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Improv's electronic, not quite electric

Experimentalist Fred Frith's solo set is a highlight at REDCAT.

September 17, 2007|Greg Burk | Special to The Times

A smaller toolbox might have made for a stronger gazebo. The electronic improvisations of Fred Frith, Zeena Parkins and Ikue Mori at REDCAT on Saturday largely came off as a multifaceted demonstration of what's possible rather than as a model of what works.

The most satisfying moments arrived early, in a solo set by Frith, a New York-based English guitarist who broke ground in the 1970s with the progressive group Henry Cow before freelancing worldwide as a justly respected composer and experimentalist. Slouched over an electric guitar laid flat in his lap, Frith assembled rhythm loops from sampled fragments of tribally drummed pickups (for instance) and colored them with flutelike sustains, frenetic two-handed fretboard noodlings and string excitements including a bar slide, an inserted metal rod and a twisted tuning peg.

Throughout, Frith radiated knowledge of the spatial divisions and sharp timbral contrasts that hold a listener's attention and often strung together passages of simple beauty.

The duo set of Parkins and Mori, despite their longtime association, lacked chemistry. The fairy magician Parkins, who's proved a valuable teammate to innumerable rim skaters, drew eyes with spellbound head rolling and kung-fu plucks of her electronic harp. She also stirred an auditory vortex with a keyboard and the shield-size, pedestal-mounted harp, which she augmented with sound effects, a foot pedal and even a whammy bar. Touches such as knocking rocks together and rattling a resonant necklace registered as more theatrical than musical.

Meanwhile, Mori, who surfaced 30 years ago with the noise group DNA, sat studiously behind her notebook computer, pecking out abstract clusters that sounded like disturbed chipmunks, primitive sci-fi soundtracks or rain on cactus. The two generated much restless motion but little cohesion.

When all three combined, they went at it full bore, but pulled together only when guru Frith orchestrated a nodding rhythm with a single-note mantra.

Improv is always a coin flip; this time it landed on its edge.

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