Step Across the Border

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Step Across the Border
FredFrith VHScover StepAcrossTheBorder.jpg
VHS cover of the 1990 RecRec release
Directed by Nicolas Humbert
Werner Penzel
Produced byRes Balzli
Written byNicolas Humbert
Werner Penzel
Starring Fred Frith
René Lussier
Iva Bittová
Music by Fred Frith and friends
CinematographyOscar Salgado
Edited byGisela Castronari
Silvia Koller
Distributed by RecRec (Switzerland)
Release date
Running time
90 min.

Step Across the Border is a 1990 avant-garde documentary film on English guitarist, composer and improviser Fred Frith. It was written and directed by Nicolas Humbert and Werner Penzel and released in Germany and Switzerland. The film was screened in cinemas in North America, South America, Europe and Japan, and on television in the United States, Germany, Switzerland, Austria and France. It was also released on VHS by RecRec Music (Switzerland) in 1990, and was later released on DVD by Winter & Winter Records (Germany) in 2003.


Shot in black and white, the 35mm documentary was filmed between 1988 and 1990 in Japan, Italy, France, Germany, England, the United States and Switzerland, and shows Frith rehearsing, performing, giving interviews and relaxing. Other musicians featured include René Lussier, Iva Bittová, Tom Cora, Tim Hodgkinson, Bob Ostertag and John Zorn. [1]

The film won a "Special Mention" at the European Film Award for Best Documentary in 1990. A companion soundtrack album, Step Across the Border was also released by RecRec Music in 1990.

In January 2020 Cut Up the Border was released on CD by Rogueart. It is a sound collage created by Humbert and French sound designer, Marc Parisotto from over thirty hours of audio tape that were not used in the film.


Step Across the Border is subtitled:

A ninety minute celluloid improvisation by Nicolas Humbert and Werner Penzel.

"Improvisation" here refers not only to the music, but also to the film itself. Humbert and Penzel state in the 2003 DVD release of the film:

In Step Across the Border two forms of artistic expression, improvised music and cinema direct, are interrelated. In both forms it is the moment that counts, the intuitive sense of what is happening in a space. Music and film come into existence out of an intense perception of the moment, not from the transformation of a preordained plan. [2]

The film is not narrated, and the musicians, the music and the locations are not identified. Instead it is a sequence of "snapshots" taken of Frith and musicians he has worked with, rehearsing and performing, interspersed with apparent random images of movement (trains, cars, people, grass) that blend in with the music. The improvised nature of the film and its Direct Cinema approach make it more of an art film than simply a documentary on a musician.

The music in the film is performed by Frith on his own, with others, and by others on their own. Some of the music is improvised, some is composed material performed "live", and some is previously recorded material played as accompaniment to many of the "movement" sequences in the film. [3]

The recording of the film coincided with the formation and activity of Frith's review band Keep the Dog (1989–1991), and many of the participants of the band appear in the film. There are even a few rare glimpses of the band rehearsing. René Lussier in particular, features prominently and "interviews" Frith about his musical upbringing and approach to music.

The title of the film comes from the lyrics of the song "The Border", recorded by Skeleton Crew on their album, The Country of Blinds (1986). A brief "video" of this song also appears in the film.


Musicians appearing in the film include:

Additional cast

Film locations


In a review in The Boston Globe , Betsy Sherman said Step Across the Border is "a tribute to the doggedly creative spirit of those who swim against the tide of commercialized pop culture." [4] She called Frith "an engaging subject" and a "happy pilgrim, open to inspiration and discovery". [4] Writing in the Los Angeles Times , John Henken felt that the film's "cinematic posturing" is "at odds with Frith's pretention-free music", but added that the ambient travel-sounds have their "own voice", and blend in well with the film's "Frithian aesthetic". [5] Henken found the final third of the documentary "compelling" and "poignant". [5]

Reviewing the film in the San Francisco Examiner , Scott Rosenberg said Frith is "simply a guy who loves the sound of an electric guitar", and while the sounds he produces may seem a "racket ... it's a beguiling one". [6] But he was disappointed with the filmmaker's "celluloid improvisation" where the camera appears to "wander aimlessly". Rosenberg felt that the documentary "degenerate[s] into despondent randomness" instead of focusing on Frith and his playing. [7] "Aurally, Frith achieves something more than bare noise – but Humbert and Penzel have created cacophony's visual analog." [7]


Uppsala Filmkaja – Best Documentary FilmSweden1990Won [8]
European Film Award for Best Documentary Europe1990Special Mention [9]
Grand Prix International – Images & DocumentsPortugal1990Nominated [8]
Golden Gate Award San Francisco1991Special Jury Award [8]

Home media release

In 2003, Winter & Winter Records (Germany) released Step Across the Border on DVD. It contained a slightly shortened version of the original film, plus 12 "bonus tracks" and a trailer of Middle of the Moment, another documentary film by Nicolas Humbert and Werner Penzel, with music by Fred Frith (released on the soundtrack, Middle of the Moment ).

A few segments totalling about seven minutes were removed from the original film, including the "video" of the song "The Border" by Skeleton Crew, and Keep the Dog rehearsing "Norrgården Nyvla".

Bonus tracks

The "bonus tracks" are outtakes and many feature additional shots of scenes in the film.

  1. John Dee Holeman – Gromes Hotel, New York City, February 1989
  2. Charles Hayward – Rehearsal room backyard, Leipzig, October 1988
  3. Arto Lindsay – Rehearsal room, Leipzig, October 1988
  4. Fred Frith – Selluloid Restaurant, Osaka, January 1988
  5. Fred Frith and Tom Cora – Rehearsal at The Kitchen, New York City, February 1989
  6. Fred Frith, René Lussier, Jean Derome and Kevin Norton – Rehearsal at The Roulette, New York City, February 1989
  7. Cyro Baptista – Reheasal room, New York City, February 1989
  8. Fred Frith and John Zorn – Rehearsal at The Kitchen, New York City, February 1989
  9. Fred Frith and Tim Hodgkinson – Rehearsal at Hodgkinson's house, Brixton, London, December 1988
  10. Fred Frith – Concert at the Muse, Osaka, January 1988
  11. Fred Frith – Frith's apartment (recalling some of his compositions), New York City, January 1989
  12. Joey Baron – Baron's house, Hoboken, New Jersey, January 1989


Cut Up the Border album cover FrithHumbertParisotto CutUpTheBorder.jpg
Cut Up the Border album cover

Cut Up the Border

Some thirty years after Step Across the Border was released, director Humbert reviewed over thirty hours of audio tape that were not used in the film. Humbert and French sound designer, Marc Parisotto used these tapes to create a sound collage of ambient noise and performances by Frith, Cora, Ted Milton, Bittová, Haco and Zorn. [11] The result was presented at a Berlin cinema in January 2019 with Frith improvising live on guitar over the sound piece. [12] The performance was recorded and broadcast by Deutschlandfunk in February 2019. [13] In January 2020, Rogueart released the radio broadcast on CD entitled Cut Up the Border and credited to Fred Frith, Nicolas Humbert and Marc Parisotto. [11] [14]

Related Research Articles

Fred Frith English musician, composer and improvisor

Jeremy Webster "Fred" Frith is an English multi-instrumentalist, composer, and improvisor.

Tom Cora American cellist and composer

Thomas Henry Corra, better known as Tom Cora, was an American cellist and composer, best known for his improvisational performances in the field of experimental jazz and rock. He recorded with John Zorn, Butch Morris, and The Ex, and was a member of Curlew, Third Person and Skeleton Crew.

Skeleton Crew (band) American experimental rock and jazz group

Skeleton Crew was a United States experimental rock and jazz group from 1982 to 1986, comprising core members Fred Frith and Tom Cora, with Zeena Parkins joining later. Best known for their live improvisation performances where they played various instruments simultaneously, they also recorded two studio albums Learn to Talk (1984) and The Country of Blinds (1986).

Zeena Parkins American musician

Zeena Parkins is an American harpist active in free improvisation and jazz. Parkins plays standard harps, as well as several custom electric harps; she also plays piano and accordion. She is currently a guest faculty member for composition courses at Mills College.

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Tim Hodgkinson English experimental music composer and performer

Timothy "Tim" George Hodgkinson is an English experimental music composer and performer, principally on reeds, lap steel guitar, and keyboards. He first became known as one of the core members of the British avant-rock group Henry Cow, which he formed with Fred Frith in 1968. After the demise of Henry Cow, he participated in numerous bands and projects, eventually concentrating on composing contemporary music and performing as an improviser.

René Lussier is a jazz guitarist based in Montreal, Quebec, Canada. He is a composer, guitarist, bass guitarist, percussionist, bass clarinetist, and singer. Lussier has collaborated with Fred Frith, Chris Cutler, Jean Derome, and Robert M. Lepage. He combines elements from several genres and is often referred to within the discourse of contemporary classical music or Musiques Actuelles in French.

Bob Ostertag American musician

Robert "Bob" Ostertag is an experimental sound artist, political activist and writer based in San Francisco. He has written three books, collaborated with a number of musicians, and has released twelve solo albums.

Keep the Dog was a United States-based experimental rock touring band from New York City formed in 1989 by English multi-instrumentalist, composer and improvisor Fred Frith. The sextet was conceived as a review band for performing selections of Frith's extensive repertoire of compositions from the previous 15 years.

Fred Frith discography Recordings by Fred Frith

Fred Frith appears on over 400 recordings. This is a selection from bands he was/is a member of, collaborations with other bands and musicians, and his solo recordings. The year indicates when the album was first released. For a comprehensive discography, see the Discography of Fred Frith by Michel Ramond, Patrice Roussel and Stephane Vuilleumier.

Iva Bittová Czech musician, and actor

Iva Bittová is a Czech avant-garde violinist, singer, and composer. She began her career as an actor in the mid-1970s, appearing in several Czech feature films, but switched to playing violin and singing in the early 1980s. She started recording in 1986 and by 1990 her unique vocal and instrumental technique gained her international recognition. Since then, she has performed regularly throughout Europe, the United States and Japan, and has released over eight solo albums.

<i>Step Across the Border</i> (soundtrack) 1990 soundtrack album by Fred Frith

Step Across the Border is a soundtrack double album by English guitarist, composer and improvisor Fred Frith, of the 1990 avant-garde documentary film on Frith, Step Across the Border. The album features music from the film performed by Frith and other musicians, and covers ten years of Frith's musical career from 1979 to 1989.

<i>Quartets</i> (Fred Frith album) 1994 studio album by Fred Frith

Quartets is a 1994 studio album by English guitarist, composer and improvisor Fred Frith. It consists of two compositions by Frith, "Lelekovice, String Quartet #1", performed by the Violet Wires String Quartet, and "The As Usual Dance Towards the Other Flight to What is Not", performed by an electric guitar quartet. Frith performs with the guitar quartet, but not with the string quartet.

<i>Middle of the Moment</i> (soundtrack) 1995 soundtrack album by Fred Frith

Middle of the Moment is a soundtrack by English guitarist, composer and improvisor Fred Frith, of the 1995 documentary film, Middle of the Moment by Nicolas Humbert and Werner Penzel.

<i>Allies</i> (Fred Frith album) 1996 studio album by Fred Frith

Allies is a studio album by English guitarist, composer and improvisor Fred Frith. It is the second of a series of Music for Dance albums Frith made.

<i>Nous Autres</i> 1987 live album by Fred Frith and René Lussier

Nous Autres is a live album by Fred Frith and René Lussier recorded in October 1986 at the 4th Festival International de Musique Actuelle de Victoriaville in Victoriaville, Quebec, Canada. The live mixes were later enhanced with additional material recorded by Frith and Lussier in December 1986 at a studio in Montreal, Quebec, and the resulting album was released on LP in 1987. The album was released on CD in 1992 with four additional studio tracks recorded by Frith and Lussier in January 1992 in New York City.

Catherine Jauniaux is a Belgian avant-garde singer. She has been described as a "one-woman-orchestra", a "human sampler", and "one of the best kept secrets in the world of improvised music". Her solo album, Fluvial (1983) is regarded as one of her most accomplished works. She was married to the late American experimental cellist and composer Tom Cora.

<i>The Stone: Issue Two</i> Album by Fred Frith and Chris Cutler

The Stone: Issue Two is a 2007 live album of improvised experimental music by Fred Frith and Chris Cutler. It was recorded at The Stone in New York City on 15 December 2006 and was one of four CDs released between 2006 and 2010 by Tzadik Records to raise funds for The Stone. It was Frith and Cutler's fourth collaborative album.

<i>Cut Up the Border</i> 2020 live album by Fred Frith, Nicolas Humbert and Marc Parisotto

Cut Up the Border is a 2020 live album by English guitarist and composer Fred Frith, German film maker Nicolas Humbert and French sound artist Marc Parisotto. It comprises a collage of unused audio material recorded between 1988 and 1990 for the documentary film on Frith, Step Across the Border, overlaid with live improvisations by Frith performed in January 2019. The album was released by French record label Rogueart in January 2020.

<i>Attention Span</i> (album) 1990 studio album by Ostertag with Zorn with Frith

Attention Span is a collaborative album by Bob Ostertag, Fred Frith and John Zorn, released in 1990 by RecRec Music.


  1. Töteberg, Michael, ed. (17 December 2016). Metzler Film Lexikon (in German). Springer-Verlag. pp. 605–606. ISBN   978-3-476-05260-5.
  2. Winter & Winter Records (2003). Step Across the Border (DVD liner notes).
  3. Fountain, Clarke. "Step Across the Border (1990)". AllMovie . Retrieved 25 January 2020.
  4. 1 2 Sherman, Betsy (16 October 1992). "Creativity Is at Home in 'Border'". The Boston Globe . p. 36. ISSN   0743-1791 . Retrieved 25 January 2020 via Lock-green.svg
  5. 1 2 Henken, John (26 September 1992). "Travels With a Complex Musician". Los Angeles Times . p. 92. ISSN   0458-3035 . Retrieved 25 January 2020 via Lock-green.svg
  6. Rosenberg, Scott (10 August 1992). "An Interpreter of Cacophony (page 1 of 2)". San Francisco Examiner . p. 19. Retrieved 25 January 2020 via Lock-green.svg
  7. 1 2 Rosenberg, Scott (10 August 1992). "An Interpreter of Cacophony (page 2 of 2)". San Francisco Examiner . p. 20. Retrieved 25 January 2020 via Lock-green.svg
  8. 1 2 3 "Step Across the Border". Winter & Winter Records . Retrieved 25 January 2020.
  9. "The European Film Academy – 1990". European Film Academy. Retrieved 25 January 2020.
  10. "Step Across the Border". Retrieved 25 January 2020.
  11. 1 2 "FRED FRITH – NICOLAS HUMBERT – MARC PARISOTTO: CUT UP THE BORDER". Retrieved 27 January 2020.
  12. "Art's Birthday 2019: Cut Up the Border / Step Across the Border". Field Notes. Retrieved 27 January 2020.
  13. "Cut Up the Border". Deutschlandfunk (in German). Retrieved 27 January 2020.
  14. "Fred Frith, Nicolas Humbert, Marc Parisotto – Cut Up The Border". Discogs . Retrieved 27 January 2020.

Works cited