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The eclectic electric guitar

'Serious' musicians, including Fred Frith, will demonstrate the musical virtues of plugging in.

May 08, 2004|Josef Woodard | Special to The Times

Since its creation in the mid-20th century, the electric guitar has faced misconceptions among composers and audiences alike. It's been deemed suitable only for rock 'n' roll, country, jazz or blues. The musicians who take it up have been pegged as reading-challenged, prone to playing too loudly and incapable of getting along with "disciplined" acoustic players.

But in recent years, a subculture has been growing in the guitar world, populated with instrumentalists eager to explore new ideas and break through old definitions of where they belong. As a result, the electric guitar is slowly sneaking into the hallowed orbit of "serious" music.

Two local events are about to give due exposure to this trend. On May 17, internationally known electric guitarist Fred Frith will be the special plugged-in guest with the California EAR Unit at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. And tonight, six solo players will descend on the Center for the Arts in Eagle Rock for a concert dubbed "(Un-)Mapping the Electric Guitar." According to the press material, its musical offerings will range from "minimalist/ambient, conceptual, to high-density energy works."

More than anyone else, perhaps, the English-born Frith has skillfully bridged the worlds of art rock, free improvisation and contemporary classical music. As a young musician in the '70s, he was a member of the British cult band Henry Cow.

Since then, his gigs have included a stint with the avant-noisy group Massacre and improvisatory workouts with Japanese drummer-turned-drum programmer Ikue Mori and electronic music explorer Bob Ostertag. More recently, he has written for dance, music and theater and collaborated with such classical artists as Germany's Ensemble Modern and the Arditti String Quartet. In 1992, he moved from his longtime home in New York to Northern California, where he teaches composition at Mills College in Oakland.

Drawn into composing for chamber groups through a 1986 commission from the San Francisco-based Rova Saxophone Quartet, Frith has been pursuing that avenue ever since. To take one example, "working with Arditti was fabulous from the first moment," he said last week, "because it was the first time I'd met classical musicians at the very highest level who not only took me seriously but seemed to have fun working with me. Ultimately, it led to my writing for electric guitar and string quartet, very much at [first violinist Irvine] Arditti's prompting."

He also created an ensemble, the Fred Frith Guitar Quartet, which released two well-received albums in the late '90s. And "as a result of our work," he noted, "other electric guitar quartets have sprung up, so the idea's become more 'normal.' "

For the EAR Unit collaboration, Frith is keeping his options open but said he will most likely offer a blend of scored material and improvisation, his specialty. "As someone whose 'basic training' was as a rock musician, I've always tended to work as rock musicians work, meaning that I like to know who I'm writing for and whenever possible create pieces which will play to their particular strengths."

"(Un-)Mapping" organizer Karl Montevirgen is not only a guitarist but also a former associate director of the Los Angeles chapter of the American Composers Forum, which gave him a grant enabling him to curate tonight's event in Eagle Rock. (It is also sponsoring an afternoon conversation with Frith on May 16.)

To organize his program, Montevirgen called on local experimentalists Jeremy Drake and Michael Pisaro and contacted Jim Fox, head of the L.A.-based new music label Cold Blue. From its roster, he involved Rick Cox, Michael Jon Fink (one of Montevirgen's teachers at CalArts) and Chas Smith.

Smith, in particular, is an inveterate inventor, particularly in terms of sound and tools. He has moved from his basic instrument, the pedal steel guitar (which he plays in a dreamy, quasi-minimalist style when not "day-gigging" in country and western swing settings), to creating elaborate sound-producing sculptures heard on recent Cold Blue releases. For tonight's concert, he has built a special guitar.

Montevirgen says he conceived of the event as a way to address an underexposed offshoot of the contemporary music scene.

"Although the electric guitar is not a new instrument, relatively speaking, there isn't much in the proper new music genre," he says. "But there can be." The growing involvement of electric guitarists in the classical and new music scenes, he believes, "follows the spirit of experimental music in Los Angeles."

That oft-noted experimental spirit -- which nurtured John Cage, Harry Partch, Ornette Coleman and others -- is one thing. In a different, characteristically L.A. vein, Cox is probably one of the most widely heard experimental guitarists in the world, thanks to film work. In particular, he has enjoyed a long-standing creative association with composer Thomas Newman, from "American Beauty" to "Finding Nemo" and beyond.

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