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Interviews

Fred Frith: Mapping the Further Reaches

By Published: May 3, 2010
AAJ: Amongst other things in the course of your musical life you've been given the opportunity to compose for the Rova Saxophone Quartet and Ensemble Modern. In the same way as with your work as a solo improviser and with groups, is it easy to reconcile the specific discipline of composition with the different preoccupations and discipline of the improviser?

Art Bears Songbook Art Bears Songbook, from left: Zeena Parkins (hidden), Julia Eisenberg Kristin Slipp, Chris Cutler, Fred Frith, Carla Kihlstedt

FF: It was very fortunate for me that I began to write for others with ROVA, because I knew them pretty well already, and they are all stellar improvisers, so there wasn't anything to reconcile—they already had a very good understanding of the territory in both cases and indeed were precisely interested in the points where the two disciplines intersect. I've written some of my best work for them because of that fact.

Ensemble Modern was a different story. They had and still have very little collective experience of improvisation and are, for the most part, rather suspicious of it—even if there were and are some very good individual improvisers in the group; the late Wolfgang Stryi being, of course, one of them, and I miss him. My approach to writing for them was quite different, balanced between what I wanted to learn from them as a composer and what they wanted to learn from me as an improviser. It finally was very successful—our recording won awards—but it wasn't an easy process, and I probably ended up getting more out of it than they did. I've been able to apply what I learned to other composing projects with other classical ensembles but somehow I don't think they've done much improvising since Traffic Continues (Winter and Winter, 2000). Whatever the truth of the matter, it was a wonderful opportunity for me to enter into a world I didn't have much direct experience of. They're fantastic musicians, and were very welcoming, which I've always appreciated.

In the end it's all about people—I like to work with people, not instruments, which means that the most important thing is to develop deep working relationships with musicians you trust, and who trust you, without either of you necessarily knowing where you're going. And the same is true whether the music is improvised or composed, or however else you want to describe it. I feel it when I'm working with Cosa Brava, and also with Arditti Quartet, and it's what makes life exciting and fulfilling.

AAJ: Given that you hold down an academic post (professor of composition at Mills College in Oakland, Calif.), would it be true to say that you've found all the musical contexts you've worked in to be equally stimulating and do you hope that things will stay that way in the future?

FF: Not equally stimulating—that would be a tall order—but if I'm learning something then it's all good, in the end, right? I love teaching at Mills, partly because of its history of support for and investment in experimental approaches—the fact that Henry Cowell
Henry Cowell
Henry Cowell
1897 - 1965
composer/conductor
, Harry Partch
Harry Partch
1901 - 1974
composer/conductor
, Lou Harrison, John Cage
John Cage
John Cage
1912 - 1992
composer/conductor
, Terry Riley
Terry Riley
Terry Riley
b.1935
, Steve Reich
Steve Reich
Steve Reich
b.1936
composer/conductor
, Xenakis, Berio, Pauline Oliveros, Anthony Braxton
Anthony Braxton
Anthony Braxton
b.1945
reeds
, Alvin Curran and so many others have passed through here tells its own story—but mostly because of the students who come here, who tend to be the kinds of musicians and sound artists who don't quite fit anywhere else, and who come from all over the world to be here. That makes for a stimulating community to say the least.

AAJ: Has your association with Mills College been a happy and fruitful one?

FF: My colleagues and I are stretched pretty thin sometimes but it's been a very good 10 years, and I consider myself lucky and privileged to be here, to hear so much great work, and to get a glimpse of what the future of music will look like. So, yes, absolutely.

AAJ: It could be argued that, as a band, Henry Cow was fortunate in getting Dagmar Krause as a singer. How important is it for you that a musician or singer has a distinct identity? If indeed it is important can you give some examples of people whose work you admire in this regard outside of those you've already recorded with?

FF: I don't know of any musician who doesn't have a distinct identity though they may not always be in touch with it.

AAJ: Given that you play a variety of instruments, to what extent are you aware of their different characters and sonorities and to what extent does such knowledge inform how you utilize them?

FF: Very aware, and it informs my use of them profoundly.

AAJ: With particular reference to your work as an improviser, how important is the passing moment to you? Is it important that, to use the Beckett maxim, you leave a stain upon the silence?

FF: Improvising is impossible without being constantly in the moment. Beckett also said "Some soft thing softly stirring soon to stir no more," which is kind of a similar idea...


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