Bill Frisell: Richter 858

Given the ease with which Bill Frisell slips comfortably into the broadest array of musical settings, could there possibly be a better choice of guitarist to musically interpret Gerhard Richter's paintings? Interestingly, past releases like Have A Little Faith (covers of works by Aaron Copland, Charles Ives, and other American composers) and This Land suggest that more likely candidates for interpretation would be Grant Wood or Edward Hopper; that the selected figure is the enigmatic and slippery German Richter makes the project all the more tantalizing. In another sense it's a perfect pairing as Richter has proven himself to be just as stylistically versatile as Frisell, distinguishing himself in abstract and realism contexts, even if most of the still lifes, landscapes, and portraits share his signature blur technique (utilized most unforgettably in his fifteen haunting Baader-Meinhof paintings, collectively titled October 18, 1977).

How did the project develop? The music was originally recorded for inclusion within a book celebrating Richter's work, made available in limited form in 2002; Songlines subsequently decided to issue the material to make it more widely available. Producer David Breskin originally had Frisell compose music to accompany eight abstract paintings (titled 858-1, 858-2, through to 858-8, displayed in the CD booklet and available for viewing on the CD itself), seven oils on aluminum and the eighth oil on linen. While they differ in colour scheme and formal appearance, they're all remarkably detailed and textured (Breskin—correctly—calls them “ravishing”), with colours bleeding into one another, the paint so fresh in appearance it still looks wet. Their steely look emphasizes an industrial quality while the wave-like forms and merging of colour fields suggest fluidity.

Initially Frisell viewed the paintings in isolation, making rough notes on music paper of ideas or phrases that the works inspired, and then, accompanied by three string players, recorded the pieces live to two-track without editing or overdubs (a mere ten hours of studio time). The spontaneous dimension of the recording makes the results even more fascinating, suggesting that Frisell performed an analogical gesture of creative 'action' to Richter, though one abetted by musical collaborators. While the booklet notes equivalence between Frisell's smeared notes and Richter's squeegee technique, the guitarist wisley opts for a less reverential approach, having realized at a certain point that the paintings must be treated as inspirational springboards for the musicians. While the music itself is stylistically diverse, it sometimes draws upon the tradition of modernist classical music in compositional style as well as instrumentation (most conspicuously heard in the pairing of dense, micro-tonal string layers with Frisell's showers of rumbling electronic abstractions in “858-6”).

The album will be especially welcome to long-time Frisell aficionados who feared the guitarist, at this stage of his career, might be mellowing or settling into formulaic habits. Those same fans will be even more delighted to discover that joining him is one-time Frisell band member, cellist Hank Roberts, who graced albums like Lookout For Hope and Where In The World before venturing out on a solo career. They're joined by other Frisell collaborators Eyvind Kang on viola and violinist Jenny Scheinman—the same instrumentation, interestingly enough, Frisell deployed in his 1990 “After the Requiem” contribution to Gavin Bryars' album of the same name (though Frisell adds electronics to the new album too, often to transforming effect). The modern-traditional dichotomy that characterizes the electric guitar-acoustic strings pairing mirrors the application of Richter's contemporary technique to traditional subject matter.

Richter 858 wonderfully showcases Frisell's playing and composing talents, though he's no grandstander, content to present himself as one voice of four and generously sharing the spotlight; in short, the focus is on collective quartet interplay. Musically, it's a less accessible collection than, say, Nashville but that's entirely to be expected, given the album concept. Any thought that it might partake of that 'easier' style is dispelled immediately by “858-1” where atonal scrapings, swirls, and bowed groans launch the album in throat-clearing style. The marvelous piece evolves through contrasting episodes, however, with its aggressive opening eventually reaching a peaceful end. Once the harrowing intro dissipates, Frisell's delicate picking brings a sombre theme to the forefront, with the string players joining in, the violin prominently voicing the bluesy line while Roberts' familiar cry sings below.

Equally arresting is the longest piece, “858-4,” which opens softly with ghostly strings accompanied by Frisell's glissandi shadings, before segueing into a light-hearted episode of loping, almost galloping rhythms, its simple cello motif a base for Frisell's noisemaking and the upper strings' musings. “858-3” features lyrical folk-waltz weavings alongside scarred wails of electric guitar, while “858-5” nurtures a countrified feel before “858-8” ends the album peacefully with gentle guitar strums and delicate string tones.

Of course the music stands up fine on its own though it obviously assumes an entirely different character when experienced with the images (mention should also be made of the accompanying booklet which includes the provocative questions and thoughts Breskin presented to Frisell at the outset of the project, as well as interviews with both). There are precedents for music-painting projects—Emerson, Lake, and Palmer's rendering (some might say butchering) of Mussorgsky's Pictures At An Exhibition a well-known example—but, not surprisingly, Frisell brings his unique slant to the idea. Despite a discography that grows annually ever deeper, Frisell remains an adventurer, constantly taking on new challenges and enriching listeners' lives in the process.

April 2005