Fred Frith

Photo courtesy of Heike Liss

Fred Frith is a such a great person! I feel like leaving it at that!

Frith, the composer/guitarist/improviser and founding member of Henry Cow has agreed to do an interview with me. God does exist!

Since the age of five (longer than I have been alive), Fred Frith has been playing and making music, and in the years since then he has gone on to record numerous albums (consisting of classics such as Guitar Solos and Gravity) and has worked and collaborated with artists like John Zorn, Brian Eno, Iva Bittova, Eugene Chadbourne, The Residents, and Evelyn Glennie (as seen in the film Touch The Sound). He has also founded other bands such as Massacre, Skeleton Crew, Keep The Dog, Fred Frith Guitar Quartet and Maybe Monday, and his compositional work consists of pieces for chamber and bigger ensembles.

CM: I have to say, first off, that I really enjoy your music, and listening to what you have done from Henry Cow up to today has been exciting! On your website, you have both positive and negative press quotes, even a couple from YouTube viewers. If this is your way of looking the negative stuff in the eyes, I’m impressed!

FF: I actually really enjoy the negative stuff in the virtual domain as it is generally unfettered by any of the usual social considerations. You discover how primitive humans are when their social wiring is not connected. Read the responses to any sports blog. Anyway, if my music gets a reaction as strong as a desire to push me off a cliff, then obviously I’m doing something powerful enough to warrant such a reaction. Much better than that indifference, right?
[EDITOR’S NOTE: True, but I’d rather they toss my CDs off the cliff than me]

Henry Cow in Vevey, Switzerland (Featuring “Vevey Improv”, “March”, “Erk Gah”; live 1976)

CM: How often do you perform barefoot? I noticed that there have been a few people over the years, even some classical people doing this. Does it provide a more earthly or grounded perspective on your music at all?

FF: I started doing it regularly when I played in the late great Lars Hollmer‘s Looping Home Orchestra in the ’90’s. All the other band members did it, so I looked a bit silly with shoes on. And then I realized that it actually felt really good. Later, I also realized that it made it much easier to negotiate my pedal array when playing solo. So I’ve been pretty much doing it ever since. When I worked with the percussionist, Evelyn Glennie I also learned about vibrations coming up through your feet, and about listening with your whole body…

CM: Speaking of whom, I really enjoy Touch The Sound, the film you did with Evelyn. Can you talk about what it has been like working with her?

FF: It’s been wonderful. From the very beginning, we had a beautiful connection, and making the film was really a starting point. We play a couple of times a year, and i always look forward to these shows, because I know it will be different from anything else I do, and because Evelyn really wants to stretch herself, works incredibly hard, and that’s totally inspiring. She makes me play better and listen better.

Untitled improv (w/Evelyn Glennie; from Touch The Sound, 2004)

CM: What would you say was the biggest a-ha moment during your career?

FF: I wouldn’t. It’s not that there haven’t been revelatory moments–if you’re open and attuned to your environment you will always have an antenna out for that, But in my experience, learning operates on so many levels, whether it’s the joy of discovery in the moment or the result of careful conceptual preparation and grinding hard work. You discover, and then your discovery is tempered, refined. You just keep listening, and keep working. And keep processing what you have learned. And then things change, and what you thought you knew is suddenly elusive, fluid. So you have to adapt to a new situation. My neuroscientist brother Chris explained to me that the brain learns by sending out electrical impulses searching for what it doesn’t know. I like that as a metaphor for musical creativity. Sometimes the flow of ideas seems effortless and mysterious. Sometimes dry mathematical processes allow you to access extraordinary and profoundly moving musical states. But I try not to make the mistake of thinking “Ok, now I understand”!

CM: You play with so many people–Is there anyone among your collaborative friends and colleagues that has left the largest impression on you?

FF: I try to approach every new situation as openly as I can. Whether it be with someone I’ve been playing with for nearly 40 years, like Chris Cutler, or someone I’ve never met before, like say Edward Perraud, an amazing drummer I played with last year. With Chris, no two concerts have ever been alike, we don’t have a “style”, what we do reflects what we’ve been up to lately, as well as the totality of who we are. With Edward, it’s like every single moment was a revelation of some kind, because I had no idea what to expect! My biggest influences as a musician have always been the people I am working with–how could it be otherwise? Being “influenced” by Miles Davis, Oliver Messiaen or Violeta Parra means that i have been deeply affected by listening to their work, and that’s undeniably important. But the influence of, say, Lindsay Cooper, Tim Hodgkinson, Ikue Mori or Carla Kihlstedt is, for me, a incomparably deeper connection. And I want every collaboration, every musical experience, to operate on as deep a level as I can. After my friend Tom Cora died, I realized more than ever that our time an be cut short at any moment, so best not to waste it.

Improv (again, no title; w/Tom Cora, cello, NY 1989)

Fred’s official website


4 thoughts on “Fred Frith

  1. Well, I’m glad you didn’t leave this at your first line, though by the last line, I certainly knew just what you meant. His work is a harder for me to grasp, though the improv with Glennie is magical on many levels. Would love to see something like that in live performance. (And hey, thanks for the follow over at PD!–have made my first Keating purchase & am looking forward to a more thorough listen.)

  2. Susan, thanks so much–You are so supportive of what I’ve been doing, and it’s great that you are raising just as much awareness of the arts on your site, so, I’m just as interested to see what you have to say.
    Fred Frith is sort of a different animal from Zoe Keating as far as some of that music–If you really want a good glimpse of him at work, watch Step Across The Border (I posted that on Twitter, FB and G+). You see him messing with so many things, and I swear there is this one part where he is using guitar volume and percussion in such an out-there way.
    If I ever get the podcast off the ground, I want to have these people back for follow-ups!

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