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Composing for film: Fred Frith and Sally Potter

Improvisation in the Great Hall:
Chris Cutler (electric drums) and Fred Frith (electric guitar)

Goldsmiths College, London, 10 December 2009


Cutler and Frith have been performing as an improvising duo for some 30 years now.  Cutler uses an array of miked percussion and a multi-channel mixer, which allows him the same freedoms as Frith’s electric guitar - extension and modification of signals, with drums thunderously lowered in pitch, cymbal-decays reversed, small scrapes on kit extended into soundscapes.  Frith similarly employs effects,  but also ‘analogue’ guitar preparations.  Their performance differed from much free improvisation in the handling of time; both players sampled and held, made what might for a purist have had to be momentary extend noticeably and impossibly. 


In their music contingencies can get prolonged, which creates a music of controlled mood rather than controlled accident.  Of course, things still ‘fail’ (‘better’, qua Beckett) but the effect, the ‘failure’, might not  be momentary - which makes it sometimes easier, sometimes harder, to integrate glitches into the syntax.  There are still contingencies and ‘accidents’, but the pacing and feel is different. Cutler complicated things by occasionally bringing in random snippets of pre-recorded realia - wind, rain, sheep, non-local birdsong (black grouse, lapwing). Voices from outside occasionally similarly reminded us that we, too, were specifically located spatially. 


Within the hall, held cymbal-strokes underpinned sampled guitar textures, over which either player might add real-time ornament, or filigree, or a ‘lead line’; or such almost-static passages might cross-fade or dissolve.  I use film terminology advisedly - this concert was programmed with a film music workshop given by Frith and long-time associate Sally Potter.  But whereas the dismissive might say ‘film music’, meaning low-content mood-music, this was scarcely that.  If some of the audience were unsatisfied  - including the pair who bustled crassly and noisily out during the final fade - most were in tune with a slow improvisatory process involving intricate layering and juxtaposition.   Think Eisenstein or Dziga Vertov, rather than the flickering instantiations of Stan Brakhage.

Harry Gilonis

This is the latest of Musical Pointers' rare forays into free jazz improvisation; much appreciated. It speaks a language outside our knowledge, as did many of the filmic niceties in Fred Frith's fascinating live creation of a film score in the afternoon. Sally Potter conducted the proceedings mistress-fully, even managing to keep to the time schedule, fielding interesting questions from the audience at the end. For non-cognocenti, it was an eye-opener into arcane fields of artistic endeavour and made for an uniquely memorable experience. Goldsmith's should be complimented on the wide range of their public presentations, many of them free. Mailing list from Imogen Burman [Editor]