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Fred Frith is a giant of the avant-garde. Among experimental guitarists, perhaps only Derek Bailey, Henry Kaiser, and Sonny Sharrock can be considered his peers. He has an impeccable resumé in progressive rock, having started Henry Cow while still a teenager in 1968 and cofounded spin-off band Art Bears in ’78—both also featured drummer Chris Cutler, godfather of the late-70s Rock in Opposition movement. Other groups in which he’s played include Massacre (alongside bassist Bill Laswell), Skeleton Crew (with cellist Tom Cora and harpist Zeena Parkins), Naked City (led by saxophonist John Zorn), and the relatively new Cosa Brava (with Parkins, violinist Carla Kihlstedt, percussionist Matthias Bossi, and sound artist the Norman Conquest). His vast discography includes complex compositions, simple songs, pure free improvisations, and lots of music for dance, film, and theater; among his myriad collaborators are fellow iconoclasts as diverse as Brian Eno, the ROVA saxophone quartet, Eugene Chadbourne, and Christian Marclay.
A track from Fred Frith’s first album under his own name, 1974’s Guitar Solos, which came out when he was still a member of Henry Cow
Now 65 years old, Frith was born in the UK and first moved to the States in 1979; since the late 90s he’s been teaching at Mills College in Oakland. His concert Monday at Constellation—his first in Chicago in almost 16 years—will be a solo improvisation on electric guitar. As an improviser, Frith combines strong melodic instincts with blank-slate playfulness: during his previous local performance, a 1998 trio set with Larry Ochs of ROVA and koto virtuoso Miya Masaoka, he laid his electric guitar across his lap, balanced a small metal bowl on the strings, and carefully dribbled grains of uncooked rice into it.
Interviewing Frith for this week’s Artist on Artist is Chicago experimental filmmaker and electronic musician Lori Felker, who teaches at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Like Frith, she has little use for genre—in 2011 she released a seven-inch recording of a “16-millimeter audio performance” called Light Makes Music—and as their conversation makes clear, she’s a big fan. —Philip Montoro
Henry Cow live (1976)
Lori Felker: You’ve talked before about being attracted to accidents while you’re performing, and the idea of accidents being like a beginning for something new—you like the idea of things being liable to fall apart. I actually work on similar themes, and I really love mistakes—but there’s something about the word “accidents” and the phrase “falling apart” where there’s more potential for confusion or loss or embarrassment in that moment. I’m wondering why you think you’re so attracted to that.
Fred Frith: I’m interested that you use the word “mistake,” because of course that’s a very charged word, and it’s only a mistake if you decide that it is. And so as a performer, especially—I mean, it’s a little different if you’re making something on your own time behind the scenes—when something happens that you don’t expect or that you didn’t intend, the way that you frame that in the moment it happens is critical also to the way that the listener is perceiving it. So if you decide that it’s a mistake, the audience will hear it as a mistake, which will interrupt the flow of their concentration. If you treat it as an interesting, unexpected opportunity, then the listener will experience it that way too.
Because the thing about improvisation, which is for me attractive more than anything else, is the fact that you, the listener, and I, the performer (or vice versa), are experiencing the material and its potential at the same time. None of us knows what’s going to happen. So part of the enjoyment of being at a concert like that is seeing how people get out of shit. [Laughter.]
I’ve only seen you perform once, and it was in 1999 in Vienna. You happened to be doing a show when I was there for three weeks, so I went with my partner to see you. But I’m not as familiar with you performing live as I am with your recordings, so I’m curious: With all the different improvisations that you do, do any of those surprises actually ever make you laugh? Do they ever excite you into some sort of emotional state—noticeable disappointment or noticeable joy? Does it make you giggle or respond ever? Or do you keep a good poker face?
I respond, absolutely. I mean, I’m responding all the time, as any improviser is. Every moment is an unfolding, so you’re responding every second. I don’t burst into tears onstage as a rule. [Laughter.] I occasionally laugh if it’s really outrageous or if I’m performing with Shelley Hirsch, because she always has a way to make me laugh, whatever we’re doing.
How does she make you laugh?
Well, she’s a singer, so she uses text, and she also is kind of panstylistic—she’s so sensitive to the nuances of what I’m doing that if I even suggest something that sounds like something she already knows, she will immediately go there. So we might be improvising, and she’s suddenly singing a 1950s pop song or sounding like a train or I don’t know what. So it always makes me laugh, just the speed with which she can figure out things.
I don’t think I even answered your first question, really. I think I was just being very long-winded in getting around to it.
Oh! Would you like to go back to that?
What was the first question? It was about accidents.
And what’s so exciting about that moment.
I think the thing I was hearing, in what you were saying about your own work, has also to do with the business of finishing things. And I think I resist very much the idea of a finished work, even as a composer. I don’t like things that sound like they’ve been completely shaped. Because I think that takes away from the intimacy of the performing or listening or perceiving moments. So I like things that allow something to happen in the moment of realization, not just in the moment of putting it together. Even in film.
I’ve been working a lot with this filmmaker, Peter Mettler, and we improvise together. He’s developed some software that allows him to manipulate a “score” of different images, so he can constantly improvise with images from a database and create movies instantly. I’m kind of trying to do the same thing. Of course, visual things being more immediate and powerful in our psyches, the tendency is to always think of the music as an accompaniment. So trying to create a situation where he has to improvise to me—and that could be clear to the people who are watching—has been the most challenging and difficult. Because otherwise, whatever happens, I’m “the movie music.” [Laughter.]
That sounds really exciting.
Yeah, it’s fun.
How often do you perform with him?
We’ve been doing it a couple times a year for the last few years, and we actually spent time in an artists’ residency in Switzerland, spending several days just practicing things. I feel like we’re developing a pretty interesting language at this point.
I’m a big fan of soundtracks in general. I collect them. I’ll hear a score or soundtrack that I like, and I like the fact that it comes with these latent images, so every time I put the record back on I get to reimagine the movie or the images. Then I can even think about how if someone else was listening to that soundtrack, this other person far, far away would potentially be thinking of the same images that I am.
Well, it’s interesting. I teach a film-music class at Mills, and one of the things I do at the beginning of the year is just play some film music and ask the students to tell me what’s happening—not knowing what the film is and not having seen anything. Of course, in certain genres, it’s not that complicated. With westerns it’s pretty easy to figure it out. But I’ve done things like play music of mine for a movie that was actually not used and have them listen to it. The amount of very precise information that is embedded in soundtracks is quite startling. People will say, “Oh, there’s a train here and there’s water, and it’s probably in central Europe.” I mean, how does one know that from listening to music? There’s no accordions, there’s no pan pipes, there’s no obvious signifiers. But somehow there are things in the music which tell you something.
Film and music have become completely intertwined, because film is the thing that we all have in common and the development of music recording has really been completely influenced by the way films are done. In a way, creating a sound world around a song when you create a song in the studio—you’re telling a story in a very cinematic way. So pop music in particular since the 60s has been all about a certain kind of cinematic quality in the way stuff is produced.
Yeah—even the pop song having a sort of narrative arc in it, with an exposition and a climax and then a resolution, often. That’s just a human shape that pop songs and films both mimic. And then within that, you can understand the rise and fall of drama, and start answering more specific questions based on color and stuff.
I can probably talk about soundtracks forever, but I skipped over a question also related to improv. I have a lot of friends who do improv comedy, and frequently—especially in the group form, the Harold form—the audience will shout out a word in the beginning of the performance, like “milk shake,” and then they perform about milk shakes for 45 minutes. I’ve never heard a musician say that they do this, but I’m curious if that’s ever relevant to the way that you improvise. If you ever think, “I’m gonna meditate on baby pigs while I’m improvising,” or meditate on—
Don’t say that to me! I’ll be stuck with that for the rest of the—
Don’t think about baby pigs!
Oh man! What are you doing to me? [Laughter.]
Is it ever that specific? But of course unknown to the audience.
I would say that’s very unlikely. Way back, 30 years ago, I saw dance performances where the audience was encouraged to throw out a word, and the dancer would then dance to it. And I saw some really fabulous performances, actually. I remember particularly one that stayed with me—somebody shouted “Statue of Liberty!” And the whole performance was about how Liberty was never actually allowed to come into the United States but was stuck offshore, with the dancers eventually becoming statues and unable to move.
“As a performer, when something happens that you didn’t intend, if you decide that it’s a mistake, the audience will hear it as a mistake.”—Fred Frith
If you did it to me, I would definitely—something would happen. Something’s happening anyway. You don’t need the word. You’re responding on some visceral level to—I mean, I respond to things that happen in the audience. I respond to things that happen when other musicians throw me something I didn’t expect, or even if they throw me something I did expect—then I throw something back that they wouldn’t expect. It’s very playful in a certain way. Stand-up comedy can be playful in that sense: they’re riffing on something, and you don’t know where they’re going with it and neither do they.
That’s what I was talking about earlier, about how exciting it is, because you want to see how they’re going to make it. How are they going to get to this? What’s the punch line going to be?
Absolutely. Another thing I’m curious about—you play the guitar mostly, but you play a lot of instruments. And I know that when you’re playing with the guitar, improvising with the guitar, you often have a lot of bits and pieces around—chains and cups and drumsticks and such. Is there anything in particular, in the tangible, in the tactile, that excites you? Do you particularly like to work with X, Y, or Z because you like the way it feels? How involved is the excitement of your hands in the playing?
That’s a huge part of it. When you’re learning how to play an instrument, and certainly when you’re learning how to improvise, you have to find the gesture that corresponds to the sound that you’re trying to get. And of course, classical music takes that to a very extreme set of . . . restrictions, in a way, but also possibilities. But the way that classical musicians can create sound is so refined and so beautiful, and it’s so much determined by how their hand approaches the instrument or how their lips approach the instrument or anything else. It’s a very deep relationship. And the relationship that I have as an improviser with my instruments is no less deep, although it’s perhaps not so interested in that kind of refinement.
Lately I’ve been playing a lot of piano, because I teach in the music academy in Basel in Switzerland in the springtime, and it would involve schlepping my guitar on a tram. And I’m kind of lazy, and there’s always a piano in every room! So rather than schlepping the guitar, when I’m working with students, I very often play the piano. And I’ve been rediscovering the kind of love that I had for touching the piano when I was a kid—my dad had a grand piano at home, so I was always in, out, and under and over that thing when I was about four.
I was actually talking with someone this morning who wanted to talk about working with preschool kids. The thing is, when you’re exploring at that age, your curiosity and your absolute delight are so strong. And I think that when Richard Long the land artist says that the difference between artists and everybody else is that artists are still in touch with the person they were when they were a kid, I think that’s what he’s talking about. It’s a sense of curiosity-slash-delight—and this is also to do with touch and smell and hearing and seeing, all bound up together.
Yeah, focus on detail. You could give a little kid a cardboard box and he could play with it for hours, because a cardboard box is actually quite fascinating. It certainly is! [Laughter.] Sometimes, when I’m working with classical musicians during a workshop and I ask them to play an improvisation, a lot of the time they play something that it’s pretty clear they already know—so they’re not really improvising. They’re improvising on a fairly reduced level, but also showing me their technique or all of that. When that happens, I’ll say, “Just imagine you’ve never seen the instrument before and you have no idea what it’s for. Now play a solo.” If they can overcome their inhibition about that, it’s pretty clear to everybody present that the solo they do in that state is a great deal more interesting. And a great deal more musical! And that’s kind of the beginning of a conversation at that point. “I’ve got all this technique, yet that was so much more exciting to listen to.”
Is there an instrument that you feel baffles or eludes you, something you’ve tried that you don’t feel comfortable with?
Or that you don’t even like. I remember in high school, I was in the band, and I know that I was more of a brass person—anytime I picked up the clarinet, I was like, “Ugh. No.” [Laughter.] It just didn’t match my body type. There’s something about it—maybe it’s the reed.
I’ve produced sound on brass instruments and wind instruments, and they’re obviously not ever going to be something that I will play. But I’m not afraid of them; I recognize that that’s not where my aptitude really lies. I love working with those instruments, but in terms of having a negative feeling about an instrument, I can’t think of one.
Good. [Laughter.] There was an interview you once did, and you said something along the lines of, “When you’re making any kind of art, you’re asking questions of yourself and questions of the society that you’re in,” which I think is a nice summary of what it means to be an artist. I was curious what questions you might be asking yourself right now in the work that you’re making.
“Why am I doing this?” [Laughter.]
I ask that all the time.
Absolutely. As you get older, it’s like, “Really?” [Laughter.] I don’t know.
Of course, I said that probably 30 years ago, and it felt true at the time. I see what I was talking about. I think a lot of the time now, I’m much more concerned with questions about making than anything else. I think one of my favorite quotes of all time is Francis Bacon, the painter, being asked by an interviewer, “What are you trying to say with your art?” He rather testily responded, “I’m not trying to say anything. I’m trying to do something!” That really resonates with me. I have no idea what what I’m doing is about. In a way, I don’t want to know, and often I don’t know even when I’ve done it. So the process is much more about making something. How can I do this? What do I need to get rid of? What do I need to add? At the end you have something, and you know that it’s finished. You like it, but you don’t necessarily know what you’ve got, and you may not know for quite a long time—until time passes and you come back, and you think of it, and you say, “Oh, that’s what that was about.”
But by then you’re already making the next piece. Or as an improviser, you’re in the moment, trying to make sense of something right now, in front of these people. I’m not worried about what it’s supposed to be for or what they’re going to get out of it. I’m just trying to get to the end! [Laughter.]
Maybe all the doing that you’re doing, and the gestures—those are the questions. So you’re just sitting there, throwing questions at people. And it’s up to them to answer.
You’re making a film. What’s the process for you? What are you doing? What are you expecting to have at the end?
I guess it’s different for every project. In some cases, I’m completely in control. In other cases, I probably have a thesis that I’m trying to prove. It feels more like an experiment.
Yeah, people talk about experimental music and experimental art in general, and I think, “Isn’t all art experimental?”
It’s the same question in science, really, except with a slightly different focus. All you’re doing is saying, “What would happen if I did this?” And in science, you’re saying, “My theory is that if I did this, this should happen. Oh well, it didn’t happen, so let’s think of another theory.” When I’m working, I’m not so much having a theory about it, but I’m trying to figure out what just happened and what’s going to happen next.
And the viewer or the audience might be a part of that scientific method, in that every time you’re testing your hypothesis or throwing out your ideas, it’s going to come back with different results depending on who’s watching it.
Oh yeah, absolutely.
You’re constantly in the middle of that method.
That’s the other thing that’s interesting about improvisation—because, of course, like I said earlier, the listener, the perceiver, and the creator are actually in the same space. Neither of them know what’s going to happen. So there’s a possibility, and it’s a very real possibility, that at the end of the piece, I will think this happened, and you will think that happened. And they’re both true. And they may be completely different from each other.
You have a lot of recorded music and compositions and performances, and I love the exhaustive discography on your website that someone compiled. I love the fact that it’s in a text-edit sort of—it’s very simple, plain. It just goes on forever. It’s almost impossible to read.
I haven’t looked at it in a few years, so I don’t know what’s on there anymore.
It’s just really long, really detailed, ongoing. I was like, “Oh, I’ll breeze over his discography,” and then it just became impossible to read it. I thought that was sort of charming in and of itself. But amongst all of this music you’re producing, is there another art form that you dabble in or amuse yourself with, or even show on the side? Do you do photography or something?
I write. I very seldom show it to anybody, and that’s not going to change. I did actually contribute a chapter to an homage to Pauline Oliveros for her 80th birthday [in 2012]. The Deep Listening compilation, there’s a chapter from me in there, which is basically a bunch of one-paragraph stories of listening events from my life—which was a lot of fun to do, I must say.
The thing is, I’m working with artists from other disciplines a lot. I work with filmmakers, I work with video artists, I work with poets, I work with dancers. So that side of me, whatever that side is, is pretty well satisfied. I think I’m as an artist probably more interested in collaborative than any other kind of work. We’re just brought up to be collaborative. We don’t have much choice. We’re not people who are working alone, although computers have obviously changed that to a degree.
Frith with John Zorn live (1989)
But I like working with people, and therefore working in other media is always exciting.
Me too. I like the fact that you phrased it that way, that through collaboration you are working in these other media. You’re not merely the musician who’s working next to a dancer, but because the dancer is there, you’re involved in the dance as well. Absolutely. You can’t be any other way. I think the worst kind of collaborations are the ones where a dancer will come to a musician and say, “OK, let’s work together,” and the musician says, “OK,” and the dancer will say, “OK, I need five minutes of music that’s going to sound like this, and then you’re going to stop and leave a pause, and then I want another 20 seconds of music that sounds like that,” and in the end, the musician hasn’t actually done anything. There’s no space for a collaborative development. So I like working with choreographers like Amanda Miller, who will tell me a bunch of books she’s been reading, and send me some images she’s been looking at, and say the kind of thing that she thinks the piece might end up being about, and then we’ll both get on with our work. And then at the end of it, we’ll have something—and we have no idea what the other person has been doing. It’s not quite Cage/Cunningham; it’s not completely random in terms of the juxtaposition, I mean. So we do fine-tune it. But the material is so much richer from that way of thinking.
That’s wonderful. When I tell people that I’m a fan and that I haven’t seen you perform since 1999, all the Chicagoans I know say you haven’t been here in even longer. Is there a reason why you haven’t been back to Chicago in a long time?
Nobody asked me!
What! That’s crazy. If only I had known.
I’m at a stage of my life, if you like, where I don’t spend a lot of time looking for work. I don’t try putting together tours—the focus of my economy isn’t in that place anyway. And so I tend to work based entirely on what I get invited to do. I get invited to do a lot, and I say no a lot, but there’s plenty coming in. Like next week, I’m going to Scotland to work with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, and then I’m going to do a few gigs in the midwest. I’m working on a film soundtrack. These are not things that I went looking for, these are things where people came and said, “Would you like to do this?” Sometimes they’re people I know, sometimes they’re people I’m friends with, sometimes they’re complete strangers. And you go through it on a daily basis, in my case. You look at what your options are, look at your calendar, and think about the family and what’s going on, and try to make sense out of it. And you end up doing stuff. So it’s not like I’ve been desperately trying to come to Chicago, but if I’d been invited, I’d have come long ago.
Do you end up performing more in Europe, or is it about the same, between the U.S. and Europe? Or the rest of the world.
Generally speaking, it’s way more in Europe. These days, I’m living in Switzerland between March and the end of July. In that period, I can hop on a train and go to all kinds of places. That’s a much more congenial way of working than hopping on a plane and going to all kinds of places. I tend to do a lot of work in that period when I’m there. Most of my U.S. work is focused on either the Bay Area, where I live, or in New York, where there’s a lot going on and where I have a lot of connections—and also where my daughter lives and my grandkids, so it’s always nice to go there. So, other than that? I was in Texas last weekend, which was a lot of fun. There are years when it seems like I’m doing much more in North America than other years. This year is shaping up to be one of them, so we’ll see.
I’m totally going to shout out a word right before the show starts.
Oh, as long as it’s not “piglets”—it’s going to kill me! [Laughter.]
I’ll introduce myself before the show, and then I’ll know that you’ll only have to look at me and you’ll think about piglets. [Laughter.]
It’s already there. I’m sorry. You’ve ruined my life.
My job here is done. [Laughter.] Thank you very much.
OK, well my mechanic didn’t show up, so now I’m going to have to go and deal with that.
OK. I look forward to your show.
Likewise. See you soon.
Live performance footage of Cosa Brava (2008)