Wired Science

From laptops to insects to wineglasses, j.frede's sonic experiments leave no sound untweaked.

I never saw any relation between my upbringing and the art that I do," says j.frede, the former Denver aesthetic agitator who now resides in Los Angeles, where he has been making a name for himself as a composer and performer of experimental music over the past two years. "I grew up in southern New Mexico, in Hobbs, a really small cowtown close to the borders of Texas and Mexico. Recently I went back home, and as I was pulling into town early in the morning, I realized that my entire surroundings for the first fifteen years of my life were just the most strict minimalism you can imagine. It's the Great Plains; you spin a 360 and there's little to no trees, no mountains. It's just solid horizon.

"It hit me like a ton of bricks," he goes on. "I realized what a lasting impact that environment had on the sound that I do, that I'm attracted to. It's always been really stripped-down stuff."

Born James Frederick, the 28-year-old artist abbreviates his music as radically as he does his name. Like a sculptor who sees the statue at the middle of a block of marble, he's been unflinchingly chiseling away at his musical vision over the course of thirteen years and nearly thirty releases. And now, with two brand-new CDs and a series of ambitious performances showcasing his conceptual minimalist technique, j.frede is finally hitting his core.

Frede's first experience playing music was at age fifteen, when he was the bassist of a goth band in Albuquerque. He soon dropped out of school, however, and wound up homeless, hopping trains and living on the streets of L.A. and Texas. And although many troubled street kids wind up drunk or strung out, frede has been straight-edge -- drug- and alcohol-free -- his whole life. "It's not better or worse," he says of his abstinent philosophy, one codified by '80s hardcore punk bands like Minor Threat and Youth of Today. "It's just a different choice. I had already made that decision before I found out what straight-edge was, when my older brother turned me on to Minor Threat."

In 1995, after frede settled in Denver, he started Halopane, a band that, though derived from goth, favored a stronger experimental approach. As he remembers: "Halopane had two basses, a drum machine and some weird tape loops. We were completely unaccepted by the goth scene, ostracized by all the goth kids who just wanted to hear typical death-rock stuff.

"All my sounds have always been of a darker tone, just not in a ŒScary Sounds of Halloween' kind of way," he continues with a laugh. "Not cheesy, but more like old-school, early horror-movie soundtracks."

During a year-long sojourn in San Francisco, frede immersed himself in the mystical, almost psychedelic drones of Sleep Chamber and Psychic TV, both of which inspired him to form two major vessels for his creative restlessness: the music project Chapter 23 and the record label Ritual Document Release. Upon returning to Denver, he began playing live and putting out limited-edition cassettes dressed in elaborate, handmade packaging -- displaying his knack for graphic design, a preoccupation he believes correlates directly to his music.

"A lot of the noise stuff that I was getting into at the time came in special packaging, and it really floored me," frede remembers. "It just seems so much more appropriate for this type of music to be presented in a non-traditional way. I would do an edition of 25 tapes, and every tape would have different music on it and would be hand-painted, with no labels. I would just give them out to people." He soon moved on to even more involved packaging that incorporated silk-screened fabrics, stitching, Army-surplus materials and even white decal letters painstakingly arranged on blank LP sleeves.

As the wrapping around frede's releases grew more sophisticated, so did the sounds inside. Generated at first by cassette-tape loops ("Because of a lack of funds, I couldn't afford equipment or samplers," frede remarks), Chapter 23's music was mantra-like yet abrasive, an instrumental mélange of jagged noise and jaw-snapping static reminiscent of the more abstract work of Merzbow or Einstürzende Neubauten. But as he built up an arsenal of hardware, frede's output ironically became more minimal. He began enveloping his harsh electronics in arctic washes of ambience, conjuring a bleak, hypnotic soundscape that owed a debt to twentieth-century avant-garde luminaries like Terry Riley, LaMont Young and Brian Eno as much as the post-shoegazer narcosis of Main and Flying Saucer Attack.

But frede's turn from chaos to tranquility was simply an outgrowth of his own character rather than a conscious stylistic decision. As he explains, "I'm really not interested in being very demanding or like, ŒLook at me! Look at me!' If you get what I do, okay, that's great, but I'm not going to shove it down your throat. I like using a more subtle approach to presenting something. I was never very interested in the idea of demanding people's attention."

The subtlety of frede's approach became even more apparent with his discovery of field recordings -- the process of capturing and manipulating environmental sounds that was pioneered by composers like John Cage and David Dunn. "I've done just about every field recording you could imagine at this point," he says. "I've been interested in lots of field recordings that actually sound synthetic. If I can find natural sonic atmospheres that sound like something someone created with a synthesizer or software, that's what I'm really drawn to. For instance, I did recordings in my parents' windmill, down inside the pipe. It creates this unbelievable effect that sounds like a really heavy, rich, gritty chorus. I also did a recording of desert insects out in the middle of nowhere on the drive between Los Angeles and New Mexico. I had to pull over; it sounded just like an electronic buzz everywhere.

"And this last summer," he adds, "I recorded in Utah at this hotel that I had stopped at. The sky was full of bats, and it sounded like wires buzzing or something, this thick blanket of bats eating insects above me."

His obsession with field recordings led frede to embark on the Audio Journal Tour across Europe during the winter of 1998. Throughout Finland, Sweden, Norway and Germany, he set up microphones in each city and used the resultant snippets of background noise as sources for that particular evening's show. By sampling, looping and processing these sounds, his performances became intimately unique to each setting, as well as displaying a sympathy and sensitivity to the surrounding culture.

"The thing that really stood out to me in Europe was all the language," he elaborates. "I would record lots of conversations and bus announcements and train announcements. And who knows? When I played to people in Finland, maybe they were like, ŒWow, this guy's making sounds out of someone reading their grocery list.'"

Still, as frede describes it, the European tour was "very hard, almost crippling," and he aborted the mission after four weeks rife with poor turnouts and non-paying promoters. On the long plane ride home, bursting with inspiration from the small yet cohesive experimental scene he witnessed in Scandinavia, he outlined his designs for Denver. In February 1999, just three months after returning to town, he opened Chernobyl, a Capitol Hill art space that served as a venue for touring noise and experimental acts and exhibited multimedia works coupling audio and visual elements. After Chernobyl closed a few months later, frede refocused his attention on the Atonal Festival, an annual event he created years prior that brought together many local and national figures from the world of contemporary avant-garde music. The final Atonal Festival, in 2001, was a massive two-night affair at the Gothic Theatre, during which the venerable hall was transformed into a labyrinth of textures, oscillations and bit-mapped rhythms. Among the laptop-and-synthesizer set was Kim Cascone, just one of the many acclaimed, internationally known artists with whom frede has associated and appeared over the years. That roster also includes Kit Clayton, Francisco Lopez, Robin Rimbaud of Scanner and Sonic Boom of Spacemen 3.

Frede and Cascone have a split release due next spring, but frede's most recent collaboration is with Denver pianist David Nereson. Dubbed Unprepared Piano, the disc is an exploration of mood and void in which frede uses editing programs to tweak, modulate, layer and arrange dissonant samples of an antique upright piano being tuned. His other new release, though, is even more noteworthy. Produced in partnership with IDM artist Carlos Archuleta, BLIP: The Glitch Electronica Standard Referencewas put out this summer on the Sonic Foundry imprint, a subsidiary of Sony that specializes in providing raw material for musicians and producers to utilize, copyright-free.

Archuleta is also frede's partner at his record label (now called Current Recordings in honor of the gradual shift in focus from the Ritual Document days) and is slated to participate in frede's newest live undertaking, Glass Music. This one-time performance will take place at Denver's Museum of Contemporary Art, where frede appeared often before moving to L.A. in 2001. Almost a rebellion against his usual computer-based compositions, Glass Music is a symphony of struck wineglasses during which approximately eight players -- including Archuleta, electronic musician Marleah Tobin, professional composer Mark McCoin, ex-Blue Ontario bassist John Parks and frede himself -- will encircle the audience while coaxing euphony from their rather unorthodox instruments.

"I got the idea from doing the dishes," says frede without a trace of sarcasm. "The sound of glass is completely natural and acoustic, just the purest sound ever. There will be two parts of the performance: The first will be a duet between myself and Marleah using wineglasses to generate a drone piece out of the tones and resonance of the glass. And then the second piece will be with the whole group, half improv and half arranged by myself."

Besides preparing for Glass Musicand his visit to Denver, frede remains dizzyingly busy. Between showing sound installations in galleries from L.A. to Portland, readying a second volume of BLIPfor Sony and recording pieces derived mathematically from the patterns of pixels in digital photographs of buildings, the tireless artist has five complete albums in the can and awaiting release. But amid all the plans for more world touring and prestigious festival appearances, the lure of the dusty desert plains of frede's youth still beckons.

"It's so much more removed out there than it is in the city," he explains. "There's so little noise pollution in the desert or rural environments. You can really capture the natural acoustics of a landscape as opposed to a lot of noise from civilization. Actually, Marleah and I are going to be doing a project sometime in the next year documenting the entire American West with photographs and field recordings.

"You know," he adds with a hint of reverence in his voice, "that whole isolation of the American West."

With frede's effusive passion and ambition, it's doubtful his chemistry of high concept and stark beauty will stay isolated for long.

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