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Fred Frith

April 3, 2009

Mills College caps off its Music Festival this Sunday with a concert celebrating the reopening of its beautifully restored concert hall and the 60th birthday of Music Department Chair, Fred Frith. The composer, improviser, and guitar pioneer discusses teaching, improvisation, and what fuels his creative fire.

I’ve heard that you say that some of your students are more qualified to teach composition than you are.

All of them are! If you’re looking at paper qualifications. I don’t have academic music training or a music degree, which is rather odd: to be the head of a music department without a music degree. I have a degree in English from Cambridge and while there I was taken under the wing of Roger Smalley who was the composer in residence at Kings College at the time and a collaborator of Karlheinz Stockhausen. Sitting in his college room and listening to music, I became thoroughly immersed in contemporary music of that era. For example, I heard the English premiere of In C by Terry Riley in Roger’s room. In fact, he wanted me to play in it but I was too frightened. So, listened instead. My background is being surrounded by very interesting, creative composers, but not having actually studied music formally.

How is improvistation taught?

I don’t think anybody ever teaches you anything. All teachers are in the business of teaching people how to teach themselves and improvisation is no different from any other subject in that regard. I don’t teach people how to improvise. I couldn’t. What I can do is provide a context in which people can figure out for themselves, with other people, how to improvise. Which means that the context has to be constantly stimulating and changing and preferably offer people from very different backgrounds, which I find is actually helpful. If everybody has the same mindset, you’re not going to achieve a great result.

I think the danger for me is I see the development of an increasingly standardized improvisation pedagogy — this is becoming a very important academic subject — there are now improvisation programs springing up all over the nation and symposia and conferences on how to teach it along with all the rest of it. The danger is that it establishes improvisation as a genre of music, which it isn’t. And that it suggests that there’s a way to teach this genre of music and that there are certain rules, which means that there’s a correct way and an incorrect way to do it. That's a very dangerous assumption. It’s nothing if not personal and what might work very well for one player might not work at all for another.

You began exploring different ways of playing the guitar since the 1960’s. Do you see any limit to your curiosity about this instrument?

No. Recently my curiosity has moved back to my roots. It may be something that goes along with my age, I don’t know. I went through a trajectory where I understood that the electric guitar was going to be better able to do the kinds of things I was hearing, so I moved wholeheartedly away from where I began, which was improvising on an acoustic guitar in folk clubs in the '60s. I see Guitar Solos, which I made in 1974 as an outline of the paths that I wanted to follow. It gave me territory to explore and I’ve been exploring that territory ever since.

Then, a couple of years ago, I made an acoustic guitar record To Sail, To Sail and it seems to have had very much the same effect. It’s laid out a territory for me to explore. It simultaneously goes back to what I was doing in the '60s, but it adds everything that I’ve learned in the meantime on the electric guitar and applied it to the acoustic guitar, which created a whole other set of possibilities. So, I feel that I’m at the beginning of a path right now.

What are you listening to these days?

I’ve been listening to a group “Little Red Suitcase” that plays songs and also improvises, which is a very odd mixture. I’ve been coming back to Louis Andriessen’s Tijd which is an orchestra piece I really love.

What’s your current nonmusical inspiration?

I’m very interested in Cornelia Parker because of an exhibit I saw of hers in London. She’d had the Army Corps of Engineers come and blow up her garden shed and she turned it into an intstallation, sort of like a mobile. The musicality of it resonated very much with me.

Do you being an avant-garde musician at odds with heading a music department?

I don’t think Mills is an ordinary academic music department. If it was, I probably wouldn’t be able to handle it. It’s very small and we cater to people who are extremely creative and don’t fit anywhere else. So we tend to attract really interesting under-graduates who are doing extraordinary work. It’s a pleasure to be the head of a department like that. This semester has been overwhelming but that has more to do with this huge festival and reopening of the concert hall.

Is there anything you’d like to say about the concert this Sunday?

The concert marks my 60th birthday and I wanted to present as many different strands of my work as possible in one event so it’s going to be quite an epic concert. There’s going to be some improvising and some of my graphic score pieces based on photographs with a stellar group of local players. There’s a piece I wrote for the Hebrides Ensemble called Water Stories, so that’s my compositional side, and then there's my new group Cosa Brava. And I’m actually going to sing. That should keep people away! That’s why I’m saving it for last.

Lisa Houston is a feature contributor to Classical Singer magazine and San Francisco Classical Voice, and the founder of, a website for singers.