Frank Frohlich is a member of the new generation of German acoustic guitarists. Emerging from the Dresden scene in the 1990s, Frohlich is a musician of great flexibility, inventiveness and humor, equally at home playing for jazz audiences or groups of grade school students, playing solo or with other musicians, accompanying writers, actors, or even silent movies. With his pianist partner, Michael Henkel, Frohlich told Contemporary Musicians that he plays music he calls “chamber jazz:” it is a blend of Latin American music, tango and classical music, with suggestions of masters, such as Thelonious Monk, Kurt Weill and Hanns Eisler. In addition to performing and composing, Fröhlich has been an active force in the Dresden cultural scene, first as a concert promoter, later as the publisher of guides to bands in the city and to independent theater in the state of Saxony.
Fröhlich may owe his musical career to the complete lack of interest his brother showed in music. When his brother received a guitar as a present but never played it, Frank picked it up and started teaching himself how to play it. He was already 16, but threw himself into learning the instrument, listening to guitar on recordings, studying method books, even making up his own little pieces. As a 17-year-old apprentice cook, he took advantage of weekly music instruction available to young amateur musicians in schools in his hometown of Frankfurt, East Germany.
Fröhlich gave up those lessons after a year or so. Meeting Chilean singer and guitarist Fernando Carrasco in 1980 had much more of an impact on his music. Carrasco, who had been politically active in Chile in the early 1970s, was given asylum in the German Democratic Republic when a military junta overthrew the government of Salvator Allende. Frōhlich met him in a club in at the trade school where he was doing his cooking apprenticeship. Carrasco taught his favorite old Chilean songs to a group of musicians and singers in the club. It was Fròhlich’s first encounter with Latin American music, which captured his imagination by storm. It was also his first experience working to make good music. Carrasco rehearsed the group hard and pushed them to play as well as they could. He also helped Frohlich with his guitar playing, giving him tips and showing him new techniques.
Frohlich played regularly with Carrasco for about a year. In 1986, he met another foreign musician, Vasco Fernando Bunze. In the provincial town of Frankfurt/Oder, Bunze was a far more exotic person: a black African from Mozambique, who wrote his music, sang, and played guitar and percussion. Bunze and Fröhlich worked together as a duo for about two years. The experience with both Carrasco and Bunze were invaluable for Fròhlich’s musicianship. He was able to hone his guitar chops on stage. He could watch the more experienced musicians perform in a live setting. It was an opportunity to explore his instrument and try new things out, all while safely in the background, playing as a sideman who didn’t have the full pressure of the performance on his lone shoulders.
At the same time he was working with Bunze, Frohlich enrolled in a formal music school in Frankfurt/Oder. It was an eye-opening experience for the young guitarist. “I lost all my joy in making music,” Frohlich told Contemporary Musicians. ”The teachers were awful, they destroyed every trace of motivation—all these teachers who never ever performed on stage.” What Carrasco and Bunze, in contrast, showed Fröhlich was a completely different approach to music. The foreign musicians played from their gut. They were dedicated to their music but it had none of the discipline Fröhlich’s German music teachers were drilling into him. Music as Carrasco and Bunze played it was a dance, something the entire body took part in, not just the fingers on the strings. They played, they sang, they danced— always those three things together. You couldn’t separate movement and song from the music. Not surprisingly, Fröhlich lasted only a year in his first music school.
From 1985 until 1988, after doing his time in the army, Frohlich moved to Dresden to attend university. At the same time, he worked on refining his guitar technique, played with Bunze, attended weekend courses at the
For the Record…
Born on March 29, 1964, in Frankfurt, German Democratic Republic; married. Education: Fachs-chule für Kulturwissenschaften, Dresden, Germany.
Worked with Chilean musician Fernando Carrasco, 1980-82; worked in duo with singer/musician Vasco Fernando Bunze, 1986-87; Program Director of Sche-une cultural center in Dresden, 1988-93; began working with pianist Michael Henkel, 1990; joined New Fantastic Art Orchestra as “wood” guitarist, 1993; staged first Bolschoi Bambule concerts for children, 1994; made first CD with Michael Henkel, 1997; first accompanied silent movies of Buster Keaton, 1998; released first solo CD, 1999; “Das Ei des Kolumbus” won third prize winner in Open Strings competition, 1999; released CD Überfahrt with Michael Henkel, 1999; began working with flautist Katrin May, 1999.
Addresses: Record company —Acoustic Music Records, Postfach 1945, 49009 Osnabrück, Germany.
Dresden College of Music, and practiced constantly. In 1988, he graduated from university with a degree in cultural studies and became the Program Director at the Scheune, a concert venue in Dresden. It was an exciting time. The Scheune was presenting one of the broadest cultural programs in the city: jazz and theater during the week, rock and pop shows on the weekend. In a short time, Fròhlich was able to meet most of the musicians in the East German scene, in particular Uwe Kropinski and Helmut “Joe” Sachse, two of the most important guitarists in the country. On top of that, not long after he took over the job, the Berlin Wall fell. Before 1990 was out, West German musicians began streaming into the east and many played at the Scheune. His work there was the next important phase of Fröhlich’s musical education. It provided him with a network of contacts with musicians and promoters throughout newly reunited Germany.
By 1993, however, the long hours and hard work were beginning to take their toll. In January Fröhlich gave up his job at the Scheune, and devoted himself full-time to making music. He had continued to practice, perform, and compose while he was running the Scheune, and when he left his playing had reached a high level. Thanks to that and his network of contacts, Fröhlich was able to play 60 concerts in his first year as a full-time musician.
While at the Scheune, Fröhlich had performed regularly, mainly in a guitar duo. In the excitement that followed the fall of the Berlin Wall, however, Fròhlich lost two partners as one guitar player after the other packed up and left Dresden for West Germany. He wasn’t long without a musical collaborator, however. Soon he would team up with pianist Michael Henkel and forge his most important musical partnership of the 1990s. And all through a strange set of circumstances—a want ad that Fröhlich didn’t write and Henkel hadn’t read. After the other guitarists left Dresden, Fröhlich’s wife offered to place a want ad in a local paper. Fröhlich agreed and, deeply involved in completely renovating his apartment, promptly forgot about it. One evening, however, not long afterward, there was a knock at their door. The stranger introduced himself as pianist Michael Henkel and said he was answering the ad in the paper. Fröhlich was surprised and a little confused. What ad? he asked. Henkel sheepishly admitted he didn’t know himself—his wife had seen the ad but only gave Henkel the address in it. Fröhlich invited Henkel in and played some of his guitar pieces for him. The two musicians hit it off and have been performing together ever since.
Fröhlich is justifiably proud of his work with Henkel. An acoustic piano/acoustic guitar duo, he points out, brings with it various problems. The piano tends to be much louder than the guitar; both are string instruments and dynamically similar; both play notes that cannot be sustained and begin to die away as soon as they are struck; arranging the music for the combination is not easy. “It is an exciting, but difficult line-up,” Fröhlich said, “and we have achieved something that doesn’t work often.” Fröhlich has been the primary composer for the duo, Henkel handles arrangements.
In 1997 they made their first record together, a maxi-CD entitled Die Unschuld vom Lande. Ein Walzer. By that time they had put together a full and varied program of music, more than enough to fill a full CD. Henkel, however, thought that they still weren’t ready to record most of their pieces and preferred to work on them some more. As a result, only four pieces were included on the disc. In 1999, Fröhlich recorded his first solo CD, Das Ei des Kolumbus. The same year, he entered the title piece in a competition for composers at the Open Strings Festival, an event organized by Peter Finger, one of the important figures in acoustic guitar music in Germany. Out of a field of 300 entries, Fröhlich’s came in third. He won an invitation to perform at the next festival along with a recording contract with Finger’s label Acoustic Music.
Fröhlich took advantage of the prize to make a full record with Henkel. Uberfahrt was made in 1999. Instead of recording the CD in a conventional studio, Fröhlich and Henkel found an ordinary room with good acoustics and piano in a town not far from Dresden. They hired a friend who was a sound engineer, brought the recording equipment to the room, and met there every day for a week. The resulting record, performed live without the benefit of any overdubs, is as close to the live concert sound of Henkel and Fröhlich as a record could hope to come. “It is as if the two of them were in a dialog on stage,” wrote the newspaper, Freie Presse. “Their musical communication obviously was good fun for them.” The CD was well-received by critics and led to some surprised reactions from people Fröhlich knew. “Friends would come up to me,” Fröhlich said, “and go ‘Man, I’ve known you for ten years and had no idea you played music! This is great! I never would have thought!’”
In addition to his work with Michael Henkel, Frank Fröhlich is involved in a number of other musical projects. In summer 2000, he composed a complete concert program for guitar and flute, which he will premier in 2001 with Katrin May, a classical flautist with the Lausitzer Philharmonie. He has planned a tour in March 2001 with one of the guitar heroes of his youth, Helmut “Joe” Sachse. Following that, he scheduled to do a short tour with another winner from the Open Strings competition. He has composed music for two Buster Keaton movies, Go West and The General— which he accompanies frequently himself—films he thinks particularly suited to the sound of a guitar. He is composing a soundtrack for an upcoming documentary on the city of Dresden. In addition, he collaborates with actors and writers on readings.
Fröhlich’s kids program is undoubtedly the most pure fun of all his activities. Every November he teams up with drummer Jörg Ritter to do a series of concerts, called Bolschoi Bambule, in schools in and around Dresden. The concerts, performed for children ages 6-12, are completely interactive. Fröhlich gives the kids instruments, they form a band, rehearse some music, and conclude with a performance of their music. The shows are designed to be pure fun for their audiences. But while not “educational” in any pedantic sense, kids do learn something about music from the inside. Playing in their own band, they experience first hand the importance of listening to the other musicians and making room for what others are playing. In other words, they learn how to work together, with give and take, toward a common goal.
The concerts are anything but conventional music. In the latest program, entitled “The Crazy Kitchen,” Fröhlich combined his first profession, cooking, with his current job, music. The musical instruments the kids were given were the various utensils found in a kitchen—egg whisks, flour sifters, cutting boards, wooden spoons, forks, pots and pans. Playing rhythms and tunes that imitated cutting, chopping, grating, and stirring, accompanied by Fröhlich’s silly songs, the musicians led the kids through the preparation of a musical meal that the kids later perform themselves for their “guests.” Fröhlich writes and composes the Bolschoi Bambule shows himself. They are consistently sold out—in fact, they are so popular that he says he and Ritter could easily make a living doing nothing else if they wanted.
Fröhlich describes the course his career has taken from cook and amateur musician, to concert promoter, to regularly performing musician as “a very straight zigzag path.” Every experience, no matter how apparently disconnected, has ultimately contributed something important to the music he makes. In the last couple years he has begun to move beyond Dresden’s rich cultural life to the rest of Germany. But wherever the zigzag road leads Frank Fröhlich, one can be sure the result will be musical surprises, for him and his audience.
(With Michael Henkel) Die Unschuld Vom Lande. Ein Walzer, Unicornio Records, 1997.
(With Günter Grabbert) Wilhelm Busch, EisenKool-Musik produktion, year unknown.
Das Ei das Kolumbus, Unicornio Records, 1999 (With Michael Henkel) Überfahrt, Acoustic Music Records, 2000.
Information was obtained through an interview with Frank Fröhlich on November 1, 2000.
—Gerald E. Brennan
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