long-winded biography

Fred Frith was born in England in 1949. He started violin lessons at the age of 5, sang in the church choir, and taught himself the piano by trying to imitate his father and older brother. At age 13 he picked up a guitar at school, and began trying his hand at anything from Django Reinhardt to Villa Lobos, from Bach to Flamenco. Discovering the Blues whetted an appetite for improvisation that has never left him. At school he played guitar, bass, keyboards and harmonica in groups whose repertoire ranged from the Shadows and the Beatles to Ray Charles and Muddy Waters. His earliest public performances took place in the relatively forgiving atmosphere of British folk clubs in the late sixties.

Frith met saxophonist Tim Hodgkinson while both were students at Cambridge University. In 1968 they formed Henry Cow, a blues band which grew into an unclassifiable collective enterprise with Chris Cutler, John Greaves, Lindsay Cooper, and others; the group continued for ten years, touring Europe on the independent circuit that they helped to create. Drawing on an eclectic range of influences and committed to the idea of teaching themselves to play (and compose) as they went along, Henry Cow's repertoire included complex written structures, tape manipulations, free improvisation and songs. Their explorations of the potential of the recording studio as compositional tool were pioneering and influential, and their conscious decision to present uncompromising music in a popular context was unique.

In parallel to this work, Frith developed his skills as an improviser. Since recording Guitar Solos in 1974, he has been regarded as one of a handful of radical innovators on the instrument; his activities in this regard have brought him into contact with kindred spirits all over the world.

After Henry Cow's demise, Frith maintained ties to his colleagues through Art Bears, a trio with Chris Cutler and Dagmar Krause that allowed him to reassert his roots in folk music and song-form. In 1978 he moved to New York, where he became associated with the burgeoning 'downtown' scene, along with Tom Cora, Lesli Dalaba, Bob Ostertag, Ikue Mori, John Zorn and others. Frith's work since then has been unusually diverse. In the studio, he has contributed to recordings by (to name a few) Gavin Bryars, Amy Denio, Brian Eno, Half Japanese, René Lussier, Material, The Residents, Robert Wyatt, and YoYo Ma. He has produced albums for artists like The Orthotonics, David Moss, Tenko, and V-Effect. He was bassist in John Zorn's Naked City, violinist in Lars Hollmer's Looping Home Orchestra, and guitarist for Heiner Goebbels' Man in the Elevator project. And he has instigated a series of ground-breaking groups, from Massacre (with Bill Laswell and (now) Charles Hayward) through Skeleton Crew (with Cora and Zeena Parkins) to Keep the Dog, the Fred Frith Guitar Quartet, and Que d'la Gueule, a big band that resulted from a six-month residency in Marseille working on the opera Helter Skelter with "sixteen young, unemployed rock musicians from the 'quartiers défavorisés'.

In recent years, the narrative quality that is perceptible in the whole range of Frith's work has found its expression in collaborations with visual media, be it theatre, dance, film, painting, or video. There has also been a shift of emphasis away from performance and towards composing. This has led to pieces like Long on Logic and Freedom in Fragments for Rova Sax Quartet, Elegy for Elias for the Abel/Steinberg/Winant trio, Pacifica for the Ensemble Eva Kant in Bologna, and collaborations with groups like Ensemble Modern, Asko Ensemble, andd Arditti Quartet.

On-going projects include The Fred Frith Guitar Quartet, Tense Serenity (a six-piece group exploring the integration of composed elements into an improvised structure), Stone, Brick, Glass, Wood, Wire (graphic scores for up to twenty-one players), and Maybe Monday, a trio with Miya Masaoka (koto) and Larry Ochs (tenor sax). Frith is the subject of Nicolas Humbert and Werner Penzels' award-winning documentary film Step Across the Border.

He is currently Professor of Composition at Mills College in Oakland, California, where he lives with the photographer Heike Liss and their children Finn and Lucia.

Fred Frith

Born in England, 1949. 



  • selected performances

  • with Massacre (at London’s Meltdown Festival)

  • with Arte Quartet, Terry Riley, Tim Berne et al, in Basel

  • with Jean-Pierre Drouet & Louis Sclavis in Portugal

  • with John Zorn, Bill Laswell & Dave Lombardo at FIMAV,

  • with Attwenger at Donau Festival, Austria 

  • as soloist at Moers Festival

  • Light at the End of the Tunnel for small ensemble, commissioned by New MusicWorks, Santa Cruz, first performed at the Avant-Garden Party, June 2001

  • Landing for choir, Flamenco singer, cello, saxophone and samples, commissioned by Banlieues Bleues, Paris

  • Sideshow - music for dance, commissioned by Peggy Piacenza, Seattle

  • K/nowhere - music for dance, commissioned by Paul Selwyn Norton, Amsterdam


  • The Big Picture for saxophone quartet with two soloists, commissioned by the Arte Quartet, premiered in Switzerland.

  • Appearances with John Zorn, Bill Laswell, Dave Lombardo in Festivals in Paris & London, and with Massacre in Warsaw Summer Jazz Days.

  • Performs in retrospective of the work of Christian Wolff, with the composer, Joan Jeanrenaud, Miya Masaoka, William Winant, Bob Ostertag and Gordon Mumma at the Other Minds Festival, San Francisco.

  • Performs in a retrospective of the work of Gordon Mumma at Mills College.

  • Conducts Mills College Contemporary Performance Ensemble in memorial tribute to the late Glenn Spearman, with guest soloists Oluyemi Thomas, Spirit and others.


  • Appointed Professor of Composition, Luther B. Marchant Chair, at Mills College, Oakland, California.

  • Weatherwise or Otherwise commissioned by the Asko Ensemble, premiered in Amsterdam.

  • Centre Moving Out for the Ensemble Aleph, premiered in Paris, second of a projected series of three hommages to John Cage.

  • Land, commissioned by the Konservatorium, Bern, Switzerland, performed by an ensemble of students as part of Masterclass in improvisation.

  • Final, for the Bologna Symphony Orchestra, commissioned by the Angelica Festival.

  • Music for the Radio Hörspiele Mickey la Torche & Raumschiff Titanic (with Alexander Schumacher).

  • Soloist in Concerto pour Guitare Eléctrique et Orchestra de Chambre by Sylvie Courvoisier, premièred in Luzern, Switzerland, commissioned by Swiss Television.

  • Tours of Europe (Guitar Quartet) and Italy (with Chris Cutler).

  • Appearances with Massacre and Tense Serenity at Moers, Angelica, & Vandoevre festivals.


  • Part II of Traffic Continues (Gusto) for the Ensemble Modern, performed in Köln (Philharmonie), Frankfurt (Alte Oper), Berlin (Hebbel Theater), Vienna (Mozart Saal).

  • Touring with new group TENSE SERENITY developing same improvising/composing language as the Ensemble Modern pieces, on a smaller scale.

  • Kaspar K’onzert, with François Verret, Jean-Pierre Drouet and trampolinist Maturin: a dance-theatre piece about Kaspar Hauser, at the Théâtre de la Ville, Paris.

  • Improvisational performances: solo in Poland, Germany, France; with Chris Cutler in Lithuania, Italy, Spain; with MAYBE MONDAY (trio with Miya Masaoka and Larry Ochs) in the USA; with John Oswald and Anne Bourne in Canada.

  • Improvising workshop and performance in Toronto.

  • Resident Artist at Esalen Institute, Big Sur.


  • Performances of portable version of Impur with ensemble of students and teachers from l’Ecole Nationale de Musique, Villeurbanne (at Musique Action, Vandoevre and Musik Triennale, Köln).

  • Pop Mechanics (for Sergei Kuryokin), solo for Disklavier.

  • Music for three Radio Hörspiele - Rabenstein, Traffic in Trouble, and Meister Leonhardt.

  • Tours of S. America with C. Cutler, Canada & Europe with Guitar Quartet.

  • Improvising workshops in Chile (Santiago, Osorno) and Argentina (Buenos Aires).

  • Stone, Brick, Glass, Wood, Wire: included in the Extended Play exhibition at the Photographic Resource Center, Boston.

  • Back to Life (for trumpet, oboe, cello, marimba) premièred by Asko Ensemble, Amsterdam.

  • Contributions to music for The Tango Lesson, film by Sally Potter

  • Performances with Louis Sclavis and Jean-Pierre Drouet at Festivals in Gent, Le Mans, Paris (Sons dHiver).

  • Visiting composer at Mills College, Oakland, California.


  • Impur, for 100 musicians, large building and mobile audience, premièred during La Semaine des Compositeurs, Ecole National de Musique, Villeurbanne.

  • Tense Serenity, for trombone and string trio, commissioned by Radio Bremen, premièred by members of the Arditti Quartet with Uwe Dirksen.

  • Rogue Tool, music for choreographer Paul Selwyn Norton and The Batsheva Dance Company, performances in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.

  • Solo performance and improvising workshops with Israeli musicians, Tel Aviv.

  • Parts II and III of The Previous Evening, completion of music for Amanda Miller, premièred in Tiroler Landestheater, Innsbruck and Hebbel Teater, Berlin.

  • Shortened Suite, for the Asko Ensemble and choreographer Paul Selwyn Norton, performed in Den Haag and Amsterdam.

  • Traffic Continues, a collaboration with the Ensemble Modern, commissioned by Klangspuren Festival, Schwaz, Austria.

  • Music for Hirsche mit Goldenen Hufen, documentary film by Petra Maussnest.


  • Seven Circles for pianist D. Vandervalle, commissioned by the Time Festival, Gent.

  • Music for Middle of the Moment, film by Penzel and Humbert.

  • Composer in residence at l’Ecole Nationale de Musique in Villeurbanne, France.

  • Music for Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin, Esslinger Stummfilm Tage.

  • Weeklong improvising workshops in Bremen (Hochschule für Kunst) and Hamburg.


  • Pacifica, a meditation for 21 musicians with texts by Pablo Neruda, commissioned by the Angelica Festival, Bologna, for the Ensemble Eva Kant.

  • Portraits d’Inconnus, an installation, with thirty fragments of music triggered by movements of the public, and objects and fragmented portraits by painter Béatrice Turquand d’Auzay, opening in Paris at the Banlieues Bleues Festival.

  • Music for the Zürich theater production of Backroom by F-M Pesenti.

  • Nous Sommes les Vaincus, collaboration in Paris with choreographer François Verret and instrument inventor/builder Claudine Brahem.

  • Second Nature: graph composition for 13 electric guitars.

  • Improvising workshops with non-musicians while Resident Artist at the Esalen Institute, Big Sur.


  • Living in Big Sur, California to work on a number of compositions:

  • Elegy for Elias for piano, violin & marimba, commissioned by the Abel/Steinberg/Winant trio.

  • 22, Rue Lacépède for solo accordion.

  • The Previous Evening, a tribute to John Cage, commissioned by London Contemporary Dance Theatre, choreography by Amanda Miller.

  • Freedom in Fragments, a suite of 21 pieces, commissioned by Rova Sax Quartet/Meet the Composer.

  • Endurance for solo double bass, premiered by Stefano Scodanibbio at Angelica Festival, Bologna.

  • Solo tour of Australia and the Far East.

  • Playing violin & home-made instruments with Lars Hollmer’s LOOPING HOME ORCHESTRA.


  • Forms the FRED FRITH GUITAR QUARTET, with René Lussier, Nick Didkovsky, Mark Howell (later with Mark Stewart). Festival appearances Moers, Willisau, Bang on a Can (NYC), New Music America, Saalfelden, Rive-de-Gier) and European/N.American tours.

  • Stone, Brick, Glass, Wood, Wire: graphic scores for up to 21 musicians performed at festivals in Paris, Bologna, Victoriaville, Groningen, Gent.

  • Improvising workshops in Bologna, Italy with group of 25 musicians from all disciplines.


  • Lelekovice (for Iva Bittová), string quartet premièred at Nieuwe Musiek Festival in Middelburg, Holland.

  • Director of QUE D’LA GUEULE, big band arising from Marseille residency. Concerts throughout Europe.

  • Continued collaborations with Japanese musicians in Tokyo.

  • Touring with Naked City & Keep the Dog.


  • Stick Figures for 6 guitars and two players.

  • Helter Skelter, opera with François-Michel Pesenti, the result of a six-month residency in Marseille working with “young unemployed rock musicians from the ‘quartiers défavorisés.’” (Further development of improvising workshop techniques).

  • Subject of the award-winning documentary film Step Across the Border by Nicolas Humbert and Werner Penzel.

  • Touring with Naked City & Keep the Dog.


  • In Memory, for four guitars. four voices, four percussionists and animated film (by Pierre Hébert), with text by Sara Miles, commissioned by the Brooklyn Academy of Music.

  • The As Usual Dance Towards the Other Flight to What Is Not for four electric guitars, commissioned by Roulette/Mary Flagler Cary Trust.

  • Allies for choreographer Bebe Miller, performed at Next Wave, BAM, NYC.

  • Dropéra, collaborative song-cycle with Ferdinand Richard.

  • The Top of His Head, soundtrack for the film by Peter Mettler.

  • Forms KEEP THE DOG, six piece group performing compositions from the previous ten years (eventual tours N. America, Europe, Soviet Union).


  • Long on Logic, and other pieces for Rova Sax Quartet.

  • Disinformation Polka, solo for accordionist Guy Klucsevek.

  • Lecture on sampling and new technology at ICA, Boston.

  • Bass player with John Zorn’s NAKED CITY (eventual tours N. America, Europe, Japan, Brazil).

  • Workshop with Dutch musicians at Heineken Festival, Rotterdam.

  • Master class at Rotterdam Conservatory.


  • Technology of Tears and Jigsaw, music for dance commissioned by

  • Rosalind Newman and Dancers, premièred at the Joyce Theater, New York.

  • Propaganda, music for the play by Creation Company, dir. by Matthew Maguire.

  • Duo concert with Butch Morris launches the Knitting Factory in New York.

  • Guitar and bass in Man in the Elevator by Heiner Goebbels/Heiner Müller.

  • Canadian tour and recording with René Lussier.

  • Peformance with Lebanese singer Khalid al Haber in Tokyo.

  • US tour with Hans Reichel.


  • First improvising workshops, MIMI Festival, France.


  • Touring as soloist and with Skeleton Crew.


  • DUCK AND COVER, large ensemble with members of Cassiber, Skeleton Crew, George Lewis, Dagmar Krause.

  • Touring with Skeleton Crew.


  • Forms SKELETON CREW, with Tom Cora and (later) Zeena Parkins, a ditionist attempt to develop “one-man-band” idea three-fold (eventual tours of N. America, Japan, and E & W Europe).

  • First invitation to join Derek Bailey’s ‘Company Week’.


  • Il Diabolo del Blues: radio project with RAI (National Italian Radio)

  • Solo tour of Japan/US tour with Phil Minton.

  • Speechless, record combining song-form, folk music and ‘found’ sound using studio editing techniques.


  • Forms MASSACRE: improvised rock trio with Bill Laswell and Fred Maher, and MAD WORLD MUSIC: large-scale rock improvising group: concerts in USA and Europe.


  • Moves to New York.

  • Gravity, record with an international cast of musicians,exploring world dance music.

  • European tour with Belgian group AKSAK MABOUL.

  • Solo performances throughout the USA and Canada.


  • Member of ART BEARS (with Chris Cutler and Dagmar Krause). Three albums of songs: Hopes and Fears, Winter Songs, andThe World As It Is Today.


  • Guest artist on records by (among others):  Gavin Bryars, Lindsay Cooper, Ivor Cutler, Amy Denio, Brian Eno, Lutz Glandien, Heiner Goebbels, Seigen Ono, Golden Palominos, René Lussier, Material, The Residents, Sovetskoe Foto, Rebby Sharp, The Swans, Thinking Plague, Robert Wyatt, Hector Zazou.

1970 -present 

  • Performing as an improviser, mostly on guitar and home-made instruments. An (incomplete) list of playing partners would include Noël Akchoté, Derek Bailey, Joey Baron,Werner Bärtschi, Han Bennink, Anne Bourne, Peter Brötzmann, Sylvie Courvoisier, Mark Dresser, Jean-Pierre Drouet, Vinko Globokar, Shelley Hirsch, Joelle Léandre, Peter Kowald, George Lewis, Christian Marclay, Miya Masaoka, Butch Morris, Ikue Mori, Phil Minton, Larry Ochs, Bob Ostertag, John Oswald, Hans Reichel, Louis Sclavis, Sonny Sharrock, Co Streiff, Min Tanaka, Richard Teitelbaum, Tenko, Christine Wodraszka, Carlos Zingaro, and John Zorn.

  • Also improvises with dancers, painters, and schoolkids.


  • Founder member of HENRY COW, three women and three men playing both improvised and composed material incorporating an eclectic range of genres and influences. Toured throughout Europe as an independent collective. Appearances at major venues included Bath (Contemporary Music Festival), Edinburgh (The Fringe), Bordeaux (Sigma), Nancy (International Jazz Festival), Milano (Duomo), Roma (Piazza Navona), Amsterdam (Concertgebouw) and many others.


  • First improvisations in folk clubs, often based on exposure to Indian music.

  • With the Yellow Half-Moon and Blue Star, composition for Cambridge Contemporary Dance Group, performed by Henry Cow.


  • First public performances in folk clubs and working men’s clubs in the North of England, singing and playing traditional and blues songs.

  • Growing interest in Indian, Balinese, and Bulgarian music.


  • Guitar and bass in various school bands (Shadows, R&B, Yugoslav folk tunes), also learning folk and classical guitar repertoire.

1954 /64 

  • Violin (was a member of the school orchestra), self-taught piano, church choir.

Currently active in following 
groups and configurations:


FF (guitar) Bill Laswell (bass) Charles Hayward (drums)


FF, René Lussier, Nick Didkovsky, Mark Stewart: electric guitars


FF: guitar, violin 
Claudio Puntin: clarinet
Lesli Dalaba: trumpet
Daan Vandewalle: piano
Chris Cutler: drums & processing


FF: guitar
Miya Masaoka: koto
Larry Ochs: tenor and sopranino saxes


(improvised duo)

The International Occasional Ensemble

performing graphic score pieces

The Mills College Contemporary Performance Ensemble


Fred Frith has appeared on more than 350 LPs and CDs over the last 25 years, on labels ranging from CBS-Sony and Virgin to Tzadik, ReR and Winter & Winter.

Articles, reviews and interviews with other musicians contributed to:

  • Arcana: musicians on music (ed. John Zorn, Granary Books, 2000)

  • Poetics Journal (USA)

  • New Musical Express (UK)

  • Musics (UK)

  • Let It Rock (UK)

  • OP Magazine (USA)

  • Ear Magazine (USA)

  • Trouser Press (USA)

  • Sonido (Mexico)

  • Jazzthetik (Germany)

  • JazzMagazine (France)

  • 1988-90 was roving correpondent for France Culture (National French Radio), and has also broadcast own program series on WFMU (NJ - 1980-86) and Freies Radio für Stuttgart (Germany - 1997-present)

  • Subject of Step Across the Border (1990), a 90m documentary film by Nicolas Humbert and Werner Penzel, shown in cinemas in USA, Canada, Europe, Japan and South America and on television in USA (Public TV), Germany (WDR, NDR, SWR), Switzerland (SR3), Austria (ORF) and France (Arte).

  • Subject of Streetwise (1991), a documentary film by Charles Castella about his work in Marseille with ‘unemployed rock musicians.’

  • Subject of Le Voyage Immobile (2000), a documentary film about his trio with Louis Sclavis & Jean-Pierre Drouet, for France 3 (National TV)

  • The subject (with The Residents, Blue Gene Tyranny and Glenn Branca) of Cole Gagne’s book Sonic Transports, (De Falco Books, 1990)


Fred Frith’s work has been supported by grants and awards from:

  • The Arts Council of Great Britain

  • The British Council

  • Meet the Composer

  • The Readers Digest

  • The Mary Flagler Cary Charitable Trust

  • Massachussetts State Council for the Arts

  • Direction Régional d’Arts et Culture, France

  • Ministry of Culture, France

  • City of Marseille

  • City of Bologna