The Experimental Gospel
Don’t know musical luminary Fred Frith? Here’s why you — and the rest of Austin — should
February’s live music calendar kicks off with an adventurous bang on Saturday, when legendary British composer, guitarist and improviser Fred Frith performs at The North Door. Don’t know Fred Frith? You definitely should. Here are five reasons why:
1. His first band, Henry Cow, laid the groundwork for the late ‘60s/early ‘70s progressive rock movement. Incorporating wind and string instruments, classical and free-jazz structures and philosophical humor, Henry Cow was avant-garde before such a thing existed in rock ‘n’ roll. But Frith would never rest on those laurels. “I don’t really think about it in terms of career and goals,” he tells CultureMap Austin. “I just try to keep listening forward.”
2. In the late ‘70s, Frith moved to New York and fell in with experimental composers such as John Zorn, Bill Laswell, Brian Eno, Zeena Perkins and Bob Ostertag. Forming or joining acclaimed underground bands including Naked City, Art Bears, Keep the Dog, Skeleton Crew and Massacre, Frith further expanded the boundaries of modern music to challenge and reward contemporary audiences. “Every time I finish making something, I think about what it suggests, what it didn’t do [and] what could happen,” says Frith. “That tends to inform whatever I do next, consciously or unconsciously. I’ve been incredibly lucky to have worked and to continue working with many extraordinary artists.”
3. Although he plays bass, violin, keyboard, drums, saxophone and a variety of other instruments, Frith is considered one of the world’s foremost guitarists. He’s built dozens of homemade guitars and specializes in using found objects to play them in an eclectic, singular style when he performs in a rare solo format. “[Solo] is very demanding,” he says. “But the thing is, there’s nowhere to hide. You have to be present in every moment, and your relationships — with the instrument, the space, the listeners, yourself — are somehow more focused, more heightened. I never know what will happen, and I like that!”
4. Frith has achieved more in 64 years than most of humanity could in 600. To date, he has appeared on more than 400 albums with over 15 different bands and ensembles; composed more than 25 extended arrangements for dance, film and theater; appeared as the main subject of an award-winning documentary; and rendered tidy assessments of his career meaningless. “I’m busy trying to make things,” Frith says, “and they usually exist on an axis somewhere between being asked to do something or work for someone, wanting to do something or work with someone and having read or seen or heard something that suggested a fresh focus or a new angle.”
5. Best of all? He’s passionate about sharing his knowledge and expertise with the world. For 15 years, he’s served as the Luther B. Marchant Professor of Composition at Mills College in Oakland, California. On Friday, January 31, in advance of his solo performance at North Door, he’ll perform at Austin Discovery School for students in grades 2-6.
“I’ve been incredibly lucky to be in a position as a teacher to observe new generations of extraordinary artists emerging. In the end, what teachers are always teaching is useful ways for you to teach yourself. With elementary school kids, this is not any different. The prerequisites for teaching yourself anything are that you’re curious about and interested in something. So I will try to awaken interest and inspire curiosity. What I learned from my music teacher in elementary school was that making music is a hell of a lot of fun. I’m eternally grateful for that lesson!”
BONUS: Frith hasn’t visited Texas in nearly 30 years, when his band Skeleton Crew played Houston and Austin. “It was springtime, and the bluebonnets were magnificent!” he says. “I remember loving Austin, [although] I guess it was a much smaller city back then. We hung out with Jimmy Carl Black after the concert in some bar. I’m really looking forward to coming back and seeing what’s changed and what hasn’t.”
Fred Frith performs The North Door Main Stage Saturday. You can find more info and get tickets here.