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Fred Frith

In the Czech Republic Fred Frith is well remembered by those who attended his concert with Chris Cutler at Prague Jazz Section Festival in 1979. For those in the audience who heard and saw Frith and Culter’s  perform, using an extended use of musical instruments and no shortage of improvisation, the concert is the stuff of legend. Although the event provided established Underground musicians a rare chance to hear live experimentation similar to their own, perhaps more importantly there was a core group of emerging Czech Alternative musicians in the audience who were taking copious mental notes.
For Frith the Jazz Section adventure included memories he recalls as “drinking with Vaclav Havel and hearing one of the Plastic People stride up to Chris Cutler and say; ‘so you are the one who believes that communism works!'” His encounters with the police were no less pedantic as he recalls “we were solemnly handing over items of equipment from the back of our truck to a customs officer who didn’t speak any English and he was checking off the items from our list. Fred (handing over a  xylophone stand): ‘double bass’ Officer: ‘OK’, and so on.” There were though incidents that Frith found far less comical he describes as “Having to leave friends’ homes because of police interrogation…and having to move [illegal] concert locations because of police raids. Not funny really. But eye-opening.”
Frith’s compositions lately combine many of the better elements of late 20th Century contemporary composers as well as lessons learned from free jazz and art-rock. His 2003 CD ‘Previous Evening’ contains 3 works of love that pay Homage to John Cage, Morton Feldman and Earle Brown, while reflecting influences from each composer. Frith’s 1999 work ‘Pacifica’ combines passages clearly informed by his historical improvisational excursions, leveraged with 20th century influences (i.e. Berio and Nono), into a satisfying 21st century work.
Since 1999 Fred Frith has been teaching composition at Mills College in Oakland, while maintaining an active touring and recording schedule. As avid improviser and composer Frith was generous to take sometime from his continuous touring, teaching and composing schedule to answer a few questions for His Voice about improvisation. In the process he debunks a  few common myths of this often misunderstood yet universal musical phenomena.

DJ: What were the initial inspirations or impulses that pushed Henry Cow’s approach to improvisation?

FF: Well there were two different aspects really. One was that, early on anyway, we were trying to play blues and do long modal improvisations that were based in that language. And another was more from the “contemporary music” perspective. Tim Hogkinson and I first performed together at the invitation of a choreographer to improvise music whose theme was Hiroshima. I played violin, and Tim played sax. I think I’d heard Penderecki’s ‘Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima’ by that time, although I’m not absolutely sure. Anyway, we did a kind of ferocious expressionist blast that was really my introduction to the idea of “improvised music” without ever having heard any of what was going on in that realm in Britain at the time. I almost feel like that moment was when I really began as an improviser, and it was almost like an accident. This idea that you could just go and make stuff up in a really intense and focused way. This was late 1967, or early 1968. Of course we were familiar with “free jazz”, or Tim was – I started listening to that through him really, so I probably hadn’t heard Coltrane’s  Expressions yet. Or Ornette’s Chappaqua Suite. Those records both had an impact later. But that first duo kind of set the tone. And then we heard Soft Machine and Grateful Dead’s ‘Anthem to the Sun’, and Pink Floyd – they also showed us a way to improvise in a rock setting. For myself that was probably much more important in the end, because it felt like something closer to me, but also closer to what I could do. I was never much of a “virtuoso”, jazz was fantastic but not really something I  felt I could do.


DJ: How did your beginnings with music improvisation find an analogue in the other arts?

With difficulty!…We worked on a couple of theatre productions at the Watford Palace Theatre, Euripides’ The Bacchae and Shakespeare’s The Tempest. But it was much more useful to us as composers than as improvisers. In fact I think it was a fantastic learning experience in many ways, to do with really figuring out how to rehearse and perfect things. We took some of that energy with us when we did a week at the Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh as part of the Fringe Festival in 1971, our performances there were a valiant attempt at theatre of a limited kind, and musically at least were probably our first totally successful work. But we did develop a taste for staying focused on “a whole evening” rather than individual pieces. We were composing our music into suites, probably something learned from listening to LPS, and seeing how the songs on a side were not only themselves but also necessarily a  “whole” when listened to together.

My first attempts at being a “composer” were Henry Cow’s collaboration with the Cambridge University Contemporary Dance Group in 1969. I wrote a  piece called For the Yellow Half Moon and Blue Star (which is the name of a painting by Paul Klee). But this had nothing to do with improvising at all really. I didn’t discover “improvised dance” until I moved to New York ten years later and started working with people like Sally Silvers. I’ve done a lot of improvising with dance since then, though I  don’t usually find it successful for various reasons.


DJ: Improv music for dance seems a perfect blend, why doesn’t it work for you?

The problem I have is that it becomes very quickly rather “reactive” – a  movement triggers a sound, or vice versa – which usually leads, in my opinion, to a rather banal kind of interaction. It usually works best for me when I don’t look at the dance at all, so that structurally I am not tied to always literally following specific movements (which creates one-dimensional theatre….)


DJ: Were you a friend of the late Derek Bailey and if so how did he influence your work?

FF: Sure. I was tipped off by Lol Coxhill in 1971 that he was a player I  should check out, so I went along to the Little Theatre Club to see him play solo. I was the only person in the audience. Afterwards he invited me home for tea, and we became friends, and stayed friends for more than thirty years. There are a lot of different things to say about this. First of all, when I met Derek I’d only just moved to London. I  don’t come from London, I grew up in Yorkshire like Derek, but actually even further North than him. I hated London, and didn’t want to live there. It was necessary then if you wanted to have a musical career. So Derek was kind of like a beacon for me. Although our backgrounds were very different, he was like the people I went to school with, so I could really relate to him way beyond music. We spent a lot of time nattering about cricket actually. He was obviously attempting to rethink both his music in general and the guitar in particular, and so there was a lot I  could relate to there as well, though stylistically I think we were on different planets. Which leads me to the third aspect of my relationship with Derek, perhaps the most important – he wasn’t a snob. He accepted me for who I was, which back then was an aspiring rock musician who wrote songs and composed pieces as well as improvising. Derek never had any attitude about what I did, other than to tell me he thought we should be doing more improvising, which he unfailingly said every time he came to see us play, which was often. In the context of other improvisers who we came into contact with at the time, that was pretty unusual. There were a lot of noses in the air! So the influence he had on me was more than anything as a role-model. Because of him I try and be open to other musicians regardless of where they situate themselves, to be encouraging and supportive, to remember where I came from and what my own insecurities were like. Derek kept us all honest. He was a  monster!


DJ: There was an improvisers cooperative in London in the 70s and I’m curious if you were involved in that community, and if so how did it shape or influence your work?

FF: The London Improvisers Co-op started around 1971, and had Derek and Evan and John Stevens and all those first generation guys. I didn’t really know anyone except Derek, and I was never a part of that scene at all in any case, I guess I’m what you would call a second-generation improviser, though I wasn’t really part of that scene either. The fact is, Henry Cow was a full time job, which more or less precluded our deep involvement in anything else. And a lot of the time we were on the road, and out of the country, so our impact on the British scene, and its impact on us, was peripheral at best. It’s hardly surprising that we never get mentioned in all these British write-ups of that period – we were never there! Interestingly enough, that first generation, at least the ones I came into contact with like Derek, Evan, Paul Lytton, were all really friendly and encouraging. It was the second generation who I  felt less at home with. I was involved with the London Musicians Collective later in the 70s, until I moved to the States. It was mostly pretty contentious, and I felt like an outsider in a private club that already had a lot of tension it, so I can’t say I had much to do with it except as a place to perform. I did go to some meetings, and it was a  grim experience. I was so happy to get out of London when the chance to move to New York came up.


DJ: The work of the economist Jaques Attali, explores the political and economic implications of improvisation. I was curious if you have read his work and what do you think about his theories?

FF: I read Noise. It’s important, obviously, one of those must-read books, along with Cage’s Silence. I tend to resist those who ascribe political attributes to forms of music. There are those who have posited the idea of improvisation as somehow morally superior to other forms of music, for example, because it’s supposedly democratic, everyone is in an equal position. I’ve heard stories of such players tossing music stands off stage because they were so angry that someone who they thought was an improviser was going to play a written piece. The result of this self-righteousness is that we are starting to see the codification of improvisation and its entry into academia as a  discipline with a pedagogy, with rules, with correct and incorrect practices. I hasten to say that this has nothing to do with Attali. But it pisses me off. Improvising is one of the things I like to do, and it means making something up in the moment, which I’ve been doing since I  was born. So have you. I also compose and write songs.


DJ: What role did improvisation play in your recording sessions with Brian Eno, on Before and After Science and Music for Films?

FF: The pieces that I’m involved with on those two records were actually recorded at the same sessions in 1976. So there was no difference in approach. Brian was interested in amassing material, so we tried stuff out. Later he messed around with it and made a few pieces. I wasn’t involved in that process at all. Many of the pieces, especially the uptempo ones, have never been used as far as I know. He was moving from rock into Ambient Music so it was a kind of critical transitional moment for him. I don’t particularly think we were improvising except within very narrow limits. He’d heard my record Guitar Solos and was excited by the timbral possibilities that I’d been discovering, so that was the focus more or less. By the time I spent those two three hour sessions with Eno, I’d already spent months in the studio over the previous three years doing the Henry Cow records: ‘Legend’, ‘Unrest and In Praise of Learning’. After the Eno sessions I mostly remember feeling a bit disappointed that this was just furnishing raw material rather than anything more collaborative or substantial. ‘Unrest’ was a pioneering record when it comes to exploring the possibilities of improvisation in the recording studio. It was revolutionary, and some of it still sounds totally contemporary. At the time it got awful reviews, and I don’t think anyone talks about it anymore. But when I play it for my students they are often extremely surprised. I’m in a much better position to talk about that than the Eno stuff, in which I was only very peripherally and briefly involved.


DJ: Eugene Chadbourne seems to have created a little friction in the NYC improvisers community by delving into country music, what do you think of his decidedly nod to what some consider the ‘low brow’ sound of hillbilly music?

FF: What Eugene does is completely logical – it embraces his background and his tastes. So why not? I’m not aware of any friction actually. I  think that hierarchical, high brow/low brow attitude to music is so out of date, and also most people only know the commercial sugary versions of country music, there’s a whole other aspect to it when you get a bit closer to the ground, which is often politically and culturally edgy in a  positive way. Eugene’s banjo version of Coltrane is a favorite of mine…


DJ: Is there any hope for free jazz based on Polka, and/or have you heard any thing along these lines you find compelling?

FF: Free jazz, well no, but I play with the Austrian group Attwenger sometimes, and we get into a kind of free rock polka which is great AND you can dance to it!


DJ: It seems like a good portion of improv is driven by pre-set patterns of the players, I’m curious if you hear specific tendencies in the North American approach to improvisational music compared to that of U.K. or Continental improvisation?

FF: Improvisation is driven by the individual histories of the players, how could it be otherwise? If you grow up surrounded by blues and jazz, the chances are it will permeate your own music. If you are surrounded by other things, they too will surface when you play. At this point many of the latest generation of American improvisers have been deeply influenced by the Europeans, so those approaches are resurfacing in their work in turn. I think it’s in any case misleading to think of these as “pre-set patterns”. We all have our vocabularies, our histories, our abilities, our aspirations, our desires. Sometimes some parts of these will be shared, sometimes they are quite personal. But I  resist cultural stereotyping, because in my experience it’s very misleading. The only place where it becomes interesting, even contentious, is when trying to figure out the relationship of “improvisation” to “jazz”. Jazz has in some ways become a museum, like classical music. Which is not to say that there are no interesting developments continuing to emerge from either field, but rather to say that in the minds of the Great Consumer as defined by the Great Record Corporation, these fields are effectively dead, so no-one is investing money in Research and Development anymore, in the way that they did in the 1950s and 60s when Deutsche Gramophone would release 7-LP sets of avant-garde music, or Ornette Coleman could release experimental music on Columbia. And now we have debates trying to figure out what improvisation is if it is not jazz, and whether in fact there are racist sub-texts to accompany such a debate. It’s fascinating!


DJ: Have you experimented with random systems such as I-ching or any other such devices?

FF: Yes, mostly deriving random numbers from playing cards or the Wall Street Journal in order to make forms when composing.


DJ: Have you experimented with generative music?

FF: Not really, no. I’ve read Brian Eno’s lecture on the subject which is, as usual, full of provocative and useful ideas. But it seems to be based on the idea of creating something that’s different every time you hear it. That’s kind of what I do as an improviser anyway!


DJ: What role does improvisation have in your current work?

FF: A central one. It’s what I do both as a performer and as a composer.


DJ: Is there a strong feedback loop between the results of your work with improvisation and your work with composition?

FF: I find that it’s getting stronger all the time. I used to think of them as really separate from each other, now I can’t really separate them.


DJ: How has your approach to improvisation evolved over the years?

FF: I’m not so worried about defining what I do, or worrying if it will work. I take pleasure in the moment, I enjoy encounters of all kinds, and I don’t think of it as better or worse than any other kind of musical activity.


DJ: Cacophony is often considered a direct result or trait of improvisational music, when you are working with musicians how do you direct them or set a frame work to achieve music you feel is listenable?

FF: Whenever I get one of these “often considered” kind of questions I  immediately get suspicious. Often considered by whom? Do you mean “I  often consider”? Because I don’t really relate to the premise. Is Raga cacophonous? Or flamenco? Or baroque music? And even if we consider the whole panoply of jazz with all of its divergences, how much of it is “cacophonous”? And “listenable” – to whom? To you? I think it would be easier to respond if this was in the first person. Because my idea of cacophony is probably very different from yours; because improvising covers a huge amount of territory. When I am working with musicians it’s  because I want to tap into who they are and what they do. I wouldn’t insult them by assuming that unless I direct them it’s going to be unlistenable! I do this because I love to listen to it. I do what makes sense to me. I can’t really do anything else. I have to hope that others will find it listenable, but I’m only concerned with whether I do.


DJ: Can you site any examples of improvised music, or works of your own, that have achieved the same sublime results via improvisation as may of been achieved via composition?

FF: Another loaded question! How much psychology resonates in a word like “sublime” which buys into the whole hierarchical way of thinking about music, with classical music at the top of the pyramid!

What I achieve by improvising is something completely different from what I achieve by composing, and through improvising one can achieve “sublime” results that composition can’t achieve. If you swapped the words improvisation and composition in your question, therefore, it would be equally valid. Finding improvisation less sublime because it doesn’t do what composition does is missing the point.


DJ: Still, what is it you find yourself returning to composition to accomplish that you can’t accomplish via improvisation? (and visa versa)

FF: I am not returning to composition, because I never left it. Composition can do certain particular things that improvisation can’t. This has to do with metrical precision and orchestration mostly, as well as predictability. I like those things. I like creating a definite knowable result. I also like the opposite. That’s why I have always done both, and why I dislike missionaries from either camp who are trying to convince us that one or the other is superior. There’s no particular mystery here, it’s a matter of common sense!


DJ: Was listening to your Homage to John Cage the other night with my daughter, I was wondering if you employed any of Cage’s techniques in that composition?

FF: I generated the form using chance methods, and the text was derived from his book Silence, and also generated using chance methods. I also tried to think about instruments in a different way – what constitutes a  musical instrument, how do I “play” it? Things I learned from him…


DJ: How (if at all) are you using improvisation in your current work, such as Specifically Allies – Music For Dance, Vol. II?

FF: Sometime we need to sit down and talk about what you think improvisation is! I improvise all the time. So do you. That’s what humans do. I’m constantly deciding things in the moment, whether I’m composing or improvising. The difference is that the composition will be realized later by someone else who will not necessarily be improvising. Allies was constructed in the recording studio, which is where I do most of my composing. Some of the parts were written ahead of time, some elements were invented on the spot. The recording process informed and altered the piece. This is also a kind of improvisation, just as mixing in the studio is like an improvised performance for me. It all goes hand in hand. Improvisation is not this weird separate genre for me, or something OTHER than everyday life and practice. If you’re a parent you improvise all the time!


DJ: Yet are there any methods or guidelines you use in improvisational performance or recording sessions to achieve what you and your collaborators find more satisfying results?

FF: The answer to that question is probably already implied in what I  said above; listen, always be in the moment, try to do whatever is necessary for the good of the whole, don’t do any more than you need to, leave space for ideas to develop, respect the material and let it be what it is without feeling the need to embellish it. But I don’t need to say those things because I work with people who know them already.


DJ: How has the recording studio as instrument over the years changed your method of composing with improvisation?

FF: I learned how to compose in the recording studio. It has been my principle medium for composition since more than 30 years. Some of the most exciting composing with improvisation that I’ve been involved in was Henry Cow’s Unrest, from 1974. It laid down a territory for exploration that I have been mapping ever since, and to me a lot of it sounds totally fresh. Composing in the studio always has something to do with improvising, however “composed” the material you’re working with may be. And it’s also performative – a mix is an improvised performance for me, working with fixed elements but recasting them. What has changed is really only a matter of degree, of mastery. I’m totally comfortable in the studio, and I’m concerned with the same things that concern me in any improvisation – listening, always being in the moment, trying to do whatever is necessary for the good of the whole, not doing any more than I need to, leaving space for ideas to develop, respecting the material and letting it be what it is….


DJ: Do you have any future plans to perform in the Czech Republic?

FF: I’ll be happy to come whenever anyone feels like inviting me. It hasn’t happened for years! Except Pavel Fajt tried a couple of times but the timing didn’t work out. Sooner or later.