2008 / From an e-interview with University of Glasgow Dept of Educational Studies
What you do for a living / music career?
Compose, perform, teach.
How was your ability recognised?
I showed aptitude for making things up on the piano, and had a good voice.
Was it formally identified?
Wouldn’t know what that meant. My family (grandmother, parents) recognized it.
Was it recognised by others?
Probably, but I don’t know.
At what age did people start to identify your ability?
3 or 4
When did you realise that you had ability?
It never occurred to me that I didn’t. We were a musical family, so musical activity was just part of the way things were.
In what context did you notice it?
I no longer remember. I started violin lessons at the age of 5. And I played the piano as soon as I could reach the keys. Also sang in the church choir from age about 8 onwards.
Is anyone else in your family involved in music? If so, what types?
My father played piano and sometimes organ in church. My grandmother was a professional accompanist before she got married. My oldest brother plays piano, and also viola in amateur orchestras. My next older brother writes about music professionally.
What about musical experiences when you were young?
Playing violin in trios with my father and brother. Going to see concerts (I remember Yehudi Menuhin quite clearly). Singing in church. Playing in the school orchestra. Teaching myself guitar when I was 13. Starting to write pieces about a year later. Playing in bands, and performing solo at school concerts.
How did you get started as a musician / composer?
If you mean professionally, it followed on logically when I left school. I’d been performing non-stop at school, and I started performing in folk clubs and Working Mens’ Clubs in the North of England, and getting paid a bit for doing so. At university I started a band and we ended up staying together for 10 years and becoming internationally well known. There was never really a time when I wasn’t making music in front of people, starting in church…
From your involvement in music, how was your ability developed… by family?
By their consistent encouragement and support.
Likewise, and also from working together with like-minded players who were interested in the same things that I was.
By the wonderful Rodney Mayes, who was totally and deeply supportive and through whom I had early theory lessons and played in the orchestra. After he left the school (when I was 12) it was a very different story. His replacement was a strict disciplinarian who didn’t seem to get any pleasure out of music whatsoever, and when I changed schools I wasn’t considered good enough for “proper” music teaching. I was actively getting on with my own musical activities, but it was tolerated rather than encouraged.
by music teacher(s)?
see above, but some non-music teachers at the same school used to have listening sessions at home where we could hear opera, look at scores, and discuss what we were hearing. I found that to be quite congenial. In my previous school Rodney Mayes invited the percussionist James Blades to come and teach a class, and that I have never forgotten.
Through the very warm and welcoming world of British folk clubs, where I had my first experiences as a performer outside of school. Anyone could play, and there was always a kind word afterwards. I made many lasting friendships in this context.
Above all, it was through the act of forming a rock band and learning together at our own pace and according to our own interests that my ability developed more than in any other context. This was truly a deeply valuable pedagogical experience that I still find to be extremely resonant in my musical practice. Also, when I was a student (of English) I used to sneak into music lectures (by such as Earle Brown), and through this met many interesting composers (Roger Smalley, Tim Souster and others). They in turn exposed me to much of what was happening in contemporary music, and I avidly read the writings of John Cage, Cornelius Cardew, Stockhausen, and others).
2015 / QRD / Silber Media, with thanks to Brian John Mitchell
What was your first guitar & what happened to it?
Hofner Senator, 1963. Charles Fletcher took the neck and made it a part of the double neck guitar he constructed for me in 1974.
What’s your typical set-up from guitar to effects to amplifier?
Effects change according to context, and generally I try to avoid anything becoming too fixed in the setup. Just to shake myself out of habits on a permanent basis.
What’s your main guitar & what are the features that make it such?
1958 Gibson 345, stereo switch removed, original pickups, mountable/removable pickup over the nut end of the neck.
What do you wish guitar cases had that they usually don’t?
Handles that last more than three flights, clasps that last more than two flights. The case that a friend made for me in 1978 lasted for 25 years. Everything I’ve owned since then is another story.
What features do you look for when buying a guitar?
I don’t buy guitars.
How much do you think a good guitar should cost?
What you can afford.
What’s the first thing you play when you pick up a guitar?
I tune up.
How old were you when you started playing guitar?
At what age do you think you leveled up to your best guitar playing?
That’ll be sometime in the future if I keep working.
Do you see your guitar as your ally or adversary in making music?
Who are the guitarists that most influenced your playing & sound?
Jean Stokes, Mississippi John Hurt, Snooks Eaglin, Skip James, John Renbourne, Bert Jansch, Davey Graham, Pete Townsend, George Harrison, Syd Barrett, Daevid Allen, Dave Gilmour, Jerry Garcia, Sonny Sharrock, Derek Bailey, Hans Reichel, Eino Haapala, Keiji Haino. Etc.
What do you do to practice other than simply playing?
Listen to birds, and the wind, and traffic, and water flowing, and music with no guitars in it. Read poetry. Watch movies. Look at art. You know.
How often do you change strings?
Whenever they don’t sound good any more. Depends on how many gigs I play, how many rehearsals, the temperature, and many other variables.
How often do you break strings?
More or less never.
What’s the last guitar trick you learned?
How to get the clip-on tuner to stay on.
What’s something someone would have to do to emulate your style?
Develop a very strong masochistic side.
How often do you adjust your tone knob?
What do you see as the difference between lead guitar & rhythm guitar players?
One plays lead and the other plays rhythm.
Who do you think is currently the most innovative guitar player & why?
Ava Mendoza – her take on the blues is compelling and original. Janet Feder has a completely different take on classical guitar. Mary Halvorson’s pretty great too.
2007 / Musique Action Vandoeuvre, 25th edition
Your name is Fred Frith and for many years you have discovered (or revealed) unknown spaces.
Unknown to whom? Maybe we re-discover what we have forgotten?
What has provided and sustained your taste, or desire, or need to advance?
Curiosity. The desire to be one with my instrument. The desire to be one with the listener. NOT knowing what will happen next. Love.
How do you find reward, or pleasure, or relief, or consolation, in music?
We are forced to listen to music we didn’t choose, against our will, more or less continuously. Apparently we have as a result resorted to defeating this stream of crap by insulating ourselves even further into a private universe of headphones and I-Pods and self-selected and self-controlled music programs.
We are in control, but only by cutting ourselves off from each other. I find pleasure not in defeating the world by cutting myself off from it, but by listening to it over and over again with new ears. I learned this from John Cage in the 60s, and it’s the best present I ever had.
How do other people, find reward, or pleasure, or relief, or consolation, in music?
Finally: how did you make and how do you seek (and sometimes find) “the music”, or “some music”, or “your music”?
Listen. It is already there. You just have to recognize it.
Mixing it up
2011 / Fretboard Magazine, thanks to James Elkington
What made you try to fuse what was happening in rock music with what appealed to you in classical and jazz music? How did that alter the way you played the guitar?
Well, I didn’t, not really. By the time I was 17 I was more in the folk world than the rock world, and I was a big fan of Davey Graham, who was mixing styles together before anyone else was doing it. I started making arrangements of things that I liked that were NOT folk, and playing them in folk clubs – Django’s version of Tea for Two, Mingus’s Goodbye Pork Pie Hat, and also a piece from Joe Harriott and John Mayer’s Indo-Jazz Fusions.
I also learned some Latin American pieces that I heard on a Charlie Byrd record, and it all got mixed up with the inevitable Angie and John Renbourne’s Judy, and Mississippi John Hurt or Skip James tunes, or ballads like Barbara Allen… It was a time when everything was becoming available at the same time and for a moment it seemed like hierarchies were vanishing. I heard Captain Beefheart’s Safe as Milk and read John Cage’s Silence, and started exploring contemporary avant-garde jazz, Miles and Ornette Coleman—all at the same time as I was worshipping Bob Dylan and playing in folk clubs!
But I was still playing the guitar pretty conventionally, just that my choices of what to play were a bit different! At least until around 1969. Then everything changed again….
The more I listen to Davy Graham now, the more of an anomaly he becomes in English music. He seemed to be genuinely deaf to genre divisions and heard all music as one common language, which is a defining characteristic of some your solo albums. I know that’s not a question, but I’d never made the connection between the two of you before. Do you still see that connection or was it only passing?
I think I forgot about it for a long time, but then I rediscovered him a few years ago and it hit me how much he had meant to me. I was very touched when I was asked to perform with him at Les Cousins not long before he died, but unfortunately it proved impossible to get there.
I relate to him in many ways. He was always a bit of an outsider, spent a lot of time outside his native country, and as you say, genre divisions meant nothing to him. His record with Shirley Collins still sounds astonishing. I dedicated a song to him on my acoustic guitar solo record To Sail, To Sail.
Composing and improvising
2011 / Interview with Tõnis Kahu, Estonia
There was once a belief, that free and improvised music can actually be accessible. That it is an expression of natural creativity and that only different cultural and commercial rules prevent people from liking it. The question is – why isn’t this music more popular?
That’s a complicated question, because for many of its adherents, improvisation is an exclusive club that sets them apart from everyone else, a classic form of rebellion! So the last thing they want is for the music to be accessible, rather the opposite. They want it to reaffirm their separation, and therefore their unique coolness!
And there’s also the side that has to do with the origins of the European free improvisation scene, which had a lot to do with either escaping from the world of “jazz”, which they saw as not “belonging” to them—or approaching musical language from a rigorously experimental perspective, trying to get rid of all those elements that represented for them a cul-de-sac, moribund and unexciting. So: no regular pulse, no “melody”, no recognizable harmony, and so on.
This latter has in many cases become a set of restrictions every bit as stifling as the ones the pioneers of free improvisation wanted to escape from. And for those who now see improvisation as a genre with rules that reaffirm those original reexaminations, it more or less precludes the idea that anyone else would want to listen to it! After all, what does the music of every culture and time have in common if not regular pulse and melody?
Those are deep things that we all relate to. So is it surprising that music that sets out to deny those things is not going to be popular? Having said that, the club now has a lot more members, so it’s not quite as exclusive and elitist as it used to be, and much less easy to define in simple terms.
Painters and writers and composers don’t need to stand publicly by their works. But as a guitarist you sometimes have to. Do you enjoy that aspect of performing – that you have physical presence and that people can actually see your interaction with the instrument on stage?
It is what it is. Performing is always theater, and it’s a good idea to understand that. For me that’s part of the magic, I don’t wish to deny it, I wish to embrace it! And even in the studio I’m aware of my work as a “performance”, whether playing an instrument or “playing” a mixing console.
I think it’s an essential way of making the music come alive, of transforming ideas through being in the moment and not knowing how it will turn out. In a sense you are always courting the possibility of failure, but that’s precisely why it’s so exhilarating!
2012 / interview with Simon Humes
The act of improvisation now holds a place within the concert hall, the art gallery or the nightclub. Is this an indication of a greater social relevance attached to this music? Is the act of improvising more profound to us as a society at this time than perhaps any established musical genre?
I try to avoid any kind of statement that places burdens on the music that it can’t sustain. I have improvised (and performed composed music) in bunkers, theatres, universities and high schools, jazz clubs, kindergartens, gardens, former slaughterhouses, former factories or railway stations, gymnasiums, record stores, fall-out shelters, used-car salerooms, ships, and yes, concert halls and galleries. You name it. I have been doing that for at least 40 years, and I’m still doing it.
I do not believe that improvisation is “more profound to us…than any established musical genre” in terms of social relevance. Many established musical genres have incorporated or involved improvisation since their inception, and improvisation is not in itself a genre, though it is definitely in danger of becoming one, and a rather self-important one at that. There’s always been a lot of talk about the superior socio-political attributes of improvisation inasmuch as all the players have an equal say in the outcome, implying some kind of truly democratic process, coupled with a subtle or not so subtle implication of the opposite being the case in other kinds of music, for example. I guess I don’t really buy that either, given that the proportion of intolerant, insensitive, or just lazy improvisers is probably exactly the same as in any other form of musical/human endeavour.
In other words defining yourself as an improviser doesn’t somehow make you a better musician or a better person or a more politically correct one. The primary activity in all forms of music making is listening, in the broadest possible sense of the term. The better you can listen, and hear, the more effectively you can realize your own and other peoples’ ideas, whatever kind of music you play. Maybe the act of listening needs to become more profound to us as a society…
I would like to know about your compositional approach. I have read interviews where you speak about a “block melody” technique you employ and about “melody extraction”, but I was wondering how you approach your music on a microscopic level. Do you have a set method for creating the harmonies you employ, or the rhythms? And do you compose at your instrument?
I don’t have a set way of doing anything. If I feel I’m developing habits or patterns I usually try to break them. Having no formal training has sometimes seemed like a profound disadvantage, but it’s sometimes really liberating. Mostly I use my ears – I listen and adjust.
I also use the Fibonacci Series, or playing cards or the Wall Street Journal to generate numbers that may end up being used in the formation of measure lengths, meter, harmonic intervals, pitches, and so on, but this is usually just a way to get going. I generally try to do as little as possible, and am always stripping away until I can’t strip any more. I like applying processes to material just to see what happens. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t.
The microscopic work you talk about has more to do with how I work in the studio – exactly where does this event occur? At what volume level? Equalized and treated how? Where does it sit in relationship to what else is going on? Will it recur?If it does, will it sound the same? If not, how will it be modified? Will it recur more than once? These kinds of questions are what composers in any medium tend to ask themselves. You generate material, and then you have to address questions of development, stasis, form, memory, and so on.
2016 / from an interview with trumpeter and composer Nate Wooley
How are instructions useful for you, in terms of musical direction?
It really depends on the context. I can imagine scenarios where instructions, or too many instructions, might feel like a limit on my imagination—when I’m working with dance for example, or film.
It’s a fine balance between finding your own path and making sure you’re on the same page as your collaborator. It’s a dance in itself. Any score is an invitation to collaborate with a composer. The perceived or stated limits of the collaboration are at the center of that relationship. But obviously I want to know what the composer wants, in as much detail as possible, and if “instructions” is the way to achieve that, then so much the better. Sometimes all the composer really wants is to see what happens!
How do you use scores?
Mine or other people’s? A score must have some kind of intended outcome, so I use a score to try and determine what that outcome should or could be, however specific or vague. Sometimes being given “freedom” by a score is actually a subtle form of imprisonment! It’s a lot easier to be told exactly what to do—the more exactly, the more accurate the outcome. But some scores are not about accuracy but about feeling, a response to an image, an imprecise interaction of some kind.
What makes a score effective? Ineffective?
That depends entirely on what the composer wants. I’m tempted to say that it’s most effective when it leads to a consistent and foreseeable result. But what if the intention of the composer is to avoid consistency and rather to explore the highly subjective nature of the score’s interpretation in the hands of a wide variety of performers with different skill sets and different forms of training. For example. But it probably does make sense for the composer to have thought about it and to have some sense of what would be a preferred course of action. Otherwise, why bother?
What draws you to improvisation? Is there a point when you would say you started improvising, musically?
I think we all start improvising when we’re first confronted with any sound-making object, whether a musical instrument or not. Improvisation is the first impulse – what is it? What does it do? What does it sound like? Why does it sound that way? What happens if I hit it, or blow on it, or rub it, or scrape it, or drop it?
I remember playing around on the piano from the moment I could reach the keys, because my dad played, so we had a piano in the house. I eventually learned to play instruments formally through the medium of notated music, but I never stopped improvising from the moment I could make sound. I don’t think this is particularly unusual, except that the better you become at an instrument the more likely you are to be discouraged from making stuff up and focused on interpreting notated music as accurately and with the best sound possible.
Unless you are a folk musician, which is where I ended up by the time I was 14. (No classical talent!)