Fred Frith – An Interview

Fred Frith & The Editors

Three Sensitive Skin editors—Fluffy Schwartz, B. Kold and Sir Reginald Brathwaite—had a chat with legendary musician and composer Fred Frith. We asked him some good questions, and some (or so he apparently thought) pedantic ones. But that’s how we roll. Fred’s answers were always interesting…

SS: Has having a psychologist for a brother affected your approach to music? Has the study of psychology influenced your understanding of composition, improvisation, performance and collaboration?

FRED FRITH: I have not studied psychology, though I did go through an extended period of Jungian therapy more than 20 years ago. Trying to understand oneself better seems to me a useful attribute for an artist, or anyone else for that matter. My brother has influenced my approach to everything, not by being a neuroscientist, but by being a wonderful role model in the realms of music and art, and by his intense curiosity and rich appreciation of life’s absurdities!

Fred Frith

SS: In 1979, you wrote an article for NME, “Great Rock Solos of our Time.” Have you changed your mind about any of those guys, based on what they’ve done since? What rock guitar players of today do you admire?

FF: I haven’t read those articles in many years, but I’m fairly sure my subjects would hold up to scrutiny! Current rock players? Nels Kline. Ava Mendoza. Alee Karim. Gilles Laval.

SS: Any other currently working musicians or composers you admire? Any special favorites in improvised music?

FF: Far too many to name all of them. But of those you may not know: Annie Lewandowski, Katharina Weber, Lucas Niggli, Bérangère Maximin, Eduard Perraud, Paolo Angeli, Camel Zekri, Jason Hoopes, Jordan Glenn.

SS: Chamber or contemporary classical music?

FF: Not my area of expertise. But I like the animated notation school of composers, like Steini Gunnarsson and Ryan Ross Smith.

SS: At last count, you’ve played on some 410 albums. Which stand out as your personal favorites, the ones you feel are most enjoyable and/or most important?

FF: Wouldn’t know where to begin. I’m generally more concerned with what I’m doing now! [Editor’s Note: If you’re not familiar with Fred’s ouevre, we suggest starting with something by Henry Cow, Guitar Solos, Gravity, and Step Across the Border. Check out the links to some of our favorites at the bottom of this article.]

Fred Frith, Gravity

Gravity, 1980


Fred Frith, Guitar Solos.jpg

Guitar Solos, 1974


SS: What are some of your favorite albums or compositions, the pieces that were most influential to your body of work and the history of music?

FF: The biggest influences on what I do are the people I’ve been lucky enough to work with, whether they’re the members of Henry Cow and Skeleton Crew, performers like Evelyn Glennie or John Zorn, or the members of my current band, Cosa Brava. I’m often very influenced by my own failures, and you don’t get to hear those!

I’m generally trying to wrestle with material in a particular context with particular parameters and particular players. What emerges is the result of a process. I guide the process by trying to balance my original ideas with what the players bring to the table. Luckily it isn’t always the way I expect it to be.

SS: Has teaching composition changed your approach to performance (or vice versa)?

FF: My approach changes all the time, based on everything I’m going through, whether teaching, not teaching, composing, performing, cooking, talking, arguing, watching birds, going to movies, or reading books.

SS: Have you been influenced by any of your students?

FF: I hope so.

SS: Has your tenure at Mills College and later focus on classical composition led to any reevaluation of your earlier work?

FF: I don’t really do “classical” composition, and I’ve been composing on paper since I was 14. Whenever possible I compose what I hear for musicians who want to play what I write. Some of them are classically trained, and some of them aren’t. I am constantly re-evaluating everything I do.

SS: Do you see the earlier work as preparation for this stage or as work with a completely different set of aims and accomplishments?

FF: Not in any conscious sense, and not beyond the general idea that everything that you do leads in some way to everything else. In general, my aim has always been to make sense of what I hear, and that hasn’t changed.

SS: You recently performed Gravity in its entirety. Was that enjoyable? Any plans to do it again, or something similar?

FF: It was wonderful. I can’t wait to give it another shot.

SS: Do you draw a distinction between your fully notated chamber music and free improvisation?

FF: Of course.

SS: Do you think of them as separate and compartmentalized?

FF: Of course not.

SS: Despite your early musical training and experience, you graduated from college with a BA in literature and got your MA in the same subject. Why did you choose that path, and does it have a bearing on decision to write lyrics for what could easily have been purely instrumental bands?

FF: It was the only path open to me at the time. I failed in everything else, and I had no formal training in music and would not have been admitted to a music program. Much as I love words, I hate writing lyrics and usually try to find someone else to do it.

SS: Moving to New York was greatly freeing for you—what’s it been like to move to the Bay Area? Do you miss NY? Do you miss England? Any comments on the Bay Area music scene?

Fred Frith

FF: My community stopped being identifiably centered in one geographical location a long time ago. I’m in New York every year and still have deep personal connections there. London, too, and many other cities. Lately, I’ve been spending a lot of time in Copenhagen. I tend to go where I’m invited, and the community I feel that I belong to is always evolving and mutating. The Bay Area scene has always been vibrant and exciting and I’ve been coming here regularly since my first concert in San Francisco in 1979, so moving here was not a great leap into the unknown. There’s a lot going on here, though I’m perhaps more drawn to the younger generation of creative musicians, because many of them stay on in the area after they graduate from Mills and I’m excited to see them develop. All I can say is that the scene is as vibrant and exciting as it’s ever been, and yet has an almost shocking lack of local media interest or support. If this were NY in 1978 or Chicago in the early ’90s, we would be the center of gravity for American creative music right now, but the media are so unadventurous they’ve never noticed, and there simply aren’t enough decent venues to take chances and try to build up the scene. Thank goodness for the ones that DO exist!

SS: Did you ever feel lonely having a bookish background on tours with bandmates trained purely as musicians? How did the study of literature affect your approach to music? Did it affect the way you communicated with other artists?

FF: Are you kidding me? My study of literature has been almost entirely irrelevant to my social life as a musician, and the people I work with are frequently some of the most well-read, articulate, open-minded, inquisitive and fascinating folks I know. The only time I feel lonely is when I’m traveling by myself, which seems logical to me!

SS: Sometimes your approach (and that of your musicians) seems to change from album to album. How would you prep a new player for work as diverse as yours?

FF: I work together with musicians to realize specific projects. The diversity of my work is not something we discuss. I generally try to work with players who are able to handle all the angles. It’s more a question of how I prep myself to work with them.

SS: Over the course of your career, you’ve played with an incredible variety of musicians—Zeena Parkins, Mike Patton, Brian Eno, the Ensemble Modern, Ikue Mori, Tom Cora, the Residents, Bill Laswell, John Zorn and the Arditti Quartet. Did you change your overview and approach drastically to work with any of these vastly different musicians? Which collaborators stand out as your favorites?

Henry Cow

Henry Cow, In Praise of Learning, 1975


FF: I like to challenge myself by working in situations where I can learn something I didn’t already know. Maybe in order to really get a sense of that it would be good to add a few names that are maybe not so much in the Anglo-American new music “mainstream”: Babazula, Stevie Wishart, Keiji Haino, Concerto Köln, Wu Fei, Mart Soo, Daniela Cattivelli, Lucia Recio– I’ve learned so much from working with musicians like these, and I take any opportunity I can to seek such collaborations out.

SS: There’s an unusually diverse range of styles and approaches to writing, arranging and improvising in your body of work, and yet it all sounds like you somehow. When collaborating, do you switch between stylistic palettes or approaches in your head, or do you believe in the idea of musicians staying in character? How mutable is your idea of contrast between players in an ensemble?

FF: Why wouldn’t it sound like me? It IS me! I’m generally trying to wrestle with material in a particular context with particular parameters and particular players. What emerges is the result of a process. I guide the process by trying to balance my original ideas with what the players bring to the table. Luckily it isn’t always the way I expect it to be. Choosing the right players is the single most important decision. Sometimes they choose themselves, like Kaethe Hostetter, who wanted to play violin in the Gravity show and “presented her credentials” as it were! That was awesome!

Cosa Brava, The Letter

Cosa Brava, The Letter, 2012


SS: Zeena Parkins’s work on Cosa Brava’s The Letter (Intakt Records) is very different from that on Traffic Continues II. Do you tend to ask your musicians to try different approaches? Do you prefer them to enter into the work without preconceptions?

FF: I’ve known Zeena for more than 30 years. She was in my bands Skeleton Crew and Keep the Dog in the ’80s and ’90s respectively. I’m well aware of the vast range of her talents as harpist, pianist, accordionist, experimenter, composer, inventor, improviser. I would want to work with Z in any situation that required flexibility, a broad skillset, a fabulous work ethic, and a strong intuitive understanding of what’s required. When the Ensemble Modern commission came along, it was a chance to invite her to play her first instrument, an opportunity that doesn’t come along very often. It was also the first time that the EM had featured women soloists (Ikue Mori being the other). As for different approaches, we try different approaches if what we’re doing doesn’t seem to be working. And I prefer players to “enter into a work” in whatever way seems productive to them.

SS: How conscious were the folk and Celtic elements of The Letter, especially in the violin parts?

FF: I was awake when I wrote them, if that’s what you mean.

SS: What about the elements of pastiche that seem to hearken back to Henry Cow (such as the baroque sequence of fifths in For Lars Hollmer)?

FF: Owes as much to Victor Jara or Kurt Weill as it does to Baroque music. And in any case what I love about Lars Hollmer’s work is that he made melodies that seemed like you’d known them all your life, but which were also personal enough that they were obviously his. That was the quality I was looking for, not so much imitation as invocation. Lars was a dear friend and a huge influence and I miss him.

Fred Frith and Cosa Brava

Fred Frith and Cosa Brava


SS: You’ve collaborated with Iva Bittová in the past, who shares your background in Eastern European folk music as well as classical music—do you seek out that sort of background in collaborators and performers of your music?

FF: I like working with collaborators who share a broad sense of the possibilities and are not bound to a single approach. And I like improvising with musicians who don’t define themselves as “improvisers”.

SS: Your early influences included many kinds of world and Eastern-European folk music—a rare set of influences for a Western musician in those days. How directly did your early interest in world and folk music impact on your accompaniment to her voice?

FF: No idea. I wasn’t thinking about it particularly.

SS: Do you think of it as accompaniment or something else?

FF: See above.

SS: There are lots of unison lines performed by voices, guitars and violins instruments. This suggests you might be aiming for a verbal but not necessarily a vocal sound: The voices of verbal instruments. Is there a connection between the voices of instruments and the content of verbal expression?

FF: I’m not sure if I know what you’re talking about. Which lines are you referring to? The best example that I know of understanding instruments as voices (outside of the blues) is René Lussier’s Trésor de la Langue. More than simply a masterpiece, it changes our understanding of the musicality of language.

SS: On The Letter, but also on many of your other albums, the use of accordion, and of pitched and higher sounds in the percussion and synths, gives the violin and guitar a magical sound that reminds me of Lick My Decals off, Baby. There’s a glow to the parts. Do you think of certain sounds as shimmering, glowing, or nacreous?

FF: I had to look that up! And no, not particularly. We’re just trying to make it sound good.

Watch the award-winning documentary Step Across the Border here:

Henry Cow – Leg End – “Teen Beat”:

Henry Cow – Unrest – “Bittern Storm over Ulm”:

Fred Frith – Guitar Solos – “No Birds”:

John Zorn/Fred Frith – Late Works – “Horse Rehab”:

Fred Frith, John Zorn and Eye, live

Cosa Brava – “Drowning” – live in San Francisco, 8/4/11:

Buy issue #9, which includes this article, in PDF format here for just $5.95, or get the full-color print version via Amazon and select bookstores.

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