Fred Frith


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FAQ for Fred Frith, prior to visit to Beijing, March 2010

Who and what are some of your influences?

Everything I’ve ever heard.

What is art?

It’s a way of saying: “I’m here, I’m alive, and this is who I am” while at the same time saying: “We’re here, we’re alive, and this is who we are.” So it’s at the intersection of our experience as individuals, as communities, and as specks of dust in the vast continuum of space and time.

What are you listening to at the moment?

Jack of the Clock, Atomic Bomb Audition, Molly Thompson, Paulo Conti, Ruben Gonzales, Cosa Brava

What defines your generation of musical artists?

No idea.

What elements make a strong improvisation?

Being able to do what you want to do; being alert to, and present in, the moment; awareness of your physical and social environment; the ability to listen alertly and in detail and instantly to translate what you hear into a possibility or an opportunity; and the ability to change your course of action without hesitation if the situation demands it.

What defines a weak improvisation?

Lack of more than one of the above qualities.

What do you think about the label “noise music”?

Since it seems to encompass just about anything as far as I can see, I’m not sure how useful it is! For a lot of people it really seems to mean “loud music”….

Interview on improvisation with Amir Mogharabi, 2007

Let me begin by asking a simple question in relation to the idea of improvisation. What are the fundamental differences, as a music professor, between conventional organization/teaching of musical methods, and music as improvisation?

I should probably start by saying that my own music education was far from conventional, and therefore my first-hand knowledge of how music is “conventionally” taught is limited. But there are two basic methods of instruction in music as far as I can see. One is the way most people in the world learn music, which is listening and imitating as best you can until you have a reasonable grasp of the principles of what you’re imitating and can start to invent your own versions of it. That’s pretty much how all of us learn how to do things. Even when formalized into becoming an apprentice to a “master” for years, the basic idea is the same.

So at the low end, you copy licks off records (or whole songs) so that you can exchange them with your friends, and at the high end you spend years studying in depth by observing the best musicians at close quarters and figuring out everything that makes them tick - not just technique, but philosophy, attitude, culture, context.
You could apply that idea to Flamenco, to Jazz, to the Indian Classical tradition, to Ghanaian drumming, it’s basically the same across genres and cultures.

The second method is unique to Western Classical tradition and it has to do with the peculiarities inherent in the invention of notation. Notation immediately posits an authority – the score – and ownership – by the composer. So classical musicians are focused on how best to realize the score according to what are understood to be the composer’s wishes. When you add a conductor to the equation, that’s a further relationship that needs to be taken into account.

This means acquiring a very specific skill-set – the training necessary to read even the most complex notation fluently, the cultural and historical knowledge to understand how the music is supposed to sound, the ability to follow a conductor, an understanding of the peculiarities of the well-tempered tuning system, and the discipline and critical acumen necessary to work at a very high level with others who have the same goals and training that you do.
When talking about conventional methods, you’re probably referring to everything that leads a musician to be effective within the above set of parameters. And that’s a very particular focus!

It means studying the canon (as mostly defined by people with an extremely narrow agenda), rigorously developing the techniques necessary to play music from within the canon, competing with others for the increasingly limited opportunities to perform the canon, and eventually teaching the next generation of students to do exactly the same thing, at which point it will be even harder to get a job, so the number of highly trained teachers from within this system will keep on proliferating!

If you want to compare that to how you might set about teaching improvisation I think the easiest way to understand it is thinking about producing something in a factory. It’s your first day on the job. You are met by the foreman, who lays it out like this: “OK, this is a photo of the antique German car we want to build. Here’s the original design. Over there are all the different parts that will make up the finished car.
Here’s a set of detailed instructions, showing you the order you need to follow to construct it. These are your teammates, they are going to be working with you and they have done this before so they’re going to show you how it all works. And we have to be done by the day after tomorrow. You punch in and out on the time-clock over there, and I’m in charge, so please do as I say. Any questions?” That’s a conventional music education. So what’s the equivalent situation for a would-be improviser? It’s your first day on the job, and there’s somebody whose role is unclear at the door of the factory. She ushers you in and you find yourself in a huge empty space. She doesn’t show you anything, because there’s nothing there. And she says: “So, hey, what shall we make?”

I like the idea of improvisation as a metaphor for entertaining an empty space. Can you discuss the distinction between "filling" a space and "owning" a space that you mentioned in an earlier interview?

I've noticed that when you ask most musicians (pretty much regardless of training) to start improvising, their first reaction is to immediately DO something, make sound, "fill" space if you like. And my response is to ask: "is that what improvising is?” All the clichés come into play, of course. What you choose NOT to do is just as important as what you do. You need to be "present" all the time, just as alert when you're not playing as when you are, and so on.

But I'm fascinated by the interpretation of what I think of as a practice based on the "recognition of necessity" as, rather, a "sound-producing action". For me the best improvisations reveal a deep understanding of the implications of silence, even when they are not silent. "Owning" space, therefore, means demonstrating that you are in control of it even when you are not actually feeling a need to do anything.
In this way a "solo" is a question of authority, and of self-discipline, and a certain recognition of the limitations of technique. I think of Bill Evans, or Miles Davis, or more recently Co Streiff, or Lesli Dalaba, when I think of that kind of improvising, and I find it always touches me really deeply.

How does physical space, whether empty or inundated, relate to the process?

Well, with improvisation you are always in a process of collaborating with the space in which you are playing. It's very different from playing composed music, where in a sense you are trying to impose yourself on the space, bend it to your will, because you have a sense of how something is "supposed" to sound. With improvisation, the first thing you do is listen to the space, and listen to yourself in it, and see what that suggests.

And you start from that point. It's a profound difference that takes into account acoustics, density, the social situation (on AND off-stage, assuming there is a stage), not to mention the daily small variations in the condition of your instrument and in your constantly changing perceptions of it. With preconceived music you are fighting to keep your preconceptions intact. With improvisation you are trying to let go of them...

And how would you describe the relation to space in your work, both metaphorically and literally, in terms of the spaces you have chosen in the past to perform?

Choice is an interesting way of looking at it. The fact is that choice is seldom involved. Like most musicians I play wherever I'm invited, and I'm very seldom invited to perform in places that were designed for music to be heard. In the last 40 years I've played in apartments, basements, railway stations, gymnasiums, war-time bunkers describing themselves as jazz clubs, fall-out shelters, lecture halls, class-rooms, cinemas, ice-skating rinks, parks, the roofs of apartment buildings, prisons, back-rooms in pubs and bars, disused factories, churches, breweries, you name it.

And occasionally I get to play in a concert hall, which means a place designed by acousticians for listening to orchestras, without any concessions to amplified music, which is why amplified music usually sounds so bad in concert halls. So my relationship to space is necessarily extremely pragmatic. I make the best out of it, on its terms!
Over the years you discover places that are kind to you, which you like to revisit. Others you dread, knowing that it will always be a struggle. However, you'd better listen to the space and adapt to it, just as you listen to another musician and adapt to her...

When speaking to Ikue about group improvisation, she mentioned the simultaneous decision to make a change in the course of the music, as an alchemical ingredient integral to improvisation itself. In a sense, a coalescing of listening and adapting that you mention in your response.
Can you discuss the processes of concomitantly listening and adapting in a real time acoustic environment?

And if anyone understands that idea, it’s Ikue! I remember reading an interview with Karlheinz Stockhausen years ago in which he talked about the importance of intuition. And the thing that struck me was his idea that intuition is a skill like any other, that you can learn it and develop it, it’s not just a thing that you either have or you don’t.

I think improvising is all about developing and honing your intuition. What will work here? What’s needed right now? How can I support that idea? Would this be a good moment to introduce a new thread, or to show the material from another angle? Of course, those kinds of thoughts are the result of analyzing processes after the event.

In the moment of “doing” you don’t have time to formulate questions or to understand what is making you do what you do. You’re just doing it.
But nevertheless reflexive, intuitive “questions” (and responses) are happening every second. And if you practice your art with the same people over many years, or with people who’ve also had long experience of the same kind of “intuition”, it’s hardly surprising that many times you find yourselves heading suddenly in the same direction without either having planned it or knowing where you’re going! When I play a duo with John Zorn, or with Chris Cutler, or with Ikue, it’s beyond a “conversation”.

It’s like one instrument, a single beast twisting and turning, nothing is impossible. Is there any more powerful metaphor for defeating our essential solitude than that ability to eliminate separation that characterizes good improvising? Alchemy, sure. Magic, why not?





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