STRING THEORY: “What you’re rehearsing isn’t just material. It’s the whole sound, the atmosphere you want to create, the story you want to tell.”
It takes a sense of humor to put alligator clips on the strings of a guitar so that notes sound like shattering glass, and to co-found a band with the punny name Henry Cow. So it's no surprise that Fred Frith, who's one of the world's leading improvising musicians and a wildly inventive composer, would form a group called Cosa Brava.
The name of Frith's new quintet, who play the Institute of Contemporary Art's "New Music Now" series this Friday, means, roughly, "good thing." Any resemblance to the Mafia, which referred to itself as "La Cosa Nostra" ("this thing of ours"), is entirely intentional. Frith, who turns 60 in February, has been in bands since he was 14. He understands that a group is a closed society with a particular style of communicating. And that applies especially to the improvising units he's been part of, from the insanely eclectic Henry Cow in the mid '70s to the howling avant-rockers Art Bears to Skeleton Crew, with the late cellist Tom Cora, to John Zorn's brawny Naked City.
Cosa Brava, who blend rock and interstellar mystery, mark the first time Frith's been the don, er, leader, of a group since 1999, when the guitarist/violinist/percussionist/bassist became professor of composition at Mills College in Oakland, California. "At that point my guitar quartet abruptly ground to a halt and group activity apart from the odd one-off stopped," he tells me via e-mail. "I missed it. There are things you can achieve in a band that you don't get any other way. A band rehearses a lot before the stuff gets put in front of people, and then over the course of a tour, the material develops and expands. Last April, Cosa Brava did 17 concerts in 17 days in eight countries, and the band became a unique entity beyond what I as the composer could have proposed. In the end it's all about people, not instruments.
"What you're rehearsing isn't just material, though you want to get the parts right. It's the whole sound, the atmosphere you want to create, the story you want to tell."
Frith's fellow yarn spinners in Cosa Brava are long-time collaborator and friend Zeena Parkins on keyboards, harp, and vocals; violinist and singer Carla Kihlstedt of the Tin Hat Trio; drummer Matthias Bossi; and sound manipulator the Norman Conquest, a former student of Frith's at Mills. They'll be recording their debut album after the ICA concert; for now, their music is available at their MySpace page and on YouTube.
What's unusual about Cosa Brava is their devotion to pure, uncluttered melodies (a rare quality in rock-based improvisation) — both in lyric numbers like "I Don't Believe in You" and in instrumental pieces like "A Head in the Sand," where Frith's vocal utterances are purely percussive. Kihlstedt, who's also a member of notable proggers Sleepytime Gorilla Museum, is the group's other lead voice.
"I guess the biggest surprise so far is that we are doing more songs — words and singing — than I expected," says Frith. "In spite of the many sessions workshopping ideas in the early stages of the group, I ended up writing more material than I thought I would. It feels like a song band right now."