Bill Frisell was interviewed by phone in June 2004.
Tony Reif: What was your initial experience of the paintings like when you did finally see them (rather than reproductions of them)?
Bill Frisell: It was a luxurious sort of situation. David Breskin had arranged for me to see the paintings in San Francisco, all by myself, for as long as I wanted. I stayed there alone with the paintings for almost two hours, which is something I would never do under ordinary circumstances. I mean, it wasn’t like I fasted for thirty days and went off in the woods with them, but to see the actual paintings—where Richter’s hands had been—that’s always so much more powerful. And, I’ve never done this before, but I had music paper with me, and I would stay with a painting and try to write down some kind of musical idea, or architecture or form, that reflected that painting. Like for example, if I saw a line in the painting I might write down a corresponding musical phrase. I was just trying to absorb emotionally, in my own way, what was happening in the paintings.
Anyway, I came out of there with rough blocks of ideas, though I don’t know how many of those ideas survived into the final compositions. But what influenced me possibly more than the paintings themselves was my reaction to what I was learning about Richter himself. I read a few interviews with him. One thing that had a strong impact on what we did was what I learned about the process he goes through and the struggle he has over when a painting is finished. That’s something I often struggle with. You’re in the midst of making this thing and you’re using an improvisational approach—that had a big impact on how we approached the recording. It was a live recording and we did everything in basically one or two takes and without any editing. On most of my recordings I overdub, mix, obsess over it, go back and tweak things, but I wanted this one to somehow represent this gesture of paint going across aluminum or canvas, and you just have to deal with it being there.
I don’t want to give the impression that it was all improvised because there was a lot of writing, and we practiced the music. But I was thinking of my role as the guy with the squeegee rubbing across the painting. If a melody could be the equivalent of a photograph or a recognizable visual image, then what I was doing was kind of smearing the paint around, and at times other people in the group were doing that as well, but there was always some underlying structure that was more carefully worked out.
TR: How did you go about writing the music? Were David’s notes at the forefront of your mind, or did you let your experience of the paintings take its own course? Did you do much composing on the guitar?
BF: The writing came very late, very close to the actual recording, and at that point, David’s notes weren’t in the forefront at all—they’d become another aspect of what I was accumulating in my mind. I was influenced a lot by watching a video of Richter, seeing what he looked like and hearing his voice, and seeing the kind of humility he had about what he was doing, which doesn’t always come across in reading about him. Reading some interviews, I had kind of a different idea about what he might feel like as a person, but in the video I could see the struggle he was going through more clearly. So all these different things were floating around, but when it finally comes down to talking about how I write music I never know how to explain it. For some of it I wrote melodies down on paper, some of it I did on guitar. I always write more than I need and edit it down. I guess my own personal process of writing music is probably not that related to what Richter does, but I tried to make the performance of what I had written closer to what he does. It’s such a personal thing when I’m writing, I don’t know what’s happening really, and for all the analysis and talk about Richter I’m sure what’s going through his mind as he paints—it’s him alone going through what he’s dealing with and no one knows. I was thinking about him and the paintings, but it still came down to the truth that my own life has to come out somehow.
TR: How did things change once you got together with the other musicians? Was much of the music worked out in rehearsal? Was much of it left to the recording session? (I understand the session went much faster than David had expected.) Had any of the other musicians seen the paintings?
BF: We had two full days of rehearsal at my house, the whole group and David, and then a big part of a third day playing the music in the studio while everything was being set up and checked for the recording. Again, this was luxurious. We had really good prints of the paintings all around us which David had brought back from Italy, where the book had just been printed. Jenny had also seen the actual paintings, in San Francisco, but Hank and Eyvind hadn’t seen them. After the rehearsal, we were really ready to just do it when we got to the studio—and it felt like the whole thing was done in one big stroke. That just seems like what was supposed to happen. As I remember, we recorded the pieces in sequence: it was like we’d been rehearsing for a concert or an athletic event and we just went for it. Because we were recording live we had to make sure the balance was okay, and it was kind of intense for everyone, including Joe Ferla, our engineer. The sound of it is the way we sounded in the room: we were set up close together, so that we could all hear each other. We did not have to use headphones. But it’s true that it went much faster than David expected—he booked three days and we ended up making the whole record in like ten hours. And that included this siesta in the middle—everyone took a long walk in the late afternoon and then we all had this big Mexican dinner—and came back to the studio and finished.
TR: Have you had other ideas about music for this group and if so is it going to be a continuation of the direction established by RICHTER 858, or a departure into other areas?
I got really excited about playing with this combination of people—they’re all my number one choice of people to play with on these instruments, and we ended up doing a couple of concerts after the recording. At the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, at the close of the big Richter retrospective in January ’03, we played the music for the paintings, as part of a concert with a bunch of the poets who’d written poems for the book. But then in Seattle, we did a full-length concert where by arranging some of my other music and writing some new music I came up with another 45 minutes for the group. I have a new album that’s just come out (Unspeakable) where I wrote string arrangements on some of the songs for these three musicians to play. But I’m looking forward to just playing as a real group. We’d play the Richter music, but it’s already started to grow into something else. It allows me to write for strings, and since these are my really close friends I can take a lot of chances. It’s not like the kind of pressure I’d feel if I were writing for the Emerson String Quartet or something. The whole process has been a great learning experience for me, an opportunity to stretch.
Another really nice thing about this project—the people. I’ve known Hank since 1975, but we hadn’t played together for eleven or twelve years and this gave us a chance to reconnect. Hank was in the first band I ever had on my own. We’ve always been really close, but he moved to Ithica around the time I moved to Seattle and he didn’t want to travel as much. I hadn’t even seen him for probably ten years, but it just felt like only a couple days had gone by once we started playing.
I met Eyvind in Edmonton when he was still a student there—he was a volunteer at a club called Yardbird Suite where I was playing. A couple of years later I’d moved to Seattle and I was walking down the street and saw this guy who looked familiar. Anyway we started talking, and soon after that we started playing a lot. First we’d get together just the two of us at my house, then I put this quartet together with Ron Miles and Curtis Fowlkes. He’s been in several different incarnations of my bands.
I met Jenny more recently, but she knew Eyvind and Hank, and there was this mutual respect thing going among all of them. Over the last two or three years Jenny and I have done so many different things together. Whatever the context and the music, she’s totally there.