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by Eric Tamm
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Chapter Two: The Guitarist and the Practice of Music

Art is a collaboration between God and the artist, and the less the artist does, the better.
-- André Gide

Fripp The Guitarist

         Robert Fripp said in 1986, "Music so wishes to be heard that it sometimes calls on unlikely characters to give it voice." Fripp was - and is - the opposite of a musician like Mozart, whose seemingly divine, God-given talent enabled him, under his father's tutelage, to be playing the harpsichord with facility by the age of five and composing sonatas and symphonies by the age of eight. Of his own natural aptitude, or rather lack thereof, Fripp has often said, "At fifteen, I was tone deaf with no sense of rhythm, sweating away with a guitar." He contrasts his situation with that of the supreme guitar hero of his generation: "One might have a very direct, very innate and natural sense of what music is, like Hendrix, or be like me, a guitar player who began music tone deaf and with no sense of rhythm, completely out of touch with it. For Hendrix the problem was how to refine his particular capacity for expressing what he knew. For me it's how to get in touch with something that I know is there but also I'm out of touch with."

         Little is known publicly about music in the Fripp household and extended family, though he has spoken admiringly of a certain great aunt, Violet Griffiths, a piano and music teacher: "As a young girl she practiced nine hours a day, five on scales alone." Mrs. Griffiths has been highly successful in inspiring her students; she "regularly has the highest examination results for her pupils." She attributed her success to "pushing": "Aim for 100%, not 50%," Fripp quotes her as saying. A similar work ethic permeates Fripp's own approach to the guitar: what he has been able to accomplish, he feels, has nothing to do with talent, but has been the result of sheer effort. He has practiced guitar with varying degrees of intensity over the years, the most being "twelve hours a day for three days running," and sometimes six to eight hours a day over fairly long stretches. Such a level of commitment has been necessary to attain the goal: "It's a question of developing technical facility so that at any moment one can do what one wishes ... Guitar playing, in one sense, can be a way of uniting the body with the personality, with the soul and the spirit."

         Fripp took up guitar at the age of eleven, playing with difficulty on an acoustic Manguin Frere. Fripp is naturally left-handed, but for some reason decided to go at the guitar in the normal right-handed position, with the left hand doing the fretting and the right hand doing the picking - unlike other famous southpaws like Jimi Hendrix and Paul McCartney, who turned their guitars upside down so they could play them "normally."

         After struggling on his own for some three months, Fripp took lessons for about a year at the School of Music in Corse Mellon, a village a couple of miles from Wimborne, his home town. His instructor was Kathleen Gartell, a piano teacher who was not a guitarist but who did give him some useful music theory background. The man Fripp has singled out as his most important guitar teacher was Don Strike, whom he called, "a very good player in the Thirties style." Fripp’s lessons with Strike lasted about two years, between the ages of thirteen and fifteen. Strike laid the foundation for what was to become one of Fripp’s specialties, a rapid cross-picking technique. A few years later, when Fripp was eighteen, he ran into Strike again; the older guitarist, on hearing Fripp play, shook his hand and acknowledged him the better player. Today Fripp recalls this acknowledgement as an important milestone in his life.

         During his teenage years Fripp also experimented briefly with flamenco guitar styles and took lessons from Tony Alton, a Bournemouth guitarist. All such experiences were doubtless helpful in channeling the young Fripp's musical urges, but he did not feel entirely comfortable with any particular guitar style or discipline: in 1974 he said, "I don't ... feel myself to be a jazz guitarist, a classical guitarist, or a rock guitarist. I don't feel capable of playing in any of these idioms, which is why I felt it necessary to create, if you like, my own idiom." necessary to create, if you like, my own idiom."

         Fripp's first electric guitar, purchased when he was about fourteen, was a Hofner President, which he played through a six-watt amplifier with an eight-inch speaker. He has also used Fender Stratocasters, a J-45 acoustic, a Yamaha acoustic, a Milner pre-war acoustic, and a Gibson tenor guitar. The main instrument with which he was associated in the 1970s was the Gibson Les Paul, a guitar he found ideal for his characteristic singleing work. In the 1980s he used Roland synthesizer guitars (notably with King Crimson IV and in his collaborations with Andy Summers). Recently, with Guitar Craft, he has championed the Ovation Legend 1867 super-shallow-bodied acoustic. (Technically inclined readers who are interested in more details on Robert Fripp's equipment - amplifiers, picks, strings, devices, and so on - are urged to consult Rosen 1974, 32; Mulhern 1986, 90; Drozdowski 1989, 32; and the liner notes to several of the albums.)

         Almost from the very beginning of his guitar playing, Fripp realized that "the plectrum guitar [guitar played with a pick] is a hybrid system" for which no one had ever developed an adequate pedagogical method. Left-hand position and fretting technique, at least for the nyloninged guitar, had been established to a high degree of sophistication by classical guitarists, but right-hand position and plectrum technique had no comparable tradition. The use of a pick is derived from the playing of banjos and subsequently guitars in the jazz of the 1920s and 1930s, but every player essentially developed his or her own method; and since in the jazz context "the main function of the right hand was to enable the guitar to be heard above ten other pieces in a dance band," the results generally lacked for subtlety. "So there I was at twelve in 1958 and it was so obvious that there was no codified approach for the right hand for the plectrum method. So I had to begin to figure it out ... It was very difficult because the only authority I could ever offer was my own." Beginning then, Fripp devoted nearly thirty years to the development of the picking method he now teaches to his Guitar Craft students. Part of the development took place on a conscious level, but much of it was a sort of unconscious accretion of physical knowledge gained through constant practicing. Fripp says that when he came to consolidate the approach for Guitar Craft, "There was a knowing in the hand through doing it for years which I consulted. It's interesting. My body knew what was involved, but I didn't know about it."

         Fripp's view is that educating oneself musically is a never-ending process. From a technical point of view, his approach seems to involve systematically attacking theoretical entities like scales through the physical and mental discipline of learning to play them fluently. In rock music, he points out, only three or four scales are in common use - Major, Minor, Pentatonic (Blues), and slight variants of these. But in fact, any number of other scale formations are available to the creative musician, ranging from the old Church Modes through the so-called synthetic scales (which have exotic names like Super Locrian, Oriental, Double Harmonic, Hungarian Minor, Overtone, Enigmatic, Eight-Tone Spanish, and so on, and on into symmetrical scales (what twentieth-century French composer and teacher Olivier Messiaen called the "Modes of Limited Transposition") such as Whole Tone, Chromatic, and Octatonic/Diminished.

         All of these can be learnt in various transpositions, that is, starting the scale on a different note (C Major, C# Major, D Major ... B Major). In addition, most of these scales can be used as the source of other formations by changing the tonic note while retaining the pitch-set itself. Such was the basis of Western European medieval and Renaissance modal theory - a theory in which one basic scale (the diatonic scale, corresponding to the white notes of the keyboard) ultimately served as the basis of seven different modes, each of which was felt to have its own unique psychological and symbolic character:

Chart 2: The Church Modes
Ionian Mode (Major) C D E F G A B
Dorian Mode D E F G A B C
Phyrgian Mode E F G A B C D
Lydian Mode F G A B C D E
Mixolydian Mode A B C D E F G
Aeolian Mode (Minor) C D E F G A B
Locrian Mode B C D E F G A

         Today's enterprising musician may likewise construct "modes" based on some exotic (non-diatonic) scale, yielding still more inflections or tonal dialects, still more musical variety. For instance, the modes based on the Hungarian Minor scale would begin like this:

Chart 3: Modes of the Hungarian Minor Scale
Hungarian Minor C D Eb F# G Ab B
2nd mode D Eb F# G Ab B C
3rd mode Eb F# G Ab B C D
4th mode F# G Ab ... (etc.)

         A further avenue of scalar exploration, which, so far as I know, Fripp has never mentioned in print nor worked with himself, is the raga system of India, with its rigorously logical array of seventy-two parent scales. The point of all this is that each individual scale carries with it certain musical characteristics, certain expressive possibilities, certain objective sound-qualities available to all who master them. Western classical music got along quite nicely for some two hundred years (let's say 1650-1850, using essentially only two scale forms, major and minor; much twentieth-century art music has concentrated on a single form, the chromatic or twelve-tone scale. Fripp has been eager to move into new territory: specific sources of unusual scales he has cited as having been useful to him include Bartok string quartets, Vincent Persichetti's staid but readable textbook compendium of contemporary musical language, Twentieth-Century Harmony, the eccentric yet influential Joseph Schillinger System of Musical Composition, and jazz-rock groups of the 1970s such as the Mahavishnu Orchestra and Weather Report. Fripp sums up: "The possibilities for extending [musical, scale] vocabulary are ... quite immense. Since it takes three or four years to be able to work within any one scale fluently and utterly, there's more than enough work for a lifetime."

Paradoxes of Process and Performance

         From the foregoing discussion, the reader might get the impression that the technical side of music is all-consuming for Fripp. To the contrary, it is eminently clear that he views the discipline of guitar technique, scales, and so on, not as an end in itself but merely as a means to an end. The end, to put it simply, is to make contact with music. And to make contact with music involves work on the whole personality, a process which has social, cultural, and political ramifications; art and life cannot be separated. Although Fripp's most developed ideas on the subject of making contact with music have been expressed in terms of his Guitar Craft teaching, and are best discussed in that context, here I might attempt a brief summary of the concept of "music" that has motivated Fripp since before the earliest days of King Crimson.

         In talking, thinking, writing, and reading about music as an ultimate quality - for "Music," as Fripp has written, "is a quality organized in sound" - it must of course always be borne in mind that we are attempting to deal with the ineffable through the medium of language, with all its limitations. Prose has its own laws and grammars, having evolved, one might say, not in order to describe or explain the ineffable, but rather to convey information of a more mundane nature. Music, conversely, has evolved as a subtle language of the emotions - or, if you prefer (and Fripp probably would), a language of the spirit. Poetry recited aloud, with its quasi-musical cadences, meter, rhythm, pitch, and vocal tone colors, is somewhere in between. The point is that words can never convey the meaning of music; often enough, verbal formulations of the ineffable bog down in paradox, antinomy, self-contradiction. This will happen in this book, and it has happened to Fripp from time to time.

         In 1973 Fripp said, "I'm not really interested in music. Music is just a means of creating a magical state." What he meant (I think) by this was that the outer forms of music, its styles, history, structure, even aesthetics - the stuff of the academic approach to music - were not the point for him. The point was the "magical state" that the practice of music could put one in. Seen from this vantage point, the actual notes and rhythms, the timbral surface, the sounds in themselves, hardly make any difference; it is the attitude and receptivity of the participants that matter. The focus is not on the object, but on the subject - not the sound, but the listener.

         Not the knowledge, but the knowing. Paradoxically, of course, it is precisely the sounds you hear, whether you are the musician or the audience, that will enable you to draw your attention to the quality of the knowing: the sounds become the knowledge, but it is the knowing rather than the knowledge that is vital.

         In 1974, Fripp told an interviewer: "When I was twenty-one I realized that I'd never really listened to music or been interested in it particularly. I began to take an interest in it, as opposed to being a guitar player who worked in certain situations. I've gotten to the point now where I see music as being something other than what most people see. I would say that the crux of my life is the creation of harmony, and music you take to be one of the components of that harmony."

         This statement seems related to the earlier one, but here the word "music" is used in a different sense. Here "music" signifies that intuitively grasped quality, organized in sound, which constitutes the "knowing" of the true musical experience. What Fripp is saying here (I think) is that he had been a guitarist for about ten years before realizing that there was a sense behind the sounds he had been producing. Previously, he had worked on music purely as a craft, as a physical skill on a mechanical level, like a typist whose fingers fly about the keyboard without any recognition of the meaning or import of what's being typed, or like a conservatory music student who practices for hours a day, never paying attention with his ears to the music there. And, in a sense, music isn't there if no one is listening to it as such; there may be organized sound, but not a quality organized in sound. In this quotation, Fripp uses the visual analogy: "I see music as being something other than what most people see." Not the seen, but the seeing.

         Particularly during the Frippertronics tour, Fripp would invite his audiences to become part of the creative process by engaging in active listening. When the audience expects the performer to do everything for them, the result is passive entertainment, diversion, escapism. When the audience participates sensitively in the creation of the music - for the real music is not "out there" somewhere, existing as an object, but "in here," in the quality of attention brought to the mere sounds - then the result is art. At a Boston concert, Fripp told the audience, "You have every bit of the responsibility that I have. Because life is ironical, I get paid for it and you don't."

         The central paradox, or quandary, of Fripp's entire career has revolved around the difference between, on the one hand, making art-objects for a product-hungry yet passive audience, and, on the other hand, actually making art with an audience on the basis of a vision of a shared creative goal. Like making love, to make art you need equal partners; otherwise one or the other of the partners becomes a mere art, or sex -object for the other. Fripp may have had such thoughts on his mind when, in 1982, he remarked bittersweetly that in swinging London in 1969, "I began to see how much hookers, strippers and musicians have in common: they sell something very close to themselves to the public." Once one has tasted real love (or real art), mere sex (or mere entertainment) may satisfy on a certain primitive level, but a deeper longing remains frustrated.

         Fripp saw King Crimson as a way of doing things, and though he never defined very precisely what he meant, I imagine one thing he had in mind was this idea of making music with fellow musicians on the basis of a shared intuitive experience of music as a quality organized in sound - and then taking that experience to the public in hopes of expanding the circle of sharing in the creation of art. King Crimson, Fripp always stressed, was primarily a live band, not a recording unit. Ultimately, Fripp has concluded that recordings cannot convey a quality experience of music, and for this reason has very mixed feelings about his entire recorded output. An interviewer asked him recently, "Do you still think of making records as a bother and a burden?" Fripp answered: "Sure ... Because it has very little to do with music. See, the end to music is a process. The end to recording is also a process. But a record is a product. Because of the restrictions and constrictions, the way of recording ... it's very difficult for that process to be reflected in the product."

         Nearly a decade earlier, Fripp had expressed the same frustration, in the context of producing an album for the Roches. "Translating from performance to record," he wrote, is something like trying to put "Goethe into English or Shakespeare into German" and trying to express "the implicit rather than the literal sense."

         Using a variety of images and metaphors, some of them religious, many musicians, irrespective of genre, have said that the key to creativity lies, in effect, in getting the ego out of the way and allowing a greater force to play through them. Felix Cavaliere: "We are like beacons from another source ... I feel some of us as human beings are tuners to this vibration that comes through us." Lamont Dozier: "I can't take credit for this stuff. I'm only human and these things are the makings of God. Everything I do that's good, at least, is a reflection of His hand." Judy Collins: "Everybody's a channeler. Every artist who walked down the street and whistled a tune is a channeler. We don't do it. It comes through us. It's not ours." Raffi: "I find the process of where these songs come from mysterious, because ... I feel that, sure, I can take credit for these songs, but they come from another place."

         Robert Fripp's formulation of the principle goes like this: "The creative musician ... is ... the radio receiver, not the broadcasting station. His personal discipline is to improve the quality of the components, the transistors, the speakers, the alloys in the receiver itself, but never to concern himself overmuch with putting out the program. The program is there; all he has to do is receive it as far as possible."

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<< Chapter 1 Progressive Ears Presents
by Eric Tamm
Chapter 3 >>