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Fred Frith: Mapping the Further Reaches

By Published: May 3, 2010
AAJ: In common with later bands from the pre-punk and punk eras— This Heat and The Slits, for example—it could be argued that Henry Cow was political in its very being; a creative collective, to be sure. To what extent was there continuity between the band's musical and social outlook, and did one flow inevitably from the other?

Fred Frith / Cosa Brava Cosa Brava, from left: Carla Kihlstedt, Fred Frith, Matthias Bossi, Zeena Parkins

FF: It was all pretty much permanently intertwined and in a constant state of flux. We argued constantly and about everything—musical, social, political...gastronomic! Sometimes the arguments were friendly and constructive and sometimes they were neurotic and personal, and sometimes rather desperate. I've no idea how we were able to sustain our energy for so long, except that we were almost psychotically creative. Seeing the DVD from Switzerland that we released as part of the box set was a revelation to me—I remember it as a very dark period in our life, tense and nerve-wracking—and yet the energy fairly crackles off the screen, and we're unbelievably tight. It was reassuring. In the end, all you can say is that we couldn't really have done it any other way than creative collectivity, musical and political engagement of the broadest kind, and a large helping of love and respect when the wind was blowing in the right direction.

AAJ: Georgie Born [bassist with Henry Cow in the band's latter days] has gone on record identifying the mid-1970s as "a darkly fecund era in the soul of British culture." Although it's pretty apparent what has happened politically in the intervening years, can you think of some present day examples of collective action in musicmaking you can empathize with in that regard?

FF: Well, AACM is still going strong, and I have the deepest admiration for Muhal Richard Abrams
Muhal Richard Abrams
Muhal Richard Abrams
and the movement he started, for example. Actually, I see communities of like-minded musicians and sound artists springing up all over the place, and it's not so much about "bands" as about united fronts...

AAJ: One of the things that is now a hallmark of your work is your willingness to diversify and not simply to straddle the divide between composition and improvisation. Has this resulted in you considering music more as a whole or in having an appreciation for labels or compartmentalizing?

FF: Labels are useful up to a point. They give a general idea about certain kinds of commonalities, but I suspect that they're often more an identifier of the people who are on the receiving end than the ones who are busy doing it. When I hear the words "progressive rock" I think first of the people who identify themselves as "progressive rock" fans. I've always done a lot of different things and all my musical activities tend to inform each other in various ways. Sometimes I'm more involved in one kind of activity, sometimes in another. And sure, it makes up a "whole" when considered as an accumulation of things that I do and have done. But music is an impossibly rich and diverse field, constantly mutating and developing and changing. Even if you come up with a useful label it will already have spawned sub-categories by tomorrow. You can't be hip any more by knowing the latest thing because it's already over.

AAJ: Has working with a rock band [Cosa Brava], decades after the Henry Cow split, provoked the remembrance of things past or does it mark another step on the way? Perhaps it's a mixture of both?

FF: Everything I do is as likely as not to invoke remembrance of things past. How could it not? All music is about memory. And don't forget that I have been involved in a lot of bands since Henry Cow: Aksak Maboul [1979], Art Bears [1979-81], Skeleton Crew [1982-86], Keep the Dog [1989-92], The FF Guitar Quartet [1996-99], Tense Serenity [1996-97], Massacre [1980-82 and 1998-present]. Cosa Brava is part of a continuum that exists long past Henry Cow days. It's actually a very different kind of experience. All the musicians in Cosa Brava read music fluently, as well as having a rock attitude to putting together songs, and it's that particular combination that makes what we do possible, the idea of composing parts in the way I would for a classical ensemble, knowing that they can be performed at a very high level, while simultaneously containing the seeds of their own deconstruction. That approach began with the Guitar Quartet—well, it began with Henry Cow really—but in a way we were positing the electric guitar as a classical ensemble and now, of course, there are lots of electric guitar ensembles, so it obviously worked. Cosa Brava is not referential in the same way. For me the central focus of the group is melodic and narrative.

AAJ: How does solo improvisation compare with working in a group? Presumably there can be continuity between the two despite the very different demands of setting.

FF: I view them very differently, on the level of theater as much as anything. Being alone in front of an audience is a very different kind of experience for both parties. And your relationship with the material is different. There is nobody to have a musical conversation with, so obviously it changes your attitude to vocabulary, to take up where we left off before...

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