Guitarist, bassist, violinist, composer, inventor, orchestrator and do-it-yourselfer, Fred Frith is a musician whose contribution to the scene cannot be overstated. Sound material grinds, kneads, cracks and decomposes in his capable hands. Co-founder of the legendary British formation Henry Cow (1968-78), he moved to New York in the late seventies and came into contact with many of the musicians with whom he’s since been associated, including John Zorn, Ikue Mori, the late Tom Cora, Bob Ostertag and many others. In the eighties Frith began to write extensively for dance, film and theatre, and this in turn led to creating music for others to play. He has appeared on more than 200 CDs and has performed all over the world: Moscow, Santiago, Tokyo, Oslo, Montréal. He was the subject of a documentary by Nicolas Humbert and Werner Penzel, Step Across the Border, and is featured in the film Touch the Sound, alongside percussionist Evelyn Glennie. Fred Frith currently teaches improvisation at Mills College in Oakland, California.
Heathfield (England, UK), 1949
Residence: Oakland (California, USA)
- Performer (electric guitar)
On the web
Spool Music / SPL 116 / 2001
In the press
Isnor B Gordon, Left Hip Magazine, December 12, 2008An awesome concert…
Bruce Lee Gallanter, Downtown Music Gallery, June 20, 2008
Alexander Varty, The Georgia Straight, October 20, 2005… the Montréal-born idiom known as musique actuelle really is capable of embracing almost everything from the minimalist gestures of Babin and Hétu to the ear-scorching aural firestorms of Dontigny and d’Orion.
Alan Freeman, Audion, no. 49, March 1, 2004… an extremely varied ride…
Fred Frith played in Montréal recently along with some very talented local free improv players. I was fortunate enough to catch the show…
Legendary avant-garde guitarist Fred Frith dropped by Montréal’s Cabaret Juste Pour Rire the other night for a duo show with drummer Danielle Palardy Roger, and an opening set by two incredible percussionists - Michel F Côté and Isaiah Ceccarelli.
Côté and Ceccarelli started things off with nothing but drums. Côté was behind a standard kit extended with lots of toys and two mics rigged up two a pair of Pignose amps. Ceccarelli just had a bass drum lying on a chair along with, again, lots of toys. The pieces were all very brief which was really nice, and despite the fact that drums alone might seem limited, each piece was very different from those that came before – sound loud and frenetic, others quiet, one actually managed to elicit quite a bit of laughter from the audience, which I’m hoping was a good thing. Côté used the mics as drum sticks to great effect - creating all kinds of unusual sounds of tension and release, friction, surprisingly dynamic feedback that almost made one think of the expressiveness of the Theremin, and there were moments of all out, distorted, banging-on-a-drum fun. The feedbacking drums were paired up really well with Ceccarelli’s bowed playing. A great set.
Fred Frith and Danielle Palardy Roger were up second and once they began playing, they did not stop until their set was finished — a really long and well laid-out musical journey with lots of highlights and unexpected twists and turns. Fred pulled out every trick in the prepared guitar book - from the old twanging drum stick between the strings to an array of effects and looping pedals and beyond. But with his mastery of music and his instrument it never felt like he was depending on the gimmicks, more using them to great effect to build up a complex, multilayered soundscape and every-evolving composition. He was well matched up with Danielle Palardy Roger, who also had all of the extended techniques and managed to make great music with them. They both seemed to be following their own paths the whole way not interacting too much like some free improv players do, creating a sort of back and forth conversation type of sound, but their individual paths meshed perfectly well together, so maybe they were both just following the music more than their own instrumental egos. Adding an extra oomph to the coolness of the show was when first Fred Frith let loose a barrage of percussive and wailing tribal vocals, followed a little later on by vocal sounds along similar lines from Danielle Palardy Roger. Took it to another level beyond the often staid confines of stylized free improv into something more about music in a broader and more sophisticated sense.
An awesome concert, and I think it was part of a recording project so it may see the light of day on CD in the not too distant future…
This was the 25th Anniversary of the Victoriaville International New Music Festival and it was indeed a wonderful event! This was also my 20th Victo Fest and it was one of the best Victo’s that I can remember. Michel Levasseur promised something special for this year and he and his crew delivered the goods. Composer, musician, bandleaders & label-heads, Fred Frith and John Zorn, two of the most influential and popular of those icons who return to Victo time and again, were involved in two sets a piece and attracted bigger crowds than usual. Fred Frith unveiled his new rock band, Cosa Brava on day 2 and closed the fest with the much-anticipated return of the Art Bears (Songbook). The Victo played on day one with The Dreamers project and unveiled the explosive Moonchild, a North American debut that still hasn’t been performed in NY. And that’s just 4 of the 24 mostly incredible shows that Victo featured this year. More passports (a festival pass for all of the concerts) were sold than any other year. Hence, the Art Bears, Frith’s debut band and both Zorn projects, as well as a wealth of other challenging sets, seems to inspire some folks to come out of the woodwork. Friends that haven’t been to Victo in many years, as well as lots of newcomers showed up for this special event. […]
Montréal is just a five-hour flight away, but the cultural capital of Francophone Canada can sometimes seem as remote as Antarctica. West Coast residents know the city as the home of relaxed liquor laws, good restaurants, and great delis, but we’re rarely exposed to the music that’s made there—and that’s almost entirely because most of it, whether pop, rock, or contemporary classical, is not sung in English.
North America’s largest French-speaking city is home to a thriving music industry and a club scene that we can only envy, but connecting with them seems difficult, thanks to the barrier of language. It’s ironic, then, that one of Montréal’s lesser-known contributions to the world of sound might end up being Vancouver’s entrée to Quebec’s musical life. Musique actuelle—a hybrid style that emerged in Montréal during the mid-1980s—is a largely instrumental form, so unilingual Vancouverites need not be scared off by incomprehensible texts. And although the idiom is so all-embracing that it’s hard to define, it’s animated by the kind of exploratory spirit that’s drives Vancouver groups like Talking Pictures and the Hard Rubber Orchestra. So it shouldn’t be that difficult for B.C. ears to appreciate Montréal’s sonic explorers, and we’ll get a chance to do just that this week, thanks to the Vancouver New Music Society’s Interférence: Statique X Statique festival.
Although the event, which runs at the Scotiabank Dance Centre until Saturday (October 22), features non-Francophone artists such as the U.K.’s Fred Frith and Janek Schaeffer, most of the performers hail from Quebec, and many of them, like Diane Labrosse, are 20-year veterans of the musique actuelle scene. Nonetheless, the otherwise charmingly articulate keyboardist still finds it difficult to explain what it is, exactly, that her chosen style includes—and that, it seems, is not only a linguistic issue.
“It’s a hard thing to do, describing a music that’s so broad,” Labrosse says, on the line from her Montréal home. “Of course at first there was progressive rock, and then improv came along, and then came the idea of putting together different styles of music. Some musicians began to draw on the roots of jazz, and also using more traditional or folkloric stuff, and then putting all of this together to make a new hybrid of music, which we called musique actuelle. We even find these different direct references within the same piece.”
The style’s name, like the music itself, contains a wealth of inferences and possibilities. Its sounds are “actuelle” because they’re real music made by real musicians, as opposed to machine-made, bottom-line-driven pop, but also because they reflect the kaleidoscopic reality of today’s media environment. The argument Labrosse makes is that few people confine their listening to just one genre, so why should musicians suffer self- imposed limitations on what they play?
Her own career reflects this wide-open attitude. She’s written scores for dance, penned twisted avant-pop tunes, worked extensively with sample-based music, and performed with a global array of free improvisers. And in her Thursday-night concert at the Dance Centre, she’ll move a step or two toward abstract sound, in the company of multimedia artist Jean-Pierre Gauthier.
“Jean-Pierre is more known in the visual arts,” Labrosse notes. “He started out as a sculptor, a visual artist, and then he started to make some sound sculptures. This is where we got involved together quite a few years ago, maybe in 1998 or 2000 or whatever. We did a project where he was working with rubber tubes and compressors and bird whistles, things of that nature, so it was a noisy kind of culture. That started him doing shows, or doing performances; before that he was more of a sound installer, working in galleries and things like that. But he’s always done very fine work, juxtaposing visual and audio stuff.”
Labrosse reveals that she doesn’t yet know what Gauthier will be bringing to their Interférence show. “He told me that it’s very small, and that it’s something that he’s made, and that it varies from one performance to another.”
With that in mind, she’s readying herself for a performance that will be improvised from start to finish, as will several of the other bookings that Vancouver New Music artistic director Giorgio Magnanensi has arranged for his festival. Following Labrosse on Thursday will be the cross-country quartet of Pierre Tanguay, Bernard Falaise, Dylan van der Schyff, and Ron Samworth, a group she describes as well worth hearing.
“It’s a double-duo sort of thing: two drummers that work in a similar fashion, and two guitarists that also work in a similar fashion,” she explains. “But everybody’s very different and has a real personality. I saw this band in Montréal, and it was quite a nice concert.”
Friday night (October 21) features performances by sound artist Magali Babin and saxophonist Joane Hétu, followed by Klaxon Gueule, a trio that includes guitarist Falaise, percussionist Michel F Côté, and pianist Alexandre St-Onge. Like Labrosse’s collaboration with Gauthier, both of these ensembles patrol the grey area between sound sculpture and more conventional forms of improvisation, a zone that increasingly draws practitioners of musique actuelle.
“You start with finding new sounds on your guitar or your bass or your drums,” Labrosse notes. “And you move from there to adding effects, and then to [computer-based] processing, or even to building your own instruments.”
Fittingly, then, Interférence’s musique actuelle survey will conclude on Saturday with Morceaux_de_Machines, an abrasive and intense collaboration between sound designers Aimé Dontigny and Érick d’Orion that has earned comparisons to noise innovators Einstürzende Neubauten and Otomo Yoshihide.
It seems that the Montréal-born idiom known as musique actuelle really is capable of embracing almost everything from the minimalist gestures of Babin and Hétu to the ear-scorching aural firestorms of Dontigny and d’Orion. Close observers of the Vancouver scene will note that our own creative musicians are capable of a very similar range of styles; perhaps the gulf between East and West, between Francophone and Anglophone, is narrowing at last.
A case of bad planning, the day we happened to start up Ultima Thule as an official business, I’d already booked to see Keep The Dog at the South Bank in London. That was Monday July 3rd, 1989, and an excellent concert it was too. Keep The Dog then consisted of: René Lussier (guitar), Jean Derome (winds), Zeena Parkins (piano, synth, harp and accordion), Bob Ostertag (sampling keyboard) and Kevin Norton (drums, percussion). The only downside of that concert was the guest appearance of John Zorn, whose mad squawking winds ruined a couple of otherwise excellent numbers. Two years down the line, and we have basically the same international troupe, but with ex-This Heat drummer Charles Hayward instead, and no John Zorn. Recorded at various gigs in Austria, Germany and Italy, it amounts to an extremely varied ride through the musical history of Fred Frith. There’s lots of familiar stuff, done in unfamiliar ways, and as much that’s unique to the Keep The Dog band that has never been released before. This includes a number of improvisations, and lots romping rollicking stuff. It’s a shame really that Keep The Dog never made a studio album, but at least there’s now this document to prove their existence to all those that missed out. I wonder if they’ll ever issue anything from the 1989 version of the band?
The Vancouver New Music Festival produces Interférence: statique x-statique / static x-static and presents, on Wednesday Octobre 19, 2005, Fred Frith, Jean Derome and Pierre Tanguay. And on Thursday October 20, it’s Diane Labrosse, Jean-Pie…Thursday, October 13, 2005 / In concert