When he first emerged on the British scene in the seminal Canterbury group Henry Cow over thirty years ago, few could have envisaged that guitarist/multi-instrumentalist/composer Fred Frith would go on to a career marked by fearless pursuit, continuous parallel growth, and stylistic diversity. But if you go back to those early albumsin particular Unrest and In Praise of Learningyou can see that Frith's multitude of concerns were laid out from the beginning; he just got better at isolating them into projects with more specific emphasis as time passed.
While Henry Cow could be jagged and extreme, it could also be subtle and chamber-like. And it's the latter disposition that's at play on Frith's latest release, Eleventh Hour, a two-disc set that brings together four pieces that root themselves in the string quartet or triooften augmented with electric guitar or tromboneand one piece for multi-layered guitars. It's compelling stuff, the kind of material that will appeal to fans of more adventurous works by string ensembles like Kronos Quartet. Kronos may, in fact, be the group that most people think of first when it comes to contemporary string quartetsit's certainly the most commercially successful, having fashioned an almost rock 'n roll personabut when it comes to breadth of technique and interpretation, Arditti String Quartet is at least equal, if not greater, in stature. And so Frith's choice of Arditti to interpret his works for string ensemble is an inspired one.
Disc one begins with the oldest composition of the programme, '90's "Lelekovice, a nine-part suite that places a variety of demands on the quartet. From short movements with lyrical themes to sharply-contrasted intensities and almost ambient-textured passages where glissandi create delicate tension, this is the most approachable work represented. "Tense Serenity, a five-part suite, explores the seemingly paradoxical combination of string trio and trombone. Trombonist Uwe Dierksen, like French trombonist Yves Robert, explores the more brash temperament of the instrument as well as a softer, more sensuous side. That Dierksen has been involved with experimental German abstract composer Heiner Goebbels is no surprise, and it's a good bet that Frith chose him for "Tense Serenity on the basis of that work.
While both of disc two's pieces for string quartet and electric guitarthe three-part "Allegory and the single-movement "Fell might suggest an odd juxtaposition of acoustic and electric sonorities, Frith's contributions are, for the most part, surprisingly subtle, blending in remarkably well with Arditti, although his tone is more angular and dominant on "Fell. "Stick Figures finds Frith and guitarist William Winant layering prepared guitar sounds over a base of fluttering low strings and a jaggedly repeated minor chorda more intrusive alternative, perhaps, to ambient music.
Eleventh Hour documents Frith's continued growth as a composer in the new music arena, and for all its juxtaposition of light and dark, it remains totally compelling and strangely beautiful.
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Personnel: Arditti String Quartet: Irvine Arditti (violin); Graeme Jennings (violin); Ralf Ehlers (viola); Rohan de Saram (violoncello)
Uwe Dierksen (trombone); William Winant (electric guitars); Fred Frith (electric guitars)