Succinctly summing up the 40-year-plus career of multi-instrumentalist-composer-improviser Fred Frith is nearly impossible. Since emerging in 1968 as a co-founder of the British progressive rock band Henry Cow, Frith has appeared on more than 400 recordings spanning idioms from chamber music to noise rock. It's his association with New York's “downtown” avant garde scene of the late 1970s and '80s, and his improvisational collaborations with John Zorn and Naked City, Henry Kaiser, Zeena Parkins, and Bill Laswell and Fred Maher in the experimental rock trio Massacre, that cemented his reputation as one of the music world's best improvisational guitarists. Today, Frith is as prolific as ever and is a professor of composition at Mills College in Oakland, CA.
Like other guitarists Frith likely probably goes to the gear shops but he’s likely to stop off at the hardware store en route, check out the paint brushes, scopes out the ball bearings, and make sure he’s stocked up on sturdy string and metal chains. Good chance he scrounged through the recycling bin before he left the house. With his guitar laying in his lap he drums the strings with brushes. He places a tin can on the fretboard and pours in small spheres. He pulls up a string and uses a bow. What Fred Frith applies to guitar strings isn’t just part of the performance, it’s the point.
Mike: Is there are genre of writing with less use for readers than live reviews? "Band X played heaps of the new album (to move product), tossed in a few rare nuggets (to appease the old fans), and closed with a cover (to wink knowingly at the audience or perhaps establish a bit of authenticity). Oh, and the rhythm section was tight." Under most circumstances, I'm skeptical. Fred Frith is a different matter.
Brett: Exactly. In trying to describe this Frith performance, I think it's necessary to talk about the space, the neighborhood, the sound environment — they all played a role. To dissect only the music coming from Frith's guitar misses the emotional impact of the performance.
Mike: First, the space. The Stone. Avenue C and 2nd Street. No tickets. No drinks. No food. Little ventilation.
Brett: Lately, there is a lot of nostalgia, or romanticizing, of what David Byrne calls "old weird New York." The Stone is John Zorn's space, which he opened after Tonic shut down in 2007, and it feels like as close as a newcomer to the city like me will ever get to a time when you would see someone like Philip Glass or Steve Reich in a small loft. I can't imagine this Frith performance taking place anywhere else, which is the beauty of improvised music — it will always belong to a particular moment.
Mike: I like that phrase — old weird New York — though I know that I never would have found myself on Avenue C in those old, weird days. When I got out of the cab last Saturday night I came upon a line of people. My first thought: they're lined up to score dope. Then I realized this is Bloomberg's New York, not Jim Carroll's. The street was well-lit and clean. Everyone in line was 45+, dressed well, thinning on the dome. Good thing they were in line, too. Otherwise I would have had trouble finding The Stone. The all-black door with microscopic sign is great for camouflage, a little tricky for new comers.
Brett: The Stone is all about the music. When Frith got on stage there was enthusiastic applause, then complete silence as he got he got ready to play. Total reverence. The way Frith started the piece — with a churning, quiet drone — it was almost like a draft coming in from an opened door, something you don't notice immediately. Right as he started to ramp the volume up a bit, he was greeted by sirens from outside. He was really playing the room, or using the room as a collaborator. Sitting in the back, I couldn't really see him; I had to imagine what he was doing, what treatment he was using to get certain sounds. I think that added to the mystique. I mainly just stared at one of the light bulbs near the stage or closed my eyes.
Mike: And this is one of the main reasons I wanted to work on a review together. I knew you couldn't see him whereas I was able to stand in the aisle and see everything. I was so mesmerized by watching him that sometimes I lost track of what I was hearing. I thought a tag team review might help me decode the experience.
Brett: I could hear him rustling through what sounded like a box of tools and he definitely made use of effects some pedals, maybe a digital delay. The most melodic section of the piece was him playing strings like a hammered dulcimer with sticks or mallets. At one point, he also did a bit of choppy strumming. How much of this performance do you think is prepared in advance in terms of structure? You know, "this is the part where I pour a dish of ball bearings on my guitar" or is this all in the moment, instinctual?
Mike: Playing a pure hunch: I think a general framework is set, such as take off and landing points, the rest is what my students love to do: make it up on the spot. At first I thought there was a pattern: play for a bit, loop the best part; then loop another part; then with both playing get the paint brushes and treat guitar like delicate drum kit.
Brett: We were lucky enough to see Ornette Coleman a few months back, when he guested at Sonny Rollins' 80th Birthday gig. It is interesting to me to watch him do his thing in the framework of a structured tune which can barely contain him — the other musicians were as curious as the audience as to where he was going to take the solo. Even if he goes completely off the reservation, there is a rhythm and a key to fall back in to and, generally, you know where it will end up. With a guy like Frith in a solo environment, he's totally without a net, which is thrilling in a different way. In that sense, it's like airplane travel through cloud cover: you know the ground is there, but it is not visible. The fear of heights is only triggered when you can see the ground.
Photo of Frith's set up from a 2009 Seattle performance, by ioate
Mike: Another great analogy. So how much of the time were you trying to guess how he was making the sounds?
Brett: Most of the time! But, I love being surprised or confused by a performance. These days, the element of surprise is mostly lost from art; by the time I see a film or go to a concert, I have a pretty good idea what the content will be. It's been blogged, Twittered, Facebooked, and so on. Did this performance square with what you'd heard previously, or since, from Frith?
Mike: Conceptually, yes, sonically, no. I have two albums — one, a pretty good acoustic record with Henry Kaiser, the other, Speechless, an album of full-band instrumentals, really odd, yet really melodic. His set at the Stone was like neither record, which I saw coming. That said, like you, I had no idea how it would differ from those records. My favorite part was when he took a piece of kite string, looped it beneath one of the guitar strings, pulled said string an inch or so off the fretboard and then grabbed a bow. When I hear "bow on electric guitar" I picture Jimmy Page and reach for the antacid, but in Fred Frith's hands it was wonderful.
Brett: That must have been the passage when I was daydreaming about a mythological Hermit. When I was roused awake, the performance was over. Frith came back out for wave, then it was lights up. As we filed out, he was at the door, sending us off as if we had just been at his flat for a dinner party.
Mike: Yeah, that "thanks for coming" send off was the perfect touch. We joked about the likelihood of Thurston Moore doing the same thing but that aspect of Fred Frith adds to the appeal: for all of his avant garde, beyond-the-fringe approach to guitar there was no pretense in his set/song. One of my old bandmates used to say that every song was a battle with his guitar. With Frith it was more like a playful game or dance: "what else can I do with this sucker?"
Fred Frith: Excerpt from Step Across the Border (fast forward to 1:55 for a shopping trip)