Found: Mid-1970s Letters From Fred Frith To A Henry Cow Fan

In which crate digging for prog vinyl grails leads to a different kind of discovery: Handwritten letters from Fred Frith addressed to a fan in Los Angeles. Check ’em out!

I can dig Henry Cow. I might not own any of their albums, but I’ve certainly invested the time to give everything a once-or-twice over. I like The Henry Cow Legend and In Praise of Learning best, but I can even dig aspects of Western Culture, like the opening track “Industry,” which is one of my favorite compositions of theirs. I guess I like Slapp Happy more, so the collaborative/merger era (such as the aforementioned In Praise…) is probably what I’d recommend first if you’re looking for recommendations. That said, if I could track down original copies of Henry Cow stuff at affordable prices, I would most certainly purchase ’em and file ’em away in my collection.

Looking at (and into, literally) Henry Cow records when I come across them lead me to a fascinating and unique discovery recently. Tucked into an original UK Virgin pressing of The Henry Cow Legend (with the fully laminated cover, and black-and-white “virgins” labels) I found two handwritten letters addressed from Fred Frith to a fan in Los Angeles. Clearly, both notes are responses to questions that were posed by the fan, so this information might exist elsewhere in interviews with Frith or his own writings, but it was all new to me so I was happy to get a glimpse at how the musician/educator’s mind works.

I’ll do my best to transcribe so you don’t have to strain to read them. Hopefully, I get it all right:


Dear Ronald,

Forgive the time lapse between your writing and my replying – we have been touring in Europe + I’ve only recently returned.

Your letter interested and surprised me. I have heard very little of Cage’s music and what I have heard I didn’t especially enjoy. However I can truthfully say that reading his book ‘Silence’ in 1968 changed me a great deal. It made me listen to music in a different way and examine carefully what I was doing – there isn’t much writing that can do this, in my experience.

But then, you see, I disagree strongly with the basis of what Cage says. He made me learn to appreciate and discover the true nature of sound as a source of ‘music’ – but I believe firmly in purpose, in having aims and trying to realise them, in music as a conscious as well as an unconscious communication.

Either we take our destiny in our own hands and try to shape it or we sit and let things happen to us – as in politics, so in music. All actions are of course in some sense political – as when, for example, the Pink Floyd stand up and play to 200,000 people – this is a political act, however slight the consciousness…

…of this may be on the part of the group or their audience.

In Henry Cow, we are not prepared to subscribe to political beliefs and then treat the music as separate from them. Not only are these beliefs inevitably reflected passively in what we do, but we consciously try to make the music carry them. This is really the opposite extreme from the stance of John Cage, much though I admire his iconoclasm.

I work on the guitar as a craft; I always aim to be in control of what I play – this is never completely possible of course – there are all the variables to take into account – acoustics of room, audience factors, my mental state, who I’m playing with, the accidents and coincidences of electricity/electronics – but I want, within these parameters, to know what I’m doing. So I work on technique, I read and learn around new areas all the time, I try to expand, to enable me not only to understand things better, but to be better able to communicate this new understanding. I think, despite certain differences, the other members of the group are the same.

What does this mean to you? What, about Cage’s indeterminacy principle, do you like? Does it enable you to avoid responsibility? I’d be very interested to discuss it with you in more detail…

Best wishes,
Fred Frith

Have you came across: Hans Eisler, Kurt Weil, Kagel, Henze, Rzewki, Cardew, the London Musician’s Coop, the Berlin Free Music School, …I’d be glad to send you records you can’t get in the U.S.

If I recall, that letter was dated 1975. The next one was dated a year later, in 1976.

Dear Ronald,

Answers to your questions.

A) Yes there is, congratulations on being the first to spot it. When we heard that the album had to be cut separately for the States we grabbed the opportunity to improve the sound of the masters by putting them through some high-class graphics – took a couple of days but worth it. Since then the English version has been repressed using this second mix, so there are comparatively few of the first one around.

B) I’ve always enjoyed working with Robert [Wyatt] although my involvement on the two albums was slight. I had a larger hand in his English hit single – cover version of “I’m A Believer” with…

…Nick Mason, Dave Macrae + Richard Sinclair. On this I played rhythm + lead guitar + string quartet which I also arranged. (Also violin solo on B side).

Last year Henry Cow played 3 concerts with Robert, each of us playing the others’ material, in London, Paris and Rome, which was greatly successful.

C) Faust broke up a couple of years ago and dispersed to become taxi-drivers, accountants, etc. It would be possible with a lot of telephone calls to maybe trace the drummer, but I don’t know about the others. I should think your best bet would be to ask at Virgin (write to Chrissie).

Your group sounds pretty weird; I’d certainly be more than interested to hear any tape you send.

Best regards
Fred Frith

And there you have it. Two brief glimpses into the mind of 1970s Fred Frith, via two small artifacts from the time. Whether or not you’re a fan of Frith/Henry Cow/Art Bear or anything else he might have played on (that first Material record!)…it’s not every day you get to peek inside the mind of a famed multi-instrumentalist and scholar. If you haven’t already, I implore you to give his music a chance. You just might find something new and exciting you didn’t know existed.

On a completely unrelated note, I’m off to Hawaii next week for a friend’s wedding and some R&R, so I’ll try to post once more before I leave, and then I’ll be gone for a bit. Cheers!

Henry Cow – Beautiful As The Moon – Terrible As An Army With Banners [MP3]

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