This week I conducted a brief email interview with guitarist Fred Frith, who has been reinventing his instrument for the past 40 years. I was a bit humbled to do this, as I'm certainly not familiar with most corners of his extensive discography, and some of my ignorance is evident below. But he's a fascinating figure and his history was a joy to explore.
Frith plays the Music Gallery in Toronto this coming Sunday with locals John Oswald, Anne Bourne and Owen Pallett. The first set will be the trio, with Owen and others joining for the second.
An abbreviated version of this appears in today's Eye Magazine here, along with a more eloquent introduction.
Nine years later, is this upcoming Toronto date a release show for your 2002 album Dearness, that was recorded in 1998?
You have had many ties to the Quebec improvisational scene for over 20 years now, but what is your Toronto history, if any?
Well, I performed in Toronto a lot between 1979 and 1985. The renowned promoter Gary Topp was hugely supportive and I played at the Isabella and other venues he booked: solo, with Phil Minton, with Skeleton Crew, and others I forget. But this is the first time I'll have played The Music Gallery. I've also had a long-standing relationship with Toronto-based filmmaker Peter Mettler. He was the first director to approach me for a soundtrack (The Top of His Head in 1989) and I've been working with him ever since, including on his 2002 epic (Gambling, Gods, and LSD) and numerous live video/music mix concerts.
What is your connection to Anne Bourne, John Oswald and/or Owen Pallett, and what is it about their aesthetic that appeals to you?
I wouldn't want to suggest that they only had one aesthetic between them. They don't occupy a single place in my mind, even individually!
I've known John for a very long time, and I've always admired his work on every level, and now that he is famous for the things he's famous for, it's fun to engage the side of him that he's NOT famous for—improvisation—because I think he brings something to it that very few other players I know do. I met Anne when working on The Top of His Head, and I love what she does. She's total. It's never about technique or style with her or John, it's about being right there and dealing with it. I think what we have in common is that we don't see improvisation as a "genre" with "rules", so it really IS improvisation and not some kind of newly minted academic subject. Owen I've never met and never heard, so that will be the wild card from my point of view. I hope he feels the same way! And don't forget there's Wilbert de Joode, who will also be there to play a little double bass, and he's a monster, and Matt Brubeck may be there too as far as I know.
How have you seen the audience for your work fluctuate over the years, or has it been constant? Do you think the audience for improvised music in general increases or decreases based on the socio-economic and/or political zeitgeist of the time?
I think the audience for my work has steadily increased. There are little surges, like when Step Across the Border was released, or more recently with my music for Rivers and Tides, or the film with Evelyn Glennie (Touch the Sound). They increased my profile dramatically in a short-term kind of way. But overall it just keeps growing. I saw people who came to my concerts in the 70s and 80s bringing their kids, and now the kids keep coming with or without their parents! As for improvised music, I guess there's a steady audience for it, whatever it is.
I’ve heard you say that you believe improvisation is not simply self-expression, but a form of communion with collaborators and the audience. How do you think that the stigma around improvisation has eroded over the years, both between audiences and performers, but between different factions of performers?
Don't know what stigma you're referring to. I've been improvising in front of audiences for 40 years, I'm not sure if it's what they call "improvisation" though. If the music is alive, it will connect to the audience. That doesn't make it better than other kinds of music, or more politically correct. It just means it's alive, and therefore has something to say to the listener. I don't know about communion. Sounds kind of religious. The music I like I tend to relate to storytelling, or traveling: you're always in the present and you want to know what will happen next, how it will turn out. You really want to know. And you don't know. Which is great!
Have you seen any of that manifest itself during your time at Mills? [the music college in California where he's been a prof since 1997]
Any of what? Factionalism? Not really. We tend to get on with it. In my improvising ensemble at Mills right now I have piano, sax, bass clarinet, mridingam, drums, flute/electronics, trombone, voice, two violins, electric guitar, and oud. Some players are from classical backgrounds, some from jazz, some from their own improvising traditions (Indian and Arabic), some from none of the above. They each bring what they have and we try to figure out how to communicate. From my point of view this relates much more to Peter Brook's ideas about theater than it does with what's the "correct" way to improvise. What do we have to say to each other? What's essential and what isn't?
What can you tell me about The Stone in NYC, and what went into your curatorial month there?
The Stone is a small club dedicated to the memory of Irving Stone, who, with his wife Stephanie, used to come to just about every gig in the creative music scene in downtown Manhattan, starting with Coltrane, but eventually gravitating around the East Village improvisers, like Zorn, Lesli Dalaba, myself, everyone. I seldom did a concert in New York where they weren't in the front row! And Zorn started this club, where there's no bar, no commercial interest. Just music. The musicians make 100% of the door, and the rent is paid by donations and also by benefit CDs. The latest CD is Chris Cutler and myself performing at the Stone last December. All profits from this CD will go to help keep the Stone going.
It's a simple idea, and very effective. And to avoid it always being the same people, John invites a guest curator to take care of each month, and these curators come from a wide range of musical backgrounds, so, contrary to what you may have heard, this is not about "friends of Zorn" but is really a huge variety of music, usually the kind of thing you won't get to hear anywhere else.
I was invited to curate the month of May 2007, and that's what I've done. And in the spirit of the club, I've tried to invite people who may not have an opportunity to present their work in New York very often. There are a number of groups from Scandinavia, a long weekend of music from Montreal, a lot of the younger generation of musicians from the West Coast, and some combinations that I enjoy that I seldom get to perform (like Death Ambient with Ikue Mori and Kato Hideki, and the home-made instrument duo Normal (with Sudhu Tewari), plus attempts to bring new groupings together to see what happens (with Pauline Oliveros and Elsa Storesund, or with Anne Bourne and Eve Beglarian, for example). And yeah, some combinations that are tried and tested and totally exciting for me, like the duos with Zorn and with Zeena Parkins. I had a blast doing this and I'm completely psyched about every night!
Do you think a business model like that could only exist in a world cultural hub like NYC, or could it be replicated elsewhere?
I can't imagine why it couldn't work in any reasonably large and culturally informed city environment.
I understand that Death Ambient is about to play its first New York City shows: why so long? Has this ensemble played live before?
We've played at Mills! And in East Germany. We're always so busy. And we have a new record coming out which is fantastic I must say.
Are most of your recordings these days culled from live performances?
How much do you utilize the studio as a creative tool?
Constantly, since 35 years. If you want to hear a recent example of what I'm talking about, try The Happy End Problem which just came out.
With a discography as extensive as yours, what three albums of your own would you recommend to newcomers?
Personal favorites, today:
Art Bears - Winter Songs
Massacre – Lonely Heart
Tomorrow it would be different.