By Brad Lopez
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Since 1999, Fred Frith has served as the Luther B. Marchant Professor of Composition at Mills College in Oakland, California. But the British-born guitarist and avant-gardist admits that his credentials for the post are more experiential than academic.
"In terms of education, most of my students are better qualified to teach composition than I am," he concedes via e-mail. "I never studied music in college. What I've learned, I've learned from continuous practice and self-discovery over forty years."
Frith has covered an immense amount of creative ground during this span. He first entered the consciousness of art-rock aficionados circa the late '60s as a key component of Henry Cow, a group whose reputation was always higher than its sales figures. Before long, Frith had become one of the most sought-after sidemen in progressive music, playing alongside the likes of Brian Eno, Bill Laswell and John Zorn, who joins Frith and a younger sonic anarchist, Faith No More and Mr. Bungle alum Mike Patton, for this week's concert. In addition, he's issued a stack of solo discs, many of which are available through his own label, Fred Records. Highlights include Prints, a collection of "snapshots, postcards, messages and miniatures" recorded between 1987 and 2001, and Gravity, a quirky 1980 effort that finds him trying his hand at dance music -- not that he feels comfortable categorizing the results. "If you listen to any track on Gravity, you may be able to come up with some references, but there isn't a single 'style,' because everything is all mixed up," he notes. "As David Hockney said: 'When you see my painting of the Grand Canyon, you don't see the Grand Canyon. You see me looking at the Grand Canyon.'
"Anything that's out there that has moved me or interested me may find its way into what I do, consciously or unconsciously," he maintains. "But that's another matter. I don't have the training to really do 'style.'"
If that's true, Frith certainly fakes it well. His current projects include a new piece for a classical-guitar quartet that's scheduled to debut this month in Montreal, and a performance of "The Right Angel," a work for electric guitar and orchestra that should air shortly on the BBC in Belfast. He remains modest about such offerings, however, positioning himself as an outsider rather than an affiliate of the cultural elite. According to him, "I've been suffering a good part of my professional life from snobs who think they know better, from the members of the London Philharmonic who put their fingers in their ears when I performed with them in 1974, to the American college professors who rejected student requests to invite me to discuss my work with the typical response: 'Why don't you talk to the entertainment committee?'"
Fortunately, Frith has no access issues at Mills, and he takes advantage of the opportunity. "I'm happy to challenge myself and others with things we don't know," he points out, "and I'm happy to be challenged by my students, as well."
With luck, he'll glean as much from them as they pick up from him.