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Being Fred Frith

Step Across the Border
Friday, 9 p.m.
Guild Theatre
Southwest Park/Taylor
$6.50 general
$5.50 student

Watching composer, instrumentalist, improviser and performer Fred Frith, it is easy to imagine that the sounds of passing trains and the rustling of leaves are as important to his music as traditional western ideas of structure. He occupies a strange place in the contemporary music scene: part rock guitarist, part avant-garde experimenter. He is a pop musician making blatantly non-commercial sounding art. Even his most ardent supporters would have a difficult time categorizing and describing his music.

Directors Werner Penzel and Nicholas Humbert avoid this problem in their 1989 film “Step Across the Border” by allowing things to simply unroll in front of the viewer. The film allows Frith’s comments and interactions with other musicians and the world to tell his story. Beautifully shot in black and white, it is more than a great film about music, it is great film that happens to have a musician as its central character. Frith is utterly compelling and open concerning his motivations and his understanding of how he fits into the world of music. Not only do we hear his methodology, but we see it in practice throughout the world with a varying group of collaborators.

Frith emerged in the late ’60s ready to take on the world with his idea of “dada blues.” As he explains in a telling scene, he spent his formative years playing classical music – music that existed completely on a page presented in finished form for the performer to play. Blues opened his mind by pulling out of this tradition and seeing the organic and grassroots vision of music and understanding that a rootsy oral tradition is just as valid as any conservatory training.

He began to find his voice in both composition and improvisational playing, and it is a complex one, combining impeccable classic chops with Hendrix-like use of feedback. He also evinces a playful free sense of structure and the ability to skronk dissonantly with the best of them.

Many of the scenes are of him on stage or in practice, and there is a laidback quality to him that often is rarelyfound in such an ego-driven field as music. As he elaborates, touring at one time was a race between shows and hotels, business-like. But as he has grown older a sense of connection to the community is more important. He looks to be genuinely enjoying the process of playing and communicating, be it with his collaborators on stage, with the audience or the world around him.

Most of these scenes are augmented by accompanying footage of the various places he is in and the random beauty that can be found in nature or the urban landscape. The viewer explores along with the camera and the band, discovering a new way to view art and the creative process.

In one segment Frith even goes so far as to say he has given up on changing the whole world and realizes as he has grown older that things change in a much more immediate way. What he is looking for on stage is to touch an audience as individuals and perhaps have only one person walk away from a performance truly challenged and understanding what he is attempting to do. This is quite understandable because the music he plays is challenging and it is clearly not meant for everyone, but it is also difficult to not be amazed by his playing. He is as exciting to watch playing straight bluesy guitar (although straight is quite relative in the world of Fred Frith) as he is to watch playing completely abstract noise by dropping pebbles on his guitar strings.

Early in the film Firth reaches into his bag to find a quote from photographer Henrique Bresson which reads, “Photography is a way of shouting, of freeing oneself. Not of freeing oneself, not of proving or asserting one’s originality – it is a way of life.” The same could be said of his guitar playing and this beautifully shot film captures Firth’s vibrancy and the quality of work he continues to produce. He is inviting you to step across the border with him.