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Fred Frith and Maybe Monday: Digital Wildlife

Digital Wildlife is not an easy recording to warm to, and the chilliness begins with the instrumentation. Frith’s group for this recording, Maybe Monday, includes Larry Ochs, saxman from the ROVA Quartet, cellist Joan Jeanrenaud and Miya Masaoka on koto and electronics. Throw in Frith’s heavily distorted electric guitar, and Digital Wildlife can sound, at any random point, like chamber-classical, abstract rock or folk. Frith also takes the title of the recording quite seriously: he seems to have taken tapes from the group’s live-time improvisations and mixed them into a multilayered, abruptly shifting, densely overlapping collage of machine music. Acoustic and electronic elements have been cut, rearranged and pasted into a dreamy floating space, where any voice could at any time sound thoroughly foregrounded, distant, looped or distorted beyond recognition. Contributions from the players are often so brief it doesn’t necessarily make sense trying to follow the logic in any single voice. The key to the recording seems to come in listening to how each voice, spliced and diced, turns up in the composite sound.

“Image in and Atom” and the title track both open with grating sound-Frith’s fearsome guitar in the former; Ochs and Jeanrenaud’s co-drone in the latter-but eventually shift into something entirely spacious and, in its own schizophrenic way, nearly pastoral. “The Prisoners’ Dilemma,” by contrast, opens with the folkish sound of Masaoka’s koto paired with Ochs on a pitch-slipping soprano. Before long Frith arrives with his slashing, unbalanced guitar lines over what now sounds like a chorus of inkjet printers and typewriters. As should be apparent by now, Digital Wildlife has ambience to spare, though to most it will sound like a racket. Give this one some time. Frith has carefully crafted his own lexicon of sound, and once you’ve tuned in to what he’s doing this beautiful recording pays dividends.

Originally Published