorded a series of improvisations. As the ostensible composer, Frith applied certain restrictions and parameters on the jams. Perhaps the most radical was having Boisen process the sound as it was being played and send it to the musicians' headphones. The players, then, were not interacting directly with one another, but rather with what Boisen, the de facto fifth member of the ensemble, was feeding them. "Everybody was getting something different," Masaoka says. "One of us might hear heavy distortion and think someone was playing loudly, when in fact they were playing very quietly. Fred's notion of using the studio as a tool for composition is very intriguing. It opens up lots of possibilities and breaks down a lot of the predictability that might be there with a group of musicians who have played a lot together."

Frith's role as composer did not end there, however. He took the tape with him to Germany, studied the areas of sound that had been recorded, tabulated them on a grid, and then moved them around. Through meticulous editing, he composed the record after the fact, creating five pieces out of very thick air. "To hear what Fred did with the tapes is amazing," Jeanrenaud says, "because I remembered more or less what we'd done, and when he took all the material and edited it together, it was a totally new piece and really remarkable."


Rife with myriad textural layers and jarring dynamic contrasts, Digital Wildlife bears more aural parallels to the dub innovations of Lee "Scratch" Perry (admired by Frith as an authentic studio revolutionary) than to the supersubtle aiming-toward-imperceptible electronic manipulations of, say, Morton Subotnick. It presents a listening environment of tremendous depth and complexity, with sounds dancing from background to foreground and back again, sometimes swarming right up in your face, sometimes purring from the shadows. It often feels as if Frith has cut windows through gelatinous space, allowing us simultaneous access to a series of worlds that exist side by side in everyday life but that we typically experience only one at a time.

For Frith, the strategy of improvising to tape and then going back and messing with it is more than a quarter century old. It's exactly what he (on "stereo guitar," violin, xylophone, and piano), Cutler (drums), Tim Hodgkinson (organ, alto sax, clarinet, piano), Lindsay Cooper (bassoon, oboe, recorder, voice), and John Greaves (bass, piano, voice) did for side two of the 1974 Henry Cow LP Unrest, which Frith considers that band's best recording. Back then, when Henry Cow tilled musical territory in the general vicinity of the Mothers of Invention and Soft Machine, the results were somewhat more recognizable as songs. But in fact, Frith has remained fond of song (and dance) forms throughout his career. The new Rova recording provides ample evidence.

Freedom in Fragments is the second Frith piece commissioned by the venerable Bay Area saxophone quartet. It consists of 23 individual compositions of varying lengths that can be played in different orders at different times. One idea driving the piece is that discrete musical episodes achieve an overall narrative impact by a process of accumulation – a notion Frith cultivated after reading the works of Eduardo Galeano. Rova – Ochs, Bruce Ackley, Steve Adams, and Jon Raskin – recorded 13 of the musical short stories, ranging from 17 seconds to nine and a quarter minutes in length. As the work unfolds through such sections as "Freedom Is Your Friends/Some Assembly Required," "Void Where Prohibited/The Up and Up," "Batteries Not Included/Nostalgia," and "Water under the Bridge," it becomes more and more obvious that this is one of the most melodic and rhapsodic extended works in the Rova repertoire.

"The piece relies very heavily on lyricism," alto saxophonist Adams says. "There's a lot of really lush writing in it, which is not something I particularly associated with Fred before, and other than the piece Robin Holcomb wrote for us, not many composers have tried to get that quality out of us as a group." Adams's point zeroes in on another crucial aspect of Frith's musical modus operandi. He works in settings that force him to tap new creative resources, which he calls being "always in a dynamic relationship with discovery" – and he tries to involve those he works with and those he writes for in the same relationship.

Playing Freedom in Fragments, Adams found he needed to change the mouthpiece on his saxophone to get a more flexible tone. "I wasn't able to get enough to play the lyrical parts of this piece the way I wanted to," Adams says. "Particularly on the Jimmy Giuffre section ['Water under the Bridge,' dedicated to the great jazz reed player], I wasn't able to get the sound I felt that section needed, the sound I wanted to get myself. Learning to play this piece made me aware of things I wanted to do with the saxophone that I wasn't able to do before we got it. It was a signpost in my personal evolution."

Listening and learning

That, Jeanrenaud confirms, speaks to one of Frith's most laudable traits. He invites the musicians around him to find and bring forth new aspects of themselves. In a 1998 interview, when he was about to go into the studio with Ensemble Modern to record Traffic Continues, Frith said, "I don't want my musicians to be anonymous; I want them to share their dreams." For Jeanrenaud, who achieved international acclaim performing and recording reams of adventurous modern composition with Kronos, working with Frith has taken her beyond her previous limits and boosted her confidence. Her learning curve has sharpened dramatically. "Although I'd studied improvisation in the past with David Baker and Joe Henderson," she says, "I hear things a little differently now, which is kind of funny when you figure I played so much new music for so long. But I listen differently, and I really do think it's because I've had this chance to improvise with these people."

Maybe Monday, with Fred Frith, Miya Masaoka, Larry Ochs, and Joan Jeanrenaud, performs Sun/12, 8 p.m., Great American Music Hall, 859 O'Farrell, S.F. $15. (415) 885-0750, For Fred Frith news go to