Bill Frisell, Beautiful Dreamer: The Guitarist Who Changed the Sound of American Music

PDF Bill Frisell, Beautiful Dreamer: The Guitarist Who Changed the Sound of American Music 15 mars 2022

Book author
  1. Philip Watson


'Outlines the subject's life in a series of scrupulous strokes and intimate interviews that are rare in such undertakings . . . a cool, casual victory.'

Over a period of forty-five years, Bill Frisell has established himself as one of the most innovative and influential musicians at work today.

Growing up playing clarinet in orchestras and marching bands, Frisell has progressed through a remarkable range of musical personas - from devotee of jazz master Jim Hall to 'house guitarist' of estimable German label ECM, from edgy New York downtown experimentalist to plaintive country and bluegrass picker. He has been a pioneering bandleader and collaborator, a prolific composer and arranger and a celebrated Grammy Award winner.

A quietly revolutionary guitar hero who has synthesised many disparate musical elements into one compellingly singular sound, Frisell connects to a diverse range of artists and admirers, including Paul Simon, Elvis Costello, Lucinda Williams, Gus Van Sant, Marianne Faithfull and Justin Vernon, many of whom feature in this book.

Through unprecedented access to the guitarist and interviews with his close family, friends and associates, Philip Watson tells Frisell's story for the first time.

'Stuffed with musical encounters, so many that every couple of pages there's an unheard Frisell recording for the reader to chase down.'

'Bill Frisell, Beautiful Dreamer is the definitive biography.'

'Superb . . . the book races along like Sonny Rollins in full sail. Like subject, like writer: this is super-articulate, adventurous prose.'


As this book began as my doctoral dissertation, I must thank my outstanding supervisor, Helen Deeming. I am grateful to the supremely generous academics who have supported and encouraged me in practical and emotional ways. Some are friends, and others have kindly donated their time and expertise to a stranger over email. My sincerest gratitude to Christian Leitmeir, Tim Shephard, Matthew Symonds, Katherine Butler, Barbara Eichner, Gavin Alexander, Paul Schleuse, Kerry McCarthy, Richard Wistreich, Lisa Colton, Michael Alan Anderson, Linda Phyllis Austern, Gillian Gower, Samantha Bassler, Matthew Laube, Richard Rastall, Cathy Ann Elias, Julian Johnson, Angela Mace Christian, Josh Duchan, Harriet Boyd-Bennett, Matthew Thomson, Robyn Adams, Joseph Mason, Elizabeth Randall Upton, Matthew Ingleby, Hector Sequera, Mary C. Fuller, Daniel Carey, Sigrid Harris, Samantha Arten, Eleanor Chan, Helen Matheson-Pollock, Scott A. Trudell, and Stephen Rose. The late Lisa Jardine left an inimitable mark on my life and scholarship. Thank you for empowering me to behave badly and fearlessly pursue work that does not fit comfortably into traditional academic departments.

My National Endowment for the Humanities Fellowship at the Newberry Library introduced me to a wonderful cohort of fellows and colleagues, including Jamie Forde, Brian O’Camb, Anne Koenig, Carmen Hsu, Christine Götteler, Tatiana Sejas, Jason Rosenholtz-Witt, Cynthia Nazarian, Jodi Bilinkoff, Chris Fletcher, Rebecca Fall, Christine DeLucia, Anne Boemler, Keelin Burke, and D. Bradford Hunt. I appreciate your feedback and comradery.

I must also thank the library staff at the Newberry Library, Bodleian Library, Warburg Institute, British Library, and Oriel College Archives for their dedication and assistance. I am appreciative of the continued support of friends and colleagues at the Centre for Editing Lives and Letters (CELL) at University College London. You will always be my interdisciplinary safe haven. I am also grateful for the support of the Department of Music at the University of Sheffield, where I am an honorary research fellow.

Thank you to Francis Bevan for typesetting the Weelkes editions and to Nick Sandon from Antico Edition for granting permission to use their editions of Martin Peerson. Edward Tambling, thank you for all the bits and bobs you’ve done over the years, including assistance with Latin translation. Martin Dehnel-Wild kindly donated his skill in LaTeX. Previously published research included in this book was given permission thanks to Wiley, Boy-dell & Brewer, and the Hakluyt Society. Harald Braun and Emily Michelson, my series editors, and Max Novick from Routledge have been brilliant to work with.

Hopefully this book communicates what an important role singing communities play in my life. Thank you to the Orlando Chamber Choir, Chantage, and the Cathedral Choir at St James’s Cathedral, Chicago.

There are some who fit into so many various professional and friendoriented categories that I couldn’t possibly pick one. Thank you, NancyJane Rucker, Bruno Bower, Jennifer Thorp, Dai Bowe, Heather DehnelWild, Martin Dehnel-Wild, Sam Blickhan, Patrick Allies, Nerissa Taysom, Robert Quinney, Benjamin Thompson, Shannon Guglietti, Ollie Boothroyd, Louisa Sullivan, Charlotte de Mille, and Alexa Suskin.

To my family – I couldn’t have done this without you: Mom, Dad, Kristy, Eric, Becca, Popo, Irene, and especially Taylor. Will, you have been my indefatigable cheerleader. Thank you for always believing in me. This book was supported financially by the Newberry Library and the National Endowment for the Humanities, as well as the Reid Scholarship from Royal Holloway, University of London.


In the preface to Henry Lichfild’s First Set of Madrigals of 5. Parts: apt for both Viols and Voyces (1613), poet Christopher Brooke, a friend of Philip Sidney, contributed two sonnets to honour the music’s composer. The first, ‘To the Avthor vpon his Musicall Muse’, states:

Ovr Times so curious, and our wits as nice,
And all as changing as the Fashion is;
No Art for any certaine Truth hath price;
All by Opinion goe: and therefore this
Which th’ Angell (propper to thy Musicks skill)
Hath here expos’d to Fashion, Time, and Wit,
Looke not t’haue simply crown’d for Good, or Ill,
But as thy humorous Censor shall thinke fit.
Fortune in these Things rules; (That all know blinde)
As blinde are they that censure out of Humor;
But if some few judiciall in this Kinde,
Shall grace thy Muse; force not the idle Rumor:
For thy knowne worth, in Their just approbation,
Shall wage with Wit, with Humor, Time, and Fashion.

In this poem Brooke acknowledges not only the fleeting nature of trends but also addresses pressing questions on subjectivity in artistic meaning, a common topic of discussion in the prefatory material of song books. Brooke advises readers to rely on their own judgement and acknowledges the role of sense perception in knowing. He suggests that in self-reliant judgements, the truth in art, or rather, art’s true value, will prove itself.

The truth-bearing capability of art was one of the foremost aesthetic questions of late sixteenth-, early seventeenth-century England, particularly surrounding music in worship and the ability of poetry to positively affect society. Concurrently, natural philosophers like Francis Bacon were adjusting metaphysical perceptions of the human mind, and with them, the individual subject, aware of their capacities, becomes the locus of all representations. There was also concerted metaphysical interest around the passions in this period, evident in a variety of treatises and fictions.2 I use the word ‘metaphysical’ to encompass this type of question rather than the term as it relates to the specific group of poets. For example, Thomas Wright’s Passions of the Minde (1604, first printed 1601) contains a list of questions called ‘Problemes concerning the substance of our Soules’.3 Here he asks about the quality of knowledge (‘What is evidence and certitude in Knowledge, and how they differ’ and ‘How knowledge and perfit Science, differ from credulity and opinion’),4 as well as questions about the internal processes related to sense perception and representation (‘How a corporall imagination concurre to a spirituall conceit’, ‘What is Arte? what the Idea in the artificers minde, by whose direction hee frameth his woorkes’).5 In these unanswered questions, Wright demonstrated his own uncertainty about what constituted certain knowledge, how it was formulated, and through what evidence one might prove it. He also touched on the influential role of scepticism in seeking truth. After his list of questions, Wright bemoaned that [t]hese Questions I might propound, but GOD knowes, who was, is, or ever shall bee able to answere them exactly; I know superficiall Schollers and vngrounded Philosophers, who…will thinke these easie to bee resolved, because they can say what they know; but that will not suffice, because the Sphere of knowledge doth infinitely exceede the limites of theyr capacities. Despite his hypothesising, he acknowledged As much as I have delivered in this matter, might be sayd of touching tasting, and smelling; of laughing, weeping, sighing…the substance, scituation, correspondence, and vse of all partes of a mans body…. No man, I thinke, can be learned, who may not plainely perceyve what an infinite matter I have propounded here of knowledge, and yet how little, even the wisest know…. Onely I will inferre our extreme Ignorance, that few or none of these difficulties, which conerne vs so neere as our soules and bodies are throughly as yet, in my iudgement, declared even of the profoundest wits.6 These statements, amongst others on the nature of the passions, the senses, about dreaming and memory, and other physiological and psychological processes, demonstrate the connection between problems of mind and body and the concept of certain knowledge within a fundamentally Aristotelian early seventeenth-century intellectual framework.7 The relationship between art and knowledge is of particular note, as his question on the experience of music contained within it a fundamental mind-body question: ‘For what reason corporal Music and Consorts of Instruments so ravish and abstract a spirit, a soul, transporting it almost into a Paradise of Joy?’ Wright viewed music as corporal, of the physical world, yet did not understand how then it might interact with immaterial spirits. Music was a driving force in understanding the mind-body relationship because it viscerally presented a fundamental problem with planes of materiality.

This monograph considers how these questions and others were both reflected and addressed through the routine practice of music making. As music philosopher Lawrence Kramer posits, music is not just a ‘vehicle or reflection of culture, but a form of human agency that shapes and intervenes’. Though music’s important role in this period of intellectual history has been explored from the perspective of the history of science and mathematics, it has yet to be approached from an interpretive musicological perspective. Scholars like Penelope Gouk have thoroughly investigated music’s role in natural philosophy and Baconian inquiry but never took the step to connect any of these epistemic themes to specific musical works, nor did she partake in any musical interpretation. Musicologists like Ian Spink have argued that metaphysical verse was inherently unmusical and believed that ideas of philosophy, theology, and science were ‘not suited to music’ because ‘music is a language of the emotions not of verbal ideas’.

I argue it is precisely because of music’s connection to the passions that it cogitated and presented some of the most pressing metaphysical questions of the day. Through a focused examination of music’s contribution to change in understanding ‘certain truth’, as well as its role in the intellectual development of the period, this study shows how music not only reflected changes in episteme but also actively participated in its generation. Unlike previous studies, this book positions the historical experience of music, including the examination of individual songs, within frameworks of literary and historical scholarship on representation, sense perception, and the approach to knowledge in early seventeenth-century England. Music making was a common practice that readily presented many of the metaphysical problems to ways of knowing that were of importance to the development of English thought throughout this period. The performing arts in particular, as Stephen Greenblatt says, ‘offered men the power to shape their worlds, calculate probabilities, and master the contingent’, a way to ‘theatricalise culture’. As shown here, recreational domestic vocal music, too, could powerfully imply ‘that human character itself could be similarly fashioned, with an eye to audience and effect’, all posited in contrast to an interchangeable other. But the change affected by music and musical experience was not only on ‘human character’ in terms of temporary effects like mood but also touched on issues that would change the way Europeans interacted with and understood the world they inhabited.

My parameters are approximately 1588–1640, as I limit my project to printed music, beginning with the recreational music of Thomas Morley and William Byrd in the late 1580s and ending with Martin Peerson, Walter Porter, and other print publications from before the Civil War. It is more difficult, however, to contain intellectual history within such dates – these ideas will draw from a wider and more fluid timeline and geographical area, in line with the idea that practice can both pre-empt and lag behind the full articulation of theory. My scope is limited to printed resources with musical notation (excluding, for example, ballad sheets), mostly for practical reasons, though there are conclusions to be extrapolated from what it meant to be published, particularly in terms of wider trends concerning which genres of vocal music were printed (lute song, multi-voice, instrumental, and so on). I include any music that could have been sung with multiple voices, regardless of any perceived ‘intention’ on the part of the composer or anachronistic ideals of form imposed by later musicologists. In many cases, the text authors of these songs are anonymous. So, when I make a reference to, for example, ‘Dowland’s text’, I am not implying Dowland wrote it but that it is the text he set to music. If the poet is known, I will say ‘Sidney’s poem’ when speaking of the text specifically or ‘Byrd’s setting’ when referring to the music.
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