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 18. There were poems, essays, superb reproductions of the works, and Frisell's music on an inserted CD -- one piece for each painting. When Songlines' owner Tony Reif was approached about releasing the recording he suggested enhancing the music in two ways: remastering it from analogue to DSD for maximum sound quality as an SACD, and creating a CD-ROM slideshow that would present the paintings and their details together with the pieces they'd inspired, demonstrating analogies between visual art and music that Breskin and Frisell had been working with.
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. 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 latest Nonesuch project Unspeakable, and is undertaking its first US tour as the 858 Quartet in February.