Fred Frith: Mapping the Further Reaches

Nic Jones By

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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, Harry Partch, Lou Harrison, John Cage, Terry Riley, Steve Reich, Xenakis, Berio, Pauline Oliveros, Anthony Braxton, 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...

AAJ: Do you feel as engaged as you have at any other arbitrary point in your career with the mechanics of making music? As someone who it seems has consciously concerned himself specifically with the vocabulary of the guitar, to what extent is this still the case, if indeed it ever has been?

FF: I'm fascinated with acoustic guitar right now, after making To Sail To Sail (Tzadik, 2008). I feel as if I have a lot of work to do to understand it, to get to grips with the possibilities. But in the end the mechanics is always less interesting than what is being expressed.

AAJ: Would you say that modernism is still a sustainable proposition in the sense that music can perpetually be seen to be moving forward, as opposed to being merely a rehash of what's gone before?

FF: I resist binary comparisons whenever possible. We accumulate and accumulate—post-modernism didn't replace modernism, it coexists with it, presents another angle of attack. If you're alive and aware you need to be engaged with both and with everything else as well.

Selected Discography

Cosa Brava, Ragged Atlas (Intakt, 2010)

Fred Frith, Nowhere / Sideshow / Thin Air (Fred/ReR, 2009)

Fred Frith/Arte Quartett, The Big Picture (Intakt, 2009)

Fred Frith/Arte Quartett, Still Urban (Intakt, 2009)

Henry Cow, The 40th Anniversary Henry Cow Box Set (ReR Megacorp, 2009)

Fred Frith, The Happy End Problem (Fred/ReR, 2008)

Fred Frith, To Sail To Sail (Tzadik, 2008)

Fred Frith, Eleventh Hour (Winter and Winter, 2005)

Fred Frith, Clearing (Tzadik, 2001)

Fred Frith/Ensemble Modern, Traffic Continues (Winter and Winter, 2000)

Fred Frith Guitar Quartet, Ayaya Moses (Ambiances Magnétiques, 1997)

Massacre, Killing Time (Celluloid Records, 1981)

Fred Frith, Gravity (Ralph Records, 1980)

Henry Cow, Western Culture (Broadcast, 1979)

Art Bears, Hopes and Fears (Recommended Records, 1978)

Fred Frith, Guitar Solos (Caroline Records, 1974)

Henry Cow, Unrest (Virgin Records, 1974)

Photo credits

Page 1: Heike Liss, courtesy of Fred Frith

Pages 2, 3: Martin Morisette

Page 4: Frank Rubolino

Featured Story: Nick de Pencier
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