Fred Frith - Biography

Fred Frith is a giant in multiple realms. If Guitar Player magazine had even a splinter of a clue, they’d genuflect before him on a monthly basis. He’s been at the center of any number of historically relevant music scenes, functioning as an aesthetic adhesive, serving as a bonding agent for wildly disparate musical styles and creative personas. His vast output traverses genres as it sprawls across prog rock, free improvisation, experimental music, and post classicism, and his resume features a who’s who of the avant garde, including Brian Eno, Henry Cow, the Residents, Henry Kaiser, Zeena Parkins, This Heat’s Charles Hayward, Bill Laswell, John Zorn, Richard Thompson, and the Rova Saxophone Quartet. For over forty years he has aggressively pursued enlightenment through the creative manipulation of sound, as a performer, composer, and teacher. He may not be as famous as, say, Eddie Van Halen, but he can shred just as hard, and his ability to engage and spontaneously interact with other artists is extraordinary. Simply put, Frith has a mad gift for expanding the language of sound, and just about every experimental musician working today owes him a certain degree of debt – and their very sincere thanks.

While a student at Cambridge in the late 1960s, Frith met Tim Hodgkinson, and the two held a brief improvisation. They immediately decided to form a band, and for the next ten years, Henry Cow (a play on the name of the composer, Henry Cowell) would redefine notions of progressive rock. While acts like Emerson, Lake & Palmer would use the format for wildly overblown demonstrations of technical facility and “professional” virtuosity, the members of Henry Cow trafficked in intricate subtleties, free improv, thoughtful philosophies, and socialist politics. The core members were Frith and Hodgkinson along with drummer Chris Cutler, and bassoonist/oboist John Greaves, but over the course of time, the group would feature an array of forward-thinking artists, including Peter Blegvad, Georgie Born, Lindsay Cooper, Dagmar Krause, Geoff Leigh and Anthony Moore. Still, Frith is at the creative nexus of the band’s albums: Leg End (1973 Virgin); Unrest (1974 Virgin); Desperate Straights, a collaboration with the Anglo-German group Slapp Happy (1974 Virgin); In Praise of Learning (1975 Virgin); Henry Cow Concerts (1976 Virgin); and finally, Western Culture (1979 Broadcast).

Frith’s solo debut came in July of 1974, and it remains, along with Derek Bailey’s Solo Guitar Volume I, one of the records that revolutionized the use of the guitar. Released by Virgin subsidiary Caroline, Frith’s Guitar Solos (why two brilliantly conceived albums have such prosaic titles is a bit of a mystery) was a watershed moment for how the guitar was played, and heard. Frith “prepared” the guitar by placing various objects in the strings, dampening and transforming the sound of the instrument, and defying the listener’s expectations. It was a technique developed by John Cage for the piano; and while Keith Rowe of AMM had been using similar methods for several years, Frith utilized it to spectacular effect. The innovations of Guitar Solos weren’t lost on the critics, who hailed it as one of the best albums of the year; it also brought Frith to the attention of Eno, who enlisted him for Before and after Science (1977 Polydor) and Music for Films (1978 EG).

After the demise of Henry Cow, Frith relocated to New York City and launched a profoundly productive career as a solo artist and collaborative partner. He was a member of the Art Bears, along with Chris Cutler and Dagmar Krause; the trio released three titles: Hopes and Fears (1978 Recommended), Winter Songs (1979 Recommended), and The World As It Is Today (1981 Recommended). Frith also recorded some wonderfully engaging LPs with Henry Kaiser; he joined Bill Laswell’s Massacre ensemble and worked with John Zorn in Naked City and Anton Fier in the Golden Palominos. He teamed with jazz-rock guitar legend Sonny Sharrock, bassist Bill Laswell, and saxophonist Henry Threadgill under the name Material; their full-length debut, Memory Serves (1981 Celluloid), remains a classic of the no-wave era. From 1982 through 1986, Frith teamed with cellist Tom Cora to form Skeleton Crew, which released Learn to Talk (1984 Rift) and The Country of Blinds (1986 Rift), the latter featuring brilliant contributions by electric harpist Zeena Parkins. Frith would continue to branch out, exploring chance operations, making field recordings, crafting electro-acoustic pieces, and composing for world-class musicians, including the Arditti String Quartet and the Rova Saxophone Quartet. Fred Frith is currently Professor of Composition at acclaimed Mills College, where he continues to exert an essential influence over modern music.

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