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Fred Frith: Mapping the Further Reaches

Nic Jones By

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Multi-instrumentalist/composer Fred Frith occupies a unique niche. As a charter member of Henry Cowell, a band for which improvisation was always an integral part of musical expression, he was partly responsible for some of the most radical music ever to have emerged from beneath the rock umbrella.



So much so, in fact, that the discontinuities between that band's albums will always be more pronounced than their continuity. Any notion of music in a state of flux that this might imply has been indicative of Frith's work in the decades since that band split up. Now that he can be realistically considered as something of a musical polymath, Frith continues to push at the boundaries even while he maps out his own singular musical territory.

All About Jazz: Even if an opinion is informed entirely by the subjective evidence of music on record, it's still apparent that Henry Cow was working a seam of that must, perhaps inevitably, be called progressive rock quite unlike anyone else. To what—if any—degree was that uniqueness the product of conscious decision making, or was the process not conscious at all?

Fred Frith: It's never really that simple, is it? The balance between having a strong sense of direction while not really having a clue what you're doing has always been kind of central to where I live musically. I think we were simply getting on with the things that interested us at the time, touched by any kind of music that we found exciting and alive. We pretty much did anything we felt like doing, and incorporated ideas from any source that seemed fruitful or interesting, musical or otherwise.

AAJ: Nearly all of the band's music on record was, until relatively Recently, put out by Virgin Records. Did the company think they were going to make money on the band?

FF: The people Richard Branson asked to run the creative side of the label were an adventurous bunch, and I think they were hoping to bring music that they liked to a broader audience. When Tubular Bells [released by Mike Oldfield in 1973] took off, it must have seemed like they were onto something. We were lucky to be able to develop in the shadow of that success, because it ensured that the adventure continued, at least for a couple of years, until Richard started to understand that this wasn't going to actually make him any serious money. But they gave us their full support for three studio LPs, and with generous conditions—meaning that we could spend unlimited time in a state of the art recording studio, and really learn how the studio worked, and how we could work in the studio. The only thing I've ever experienced that was comparable was when I recorded my first film soundtrack for Peter Mettler in the studios of the National Film Board of Canada, and they gave us six whole weeks. That, and the first three Henry Cow records, represents the longest amount of time I've ever been given to work on single projects. In the Sunrise days, we would do a whole record from conception to mix in a maximum of two weeks. Now, I'm lucky if I get one.

AAJ: In common with a great many musicians it's apparent that you haven't just arrived at a musical reference point and stuck with it. As a multi-instrumentalist, that maxim might be said to be more pronounced but how did you arrive at your vocabulary on the guitar?

FF: I don't think I've arrived anywhere yet. I'm still traveling. I use whatever vocabulary is most suited to the conversation I'm having, and I'm certainly not interested in having the same conversation over and over again. Which means that the resources at my disposal are always (hopefully) continuing to develop and evolve, as the need arises. When you learn a language you can only become fluent by discovering who you are in that language. Music is the same for me. I have to learn who I am in whatever context I'm working.

AAJ: Precedents weren't exactly thick on the ground when you first started playing solo improvised guitar, and it's clear from the evidence on record that you had already worked out a vocabulary for that setting. Were you aware of such figures as Derek Bailey, Keith Rowe and Hans Reichel at that time, and if so, to what extent would you cite them as influences?

FF: I bought the first AMM record in 1969 and it had a big impact on me; made me listen differently. I saw Derek perform in 1971, and after Guitar Solos (Fred/ReR, 1974) came out, Hans introduced himself by sending me one of his records. Derek and Hans became good friends. Keith was more complicated because I never actually saw him perform anything except revolutionary songs until I played with him in the early '80s. My awareness of him was more political—he used to try and get Henry Cow to join the Workers Revolutionary Party, and I didn't feel very drawn to his music at that time. The person who really influenced me was none of the above, but Barre Phillips, whose first solo double-bass record set me on the path to becoming a serious improviser and also gave me a hint as to how I could approach the instrument in a "total" way.

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