Fred Frith Trio

Thursday, October 3rd 2019

The Red Room Collective is a group of musicians who host concerts of experimental music in an intimate performance space adjacent to Normals Bookstore in the Waverly neighborhood of Baltimore. These concerts often feature a creative use of instruments and free improvisation. On Thursday, October 3rd, the Red Room presented the Fred Frith Trio, with an opening act by Jamal Moore, in a concert held at 2640 Space. The sounds produced by these musicians were both immersive and responsive.

Jamal Moore began his set at 8:05 by casually picking up a group of cow-bells and shaking them to create sound. The sound grew in volume and presence as he continued shaking these bells in front of a microphone where he took a sample of his sound and proceeded to loop the sample through the speakers. The crowd was situated within a quad speaker setup – four speakers were projecting sound toward the audience from each corner of the room. While the bells and shakers continued to resonate through the speakers, Moore began accompanying the soundscape with different aerophones. He made use of horns and wooden flutes, and eventually sampled some of these sounds to add to the composite. As different sounds continued to loop, delay, and overlap each other, the whole atmosphere seemed to vary in density and register. At times the high register of some bells and other samples were painful, and Moore complimented these sounds by hitting metal gong-like objects with mallets and bowing glass objects for piercing pitches.

During this experience, I was struck by the interesting nature of this kind of performance: Moore seemed to be operating a machine rather than playing any particular instrument. This kind of one-person improvisation using many instruments is unlike a typical performance of music. I find the experience is more like listening to the evolving soundtrack of a film that I have to create with my mind. It’s almost a little distracting to watch the performer and I enjoy closing my eyes at times.

Ultimately, Moore’s soundscape gave way to solo, unaccompanied saxophone that featured scalar motion and implied voices through contrapuntal movement. There were also some rough articulations and overblowing effects, but I was generally relieved by the reduced texture, as the soundscape had become so involved that it was pushing discomfort. Moore concluded his presentation after twenty minutes.

Following Moore was an unnecessarily long intermission that lasted nearly thirty minutes and gave way to the Fred Frith Trio. The ensemble was comprised of Fred Frith on guitar, Jordan Glenn on drums, and Jason Hoopes on bass. The trio was joined by Susana Silvia Santos on the trumpet and Heike Liss projecting visuals.

The trio began by slowly building content and growing in volume, density, and activity towards a few climactic moments. These moments were sometimes reflected in the visuals, but for the most part the soundscape and the video seemed to be independently responding without planned coordination. The musicians were listening and playing off each other in interesting ways. Frith used an ebow for some sustained notes, but also achieved aggressive sounds and searing overtones with the device. He also used a variety of brushes, slides, and picks to create articulations and his general strumming and tapping was looped to create a thicker texture at times. In addition to these effects, Frith also retuned strings, added a healthy amount of delay, reverb, and distortion, and created some muted tones by draping a towel over the neck. He even began humming and singing towards the end of the performance.

Glenn used a variety of mallets, sticks, brushes, and his hands to hit the many drums in his set. His choice of material seemed to be in reaction to the flow of the music and the direction that he wished to take. At times he used shakers and also hit different sides of the drums and cymbals. Hoopes played up and down the neck of the bass guitar and he extended its range with harmonics and through the use of an ebow. Santos contributed various lip and breath techniques on the trumpet and also played on a penny whistle for a period of time. The visuals by Liss were both fascinating and disorienting. The images included city scapes, forests, transportation themes, water, smudges, lines, polygons, overlayed images, and general saturation of light and dark moments.

I enjoyed many things about the presentation but I still found myself wanting a little more cohesion considering the length of the performance. The few times that rhythmic motives were established and perpetuated by the ensemble were encouraging, but these moments would quickly break down to an aimless atmosphere. Even with the wide variety of tools, techniques, and ideas, I still felt like fifty minutes of free improvisation was entirely too long. The poetic possibilities of this group were limitless, but the room was getting warmer by the minute (the fans were turned off during the performance) and the performance commenced without recognizable direction, so it was hard to stay fully engaged for nearly an hour-long presentation. The audience had greater stamina, however, and gave the ensemble a hearty standing ovation at the conclusion of the show. The musicians demonstrated great conviction and artistic thought and I think this kind of performance always has the potential for exciting results.

Jeremy Lyons is a guitarist, composer, and writer living in Baltimore City. He is an artistic director of the contemporary music ensemble, Pique Collective, a performing member of the music cooperative, Mind on Fire, and he collaborates with artists of all kinds working in a variety of mediums. If you want to get in touch with him or suggest an event for him to experience, use his contact page.