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Bill Frisell - Richter 858

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Artist: Bill Frisell

Album: Richter 858

Label: Songlines

Review date: Feb. 20, 2005

Music composed to accompany works of visual art is, of course, nothing new – Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition and Feldman’s Rothko Chapel spring immediately to mind as examples. And the deeper processes of improvised music have sometimes been inspired by the visual arts, too. Check out Bill Evans’s brilliant, succinct liner notes to Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue, where the pianist describes the existential act of putting spontaneous music into the air as being akin to the immediacy of brush-stroke in certain forms of Japanese painting: one wrong move and the rice-paper canvas rips.

Guitarist-composer-bandleader Bill Frisell has taken up the challenge, from producer David Breskin, to compose a series of pieces to accompany eight paintings by German painter Gerhard Richter. (Richter is perhaps best known for a devastating series of re-painted photograph-based works that explore, with haunting, grim, and violent poetry, the universal resonance of tragedy and terror in Germany’s Baader-Meinhof affair.)

The series of paintings here, reproduced in the CD booklet, is mostly oil on aluminum, stunningly-colored abstract works that evince an amalgam of industrial, machine-like techniques with repetitive textural forms that, while not quite organic in effect, seem to echo faintly the almost-symmetrical regularity of natural processes like waves and cloud-forms. The painter’s occasional use of human gesture by way of brush-stroke offers surprise and a subtle emotional presence to the pieces.

Frisell has cast his music for an ensemble that is a slight mutation of the classical string quartet. Jenny Scheinman’s violin, Eyvind Kang’s viola, and Hank Roberts’s cello meld together seamlessly while maintaining a clean individuality of timbral nuance. Frisell’s guitar, loops, and electronics play a wide variety of roles, from sparse Jim Hall jazzbo harmonic clusters, to industrial noise orgies, to dark, scumbled orchestral washes.

For the compositions themselves, Frisell has, not surprisingly, drawn from a modernist palette that offers hints of Webern-ian ellipsis, Bartok-ian rhythmic pulse and extended string technique, and stacked, staggered, slightly heroic melodies reminiscent of Charles Ives.

While these varied approaches do make sense within the abstract context of the paintings, it is, above all, Frisell’s ability to get inside the processes of the painter’s work that makes for real alchemy between sound and image here. The visual logic of Richter’s paintings is reproduced by string writing that suggests the color-washes and palimpsests of the paintings. And Richter’s use of gesture is not ignored: Frisell’s more lyrical melodic lines seem to be an effort at unlocking a personal engagement with the underlying emotions of the paintings.

The disc also includes a CD-ROM slide show that allows for experiencing the paintings and music together, and the images include details from the paintings that further clarify not only the strength of the connection between Richter’s brushwork and Frisell’s interpretation, but also the visible and apprehensible tensions in Richter’s paintings between textured abstraction and energetic, ambiguous bursts of human expression.

By Kevin Macneil Brown

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