Words that spring to mind when Fred Frith
improvises? Gesture. Texture. Foley artist. Instrument builder. Gimmick. Delicate. Noise. Rhythm. The soundworld he builds is a fortress against cliche. A Fred performance is also a feast for the eyes: necklace-like chains dropping into candy tins; rice falling like rain on the guitar; paintbrushes, shoebrushes, and ragged old cloths plopped, brushed and tossed about, muting, muffling and revealing the open, amplified strings; bright strips of felt pulled taught against the fretboard; drumsticks and chopsticks jammed in between strings, bouncing like boggle-heads stuck in stop-and-go traffic; Fred's bare feet ensnared by various pedals and looping devices; his grounded form a center for it all. Yet remarkably, I do not see Fred as a performer concerned with the aesthetic. His focus is "absolute," about music, about creating a for-this-moment-only soundtrack. Gesture, choreography, and a table full of toys are just means to an aural end. Not all of Fred's created soundworld is to my liking, but I will never cease to admire--with amazement and envy--the total package with which he makes this music. Fred's improvising involves movement, the body, the visual; the only missing element is text. But isn't an avoidance of narrative exactly what the late-romantic era composers championed? Absolute music needed no story. And tonight, in Berkeley, California, a more-salt-than-pepper haired Fred seemed to me a long-lost descendent of that great romantic tradition. Had the Naked City thrash and bass turned soft and sweet? Had the crowd of elementary school parents culled pretty pizzicattos and tonal washes of open fifths? Had visbile "antics" usurped the actual music that called them into play in the first place?
Fred, sitting amidst his guitars, gadgetry and a vast array of floor pedals (amplifiers hidden away backstage
), reminded me of an expectant child in the last car of an old wooden rollercoaster. Here's the twist: Mr. Frith drives this instrument, and we, the audience, are the unsuspecting passengers of a sometimes jostling and jarring ride. Oh, we do find respite--in plateaus of beautiful droning tones that stretch on like the horizon line--before careening through messy enjambments and transitions--hairpin corners--with grimaces of incredulity on our faces. Thankfully, there is, more often than not, a solid cushion of sound to lean back against. And always, too, the rhythmic rap-a-trap-trap of the tracks underfoot. I perceive and assess Fred's performance from the perspective of a trained musician and realize that most of what he does could never be notated. Though notation does not validate a musical work, a lack of notation does tend to invalidate a composer. Yet even as I sit there listening with the critical ears of a notation disciple, Fred is able to convince me of its irrelevance. His technique both eschews and outmodes classical music notation, drawing as it does on gesture, physical theatrics, and the use of, yes, props. In this sense, Fred leaves absolute music far, far behind; he commands not just one but a multitude of artistic elements. Sound. Movement. Noise. Dance. Light. Reflection. Electronic. Prickling. Folk. All recognizable derivations, in a way, but of a particular practice--the practice of a lifetime of attentive living, listening and experiencing.