I started violin lessons when I was five, and sang in the local parish church choir until my voice broke. As a teenager I chanced on a guitar and became involved in blues and rock bands at high school. Studying at Cambridge brought me into contact with Tim Hodgkinson.
Our friendship soon led to the formation of Henry Cow in 1968. This turned out to be my formative musical (and social) education, as we explored whatever areas we found interesting—dance, theatre, composition, improvisation, song-writing, electro-acoustic experimentation, the recording studio, performance practice… Since the band broke up ten years later I’ve been continuously involved in groups of all kinds:
- Art Bears (1978-81) and Art Bears Songbook (2008-present)
- Marc Hollander’s Aksak Maboul (1979)
- Massacre (1980-81)
- Mad World Music (1980-82)
- Skeleton Crew (1982-86)
- George Cartwright’s Curlew (1984-85)
- David Moss Dense Band (1985-86)
- John Zorn’s Naked City (1988-93)
- Keep the Dog (1989-91)
- Fred Frith Guitar Quartet (1989-99)
- Tense Serenity (1997-98)
- Maybe Monday (1997-present)
- Massacre—the new version—(1998- present)
- Cosa Brava (2008-present)
- Fred Frith Trio (2012-present)
- Frelosa (2017)
And a few others…
Tim and I “discovered” free improvisation by the act of doing it – we’d been invited to accompany a dancer who was making a piece about Hiroshima. Tim had his alto sax and I had my violin and we played unscripted for half an hour. It was, for me, revelatory and intense. It really felt as if we’d just invented something. This was Cambridge, 1967, and I didn’t know anything about the London improvisation scene.
Once Henry Cow began its long, labyrinthine journey we found ourselves invited to make music for and with the Cambridge University Dance Group. The piece I wrote for them, With the Yellow Half Moon and Blue Star, eventually found its fragmented way onto our first album Legend.
Many years later, after the release of Gravity in 1989, I started to receive invitations to compose for choreographers, and since then I’ve created music for François Verret and Catherine Diverrès in France, Rosalind Newman, Bebe Miller and June Watanabe in New York, and enjoyed a long association with Amanda Miller and the Pretty Ugly Dance Company in Freiburg, and later Köln, in Germany. This has stimulated some of my favorite compositional work.
Improvisation has been central to almost everything I’ve done.
In the early stages of Henry Cow’s development I was lucky enough to be guided by some wonderful mentors. Lol Coxhill was one of them, as far removed from any kind of elitism or snobbery as you can imagine. His stunningly multifarious activities gave me permission to be myself and play with anyone, if it was fun and I was learning something. Another was Derek Bailey, who was relentlessly encouraging, not to mention generous, astute, and always surprising, and who invited me to perform in his Company Week on several occasions between 1981 and 1994.
With my colleagues in Henry Cow it was possible to develop a completely personal approach to improvisation that continues to resonate to this day. Meanwhile, moving to New York in 1978 brought me into contact with a new array of characters and treasured future colleagues—Tom Cora, Lesli Dalaba, Bill Laswell, George Lewis, Arto Lindsay, Ikue Mori, Butch Morris, Bob Ostertag, Zeena Parkins, John Zorn, and many others.
Composing for other people
I was so used to composing for people I knew in the bands I was in that I found the first invitation to write beyond that context quite daunting.
That first commission from ROVA Sax Quartet has happily led to many others, and during the last twenty-five years I have composed for and in some cases performed with
- Arditti Quartet,
- Asko Ensemble,
- Arte Quartet,
- Calder Quartet,
- Paul Dresher Electro-acoustic Ensemble,
- Dither Quartet,
- Eclipse Quartet,
- Ensemble Modern,
- Eos Guitar Quartet,
- Ensemble Eva Kant,
- Ensemble Inverspace,
- Glasgow Improviser’s Orchestra,
- Hebrides Ensemble,
- Karin Jampen and Percussion Art Ensemble Bern,
- Korona Guitar Kvartet,
- New Ensemble Moderne,
- O.M.E.G.A (Orquesta de Música Espontánea de Galicia),
- Orquesta Foco (Madrid),
- BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra,
- So Percussion,
- and my own International Occasional Ensemble.
I’ve also written solo pieces for Guy Klucsevek (accordion), Stefano Scodanibbio (double bass), Daan Vandewalle (piano) and Garth Knox (viola).
My interests as a composer are centered around a love for rhythm(s) of all kinds, and while I’ve developed a bunch of my own composing techniques and approaches, I still feel like I’m more of a song-writer than anything else.
Peter Mettler invited me to make music for his first feature film, The Top of His Head, in 1986. Since then I’ve worked regularly with a handful of directors—Peter, of course, notably on Gods, Gambling and LSD—but also Sally Potter (Orlando, The Tango Lesson, The Man Who Cried, Yes, The Party), Thomas Riedelsheimer (Rivers and Tides, Touch the Sound, Leaning into the Wind), Werner Penzel and Nicolas Humbert (Step Across the Border, Middle of the Moment and more recently Werner’s Zen for Nothing), and Nomi Talisman and Dee Hibbert-Jones’ Oscar-nominated Last Day of Freedom.
What I have learned from working with these extraordinarily directors, and the two engaged and unforgiving recording engineers with whom I mostly associate, Peter Hardt and Myles Boisen, is immeasurable.
I started out doing improvising workshops, invited first by the Festival MIMI in the South of France and soon in many other locations, notably a six-month residency in Marseille in 1990, working with “jeunes rockers en chômage des quartiers défavorisées” (young unemployed rock musicians from the ghettos).
This residency and the resulting opera (Helter Skelter, directed by François-Michel Pesenti) changed my life and inexorably led to more teaching work.
Eventually I was hired to teach improvisation by Mills College in Oakland, California, a legendary haven for experimental music since John Cage and Lou Harrison worked as piano accompanists there in the 1940s.
I was deeply honored to be invited to a place where so many iconic musicians had either studied or taught, and my almost twenty years in Oakland have been invigorating and inspiring.
I will retire from Mills in 2018, but am meanwhile teaching improvisation at the Musik Akademie in Basel, Switzerland and acting as an advisor in the creation of the new School of Sound Art at the Universidad Austral in Valdivia, Chile.
As we speak
I’m currently working with my trio (alongside Jason Hoopes, bass and Jordan Glenn, drums),
Frelosa (with Lotte Anker, saxes and Samuel Dühsler, drums),
and in a several different projects with my partner and principle inspiration, the visual artist Heike Liss, notably the live improvised duo Drawing Sound.