An Interview

David Breskin’s Notes for Bill Frisell

In the process of developing the Richter 858 project, Bill Frisell asked David Breskin for some guidelines. Breskin sent Frisell the following notes and thoughts in December 2001.


There should be eight distinct pieces of music, each piece having a 1:1 relationship to the painting which serves as its “trigger.”

Repeated motifs and/or structures shared by a number of pieces are perfectly acceptable, indeed natural, as there are such motifs and structures shared by certain of the paintings.

The main eight pieces may be roughly the same length as each other, but also are perfectly free to be very different lengths: there is nothing in this project which says that Frisell piece #1 couldn’t be three minutes long and Frisell piece #5 thirteen minutes long. Your reaction to the paintings will be wholly subjective and personal. One painting may not simply “ask you” for as much exploration and development as another. This is a natural tendency and should not be fought. You may have much deeper feelings about one painting as opposed to another, and may want to go farther with it. While it is true that the first seven paintings are all exactly the same size and created with similar means, duration in music is not necessarily analogous to scale in the visual arts. Likewise, in music, one would never confuse duration with significance (that is, the longer the more important) any more than one would dare value a huge Julian Schnabel painting over a tiny Vermeer simply because of size. Given your full freedoms in this dimension, it may still be you wish to explore the idea of uniformity between the paintings.

The last of the main pieces, Frisell piece #8, should have the function of a coda in feeling and tone, structure and style, in the same way Richter 858-8 functions as a coda for the first seven paintings. Painting #8 has a different support (wood stretcher and Belgian linen) from the rest of the paintings. It is a different size. Also, has a different depth, owing to the different stretcher depth versus the aluminum “U” channels which back the pieces on aluminum. Additionally, the painting looks and feels more “matte” than the other seven works, owing to different execution and paint handling. (You can explore these attributes when you are with the paintings in the flesh; your catalog is mightily insufficient in this regard.)

The “space” between each painting is a physical space (on the wall) but also an idea space—in our imagination—holding the “changes” between one painting and the next, say between # 1 and #2, and so on, or the space between painting #8 and #1 (closing the loop) or any two paintings (let’s say, #3 and #5) which are not physically contiguous. These interstitial spaces or gaps may also be explored musically, perhaps in one of the following ways:
* solo guitar pieces (written)
* solo guitar pieces (freely improvised)
* solo guitar pieces (combo of above)
* solo violin, viola or cello pieces
* duos with guitar and one of the strings

Regardless of instrumentation or design, these interstitial pieces would explore “linkages” between the paintings, and therefore, between the eight main pieces of music driven by the paintings. That is, the “gap” between painting #2 and #3 would be explored or fleshed out (imagined) by the “smaller” musical space between piece #2 and #3. These interstitial pieces of music would be shorter in duration than the main pieces “re-presenting” the paintings themselves, but are not necessarily less significant. In describing or imagining the space between paintings, these pieces may ask: what stays the same and what is changed from one painting to the next? how are relatives strangers? how are strangers relatives? what is sibling rivalry? how do neighbors “talk” to one another? fight with one another? The idea of these interstitial pieces, “linkages,” is just an idea, and not necessarily something that needs to be done. We may find that they would get in the way, or detract from the main 8 pieces—it’s just an idea.


The music may take its “cues” from specific moves or passages in the paintings. Certain “details” (which we will pull out and “re-present” in our book) may also be the triggering element behind compositional or stylistic choices you choose to make. Thus, a particular fragment of a painting may be the triggering element; the relationship between two such fragments may be the triggering element; the entire painting itself—it’s vibe, feeling, colors, strategies, structures, interventions, whatever—may be the triggering element. In all cases, musical choices are “motivated” by visual stimulae, however vague and ineffable and mysterious those motivations, or, on the other hand, however specific and concrete and particular those motivations happen to be. The idea is to use the paintings as not just “inspiration” but “motivation”: I believe that the deeper and more intimately involved you are with looking, the more perfect will be the relationship between your music and Richter’s paintings. This is to say, within the relationship between you and the paintings, you have almost total freedom of expression.

The music should express the full range of the paintings and the full range of your voice as a composer and guitarist: formally, thematically, emotionally, coloristically.

The music should deal with the idea of “The Series”: that is, closely linked pieces, painted/composed (executed/performed) at the same time, with consistent applications and modes of making. This is not to say that any of these paintings could not function on their own in the world as stand-alone objects; indeed, that’s what most commonly happens to Richter abstractions. This is also not to say that Frisell piece #4 wouldn’t function just dandily on its own, as a composition and/or performance, played out of context of the rest of the pieces. But it is to say that your music (whether in movements or songs) should feel like it is of a piece: a suite, of sorts, however loosely we define that term. Within this constriction (and your choice of instrumentation) there is a profound amount of diversity available. (See note above re: full range.) Another way to say all this is that the music should have some narrative or relational sense—however abstract. A sense of story, development, layering, beginning, ending: one thing in relation to the other.

The pictures have their own speeds. Their own velocities. Their own frequencies. Some are pitched high, some middle, some low. The music in some way could/should deal with this. Richter paints to music—no surprise when you look at his work. There are a lot of rhythmic things happening in the paintings. The music should respect these speeds and rhythms, but not slavishly so. I imagine some pieces being more rhythmatical, others less, as with the underlying paintings.

The music should not be “pretty” in the conventional or sentimental way, because the paintings are simply not. (Richter’s photo paintings, specifically the landscapes and some of the portraits, play with sentimentality to be sure, and may be sentimental in their own right, but his abstractions are strangers to this emotion.) I’m not suggesting, as others have, that the paintings are cold and heartless, mechanical and rote. I don’t think this is true at all. No: I think the paintings are ravishing and produce great emotions in viewers. (If Richter produces them clinically and without “emotion,” that is an entirely separate matter.) But the way in which they are ravishing or productive or great emotion is never in a conventional or traditional sense: that is, if they are beautiful, it is the beauty that exists on the “other side” of prettiness, or conventional notions of order, pleasure, containment. They are not nostalgic (in the way his landscape paintings may be.) So: while the paintings are not pretty, they are—and the music triggered by them could be—ravishing, violent, jarring, elegant, heavy, light, sumptuous, gridded, organic, harsh, gentle, ugly, tasteless, voluptuous, polite, rude, lovely, rhapsodic, rigorous, astringent, accidental, rational, turbulent, glossy, moving, mechanical, gleaming, dirty, wet, dry, and lyrical. (If they are lyrical, and I think they are, they sport a hard-edged lyricism.)

I expect the music will delve deep into the language of Electric Guitar. These are shimmery, “electric” paintings. They hold, bury, mix, and reveal a lot of visual noise—beautiful, aching, sweet, painful noise. In some ways you could say they are creations of different kinds of coloristic and structural noise, coming together to create an unusual composition, which—almost against its will—reveals beautiful melodies and harmonic cohesion. (Richter has been discussed vis-a-vis John Cage on more than one occasion.) Oil painting is so “old fashioned”, so “out of date,” so “irrelevant” and Richter knows it: we live in a world of photography, film, video, cyberspace. And yet the paintings Richter makes are extremely contemporary—the look and feel of them is contemporary, modern, today. I’m not saying that I can’t “hear” your acoustic guitar being part of this, only that I do very much like the idea (“hear” in my eyes, so to speak) the idea of the full range of your electric guitars (from crystal purity—your signature sound—to crunching distortion) up against, in the midst off, rubbing against, over the top of, snaking its way through the three acoustic string instruments. The tension between these things, the frictive heat, I think could be very compelling as it relates specifically to these paintings and this project. (It could be that Eyvind, Jenny and Hank will have non-acoustic motives and methods as well: I would certainly not want to restrict them in this regard.) I am only suggesting that, given the structures and methods of the paintings, and “effects” of them on the viewer, that I think there is a “rightness” to this architecture of electric guitar (the modern, the postmodern) with acoustic strings (the historical, the tradition, “oil painting”, the academy.) Seven of the eight paintings are, after all, on aluminum, a very modern metal. For this reason, I think your various delays and devices will be very appropriate for this project. In some ways they can be seen as an analog for some of Richter’s procedures. Speed changes, abrupt tonal shifts, echo, degradation, inversion, reversal, layering, distortion, “processing”: these are Richter’s tools as well. He simply has different means, owing to his different medium.

Don’t be afraid to experiment. These abstract paintings are created in the spirit of controlled experimentation. (And he’s been changing the experiments for now more than 25 years.) The paintings are the product of collision of ferocious discipline and rigor (order, science, craft, knowledge) with somewhat uncontrollable but not unknowable forces, resulting in certain kinds of compositional orders and structures being overlaid with, or punctured by, accident and incident. These same “contradictions” could infuse certain elements of the music, and indeed can’t but otherwise. As an improvising musician, you know all about this—in your bones. I anticipate you will do plenty of writing but that there will be plenty of freedom with it.

There is a tension in the work between construction and destruction. At some point, the conversational debate between these two always ends and what’s left is: silence, and the painting.



* What is the role of process as a determinant of “style”?

* What is the difference between a mechanical process and an “organic” process?

* What is the role of gesture (in paintings #1, #6 and #7) versus mechanical procedure?

* What is the link between color in painting and tone in music?

* What is the link between a “cut” or “tear” in a Richter abstract picture and chord change? Key change? Shift in tempo? Abrupt shift in dynamics?

* How does space operate in a painting? vis-a-vis music?

* What musical analogs or corollaries are there to:
the grid
the brushstroke
the knife cut
the horizontal sweep
the palimpsest

* In what way(s) will you construct the pieces to allow for and support improvisation, if any? And how will such improvisations advance the music and relate to the paintings?

Might there be room in the totality of the project for some collective improvisation, undertaken with certain rules to follow?

What is background in these paintings? What is foreground? What is figure? What is ground? How do these ideas work in the invisible world of music?


Think about the story of the way these paintings were made

Think about ignoring the story of the way these paintings are made, but still looking

Think about the idea of The Palimpsest as it relates to Richter’s paintings, your music
(palimpsest comes from the Latin/Greek meaning: “scraped again”)

Think about matte (dry) versus shiny (reverby) surfaces in music and painting

Think about painting wet on wet
Improvising on top of a written or played figure before it’s dry

Think about the negotiation between the urban (culture, the built world) and the rural (nature, bucolic wilderness) in the paintings. Your work has undertaken, over the years, a negotiation between these urban and rural oppositions as well

Think about the paintings as fictions; the same way one does a novel or movie

Think about the edges of the paintings as framing devices: otherwise a painting would go on forever and never stop, and so wouldn’t be a painting

Think about the edges of the paintings as beginnings and ends of the pictures

Think about the nature of time in these pictures: how are they records of their own making. This happened, then this, then this, then this you can see what before and this was after. How unlike music this is. And yet, in both cases: narrative