Monday, September 26, 2011

Fred Frith - Clearing Customs

For the first of three 2011 releases I'm reviewing this week I've chosen a new album by an old hand--Fred Frith, an artist who's already popped up here in numerous places as a solo artist, band member and producer.  I can think of few artists more prolific than Frith, who continues to improvise and compose with unabated verve at the age of 62.  This album is a collaboration between Frith and six other musicians--Wu Fei on guzheng (zither) and vocals, Anantha Krishnan on Indian hand drum and tabla, Marque Gilmore on drums and electronics, Tilman M├╝ller on trumpet, and Patrice Scanlon and Daniela Cattivelli, both on electronics.  The disc contains one track--the 68 minute-long title track, which is based on a graphical score written by Frith and with a stated purpose of bringing together artists of diverse and unrelated backgrounds into a functioning, communicating performing unit.

Unsurprisingly, Clearing Customs unites Frith's modern classical compositional approach with not only free improvisation but also his predilection for rock and folk.  As a large, extended composition, it's also unsurprisingly opaque on the first few listens, though the compositional elements and structure is evident and unfolds more and more with each revisitation.  Overall, I think the atmosphere is best described as moody; the most dominant aspects to my ears are the sounds of the zither and the computer elements, both of which account for a large part of the album's spacious feel.  The proceedings begin promisingly, with gently pulsing synth sounds and a (real or sampled?) ping pong ball bouncing.  Fractured beats soon enter the picture along with some typically Frithian clusters of guitar squeals and atonal cries from the other instruments.  After six minutes or so, a somewhat odd pace becomes apparent and persists for the duration of the piece.  Generally speaking, things flow viscously between spurting free improvisation, solo showcases for each instruments, and a gently throbbing returning minor motif.

While the idea of a graphical score is a thought-provoking one, my first thoughts are "Will it actually sound audibly different from a conventional score, and will it make a difference?"  After getting to know the album, it's difficult for me to say that there's anything inherently distinctive (audibly) about Frith's graphic score, but I don't mind--if the unconventional scoring method provides the musicians with enough direction and inspires their playing, I don't see why it shouldn't be employed as a tool.  That said, it's safe to say that this particular graphical score didn't create some unheard-of new kind of music for the first time ever.  Aside from the sultry mood, the music this album most reminds me of is Frith's own Traffic Continues orchestral collaboration, though his ensemble here would be more considered a "chamber" group.  In fact, it's rather reminiscent of a lot I've heard from later-period Frith, inasmuch as it's organized longform and sandwiches frantic blurts along with quieter sections, utilizes repetitive ostinati figures quite a bit, and includes fragmented but undeniable melodicism.  While this approach seems to reliably produce some great ideas from Frith and his collaborators, I think it almost always shows the demonstrable weakness of coming across as too inclusive--like the kind of painting that has piles and piles of paint, albums like this seem to always have a scattershot feel, with compelling ideas and textures juxtaposed starkly against less effective occupation of time and less strong ideas or ones that don't gain traction in the context provided.  For that reason, these kinds of pieces can be a frustrating hybrid between improvised and scored music that offers less in the way of free improvisation's pure intuitive musicianship and elemental sound presentation as well as less in the way of the focus provided by careful composition.

There is, however, a lot to like about this--Frith's guitar is in fine form, both percussively and in his signature distorted lead, the zither and percussion add distinctively ethnic timbres to the mix, and some of the beats add a lot of richness and energy to what would otherwise remain more of a chill-out set.  The main melodic theme is an attractive one, making use of a descending minor scale and spreading the line across multiple instruments--later in the album (I think in general things get strongest about 3/4 of the way in, especially right around the hour mark with some sweet grooves) it really flowers into full development.  I'm not completely sold on all of the electronics; they sometimes verge on cheesy with bursting, blaring samples and obviously computer-generated beat loops (some of the settings are clearly recognizable from groups like Radiohead, while others much more satisfyingly conjure Keith Rowe-like electroacoustic signal manipulation).  In all, I think my unease is due to their tendency to create a sterile, tinny and unorganic atmosphere that clashes with the very organic principles behind free improvisation; it seems like the more actual instrument-playing there is, the more alive and breathing the music seems.  At best, though, the electronics (and especially their combination with the trumpet playing) conjure the sort of twitchy mystery that Supersilent has progressively explored more and more.

Clearing Customs might not be the most satisfying or efficient experience, nor is it Fred Frith's finest hour as a composer or performer, but it does provide enough substance to be worth the purchase and time spent listening.  The album's mission statement is rather lofty, but the results are never really as transcendent or culturally gulf-bridging as the CD text would have you believe.  Though Frith has succeeded at incorporating musicians of diverse backgrounds into a functioning ensemble, the "diverse" characters seem to come together anticlimactically--only to produce sounds under the banner of Frith's already-established musical vocabulary and palette of ideas, demonstrating the unfortunate reality that disciplined and capable musicianship doesn't always come hand-in-hand with interesting ideas and vision.  Luckily Frith's got both, and so his quirks and idiosyncrasies (most of which he's already developed best and stated elsewhere in his prolificacy) creatively dominate the proceedings.  Though some of the longer twiddly passages may, on close familiarity and examination, ultimately prove vacant of any special ideas (which perhaps has to do with that ineffable quality that separates the best free improvisers with those who are simply valiantly attempting), giving this album space, attention and more and more plays has only improved my listening experience and I hope to view it with increasingly (if incrementally) higher regard as an agreeable, if small and inessential, pleasure.

Get it here.

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