Lumpy Gravy

In nearly 30 years of spending my time on the most useless endeavour known to mankind - writing about music - I've been lucky enough to meet and interview many of my heroes. My general interview archives are elsewhere. 'Lumpy Gravy' is reserved for the lumpiest, and most exquisite, artists.

Tuesday, July 20, 2004

Robert Fripp

Art Rock And After

By Gary Steel

Unobtrusively, the ‘father of progressive rock’, guitar master and ‘thinking person’s musician’ Robert Fripp visited New Zealand in January. His personal appearances, however, were confined to the 25 participants in his Guitar Craft course.
Fripp – former King Crimson leader and contributor of distinctive electric tones to records by the likes of David Bowie, Brian Eno, Peter Gabriel, Talking Heads, Darryl Hall, Blondie and David Sylvian – held court for a week at Fowey Lodge in a secluded area of Howick. Intensive plectrum-picking resounded on the steel strings of acoustic guitars, as Fripp took demanding workshops in the fundamentals of music with an unusual emphasis on alternate and cross-picking techniques. Fripp defines Guitar Craft as three things: a way of practising the guitar; a way of coming into a relationship with music; and a way of practising the person. "With a certain intensity of application our state can change, and at this point we may find music waiting," he said. But to reach the required state of intensity and concentration without stress (that renowned creativity killer) rearing its ugly head, relaxation is an essential prerequisite. Hence the substantial time allocation to the art of relaxation, meditation and, specifically, the Alexander Technique.
Stranger was the fact that you did not have to be a guitar player to participate. The introductory course was open to "all levels of experience", from those who had never touched a guitar but had the commitment to learn, up the scale to veritable technical wizards.
Organised by Nigel Gavin, a New Zealand-based American guitarist who leads a group of guitar Frippofiles called the Gitbox Rebellion, the New Zealand course included Kiwis, Australians and Americans – several of them advanced players who, having studied Fripp’s methods before, were back for revision studies.
But wait a minute. It’s history time. The year is 1969. Rock and roll, by consensus view, is seen as a social phenomenon and a metaphor for teen rebellion. But what’s happening here? Along with the consciousness-raising associated with the era came an infiltration of the rock scene by academically inspired musicians.
Some virtuosi – like guitarist Jimi Hendrix – brought their innate genius from a solid blues background. Others – like technical wizard Robert Fripp – brought the European tradition to bear on this new musical explosion.
Whatever the many and varied inspirational sources, rock music was beginning to take itself seriously. Suddenly, musicians had the desire to create something of their own, the opportunity to harness the new sounds afforded them by the new technology, and an already existing industry (hence: promoters and marketers) to sell their wares for them. Rock demanded to be taken as seriously as jazz or classical and, for a while, it was. Who remembers the debate raging in the Listener letters pages in 1974 about the suitability of such music for the Concert Programme?
The terms ‘progressive rock’ and ‘art rock’ are associated with the creation of King Crimson, whose debut began the great ‘But Can You Dance To It? You Call That Rock And Roll?’ debate. Led by the studious Fripp, King Crimson were about as un-rock and roll as an electric band could get. Their first album, In The Court Of The Crimson King, set new standards in high fidelity, introduced the world to a conceptual vision of hell on earth in 21st Century Schizoid Man, and a disciplined steamhammer sonic barrage that heavy metal bands are still trying to recapture today. Most critics hated it.
Over two decades later, Robert Fripp remembers well the unresolved conflicts over this new music, and rues the failure to develop its full potential.
"In 1969 I was attacked for saying that you could tap your foot to rock but use your brain as well," he says in his clipped, middle-class accent. "This was viewed as terribly pretentious. And my own view of Crimson in that period was that it drew on European music forms as well as harnessing the power of rock. For me it was, you know, what would happen if Hendrix was playing the Bartok String Quartets? Or The Rite of Spring? Conversely, what would the Bartok quartets be like if they were written for the power of an ensemble like Hendrix’s?"
King Crimson musicians came and went – Fripp was the only one to stay. Their albums mixed up a brave, wonderful and often preposterous stew of heavy rock, modern classical, jazz and folk ideas. However, many critics dismiss King Crimson and other progressive rock groups (Genesis, ELP, Yes, etc) as indulgent and pretentious. Fripp doesn’t altogether disagree.
"It was very hard, very difficult for young men to play music like that," he says. It was a musical generation which went sadly off course, and I don’t think it ever moved from 1969 to 1970."
Why? Fripp talks about young musicians having their aspirations dashed, and being bought by the temptations the business brings with it – sex, drugs and rock and roll. It’s all very well making music for the mind and body, but the act of creation is somewhat depleted by the album-tour-album-tour cycle the popular record industry forces on its artists, and the attendant temptations to indulge in sex, alcohol and illicit drugs.
Seeing these factors stripping away the vitality and validity of his eclectic experiments, Fripp disbanded King Crimson in 1974 and disappeared for several years to study at Sherborne House under J G Bennett – a pupil of the philosopher Gurdjieff. When he returned in 1977, progressive rock was an all but forgotten medium, and punk was all the rage. But Fripp was a new man with strengthened resolutions and a clear set of ideals.
"It was a fairly sterile period (for music) until 1976 with the so-called punk/new wave movement, when the spirit returned," said Fripp. "But whereas with the previous generation there was an articulation that we wanted to play our instruments well… because it had gone off course, the next generation reacted against it. And it was quite unseemly t have any competence or performance skill. So the music had a lot of spirit but playing was not very competent."
With his return, Fripp decided a relocation was in order. "I moved to New York in February of 1977. It was a remarkable time to be there, and musicians of that generation were very free, very open." He talks of associations struck with new wave bands like Blondie.
"But then some of the people got to be very successful and the latitude, the mobility and the flexibility and the freedom kind of went out of the scene."
A frantic bout of activity for Fripp included solo ventures and collaborations such as his unforgettably hypnotic ‘Frippertronic’ contribution to David Bowie’s Heroes song and album. The new Fripp even had a convenient description for himself – ‘a small, intelligent, mobile unit’ – which summed up his new, ultra-disciplined methodology. At this point Fripp also mapped out his own 12-year plan. The first was his three-year ‘drive to 1981’, followed by the three-year reactivisation of King Crimson and his ‘incline to 1984’.
With the final dissolution of King Crimson in 1984, however, it seemed to the general public that Fripp had gone into hiding again. What happened to the rest of the plan, and what did it entail? "It was a 12-year plan from 1978," explained Fripp. "In 1978 four three-year periods presented themselves. And I saw that there had to be certain achievements within each three-year period, to move to the next. The characteristic of the first period was to get in place, to establish a position, whatever it might be. And the period 1981 to 1984 was one of consolidation. From the period of 1984 to 1987, the key word is ‘network’. I made contact in reciprocal fashion with others who had similar commitment and interests. And the period of 1987 to 1990 was to ‘go into the world’, and for that network in a sense to be an active power grid in the world. But I didn’t see beyond 1990. Twelve years is quite enough to get on with. And that will make itself apparent at the right time."
About now, reader, you may be wondering just which New Age trip Fripp may be on, but the insularity and self-obsession of New Age doesn’t come into Fripp’s clear-headed, realistic worldview. The last two parts of his plan clearly coincide with a drift away from the rock industry and into the teaching of his personal disciplines which have resulted in Guitar Craft; a guitar school funded by the Seminar Program of the American Society for Continuous Education, of which Fripp is himself a past-president.
Like many New Agers, however, Fripp does feel good about the 1990s. "The characteristic of anything creative is that it’s new; if you knew what would happen, it wouldn’t be creative.
"But you can make some predictions, simply by applying process. My sense is that something so new is going to appear in this stream in 1991 that we can’t pin it down easily. There’s a very benevolent presence behind the changes which are occurring, in my view, but the outcome is not guaranteed because whenever you get a very positive force you generally get a negative force as strong which rises to meet it. So there has to be something in the middle which makes the outcome possible. And, to be a little simplistic, it is the effort made by us all to enable that process to take place."
So he’s out of the rock industry, but there are still little offshoots of his current activities. First there’s the League Of Crafty Guitarists, a band of graduates from the courses. Then there’s Sunday All Over The World, "a cooking little rock group" for which Fripp plays guitar and his wife, actor Toyah Wilcox, sings. But he’s not optimistic for that group’s success:
"The cost of presenting a new band which isn’t in the mainstream of the marketplace is very expensive, particularly when one isn’t supported by the industry. The music industry has become far more governed by the business interests than it was in the 1970s."
And then there are the old King Crimson albums, which are about to be released in crystalline, digitally remastered compact discs. Fripp describes the remastering as a "labour of love, but the difference (in sound) is staggering, so they carry my personal recommendation." Fans are duly warned not to touch the previous batch of King Crimson cds, released without Fripp’s permission – he says the sound quality was "appalling". Order the revitalised versions at your local specialist record store.

SO THEN, these are some of the strands of ideas on which the Guitar Craft course is built; and now the Fripp network has spread as far as New Zealand.
After question time we are seated on cushions in the middle of the conference room. His students file in and sit in a circle around us, and perform several ensemble pieces they have devised and workshopped during the past two days and nights. The effect of 25 acoustic guitars in a circle is ‘surround-sound’ and the level of concentration in the room produces an almost psychic quality in both musicians and audience.
A little rough round the edges, it is hypnotic stuff all the same, and a shining example of the effect Fripp’s teachings have had on the students.
Subsequent to the course, many of the pupils stayed on here to develop and record original material they had workshopped. Gitbox Rebellion played at the Waitangi Day celebrations and were to play at the Sesqui Festival in Wellington this month. And Nigel Gavin has been invited by the master to extend his studies in America.
Although it’s a long way from the rock industry in which Fripp established his career, this networking will provide, in which genre they choose, the most valuable musicians of all: functional creators.

∑ This article appeared in the NZ Listener, March 19, 1990.

Notes: Re-reading this piece after so many years, I’m bored silly by it’s lack of flair. I was attempting to write ‘up to’ the Listener arts pages somewhat stuffy reputation. That’s a great pity, because the memory of meeting Fripp on that Sunday afternoon/evening is vivid and colourful. I was a long-time Fripp admirer and King Crimson freak, and was terribly nervous, just in case he turned out to be an asshole. Or worse, just in case I turned out to be an asshole, and he showed me up. Things worked out okay. I was given a generous formal interview, but it was made clear to me that work with his students would have preference. When I stated my intention to ask him a lot of Crimson questions, he showed some reticence, but gave in to my curiosity. Fripp is one of the strangest speakers I’ve ever encountered. When you see Fripp on film, there’s a fusty, almost bumbling impression. In person, he has an incredible presence, totally composed, totally PRESENT and guru-like.
In some point towards the end of the interview, Fripp tried to get me interested in taking a Guitar Craft course. He said it didn’t matter if I played no instrument whatever. I seriously considered it, and every now and then wonder how it may have revolutionised my life.
In the article, the course came across as very relaxed. In fact, I believe it was a very tough, sleep-deprived regime based on J G Bennett’s courses.
The highlight – apart from that ‘multi-channel, in the middle of the circle’ witnessing of the student’s lessons, was the dinner entertainment.
Food was a Hare Krishna-style vegetarian feast, and while everyone sat around eating, Robert Fripp himself moved from table to table with his acoustic guitar, smiling beatifically, playing the most achingly beautiful accompaniment. It was also the only time I’ve seen Fripp STAND UP to play guitar… he’s always seated on stage for King Crimson.


At December 23, 2004 at 8:09:00 PM PST, Blogger thymius said...

Great read! Your a lucky fella. I'd give my wife's right arm to talk with Fripp.

Good job.


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