THE HAPPY END PROBLEM
Fred Records/ReR

IMPUR
Fred Records/ReR

Janet Feder/Fred Frith
IRONIC UNIVERSE
Ad Hoc (CD + DVD)

Fred Frith’s long-time collaboration with choreographer Amanda Miller is the basis of The Happy End Problem. Consisting of two separate soundtracks – “Imitation” and the title track – the music manifests its beauty from the opening of “Ukon” (the first part of “Imitation”), where gorgeous intersecting arpeggios flow into suspended chords of rare emotional intensity. The music benefits enormously from the stunning performances of all the players involved: particular mention should be made of the truly awesome Carla Kihlstedt on violin, whose graciously incisive phrasing perfectly defines the borders between dance, dream and conscious intention in this magic symmetry of notes and space. The other important voice in “Imitation” is shakuhachi-player Kikutsubo Day, whose bent whispers add both East-Asian and Gaelic flavours to the piece’s many influences, even if it remains pure Frith in its essence. “The Happy End Problem” is a 21-minute track that uses snippets of Igor Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite to build tensions and repetitions in an otherwise calm setting, enhanced by environmental recordings and additional pancultural references. Kihlstedt executes her parts flawlessly, while Frith’s contributions on bass, guitar and laptop are more elusive. My soul undergoes a meltdown about 15 minutes into the track, when Wu Fei’s delicate gu zheng figures remind us of the frailty of purpose amidst the often overwhelming forces of life.. one of the most touching sections of what Chris Cutler rightly calls an instant classic.

Fred Frith loves “roaming the corridors of music schools”, and any PT reader who’s done this will be familiar with the educated cacophony deriving from the many different sounds coming out of adjoining classes. On Impur he sets this pandemonium in a structure of sorts, dividing the musicians of the Ecole Nationale de Musique de Villeurbanne (near Lyon) into “various groupings and ensembles” and giving them instructions (and stopwatches) to play predetermined pieces at various times. The departments involved even include African Drumming and Early Music (together with the obviously abundant phalanx of rockers) but for some reason the jazzers, evidently too snotty, declined to participate – at least officially. It’s a enjoyable 55 minutes of clashing brass sections, acoustic chamber delicacies-cum-tribal subdivisions and guitar chords getting lost in a haze of sulphuric distortion and phased-out reverberation, but probably an experience that better rewarded the audience that witnessed the event in the flesh.

Frith and Denver-based guitarist Janet Feder turn in a real surprise with Ironic Universe. I was expecting a radical album of bowed/scraped strings and bumps-on-wood, a kind of sacred ceremony for the dismemberment of the instrument. Instead, these twelve pieces, which include six Feder solos, are refined fingerstyle improvisations, with just a touch of preparation that lets the strings gently buzz and sizzle, placing imaginary mirrors for the chord shapes to refract and counter-refract. It’s a lovely record, and one that needs at least two or three spins to reveal its depth. Take a superficial “background music” approach and you might think Windham Hill or Adrian Legg, but this is serious, inquisitive music by two sensitively capable guitarists. The set is complemented by a DVD containing solo performances in Colorado by the two artists: Frith in Boulder (2004) and Feder in Denver (2006). If you still had any doubts, the DVD alone should be enough to make you place an order.

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