|In 2002 Bill Frisell was commissioned by producer David Breskin to create the music for an elaborate art book project on the great German painter Gerhard Richter. The book, RICHTER 858, was published in connection with a comprehensive US retrospective of Richter's work, although it focused entirely on a recent series of eight small abstract paintings numbered 858 1–8. There were poems, essays, superb reproductions of the works, and Frisell's music on an inserted CD -- one piece for each painting.
According to Breskin (who had produced two previous Frisell records, Smash & Scatteration, duets with Vernon Reid, and Power Tools' Strange Meeting): "My attraction to Frisell wasn't because of his compositional style so much as his relationship with the electric guitar. What Richter does with paint in these abstractions Frisell does with sound: he shapes it, he torques it, he inverts it -- he reverses it in time... He uses all these signal-processing devices to take his original sound and transform it... It is very similar to Richter, in the sense that Richter knows well the effects he can get from running the squeegee over a wet section of paint, just like Bill knows the effects he can achieve by feeding a certain series of notes into his delay, and then letting them come back and playing over them. And yet neither Richter nor Frisell have perfect control of the process, and things happen which they can't predict."
In fact this music is a departure for Frisell, although it builds on musical friendships going back years or decades. Having discussed the possibility of a project with strings since the '80s, Breskin and Frisell settled on the basic sound, electric guitar and three acoustic strings, and on the players -- gifted, far-ranging improvisers who would relish the aesthetic challenge. After viewing the paintings in a private showing and finding out more about Richter, Frisell set about composing. A few months later Breskin and the band rendezvoused in Seattle and after a couple of days' rehearsal the music was recorded in a live mix to 1" analogue in just one day by master engineer Joe Ferla. Frisell comments: "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 was thinking of my role as the guy with the squeegee... 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, but there was always some underlying structure that was more carefully worked out."
There's a density to the music, a layered quality, and performance strategies that all clearly relate to Richter's art. But Frisell's RICHTER 858 also stands on its own as an evocative suite that straddles jazz and contemporary new music, moving between musical abstraction and something more melodic and "representational," from extremes of dissonance, energy and noise to darkly serene meditations. Inspired by the whole process, Frisell has since written much more for the band, which premiered this music January 11/03 at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, has recorded as the string section of his Nonesuch project Unspeakable.