Whoever is interested in New Music, the sort of music made by folks who insist that the lines between jazz, contemporary academic music or art music (a.k.a. contemporary classical music), rock and roll and electronic music are at best blurry, would do well to search out Traffic Continues. This is music where the ideas, the approach to making music, along with the quality of the playing, are much more important than the particular genre that the music may or may not fit in.
Traffic Continues is made up of two connected pieces of music, “Traffic Continues” (1996) and “Traffic Continues II: Gusto (for Tom Cora)” (1998), each of which in turn consists of interdependent parts that highlight various combinations of instruments and/or approaches to playing. Both pieces were written by composer/guitarist Fred Frith, and performed by Frith and the German New Music group Ensemble Modern. Long-time Frith collaborators Ikue Mori (drum machines) and Zeena Parkins (harp, electric harp) join the proceedings for “Traffic Continues II.”
While Frith is fairly well-known for is work with the group Henry Cow, and with the likes of saxophonist John Zorn (Naked City Band), bassist Bill Laswell (Massacre), and perhaps the all-time super-group for music nerds, French, Frith, Kaiser & Thompson, Frankfurt-based Ensemble Modern may need a bit of an introduction. The group has been playing together since the mid-1980s and has worked with such leading composers as Karlheinz Stockhausen and Steve Reich, and has recorded music by many of the composers who set the stage for today’s more adventurous musical experiments, people like Charles Ives, Arnold Schoenberg and Paul Hindemith. Along with also recording the work of many contemporary composers, such as Mark Anthony Turnage and Helmut Lachenmann, one of their most successful collaborations was with Frank Zappa, who they worked with on Civilization, Phase III and The Yellow Shark.
One way to appreciate how Traffic Continues blurs the lines between recognizable genres is to know that much of the music is improvised in relation to, as the liner notes state, “a number of cells of composed music.” While this is not far from the common practice of most jazz musicians, neither the composed music that serves as the foundation for the improvisations, nor the musicians themselves, make reference to the blues and gospel roots that jazz traditionally draws upon. The players here sound like their points of musical reference are not blues or gospel or simply jazz itself, but European art music, especially 20th Century art music. Snippets of minimalism in a Steve Reich vein (“First Riddle”), abstract approaches to vocals (“Lourdement Gai”), an overall emphasis on harmonics over melody (that is, an emphasis on sound over more or less unified melodic passages that build and resolve) and a willful, though not overdone, use of dissonance throughout, give this music an art house feel. Though, by also incorporating samples, drum machines, electric bass and guitar and a drum kit, the potential stuffiness of that type of music is successfully cut with a downtown sound that listeners of Frith might expect, especially in the company of Mori and Parkins, both long established in New York’s experimental music scene.
On “Traffic Continues II: Gusto (for Tom Cora),” the music is constructed around samples recorded by the late cellist Tom Cora for a Skeleton Crew (Cora, Frith and Parkins) disc, Etymology. In many ways Cora, or the memory of Cora, is the perfect bridge between the rougher, often noisier New Yorkers and the Ensemble Modern. Cora, throughout his too-short career, had the amazing ability to pull together the truly beautiful tones that only a cello can make, with abstract, noisy abrasive effects, often in the same piece, or even passage, of music. Rather than something tawdry or sickly nostalgic, what Frith and his musicians manage to do here is pay an interesting tribute to a musician who made a career out of playing progressive, experimental music and engaging in precisely the kind of new enterprise that is being actualized here. In doing so, they also pay tribute to the range of approaches that Cora took to playing the cello, from entrancing drones to pleasing minor key melodies to raucous feedback laiden noise.
Make no mistake, this is adventurous and often heady music that is not for all tastes. But then, it’s not really meant to be either since this is music that sets out to challenge what is accepted as much as what is acceptable.