<< Chapter 2 Progressive Ears Presents
ROBERT FRIPP - FROM CRIMSON KING TO CRAFTY MASTER
by Eric Tamm
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Chapter Three: Fripp the Listener

When I was fourteen years old there was rock'n'roll - Fats Domino and Bill Haley - but frankly I thought it was stupid. I didn't like rock'n'roll. I was a snob and I still am. I think rock n roll is interesting and some of it is more interesting than it used to be in the fifties. Yet basically it's not something that means very much to me. If the whole history of rock'n'roll disappeared tomorrow morning, I wouldn't care. I'm delighted that I've influenced rock'n'roll musicians. I'm pleased that David Bowie has said nice things about me and so has Brian Eno. Outside of [their] being complimentary, the only thing I admire about rock'n'roll [musicians] is how much money they make.
-- Steve Reich

One of the ideas that was important to me was that you could be a rock musician without censoring your intelligence. Rock music has a very anti-intellectual stance, and I didn't see why I should act dumb in order to be a rock musician. Rock is the most malleable musical form we have. Within the rock framework you can play jazz, classical, trance music, Urubu drumming. Anything you like can come under the banner of rock. It's a remarkable musical form ...
-- Robert Fripp



The Agony of Rock

         The war of words over rock goes on - telling us, if nothing else, that music is still alive, and that people (some people, anyway) care deeply enough about it to take a stand one way or the other.

         Critics have often contended that Robert Fripp's guitar concepts of the late 1970s and 1980s - you can hear them in Frippertronics as well as the League of Gentlemen, King Crimson IV, and Guitar Craft - owe a debt to the minimalist tradition of Steve Reich, Philip Glass, La Monte Young, and Terry Riley - a tradition that began in the 1960s as a rebellion against the academic serial music of the 1940s and 1950s. From its beginnings, minimalism seemed to have something in common with rock: a steady pulse, plenty of repetition, a grounding in simple tonality. Furthermore, the audiences for both types of music overlapped to a considerable extent. Albums like Riley's A Rainbow in Curved Air (1969) were packaged psychedelically and marketed to the rock public; many of Philip Glass's early performances took place not in classical concert halls but in downtown New York rock clubs.

         The 1970s saw a parting of the ways, however. The music of the best minimalist composers grew more complex, more difficult - in a sense, more classical and less minimal. With a few notable exceptions, such as Brian Eno, rock musicians, after some flirtations with minimalism's intellectual base, drew back into mainstream rock styles.

         Fripp himself has denied that Reich had any direct influence on his work; when he made No Pussyfooting with Brian Eno in 1972, an album often cited as one of the crucial minimalism-rock connections, Fripp had heard neither the music of Reich nor of Glass (though Eno had). Later, Fripp got to know Reich's work and said he enjoyed it, but only to a degree: "It takes me to a point at which something really interesting could happen, but doesn't quite make that jump. Because it is preconceived and orchestrated. What I should personally like to do is to add the random factor, the factor of hazard, to what he's doing, to walk on stage unexpectedly during one of his performances and having become familiar with the tonal center, improvise over the top of it."

         The "factor of hazard" is to Fripp an important criterion for judging the effectiveness of music. In the previous chapter we discussed his dissatisfaction with making records: the human factor of interaction between musicians and audience, the creative process, the "way of doing things," the factor of hazard, are difficult if not impossible to capture on recordings. For similar reasons, he has repeatedly remarked that he is "not really a record listener." Fripp says, "For me, music is the performance of music," while allowing that "of course, if you don't go to Bulgaria very much, the best way for you to hear a Bulgarian women's choir is on record."

         Pundits have debated for years the difference between popular music and art music. Fripp doesn't use the word "art" much, but he has voiced a down-to-earth distinction between what he calls "popular culture" and "mass culture": "Popular culture is when it's very, very good and everyone knows it and goes 'yeah!' Mass culture is when it's very, very bad and we all know it and we go 'yeah!' Mass culture works on like and dislike, and popular culture addresses the creature we aspire to be. Examples of popular culture: Beatles, Dylan, Hendrix." Although critical of mass culture from what might be called an aesthetic point of view, Fripp does not dismiss it entirely. He feels that under certain circumstances mass culture can be used for the good, citing the Live Aid concert in England - an event which awakened in people a genuine spirit of caring and generosity, regardless of cynical questions that were raised regarding how well the money was used and how much help the fund-raising actually did.

         As noted in this chapter's epigraph, Fripp sees rock music as "the most malleable musical form we have." In my book on Brian Eno I defined rock as a specific set of musical style norms (involving certain song forms and rhythmic patterns, certain types of instrumentation and vocal delivery, and so on), in order to show how some rock musicians have gone "beyond rock" into other, new, hybrid musical genres of their own creation. While viewing rock as a musical style complex is interesting enough as an exercise in analytical musicology, in the real world rock is more a spirit than a style, more an audience than a specific type of music. For the sociologist, rock is a demographic bulge; for the record industry, rock is a marketing category, a publicity strategy. Fripp has said, "One can, under the general banner of rock music, play in fact any kind of music whatsoever." I would add only that rock seems to move in cycles - periods of creative diversity followed by periods of stagnation, and that one problem for many musicians is getting their creative music accepted as "rock" by the music industry during periods of industry stagnation.

         For Fripp, rock is a democratic music. Although a masterful guitar technician himself, and although he pushes his students to develop their musicianship to the utmost, he acknowledges that in rock, ideas count more than musical competence, sincerity more than virtuosity: virtually anybody who feels the urge can make a musical statement in the language and context of rock, regardless of how well, in classical terms, they can play or sing. The voices of Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen, coarse and "untrained" enough to send classical purists into fits of derision, became the voices of whole generations. Eno, though perhaps an extreme case, was so unskilled at playing guitar and keyboard that he called himself a "non-musician." For Fripp, "rock is an immediate expression of something very direct. Rock and roll is therapy on the street, it's available to everyone. Rock and roll is street poetry. It can also be more sophisticated, but it needn't be." For Fripp, "a rock'n'roll audience is always far, far better than any, because they're instinctive, they're on their feet, and they can cut through the pretensions of the performer very quickly."

         As for stylistic qualities, the rhythm or beat of rock - its most salient and consistent musical characteristic, the thing that rock's initiates ecstatically extol while its detractors daintily denigrate - represents to Fripp positive sexual energy, "energy from the waist down." By contrast, developmental harmony - a musical development peculiar to the Western world, and a self-conscious feature of its music really only since the Renaissance - represents to Fripp an intellectual process belonging to the province of the mind. Since his earliest music with King Crimson, Fripp has been interested in combining these two sources of energy, the physical and the mental, rhythm and harmony - making, as well as speaking out on behalf of, rock music that could "appeal to the head as well as the foot."

         Fripp came to believe, however, that many of the progressive rock groups of the early 1970s were not so much intrigued with the intangible spirit of King Crimson - that special way of listening, of doing things, of making music - as they were intent on aping Crimson's outer musical vocabulary: the virtuosic musicianship, the epic, extended forms, the exotic harmonies, the quasi-mystical, mythological lyrics, the wide variety of instrumental sound colors. Full-blown Gothic rock was a genre for which Fripp had absolutely no use. Declared a majestically scornful Fripp to John Rockwell of the New York Times in 1978: "I don't wish to listen to the philosophical meanderings of some English half-wit who is circumnavigating some inessential point of experience in his life." Fripp's rhetorical attack on the movement he'd helped create continued in his own column in Musician, Player, and Listener in the early 1980s, ridiculing "enthusiastic art-rock space cadets whose sudden success seemed to validate pretensions on all levels; they huddled in unholy quorum with pliant engineers to generate excess everywhere."

         Fripp's critique of 1970s rock extended to jabs at the stars who had let themselves get fat: in his view, they "became more interested in country houses and riding in limousines, expensive personal habits and all that. The rock musicians who were public figures in the 70's copped out, and now we have cynicism towards our public figures that is wholly justified."

         Fripp related a story in 1979 that indicated the depths of his disillusionment with the rock fantasy. In August 1975, when King Crimson III had been defunct for a year, Fripp having broken it up at least in part because of the impossible contradictions he had been trying to reconcile between his concept of music and the conditions imposed by rock industry realities, he went to hear a rock show at the Reading Festival: "We'd been waiting an hour and a half while their laser show was being set up. I went out to the front. It began to rain. I was standing in six inches of mud. It was drizzling. A man over here on my right began to vomit. A man over here to my left pulled open his flies and began to urinate over my leg. Behind me there were some 50,000 people who maybe for two or three evenings a week, for amusement, for recreation, would participate in this imaginary world of rock'n'roll. Then I looked at the group on stage - their lasers shooting off ineffectually into the night, locked into this same dream. Except they're in it for twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week for the rest of their lives."

         Robert Fripp has felt the agonizing paradox of rock: on the one hand, the possibility of a real magic synthesis, the merging of body/soul/rhythm and mind/spirit/harmony, the seemingly infinite malleability of the basic forms, the potential for direct communication between artists who are passionately committed to ideas and an audience that cuts through artistic pretension and snobbery; on the other hand, the reality of rock as escapist entertainment, the greed, the homogenization of taste through the corporate structure of the recording and radio industries, the tendency to aim for the lowest common denominator of mass culture, the meaningless repetition of formulas, the very unhealthiness of the typical rock lifestyle itself: the star syndrome, the drugs, the pointlessness of wasted talents and lives.

         Both punk/new wave and disco, those musical explosions of the mid-1970s that so many felt to be diametrically opposed to each other, Fripp felt as a breath of fresh air. Both seemed to him to be music of the people, to return music to the people, throwing the dinosaurs of the music industry off track, however temporarily. The raw energy of punk had been prefigured by the aggressive intellectual heavy metal sound of King Crimson III - and even earlier by the intense negative energy and profound frustration that bursts through King Crimson I songs like "21st Century Schizoid Man." Fripp said, "When I heard punk I thought, I've been waiting six years for this." As for disco, Fripp called it "a political movement that votes with its feet. It started out as the expression of two disadvantaged communities - the gays and the blacks." As a vital form of social expression, Fripp viewed disco as "nihilistic, but passively nihilistic," a movement that simply ignored the traditional social framework outside its boundaries.


         Robert Fripp believes that one can learn just as much by listening to music one dislikes as by listening to music one likes - in other words, that there can be an educational purpose served by music beyond that of satisfying mere subjective taste. "I go and see people who I don't like because I get something from it which is worth far more than having been entertained." Rock writer Michael Watts characterizes this view as "puritanical"; puritanical or not, it is consistent with Fripp's view that the quality of attention one brings to the experience of music is more decisive than the quality of the musical sounds in themselves. Not the sounds, but the listening.

         Many of the musicians Fripp has mentioned in interviews over the years are jazz or jazz-rock players - Ornette Coleman, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Tony Williams, Frank Zappa. One name that pops up repeatedly is Jimi Hendrix, whom Fripp cites as an example of pure embodiment of the spirit of music. The intensity of the musical current flowing through Hendrix is what killed him in the end, according to Fripp. Hendrix's guitar technique itself, however, "was inefficient and, as an example, misled many young guitarists."

         It seems Fripp has never been able to muster much enthusiasm for listening to guitarists for the sake of listening to guitarists. He has peevishly and somewhat inscrutably characterized his chosen tool as "a pretty feeble instrument." Post-Mayall-Bluesbreakers Eric Clapton he found "quite banal," while Jeff Beck he could "appreciate as good fun." Of the entire 1970s and 1980s crop of rock guitarists, Fripp has said little; indeed he hasn't appeared particularly interested. The whole rush to synthesizer guitars, MIDI, and digital signal processing in the 1980s left Fripp unimpressed. He did use the technology for his own purposes in King Crimson IV and with Andy Summers, even deigning to endorse the GR-300 synthesizer guitar in Roland advertisements in 1982. But he is not especially thrilled with new sounds for the sake of new sounds, particularly if the new sounds are merely poor imitations of old sounds: "Why would a world-class guitar player [playing a guitar synthesizer] settle for sounding like a third-rate saxophone player, and then a trumpet player and then a synthesizer player?"


Taking on the Classics

         Some of Fripp's most perplexing comments on other music concern the Western art music tradition. On the one hand, the music of some of that tradition's masters has figured prominently in Fripp's own musical self-education. He has often acknowledged his debt to Bartok, particularly the Bartok of the String Quartets, many of whose movements sound positively Frippian, with their intense linear counterpoint, percussive rhythms, odd metrical schemes, extended tonality, exotic scales, and piquant dissonances. Stravinsky's name comes up from time to time, as when Fripp mentioned the Russian in a discussion of tuning, temperament, and enharmonic pitch notation; on another occasion he called early Stravinsky "really hot stuff." Fripp expressed admiration for Handel, Bach, Mozart, and Verdi in a 1980 essay, but he was not focussing on their music so much as he was making the point that these composers had had to teach themselves how to thrive creatively while working in "very difficult political and economic conditions ... Surely the most surprising point is how much inspired work had prosaic origins."

         On the other hand, Fripp's assessment of the classical tradition as a living, functional organism is not particularly generous. His collaborator Eno has been blunt about it: "Classical music is a dead fish." Fripp is more restrained, but has expressed major reservations about the classical orchestra's viability as a source of a quality musical experience for the musicians - and hence for the audience. As a form of musical organization, Fripp has called the classical orchestra a "dinosaur" - gigantic, lumbering, possessing little discerning intelligence, and overdue for extinction. Although he can respect the discipline of orchestra life and musicianship, Fripp himself "would find it very frustrating" to be an orchestral player: "How awful that the only person who is expressing himself is the composer, with the conductor as the chief of police and the musicians as sequencers ... It's stuck. There is a cap on how far it can go. There is a cap on what it can do." And then Fripp moves on to his own agenda: "Within the league of crafty guitarists ... the aim is not to follow any one person but to be sensitive to the group as a whole and respond to the group as a whole."

         According to Fripp, Beethoven was undoubtedly one of the "Great Masters," with direct access to music at its creative source. But listening to Beethoven's music today, "transcribed through two hundred years of interpretation and analysis and a sixty piece orchestra with an intelligent conductor", is for Fripp an indirect, incomplete experience. He would much rather have been present to hear Beethoven improvise at the piano in person. "My personal reaction listening to the [Beethoven] String Quartets is not the sense of passion that was obviously present at the moment when it came through. Rather I feel a sense of how remarkably intelligent it is, but I don't get that direct touch that I'm sure Beethoven had, which I've had from the rock band Television."

         The Guitar Craft repertoire is by and large learned by rote and performed from memory. One afternoon in February 1986 Fripp and a bunch of his students were standing around the coffee urn during a Guitar Craft seminar discussing the pros and cons of notated music. Fripp's final word on the topic was, "I'd much rather have a date with my girlfriend than get a letter from her." It appears he won't budge from his basic position, which is that the process of playing from notation inevitably takes music "further and further away from the original moment of conception."

         This position is congruent with Fripp's professed mistrust of written media and recorded sound - perhaps strange for someone who has put out so many records and published so many articles, and is consistent with his insistence that the highest form of musical experience can take place only in a situation of direct human contact. To musicians who have tasted the rewards of a close, devoted study of masters like Bach, Beethoven, and Mozart - through live performances, keyboard score-reading, recorded media, and the process of intuitive analysis - this is a tough pill to swallow.

         A parallel might be drawn between reading a Bach score and reading the Bible. Moses' or Jesus' impact was undoubtedly most intensely felt in person - just as to hear Bach improvise a fugue on the organ or harpsichord must have been an awe-inspiring experience, at least to those present with the ears to hear and the musical preparation to understand what was happening. Yet without notation, Bach's fugues, which through writing out he was able to refine to high levels of perfection, would be lost to history. I for one am glad to have the Bible and the Well-Tempered Clavier on my shelf.

         Of course, whenever you have spiritual or musical masters around whom a written tradition accrues, you inevitably have latter-day disciples of all colors and stripes who battle among themselves to claim the "true" interpretation, or, worse, believe that salvation lies somehow in the written documents themselves rather than in direct personal contact with the source. Perhaps, like a modern musical Martin Luther, Fripp is saying that we can all have direct contact with music through faith and effort, that to speak directly with God we don't need all the accumulated ritual, regulation, and written tradition, that arguing for the inherent superiority of the written art music canon is something like arguing in the manner of contemporary Christian fundamentalists in favor of the doctrine of Biblical inerrancy at the expense of unmediated personal faith.

         Classical musicians play notes that are written and fixed on paper. Guitar Craft performances consist of music that appears to be carefully composed and tightly disciplined, as if the musicians are simply doing their best to execute some sort of pre-conceived composition. But in theory, or in the ideal, there is an element of improvisation in both classical and Guitar Craft performances: according to Fripp, the guitarists "can play any note they like provided it's the right one" It seems to me that in any kind of musical performance situation there will always be a danger of the musician falling into unconsciousness, relying on technique alone, and becoming in effect a sound-producing automaton.


         In order to place Fripp's approach in perspective, perhaps a bit of historical background would be helpful. The Western art music tradition has a rich history of performers taking all kinds of liberties with the written score, in many instances in effect completely re-composing it, whether in actual notation or in the heat of an inspired performance. Many composers have also been improvisers, able to develop and transform themes into new creations on the spot. It was really only with the rise of positivist musicology in the twentieth century that this sort of thing went out of favor and that improvisation, in the art-music world, became a lost art. Nowadays, indeed, the original composer's "intentions" are widely held to be primary and inviolable, and the best performances are commonly deemed to be those most closely in accord with those sacrosanct intentions.

         In the twentieth century, positivist musicologists have industriously cleaned up the music of the masters, assiduously sweeping out all the editorial additions that had crept in through the nineteenth century, getting back to the composers' manuscripts and first published editions in order to take a new, refreshed look at the music in its original form (though often enough, with composers' revisions, discrepancies between sources, and so on, reconstructing the "original" score can be a bit of a headache, to the point that doubt may be cast on the very concept of a single "original score" or Urtext). This cleaning-up was a first step; the second stage, now in full swing, is the movement toward faithful reproduction of historically authentic performance practices involving the use of period instruments, original scores, and all the knowledge of style, ornamentation, improvisation, and so on, that musicology can manage to dig up.

         In the contemporary historical performance scene, opportunities for whole new ranges of use and abuse of knowledge have opened up. On the one hand, the educated musician can respond to the situation by contacting the spirit behind the music and - not slavishly but with considered knowledge - playing with a range of embellishments and other expressive elements (tempo, dynamics, phrasing, and so on) not literally specified by the raw notes in the score but called for by the spirit of the music, internalized in the sensitive performer through study and practice. On the other hand, the historical performance movement is all too full of musicians and academic authorities squabbling over obscure details of musical praxis, not unlike scholastic medieval theologians squabbling over the "correct" interpretation of a verse of Scripture.

         The music of every historical period calls for different kinds of interpretation, and it is probably true that there is more freedom in interpreting the music of the eighteenth century and earlier than nineteenth- and twentieth-century music, since in recent times composers have become more and more meticulous in notating their intentions with regard to every last nuance of expression. Be this as it may, surely one can speak of a range of possible interpretations of a given piece of classical music; when all that is played is the notes, with no hint of internalization of the style, of the music - such playing is (and has always been, I suppose) the bane of music departments and performance spaces around the world. But assuming cultivated sensitivity and intuitive musicality on the classical player's part, performance of the traditional repertoire can surely approach Fripp's ideal of a music where one can play any note one likes "provided it's the right one."

         One thorny problem for classical musicians is that it's just so awfully difficult to "improve" on what Bach, Mozart, and the lot wrote down on paper. To anyone who has not fully fathomed such composers' consummate mastery nor directly felt the complex yet elegant system of emotional and structural checks and balances built into the interrelationships among even the smallest details in such music, this is probably impossible to explain.

         With the possible exception of free-form avant-garde jazz, all music that I know of has a "program" of some sort, that is, a tacit or explicit set of conventions and directions to be followed; the paradox is that the sensitivity and meaningfulness of the performance increases in proportion to the degree the musician surrenders the ego to the will of the music itself. This is as true of the King Crimson or Guitar Craft repertoire as it is of the classical. And it is no different even in most forms of "free" improvisation - the musician is not starting in a vacuum but, with the technique at his or her disposal, is drawing on his or her total knowledge of music (scales, theory, harmony, sense of rhythm, sense of continuity, principles of unity and contrast, and so on). Music plays through the performer, conditioned in a sense by the performer's individual knowledge, experience, taste, and talent, but (in those rare moments) transcending such limitations and manifesting itself as Music in a pure state.

         We have already noted Fripp's lament, "How awful that the only person who is expressing himself [in classical orchestral music] is the composer." Fripp has also said, "Whenever a musician is interested in self-expression you know it's gonna suck." Does anyone except myself sense yet another paradox lurking shadow-like in these two statements? Chew them over for a while; we will return to them in the final chapter.

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<< Chapter 2 Progressive Ears Presents
ROBERT FRIPP - FROM CRIMSON KING TO CRAFTY MASTER
by Eric Tamm
Chapter 4 >>