Fred Frith and Ensemble Modern

Traffic Continues (Winter & Winter Records)

You don't find curlicue beauty or luscious melody in the stiff world where avant-garde and 20th-century classical music meet. Rather, what you usually find is a special kind of rigidity, one that supplants grace with uptight dignity, toe-tapping rhythm with studied structure. Of course, the majority's ears have been conditioned to appreciate music in three-minute bursts, to judge the success of a piece of music on the basis of how easily its melody hikes into the psyche and pitches a tent. We 20th-century Americans have been conditioned to appreciate "the song" (the sitcom of music?) while rarely examining "the piece" (the epic drama?); many otherwise brave and intelligent folk have abandoned the idea of enjoying any piece of music that lasts longer than five minutes, usually with the admission that they don't "understand" it. But what's not to understand? Sound is sound; one isn't any more "difficult" than another.

Fred Frith started as guitarist in the '70s rock band Henry Cow, which melded pop, jazz, classical and poetry into a lofty, often pretentious amalgam. He then fell in with the activity surrounding NYC club the Knitting Factory, a stable of artists busy pumping life into the floundering early '80s New York experimental jazz scene. His highest-profile gig was with John Zorn's Naked City, where Frith let loose, cranked the amp and tattooed the eardrums.

Traffic Continues consists of two long works composed for Germany's 21-piece Ensemble Modern. Frith as composer has written a handful of "cells" that connect and cue fits of improvisation, and the result forms a sort of beautiful, wordless narrative. String serenades collide with silence; muted brass mumbles give way to jarring percussion interludes. On first listen, it sounds like gibberish. But each listen strips away a layer until it becomes a sort of imaginary soundtrack; in this sense it recalls the film music of both Nino Rota (whose work is much more subtle) and Alfred Hitchcock's main soundtrack composer, Bernard Herrmann.

The second work, "Traffic Continues II: Gusto (for Tom Cora)," consists of samples of the cello work of the late Cora (with whom Frith worked in the Skeleton Crew). These samples illustrate Cora's love of both subtle string rubs and screeching antagonism, and Frith, along with the Ensemble and fellow New York instrumentalists Ikuo Mori (who has been seen of late working often with Sonic Youth's Kim Gordon and Thurston Moore) and harpist Zeena Parkins, pencils circles around these samples, creating something huge out of a bunch of snippets.

The music on Traffic Continues won't leave you with even one solid melody to carry you through the day; it won't put a carefree smile on your face or drive you crazy. But after you think the thing has disappeared, it will reappear not as a concrete string of sounds but as an idea, a cloud that travels to different alleyways in your brain, covering one bit of thought and then another.

 
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