Fred Frith

Guitarist, violinist, bassist, keyboardist, and composer Fred Frith is one of the most venerable and beloved members of the rock music avant-garde, and (along with similarly inclined artists like John Zorn and Christian Marclay) has done much to blur the boundaries between popular and art music.  

After a childhood and adolescence spent playing pop, folk, and blues, Frith attended Cambridge University, where he and saxophonist Tim Hodgkinson formed Henry Cow – a very 1960s name for a very 1960s experimental rock band. While Frith’s subsequent career would be marked by a wide range of projects and styles, most of that later work can be seen as having evolved more or less logically from the music of Henry Cow: the group blended free improvisation with careful composition, high-spirited humor with earnest politics, and abrasive noise with accessible melody.

While still actively involved with the band (which would endure for ten years before breaking up), Frith released his landmark Guitar Solos album. This release also functions as the template for a major strain of his work throughout the remainder of his career. On Guitar Solos he plays “prepared” guitars – a concept borrowed from composer John Cage, who famously altered the sound of pianos by laying or inserting objects onto or between the instrument’s strings. Frith did the same with guitars laid on their backs on the table in front of him. Having mechanically altered them, he would then proceed to scrape, pluck, hit, and bow the instruments, often feeding the sound through electronic effects. It was (and remains) a fundamental manifestation of Frith’s genius that this approach results in music that sounds neither random and chaotic, nor even (most of the time) unpleasant, but instead creates a pleasing and fascinating kaleidoscope of pitches, textures, and timbres that are endlessly fascinating. A few years later Frith released the solo album Gravity, which juxtaposes genuinely tuneful (though somewhat off-kilter) pop music – like the melodically gorgeous and rhythmically crooked “Spring Any Day Now” – with more challenging fare.

Frith eventually moved to New York City and quickly became a fixture on the avant-garde scene there. His most exciting work was with the wild and wooly power trio Massacre (which also featured legendary bassist Bill Laswell and drummer Fred Maher), but he also made important recordings with Skeleton Crew and John Zorn’s Naked City. He collaborated with a large and stylistically broad list of musicians, and in the 1980s began writing music for films and for composing more formal works for other ensembles, including string quartets, saxophone ensembles, and other chamber groups. He has also composed extensively for dance troupes. 

In the late 1990s he joined the faculty of Mills College as composer-in-residence and later was appointed to an endowed professorship, a position from which he retired in 2018. Over the course of his career he has made or contributed to over 400 recordings.

Guitar Solos cover

Experimental guitarist Fred Frith has made so many albums over the decades, and in so many styles and with so many band configurations, that it’s tough to know where to start. Of his solo work, this is one of the two foundational albums. It documents his “guitars on the table approach,” which involved laying two guitars next to each other on a table and striking them, dropping things on them, bowing them, and manipulating the resulting sounds with various pedals and effects. The music is otherworldly, of course, and yet never merely noisy or abrasive; his genius is in making sounds that don’t necessarily sound like music as such, and yet can hold your attention like a pop song does.

Clearing Customs cover

Described in the notes as “a suite by Fred Frith with a multinational septet at the SWR NEWJazz meeting 2007,” this album consists of a single hour-long track of improvised music in which Frith collaborates with other instrumentalists playing the guzheng, drums, trumpet, mridingam, tabla, and various electronics, with Frith on “guitar and home-made instruments. As Frith himself points out, this music can hardly be counted as “jazz,” but it partakes of jazz’s aesthetic of free improvisation informed by careful and respectful listening to others. Over the course of its 67 minutes, this music seems to take us on a tour throughout geographic and cultural space, sometimes singing lyrically and sometimes shouting.

Nous Autres cover

This summit meeting of avant-garde guitarists features elder statesman Fred Frith alongside young up-and-comer René Lussier, recorded live at a contemporary music festival in Victoriaville, Québec in 1986. From the very first moment, you can tell they’re having a blast: both play with puckish good humor as well as an uncanny ability to improvise structures —sometimes fairly complex ones — collaboratively in real time. There’s a bit of hellacious noise, a bit of straight-ahead rocking out, a bit of drum machine and a bit of tape manipulation. In other words, there’s something here for everyone in the family. Assuming no one in the family minds music that sound like nothing else they’ve ever heard.

Eleventh Hour cover

Fred Frith is known mostly as an improvising solo guitarist, and for his work with groundbreaking avant-garde ensembles like Henry Cow and Massacre. But during the latter part of his career he really developed his compositional chops and wrote for a variety of ensembles. This program focuses on works written for string quartet (performed by the highly-regarded Arditti Quartet). The music is challenging but not forbidding; there’s a darkness here that is somewhat at odds with the puckish humor one normally associates with Frith’s music, though a certain lightheartedness emerges at times as well.

Still Urban cover

This is one of two albums that avant-garde guitarist and composer Fred Frith recorded with Arte Quartett, a Swiss saxophone quartet (pianist Katharina Weber and drummer Lucas Niggi make guest appearances as well). The music is composed rather than improvised, though Frith’s noisy guitar and tape interventions seem more extemporaneous than the saxophone parts. As is the case with much of his composed chamber music, there’s real lyricism here among the spiky atonality, and the playing is excellent throughout.

Gravity cover

Fred Frith’s Guitar Solos album is the best introduction to his most experimental work. Gravity is the best example of his more pop-oriented efforts. It’s not pop music, exactly, but it’s much more accessible and tuneful than those familiar with his guitars-on-the-table work and his music with Henry Cow could have expected. “Spring Any Day Now” is so tuneful and lovely that it’s easy not to notice its oddly shifting time signatures; his take on “Dancing in the Streets” is twisted but still easily recognizable. Filled with humor as well as eccentricity, this is one of Frith’s finest solo albums.

Leg End cover

The first album by pioneering avant-rock ensemble Henry Cow is a great place to start. The band was founded by guitarist/violinist Fred Frith and saxophonist Tim Hodgkinson, but also featured drummer Chris Cutler among others; these three would continue to make music together in varying combinations after Henry Cow disbanded. On its debut, the band is both finding its way and expressing well-developed ideas; composed passages bump up against skronky improvisation, and slippery melody lines fall apart and coalesce again. Legend is both very much of its time and a completely unique musical document.

A Mountain Doesn't Know It's Tall  cover

The back history of this album is that Fred Frith and Ikue Mori are both legends of New York’s 1980s downtown avant-rock scene. As a guitarist with Massacre, Frith helped redefine the idea of the power trio; as the drummer with DNA, Mori helped define the No Wave sound. On A Mountain Doesn’t Know It’s Tall, Frith employs his usual extended guitar techniques and Mori uses a laptop, and part of the fun of this tremendously engaging album is trying to figure out who’s making which sounds.

All Is Always Now (Live at the Stone) cover

Most of Fred Frith’s recordings have been collaborative: he’s worked with many bands and in duos or trios with many like-minded avant-garde musicians. This three-disc album documents live performances from between 2007 and 2016 at which he improvised alongside collaborators both illustrious (Laurie Anderson, Ikue Mori, Pauline Oliveros, Evan Parker) and more obscure. The music is all over the place: there’s some hellacious noise, there’s some gentle weirdness, there’s some pointillistic abstraction. All of it is worth hearing, and the album is a must for Frith’s fans.

Live in Japan cover

After Guitar Solos, Live in Japan is probably the most compelling and representative example of Fred Frith’s “guitars on the table” approach to avant-garde music making. Around 1981 Frith toured Japan using this technique, which involved laying guitars on their backs on a table in front of him, applying objects to the strings and pickups, and then manipulating them in various ways to produce a huge variety of sounds. Originally issued as a 2-LP box set in a limited edition of 1000 copies, the master tapes of these recordings were eventually lost. A CD reissue in 2010 was made possible thanks to advanced sound restoration techniques applied to a vinyl copy.

Soshin cover

Soshin features avant-garde guitarists Derek Bailey, Fred Frith, and Antoine Berthiaume in various combinations; although it’s credited to all three artists, Berthiaume is the only one who appears on all tracks (and he plays alone on the expansive opening title track). His collaborations with Frith are highlights of quicksilver invention and sympathetic communication; the tracks featuring Bailey have more of the acerbic edge one would expect based on Bailey’s well-documented tendencies.

Speechless cover

After the monumental Guitar Solos and the surprisingly accessible Gravity, Fred Frith’s third solo album carved out a musical path somewhere between the first two. On several tracks he worked with the French avant-garde ensemble Etron Fou Leloublan, creating music that was clearly composed but also wildly freewheeling; on several others he is with his bandmates from Massacre, whose Killing Time was released the same year. Much of the music on this album seems more inward and serious than the more poppy and freewheeling Gravity.

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