Guitarist Bill Frisell‘s album Richter 858 turns 10 this year. (Get it on Amazon.) The music was originally included in a 2002 art book, along with poems, essays, and reproductions of eight abstract paintings by Gerhard Richter, numbered 858-1 through 858-8. Three years later, it was reissued as an SACD, with a CD-ROM slideshow of the paintings included. These days, though, a lot of computers won’t read CD-ROMs due to processor changes, and the audio-visual display aspect has consequently become inaccessible.
That’s a shame, because the music and the paintings really do complement each other. The group heard on the disc consisted of Frisell on guitar, Jenny Scheinman on violin, Eyvind Kang on viola, and Hank Roberts on cello. The eight pieces were composed, but it has a kind of improvised feel, albeit one that’s more in the spirit of a string quartet than a jazz ensemble; there are some duo passages and the like, but no one is ever truly soloing—it’s all collective expression, all the time. There are some very stark, buzzing/droning moments, mostly from Frisell and Kang. Scheinman’s playing is highly melodic and quite pastoral, while Roberts provides a foundation and support.
Frisell described the sessions in a 2004 interview:
We had two full days of rehearsal at my house, the whole group and David [Breskin, producer], and then a big part of a third day playing the music in the studio while everything was being set up and checked for the recording. Again, this was luxurious. We had really good prints of the paintings all around us which David had brought back from Italy, where the book had just been printed. Jenny had also seen the actual paintings, in San Francisco, but Hank and Eyvind hadn’t seen them. After the rehearsal, we were really ready to just do it when we got to the studio—and it felt like the whole thing was done in one big stroke. That just seems like what was supposed to happen. As I remember, we recorded the pieces in sequence: it was like we’d been rehearsing for a concert or an athletic event and we just went for it. Because we were recording live we had to make sure the balance was okay, and it was kind of intense for everyone, including Joe Ferla, our engineer. The sound of it is the way we sounded in the room: we were set up close together, so that we could all hear each other. We did not have to use headphones. But it’s true that it went much faster than David expected—he booked three days and we ended up making the whole record in like ten hours. And that included this siesta in the middle—everyone took a long walk in the late afternoon and then we all had this big Mexican dinner—and came back to the studio and finished.
The slideshow, accompanied by the music, has now been posted on YouTube by the label. Watch it: