|<< Chapter 9||
Progressive Ears Presents
ROBERT FRIPP - FROM CRIMSON KING TO CRAFTY MASTER
by Eric Tamm
|Chapter 11 >>|
Chapter Ten: Guitar Craft
Why does death catch us by surprise, and why love? We still and always want waking. We should amass half dressed in long lines like tribesmen and shake gourds at each other, to wake up: instead we watch television and miss the show.
-- Annie Dillard
Birth of Guitar Craft
One day in late 1984 Robert Fripp sat in a room signing a stack of posters of the Bewitched cover for use in the record's publicity campaign. In the room were Andy Summers and Vic Garbarini, who had been dispatched from Musician magazine to do a joint interview with the two guitarists. Fripp was in a good mood, wryly reflecting on his work as a professional musician, saying that he hadn't thought being a musician involved sitting around signing posters. When the last of the hundred posters was signed, Fripp looked up with a beatific smile and announced, "I'm off to clean latrines in West Virginia!"
It had been seven years since he had leaked back into the music industry in 1977, and Fripp, who with the posters and interview was completing his last official obligations, was ready for another sabbatical. He was about to enroll in a three-month residential course at the American Society for Continuous Education at Claymont Court, the 369-acre property of forest and farmland near Charles Town, West Virginia where Bennett had established the ASCE as a permanent community and school shortly before his death. As an early-1980s pamphlet outlining the ASCE's objectives explained, "The focus is on helping to restore an ecological balance to the environment and on creating conditions favorable for man's development in harmony with nature."
In addition to carrying on work in agriculture, horticulture, cottage industries, building, and alternative energy sources, the ASCE offered residential programs of up to nine months based on Gurdjieff's, Ouspensky's, and Bennett's methods as outlined in Chapter 7 of this book. Formal meetings, manual labor, spiritual exercises, work on the Gurdjieff movements, and study themes combined to place the student in a situation of personal growth and awareness of others. As the pamphlet said, "Every experience can be used to develop presence, intention, and balance between the inner and outer life. The Residential Program creates conditions which can lead to the threshold of genuine work beyond which the significance of life and one's own purpose become manifest."
(The ASCE has recently been renamed the CSCE - Claymont Society for Continuous Education - and as of this writing no longer offers long-term residential courses.)
In late 1984, with King Crimson IV behind him, Fripp had no further plans for working in bands; like ten years before, he had no specific plans at all, other than to go on his Claymont retreat and then to "let the future present itself." As it turned out, the future presented itself with crystal clarity. Fripp had been involved with the operation of the ASCE since 1978, and had been on its board of directors since 1982. After his three-month retreat, Fripp was elected president of the ASCE, and was asked if he would give a few seminars based on music. (A regular feature of life at Claymont was then, as it is now, a variety of educational seminars led by permanent residents and also by outside speakers.) As Bob Gerber, current Chairman of the CSCE, who was in continuous contact with Fripp at this time, put it to me, Fripp said "no" to the idea of guitar seminars twice, then the third time realized this was something he was meant to do. Thus was Guitar Craft born.
(By 1990, Fripp was no longer officially involved with the CSCE; although Guitar Craft continues to offer seminars on the Claymont property, it is purely a business arrangement, Fripp renting space to house students and hold classes.)
Fripp had been thinking about teaching for many years, however. As far back as 1974, immediately after the breakup of King Crimson III, Fripp had spoken to Rolling Stone writer Ian Dove of his interest "in creating a new kind of guitar technique that is really working on three levels of being, heart, hands, and head. A way of life. More akin to yoga than formal guitar technique, actually an approach to living." He had gone on to speak with admiration of Pablo Casals, Yehudi Menuhin, and Ravi Shankar - musicians who through personal discipline had been able to achieve contact with higher energies. Most rock musicians, by way of contrast, Fripp had seen as "hopelessly inadequate, rooted to the earth ... thrashing around on stage using a very low-grade energy [which] comes from a very nasty quarter."
In an interview with Guitar Player's Steve Rosen, also from 1974, Fripp had talked about the importance of relaxation, of establishing a relationship between one's head and one's hands, of practicing "like hell" in order that the limitations of one's technique not get in the way of the free expression of ideas. "I suggest," he had said, "that guitar playing, in one sense, can be a way of uniting the body with the personality, with the soul and the spirit." All of these ideas would turn up much later in the context of Guitar Craft.
Long fascinated with both the mechanics of playing the plectrum guitar and with systematic means of coaxing the Muse out of hiding, Fripp had been searching for a teaching method, and he would press the musicians he came into contact with for their insights into their craft. When in 1982 Fripp interviewed his peer in picking, John McLaughlin, for Musician magazine, he repeatedly tried to get him to be more concrete about the way he worked on music. Both guitarists readily agreed on the importance of getting the ego out of the way in order to let music in, but Fripp wanted more details: "How do you get out of the way? Do you have specific techniques or regimens that you use? Can you just get yourself out of the way without thinking about it?" McLaughlin's responses, although colorful and suggestive, were on the vague side. From conversations like this, Fripp had to be realizing that even the greatest musicians often operate intuitively, that is, using those parts of the mind which mere language does not easily penetrate - thus a musical genius may find himself or herself unable to articulate exactly what his or her inner processes consist of.
This may all be commonplace, but the position did not satisfy Fripp. If he were to have students, he had to be able to conceptualize, to concretize, to verbalize his relationship with music in order to pass it along. The method he came up with is the subject of the remainder of this chapter.
Elements of Guitar Craft
First, a few facts. The first Guitar Craft course was given at Claymont in March 1985. The original idea was to give three seminars of five-and-a-half days each, but due to unexpected demand the number of seminars was soon augmented to eight. At a certain point Fripp decided to make Guitar Craft a continuous, ongoing process, and as of this writing, without any signs of slowing up, there have been some thirty courses in the United States (mostly at Claymont but also in other locations), plus others in England, France, Germany, Switzerland, Holland, and Norway. More than six hundred guitarists have participated in seminars, and the latest GC Directory, which serves to facilitate networking among active Crafties (the colloquial name for one who has attended a seminar and keeps in touch), lists the addresses and phone numbers of over one hundred and sixty musicians. Fripp is the primary Guitar Craft teacher, but he is assisted by a number of experienced guitarists intimately familiar with his methods, and by non-musical teachers whose function will be explained in due course. The League of Crafty Guitarists, which represents the performing presence of Guitar Craft in the world, has played concerts in America, Europe, and Israel, and has released three albums, with plans for a fourth in the works.
As Guitar Craft has grown in size it has generated its own organizational infrastructure, complete with its own newsletter, literature (the Guitar Craft Monograph series), folklore, mythology, advertising, and merchandising (guitar accessories, decals, cassettes, bumper stickers, T-shirts, logos, and posters). For the seriously committed Crafty, Guitar Craft is indeed a whole way of life, centered on the discipline and practice of music.
Like all such groups which have passed beyond initial groping stages into existence as more or less streamlined organizations with a more or less strictly defined protocol, Guitar Craft has had its inner conflicts, and Fripp's control over the diffusion of his ideas has been less than total - on occasion he has had to chastise those enterprising yet unauthorized disciples who, after taking a seminar, have had the gall to bill themselves as bona fide Guitar Craft teachers for the sake of attracting private guitar students. Not that Fripp rules out any possibility of his students being teachers - to the contrary, as we shall see, he views teaching as its own genuine form of apprenticeship, a logical step for the committed musician. What he objects to is superficial students who greedily apply the imprimatur "Guitar Craft" to their own feeble methods, tapping into the iconic source without the requisite preparation.
It's an age-old story - disciples bringing grief to their teacher on account of having only dimly understood the teaching, and going out and telling the world all about it. It is a dilemma facing the discoverer of any great idea which is right for the times. Carl Jung disliked the idea of "Jungians," and dreaded the inevitable institutionalization of his insights: on the wall of the lobby at the Jung Institute of Los Angeles hangs a plaque quoting Jung which reads, "If you must have a Jung institute, for God's sake make it as disorganized as possible!"
In 1989 the forty-two-year-old Fripp called Guitar Craft his "life's work now." After a grueling public career battling the fickleness of public taste, critical fashion, and the music industry, and after harrowing experiences in bands which just could not seem to stay together but inexorably degenerated into yapping egos, Fripp could say, "Within Guitar Craft is the first time I've been able to live in a sane world." Fripp has always formed mental constructs and systems through which to channel his energies - King Crimson, the Drive to 1981, Frippertronics - and Guitar Craft is the grandest and most systematized of them all. Aside from his role as a teacher, Fripp personally gets a charge out of playing with students in his seminars: he says it "can be as good as King Crimson, playing in front of thousands of people."
The goals and ideals of Guitar Craft are lofty enough. Fripp aims at no less than inaugurating a tradition of pedagogy for the flat-picked steelinged guitar. He believes that there is one best way to approach the mechanics of guitar playing, and that he has found it. He is quite uncompromising on this point: although sincere in his admiration for the likes of Hendrix, Beck, and Clapton as musicians, he is quick to find fault with the mechanics of their technique. Just examine any photograph of guitar heroes in action, he will say: right hands sloppily and inefficiently disported, left thumbs craning over the top of the fretboard. (Personally, I really doubt we would see so many of these wayward thumbs if there weren't some good reason for it. Fripp himself, though he'll bend a note here and there, doesn't use a whole lot of string-bending vibrato in his playing; if he did, he might find cradling the neck between the thumb and first finger more effective than planting the thumb in the middle of the back of the neck, which is his recommended position.)
Along with the dissemination of a scientifically precise method of playing goes the creation of a new repertoire of exercises, études, compositions, and improvisational formats, all of which have grown and are continuing to grow organically out of Fripp's and his students' engagement with the playing technique, the new tuning Fripp invented and teaches to all Guitar Craft students, and the whole mind-set that goes along with Guitar Craft. The new repertoire is conceived as fulfilling more than a merely aesthetic function in the sense of new music for its own sake: it also fulfills a social purpose, bringing Crafties into a special relationship with each other through creating and practicing the music. As Fripp put it in 1987, "You can construct music in such a way on a purely structural and technical level that it pulls musicians together."
Guitar Craft, like King Crimson before it, is conceived as a microcosm of society at large, or, perhaps more accurately, as one possible model blueprint of the inter-relationships in an ideal society. To put it somewhat less grandiosely, Guitar Craft music works by give-and-take, communal effort, selflessness, cooperation, and listening to others. Fripp has said, "If you wish to draw people together, get some of them playing in five and some of them playing in seven in a certain kind of way and it will inevitably draw them together while they're playing it. If when they leave that room they have been together in a certain kind of way, if only for a moment on the outside meshing together, perhaps they go back in and perform it again, and maybe something can come together on the inside. Well that begins to be very interesting stuff. Now imagine, just as a possibility, an idea of a repertoire of music which will guarantee, by its performance, to unify the people playing it. Even as an idea that's worth shooting for. I've seen it happen here [in Guitar Craft]." This sounds very Platonic - Plato with his musical modes that had certain definite, inevitable effects on the human soul - and also echoes Gurdjieff's ideal of objective art.
In a recent interview, Fripp compared himself to thirteenth-century English carpenters who took large numbers of apprentices into their homes. Extending the analogy, he likened Crafties to anonymous cathedral builders of the late middle ages: "They didn't carve their names in the stones and leave testimonials to who they were because it would have gotten in the way." Once again, the selfless and humble devotion to one's craft, the idea of working in the service of a purpose unimaginably greater than oneself. Jung had a similar idea, which he relates in his autobiography, Memories, Dreams, Reflections: he dreamed of the men and women of today working for consciousness as the myriad builders of an immense new cathedral of human fulfillment - each builder playing perhaps only a small, anonymous part, but nonetheless contributing significantly to the realization of the overall design. How long would the construction of this vast symbolic cathedral take? In Jung's view, about six hundred years.
In Guitar Craft courses, Fripp and his students use acoustic guitars exclusively. This is partly due to purely practical considerations - the prospect of fifteen, twenty, or more electric guitars simultaneously playing raises possibly insurmountable balance problems and equipment hassles. But there was more to the choice of acoustic instruments than that. Fripp's first guitar had been an acoustic, but in the early King Crimson years he had switched over to electric almost completely. In 1974, while allowing that the acoustic had a potentially lovely tone if properly played, he called acoustic guitar "an anachronism ... As a form of contemporary expression, the electric guitar is the only hope for the guitar at the moment as a creative instrument."
In the early 1980s, particularly in his work with King Crimson and Andy Summers, Fripp delved into the latest effects and guitar synthesizer technology. Like many guitarists, though, he was frustrated with the slight tracking delay of even the best guitar synths - and like many musicians, after initial flirtations with the awesome sound capabilities of MIDI rigs, Fripp seemed to come around to the conclusion that music is more important than sound - and that good music could not be purchased at the local electronics hardware/software store but was every bit as elusive as it had ever been. (Even Milton Babbitt, twelve-tone guru of the early RCA synthesizers of the 1950s and early 1960s, had concluded that "nothing gets boring so quickly as a new sound.")
Fripp also spoke of the disturbing distance, in playing an electric guitar, between the sound (coming out of an amplifier speaker somewhere) and its source (at the fingers of the guitarist). He said, "As soon as you plug in you have a state of 'schizophrenia.'" This distance or schizophrenia was something a professional player could learn to work with, but only at some cost in terms of a sense of intimacy with the music.
In playing the acoustic guitar, the sound emanates directly from its source, and both are held close to the body, so that a certain direct proximity to the music inheres which is intrinsically impossible with an electric guitar. For the type of group playing practiced in Guitar Craft, it is vitally important for each player to be able to hear what everyone else is doing, for there to be no ambiguity between the sound and its source. Fripp settled on the acoustic Ovation Legend 1867, which features a gently rounded super-shallow body design that may be about as close to the shape and depth of an electric guitar as is possible without an intolerable loss of tone quality. Fripp liked the way the Ovation 1867 fitted against his body, which made it possible for him to assume the right-arm picking position he had developed using electric guitars over the years; on deeper-bodied guitars, the Frippian arm position is impossible without uncomfortable contortions, as I found out with my beloved Yamaha dreadnought. The Ovation 1867 also features a built-in pickup and graphic equalizer for use in performance situations where amplification is necessary; of course, the moment it is plugged in, the guitar no longer sounds like the guitar itself, but like the speakers it is running through, and the source/sound schizophrenia rears its head again. But - shall we say - life is full of compromises, and the Ovation 1867 has become the officially recommended Guitar Craft model.
So what is Guitar Craft? Perhaps I should have begun with the concise definition given in the 1989 Guitar Craft Services Brochure. "Guitar Craft," it is therein written, "is three things: 1) a way to develop a relationship with the guitar; 2) a way to develop a relationship with music; 3) a way to develop a relationship with oneself." The name Guitar Craft itself implies a certain concentration on the attainment of a level of competency in very practical terms. Competency may then pass into fluency, and fluency into mastery. But the emphasis in Guitar Craft is on concrete methods, not speculative metaphysics or "bright ideas" as they are known in Crafty folklore: as the Brochure goes on to say, "We approach the intangible by working on the tangible. At a certain point of application, of concentrated effort, craft becomes an art."
My Fripp Trip
I'm not sure whether I was a typical Crafty Guitarist. There's probably no such thing as a typical Crafty Guitarist - they're all quite emphatically individuals, though the school does seem to specialize in training white male rock guitarists in their twenties to transcend their self-imposed limitations. As explained in the Preface to this book, I had little intention of going to Claymont in order to sit at Mr. Fripp's feet. I had an ulterior motive, which turned out to cause me no little discomfort during my week there - I was intent on "studying" Fripp and Guitar Craft as part of the research for my musicology dissertation. That was my own self-imposed limitation. I ended up getting, as the saying goes, far more than I'd bargained for.
Guitar Craft seminars are not cheap. The price tag on my five-day course was six hundred and twenty-five dollars, which I'd naively tried to finagle my way out of paying on grounds that I would be there as an observer, not as a participant. Fripp, over the phone to my home in California, testily rejected my request for financial absolution: "No, you can't get a reduced rate! If you're going to come here at all, you'll take part in the course along with everyone else." He later explained to the group the significance of the high cost of the seminars: this way, it would automatically mean something to those who came - if one is parting with six hundred and twenty-five dollars, plus plane and rail fare, one is bound to try to get as much as possible out of what is given in return.
Having sheepishly paid up, I received a form letter from Truus van Enckevort, who was Guitar Craft's administrative secretary of sorts: "Congratulations, you have been accepted to attend one of the Guitar Craft seminars." The letter gave instructions on how and when to get to Claymont and advised everyone to bring an acoustic steeling guitar, extra strings, metronome, footstool, house shoes or sneakers, and a sleeping bag. There were also a couple of circulars from Fripp describing in general terms what we were in for: a week of guitar practice and other exercises in an old mansion that was funky but adequate. No drugs, it was painstakingly made clear, would be tolerated on the premises. We were asked not to play the guitar for one week prior to arrival.
At this time - late 1985, early 1986 - there had been very little publicity about Guitar Craft, and it all seemed very new and strange. In January 1986, Guitar Player's Tom Mulhern came out with one of the first full-length Fripp interviews on the subject of Guitar Craft. One could not quite tell whether the Fripp on the magazine's cover - dressed in a natty suit and tie, hair slicked back, unshaven - was grinning or grimacing. He looked very old and strange.
Having knocked back several gin and tonics in the San Francisco International Airport lounge, I boarded the red-eye bound for Washington, D.C. It left at midnight, Sunday February 16 1986. In flight I guzzled more gin and tonics and fuzzily plowed my way through the interview by Mulhern, finally lapsing into a few hours of fitful sleep. As the airplane approached Washington by daylight, I careened into some semblance of awareness and craned my neck to see the enchanted West Virginia woods below, wondering if at some point I might be looking unknowingly at Claymont from the air. In Washington, laden down heavily with backpack and guitar, I successfully negotiated the subway system from the airport to the train station, stashed the guitar in a locker, and went out on foot through the crunchy snow to purchase a guitar stand. Having done so, through minor miracles of self-navigation, I wandered over to the White House, which I had seen on a family trip as a boy. It looked exactly the same, and the clarity of my memory startled me.
The Amtrak left Union Railway Station for Harper's Ferry, West Virginia at four-fifty-five P.M. Among the crowded commuters I spotted a number of scruffy young white males with guitars. One of the scruffiest, wearing one of the craziest hats I have ever seen - a floppy multicolored amalgamation of beret, fedora, and medieval clown's headgear - turned out to be Matt Henderson, one of Fripp's assistant guitar teachers. As the train wound its way through warehouse wastelands and then through windy woodlands, I reclined back in my seat and managed to doze off.
At about six o'clock the Crafties-to-be disembarked en masse at Harper's Ferry, and in the wet snow and bitter cold were herded into several waiting station wagons and vans. As we drove through the gusty sleet in the dark along icy roads in an old beat-up overloaded car, I was so terrified of the hazardous conditions that I finally decided just to give up and relax - there wasn't anything I could do.
Providence had ordained safe passage, and we made it to the Claymont mansion, nestled in the woods about a mile off the highway at the end of a muddy dirt road covered with freezing rain. The somewhat isolated mansion, which has no permanent residents, was used by the ASCE for special events and seminars; the Claymont farm, bookstore, and residential community itself is located about a mile from the mansion.
Boots were left by the downstairs entrance, sneakers were donned, guitars sorted out. We looked for our room assignments on the bulletin board. Evidently quite by alphabetical accident, I was the only one who had been assigned his own room, everyone else was doubled or tripled up. I do cherish privacy - the luxury of being the only one to decide when to turn out the light - but in the present instance I felt strangely gypped, realizing that there would be whole scenes and conversations in the shared rooms that I wouldn't be part of.
The Claymont mansion, a grand specimen of late Colonial architecture, was built in 1820 by Bushrod Corbin Washington, great nephew of George Washington. The main floor is laid out with the kitchen and dining hall to the left, a "library" (with no books) and drawing room in the middle, a central entrance hall flanked by grand wrap-around stairways on either side, and a spacious ballroom with wood floor and tall windows to the right. The second and third floors contain the many bedrooms, and in the basement is a series of musty rooms including a sort of rec hall, a pay phone booth, and an old stone cold cellar with an ominous creaky rusty metal door. The mansion could stand several tens of thousands of dollars' worth of painting, carpentry, furnishings, plumbing, heating, and floor and window work - in fact one of the ASCE's ongoing projects is a complete renovation - but the place is basically functional and the level of physical comfort actually somewhat better than what I'd been led to believe by the pre-course circulars.
I got settled in my room near the right-hand stairway landing on the second floor, which shared a bathroom with an adjoining room, then went downstairs to the entrance hall where guitarists were milling around waiting for dinner. I gravitated to an old upright piano in the drawing room, idly thinking of the great jam sessions we'd be having in the days to come. Ideas started welling up in my mind for an improvisation on the spot - I wanted to impress everyone with my musical skills and knowledge - but before my fingers touched the keys, someone came over and said, "You know, Robert doesn't want anyone playing that piano during the course." I was somewhat crestfallen, but it made sense. I couldn't figure out, though, why the instrument wasn't simply locked up, or a sign put on it.
I stood around and chatted with other guitarists, but chit-chat not being my strong suit, I was shy and nervous, anxiously waiting for something to happen, for the course to begin, to get on with it.
At seven-thirty it was announced that dinner was served, and everyone filed into the dining hall. This was a large room with many windows, but with trees and bushes directly outside the windows, even during the daytime the room was on the dark side, an effect enhanced by the deep brown wood paneling. A row of sturdy wooden tables with benches on either side ran along each wall; perpendicular to these rows, at one end of the room, was the head table where the teachers sat and ate, framed magisterially by the window to their backs, facing the roomful of pupils. And there, smack in the middle of this converging perspective, sat Robert Fripp aglow in candlelight, smiling bemusedly to himself, not appearing to be paying much attention to the students, but occasionally exchanging glances and jokes with subordinates to his right and left.
Throughout the seminar, the food - all vegetarian - was delicious, plentiful, and varied. It was expertly and sumptuously prepared and served by several elusive young women in their thirties (I believe they were residents of the Claymont community), who flitted about like ghosts amongst the heavily male-dominated proceedings. There was also a certain Virginia who was introduced as the "house mother." Of the twenty-six students in the Guitar Craft XII seminar, only two were women; their presence was a considerable blessing, since in my opinion they prevented things from developing into a locker-room/boys' club type of atmosphere.
We ate the food and continued with our nervous chit-chat. Toward the end of the meal, Robert tapped his glass with a fork and the dining hall fell silent. He welcomed us to Claymont and announced that there would be a meeting in the library at eight-forty-five, at which time our course - Guitar Craft XII, the twelfth seminar since Guitar Craft's inception a year previously - would be inaugurated. He outlined three conditions for participants. First, everyone must stay on the Claymont property for the duration of the seminar. Second, possession or use of drugs of any kind was forbidden. Third, he said with a grinning grimace, "If any of you indulge in the filthy, revolting, disgusting habit of smoking, you may do so only outside the building or downstairs in the cold cellar we affectionately call ... the Dungeon." He explained that agreement to these conditions was necessary for participation in the course, and that if anyone felt he or she could not abide by them, he or she could leave now with no disgrace.
Someone raised a hand and asked, "Are vitamins drugs?" Sly chuckles and meaningful glances between Robert and his assistant Bob Gerber. Scarcely able to contain his mirth, Robert said slowly and deliberately, "Well - I don't know if vitamins are drugs or not; but if you are asking whether you may take vitamins while you are here, the answer is yes." I realized that all the merriment was due to the inept form of the student's question; in fact, in the seminar as a whole quite a bit of energy was devoted to the idea of learning to speak precisely.
Robert closed his remarks with one of his seemingly endless supply of paradoxical aphorisms, which he tends to deliver in the quizzically assured cadences of the experienced story-teller. "Nothing is compulsory here," he said. "There is no such thing as making a mistake. Only one thing is compulsory, only one mistake: and that is not realizing your mistakes."
With that dinner was adjourned. Selected students cleared the tables and washed the dishes - this mild form of kitchen duty was done on a meal-by-meal volunteer basis. At eight-forty-five we gathered in the library, most of us sitting on the carpeted floor, some on a few folding chairs. Fripp sat on a chair in the corner furthest from the door, and announced that as one or two students had not yet shown up, the course could not begin; we would have to wait until the following morning.
I wandered around in jet-lag not knowing what to do. More than anything I wanted to play guitar, but that was out of the question until the following day. In the deserted, darkened dining hall were a couple of built-in shelves of old books, almanacs, and odd agricultural and technical journals behind glass doors. I found some trashy occult novel called Firestarter and retired to my room. I wrote down a few things in my journal. Lying back on the lumpy mattress over bumpy bedsprings, I read a few pages of the novel, fretting that I was paying a hundred bucks a day to do something completely meaningless. Soon I turned in.
I had made no arrangements to have anyone wake me up in time for the seven-thirty "morning relaxation" exercise, but was awakened at seven-thirty on the dot by a dream that I'd missed it already. I flew downstairs to the library, where everyone was sitting. The morning relaxations were led by a teacher from the Claymont community. In essence the idea was to relax and feel all the muscles of the body one by one, starting with the face and working systematically down. The teacher talked us through the routine, encouraging us to let our attention dwell on the specified area of the body, to feel the area from the inside. My initial difficulties with the exercise were physical: I have never learned how to sit on the floor, so after twenty minutes my back was in pain and both feet were asleep, my mind completely incapable of staying with the exercise. For subsequent relaxation sessions I arrived early and managed to get a folding chair so that I was able to sit somewhat more comfortably.
As anyone who has done any form of meditation is aware, to still the mind is a dauntingly difficult task, and what impressed me most about my experience with the relaxation exercise was the constant, ceaseless, involuntary churning of associations - the mind throwing up a continuous stream of thoughts, images, memories, anticipations, calculations, feelings - a fitful, troubled stream that has neither beginning nor end. Fripp puts great stock in the morning relaxation: in one of his recent newsletters he wrote that one cannot consider oneself a Crafty Guitarist without faithfully practicing it daily.
At breakfast - another feast, followed by coffee - Fripp declared Guitar Craft XII under way; the still-missing candidate, who had had some sort of travel mix-up, would simply have to catch up. At nine o'clock we twenty-five candidates and two assistant guitar teachers, Tony Geballe and Matt, gathered and seated ourselves on the folding chairs near the windowed walls of the spacious, high-ceilinged, light-flooded ballroom. Fripp, always poised and nimble on his feet, filtered silently into the room, black Ovation strapped to his body, took a look around, and said with mock exasperation, "I shall come back when you have rearranged yourselves intelligently." He went out. There was some discussion as to whether this meant to seat ourselves in rows, but Matt said Fripp simply wanted a neater circle.
This accomplished, the man floated in once more, surveyed the scene, took his place, and, standing relaxed in front of an empty chair situated along the center of one wall, spoke. "The new standard tuning is this: sixth string, C, a third below the old E; fifth string, G, a second below the old A; fourth string, D, the same as the old D; third string, A, a second above the old G; second string, E, same as the old first string; first string, G, a third above the old E. In other words, perfect fifths upward from the low C, with a G on top. Tune your guitars but do not yet play anything." Someone produced a battery-operated tuning device for use as a standard reference pitch, and we tuned. As my old Yamaha dreadnought assumed, string by string, an entirely new and different sound, I grew increasingly amazed at the impeccable logic and sheer sonority of the new tuning.
When tuning was completed, Fripp said, "Good. Now, pick a note from the following series - [it was a series of fourths or fifths]. When you are ready - do not be in any hurry, but when you are ready - play your note, then pick others and play them as the situation demands it. Your first note will be the first intentional note you have played in a week."
I was ready to savor at least half a minute or so of luscious silence, preparing myself and reflecting on the opportunity Fripp had given us to hear something we had never heard before, made all the more fresh by a week's abstention from guitar playing. But no more than five seconds after the words left Fripp's mouth, the resonant ballroom was filled with a jangling clamor of riffs, harmonics, bass notes, chords. I was shocked. "They just don't appreciate!," I said to myself. But soon this passed, and after a time I chimed in with my notes. And the jangling clamor of more than two dozen re-tuned guitars all playing at random - it was ... beautiful.
From the outset, Fripp exercised an uncanny control over his classes. When he wanted something done, the students did it. When he wanted something stopped, he could stop it. A mere gesture, a wave of the hand, or a softly-spoken "Leave it," would bring our thrashing to an instantaneous halt. I admired this charismatic leadership quality, especially when I considered my classroom presence among my own students - a presence, I thought, so exceedingly feeble and wimpy by comparison.
It was with some such powerfully understated gesture that Fripp brought our joyful jangling to a close, and then systematically began work on the mechanics of guitar playing. In Level One seminars like GC XII, the emphasis is on how to play rather than what to play. (The other levels of Guitar Craft will be discussed in due course.) That is, Fripp is concerned to get the guitarist sitting up straight - itself an awesomely difficult proposition with some students - with the guitar in the proper position, with the left and right hands disposed correctly. For most guitarists, this involves having to discard years of bad habits either accumulated unconsciously or cultivated actively by teachers Fripp would view as misguided.
Fripp began with the left hand, having us spend some time relaxing and attempting to feel the life inside the hand. He gave us a chromatic "walking" fingering exercise for the left hand, which we played in unison up and down the strings. Always, Fripp would stress, we were to play "with intention." Everything was learned by rote, by direct imitation. He would explain an exercise, have us try it, and walk around the circle, guitar strapped on, intently observing each student and giving out individual words of instruction - and encouragement, of a sort. His favorite technique involved tongue-in-cheek ridicule: "Wretched!" he would gleefully say, "But not hopeless."
Fripp forbade cassette recorders and note-taking during his lectures and guitar teaching. His explanation: "If you must write it down, you haven't really learned it." Being possessed of a perhaps excessively literary consciousness myself, I didn't find in Fripp's logic much to recommend it, and circumvented the prohibition by dashing back to my room at intervals and feverishly scribbling down on a legal pad everything significant I could remember.
Each day of the seminar would include two or more lengthy group guitar lessons with Fripp, lessons which gradually evolved from working on simple - but not easy - position exercises to learning several rather involved polyphonic compositions for the ensemble.
Another daily feature of the course was work with Frank Sheldon, an accredited teacher of the Alexander Technique. The very first Guitar Craft seminars included some yoga exercises, but Fripp soon concluded that the Alexander Technique was more effective and accessible. F.W. Alexander was a British actor who spent his life observing his posture and that of others, and training teachers to spread his methods. The Alexander Technique begins (and ultimately ends, I suppose) with simple - yet not easy - awareness of what one is doing: what bodily positions are habitual, the location of unnecessary tension, finding one's center of gravity, experiencing natural lightness, balance, poise. The technique has been widely used for decades among musicians, dancers, and actors. A minimum of three years' training is required of prospective instructors.
Much of our work with Sheldon was directly connected with our guitar practice: how to find a comfortable, relaxed sitting position in which it would be possible to practice for hours on end without getting stiff. But Sheldon also used a variety of games as tools for observation. One game was like the one where a whispered message passed from mouth to ear gets progressively garbled until at the other end of the line it bears no resemblance to the original - except that Sheldon had us do the game in bodily movement. Ten people stood in a line, and the first one did some simple motions observed by the second. The second person then turned around and tried to duplicate the motion of the first; the third person mimicked the second, and so on. By the end of the line, lo and behold, the original motions were utterly lost, replaced by a hideous accumulation of habitual gestures of self-consciousness and startling. Through such means Sheldon encouraged us to become aware of the power of habit and to begin a long process of self-observation.
The first big group lesson in the Alexander Technique was Tuesday at noon. Subsequently, throughout the afternoon, Sheldon met with small groups of four or five, assessing every person's individual standing posture. I have never been particularly pleased with my body image, but was quite unprepared for the revelations Sheldon's analysis gave me - such as the fact that I had been going through life with my head tilted upward, nose literally stuck up in the air, and had accepted this as a normal position. Sheldon gently tilted my head forward until everyone in the room agreed it was now straight. He asked me how it felt. I said, "It feels like I'm staring at the ground!" And so it did. This experience was one of many such insights I received at the seminar - insights that came like a flash, in moments of "Aha!" that would be followed by months and years of follow-up work and probing into their meaning.
The night before I had been reduced to doing nothing; the moment the course began, it seemed there was not enough time for anything, so rich was the mixture of ideas, exercises, and projects. I was cast into a state of nervous excitement and seemingly limitless energy (I'm sure the coffee from the ever-present urn in the dining room didn't hurt). Fripp said at one point, "I know that if I had been given this opportunity as a young guitarist, I would have spent the week getting along on two to four hours' sleep a night." All my life I had conditioned myself to think that with any less than eight hours of sleep, the day would be a groggy disaster. With four to six hours a night at Claymont, I felt supremely awake and alert. Big Jim, a fellow student, said to me later in the week as we were washing dishes, "At home I sleep eight hours and stay tired all day long; here I sleep four and never felt better."
As is well known to ascetics and sleep-research scientists, prolonged sleep deprivation does funny things to the head. While many people can get by with less sleep than they think they need, there comes a point when mental processing takes a turn for the fantastic - what it boils down to, I think, is that you essentially start to dream while you are awake. Deep wells of emotion and images open up and you plunge into them. It can take on an aura of mystic revelation, or conversely, the horrors of hell. I had a bit of both during my week at Claymont. On Tuesday afternoon the journey was just beginning.
Every student met with Fripp each day for a fifteen-minute individual lesson. As a one-on-one teacher, I found him warm and inviting, in a businesslike sort of way - always dryly funny, always "on" in the sense of being vividly, completely alive, able to devote his complete attention to the matter at hand, completely there with the student. In a word, present. He was supremely confident and at the same time gave the impression of caring about, or at least taking an active interest in, the student's development. In my first lesson he gave me a set of permutations on the left-hand chromatic exercise introduced that morning. Although I'd played guitar for some twenty years, I'd always been a rhythm, never a lead player, and some eighty percent of the Guitar Craft exercises and repertoire are based on single plucked notes and melodic lines. Even though my left hand, in Fripp's estimation, was not a complete disaster, I had to struggle mightily with the fingerings.
And struggle I did, practicing guitar in every available moment. But there was a dilemma, one which never was completely resolved. Fripp's method is to have the student start by working on guitar mechanics, devoting full attention to every physical detail of one's playing technique. And I could see the value of that approach. The problem, or dilemma, was that I had never approached music that way. When I taught myself to play guitar, I listened intently, but paid not the slightest attention to physical technique, other than to hit the right notes cleanly at the right time. I judged things by whether or not they sounded right, and over the years had developed what I fancied was a technique commensurate with, or at least minimally sufficient for, what I needed to express.
Now all this was being called into question. I wanted to explore this wondrous new tuning, to play with it, to improvise, to listen to it, to approach it in terms of music theory, ideas, music; but Fripp seemed to be saying no, you've got to do all this nasty physical stuff first, much of which seemed unnatural to me, opposed to my own physical instincts for the guitar developed over a twenty-year period. I never did resolve that dilemma, but accommodated it by dividing my practice time between working (the nasty physical stuff) and playing (the rhapsodic improvising). Once or twice the two came together for a few brief minutes. I imagined, and still imagine today, that with a few years of work the two could merge quite nicely. I never got that far. But I'm getting ahead of my story.
After dinner Tuesday evening I called my wife and daughter at home, then repaired to my room to write in my journal that in talking to them I "realized how being at Claymont has totally enveloped my consciousness, normal consciousness is, after all, a transient, ephemeral set of coherences and relationships. I have been struck by how differently and how strongly different people pick up on some part of my persona, or simply find something in me on which to hang their psychic hat - and then don't let me be myself, or rather refuse to see anything in me other than that single projection."
In the journal lines that followed, I immediately indulged in some ungenerous projections of my own: "I am also a little sleazed out by the personal qualities of Tony and Frank Sheldon. [Tony Geballe had this irritating sort of glazed-over expression - he would sit in the circle of guitarists, playing along effortlessly while wearing what I saw as the countenance of a blissed-out zombie. Sheldon, for all I was learning from him about my own body image, moved like a cadaver - slowly, carefully, oh-so-perfectly: I sometimes wanted to kick him and scream, "Can't you forget all that Alexander shit for just one minute and walk like a real person!"] Also, I wonder why everything about this place is so veiled - why people don't seem to ever give you a straight, honest, real answer." This last bit, as I recall, was mostly in reference to attempts at conversation with Bob Gerber, whom I was finding evasive, distant, and less than sensitive to the urgency and sincerity of my questions about Guitar Craft, Claymont, and everything involved.
That evening Tony led a group guitar session devoted to a simple - yet demanding - right-hand cross-picking exercise on the notes D-A-A-A. We didn't know it at the time, but many of these little exercise fragments we were being given one by one would later in the week be brought together and blossom into the most spectacular polyphonic music.
At nine or nine-thirty Fripp gathered us in the library for the "First Innaugural Session," during which we students introduced ourselves one by one. It was a motley, fascinating, and loveable group indeed. I remember many of the faces but have forgotten most of the names; in the present account the students' names are fictitious, except in a couple of cases where I have been able to contact them and obtain permission to use their real names. The two women naturally stood out - good-natured Karen from central California, laughing all the time and looking like an elegant bar queen; and quiet, blue-jeaned, plaid-shirted Annie from somewhere in the near-local mountain regions, looking like the fiddler in a stomping square-dance band. Young, lively, innocent Arnie, who later sincerely gave me a flyer for est or some such; robust, hairy Big Jim, who went around all day looking like a psychotic slob in a dirty T-shirt, eyebrows knitted and tongue hanging out; Chester the jester, a sort of Bill Murray type who could do all sorts of hilarious imitations, from "Saturday Night Live" to the various Guitar Craft teachers; John the handsome virtuoso, whose fingers flew up and down the frets with superhuman agility and grace (once when I complimented him he shrugged it off); Penguin Joe, another accomplished player who one sleepless night made a cassette tape of Big Jim's unbelievably noisy and prolific snoring for all to hear; Zaven the precocious spiritualist, with a dark, flashing middle-Eastern appearance and a certain attitude about himself; Cowboy Bob, who seemed increasingly agitated and out of touch as the course went on and ended up leaving a day or two early. The atmosphere of the course was so intense, so all-consuming - Penguin Joe compared it to an acid trip - that one evening at dinner Arnie wondered aloud seriously about the possibility of cracking, that is, going over the edge, breaking down under the strain. Fripp said, seriously but matter-of-factly, "We've had two," meaning since the beginning of Guitar Craft a year previously. He explained that one reason for all the teachers and individual appointments was so the students would be under careful continuous observation from a number of different viewpoints; the teachers met on a daily basis to discuss the status of potential burn-out or freak-out cases.
There was goateed Dick Bannister the firecracker, intense, wiry, energetic, and a fabulous improviser, overflowing with ideas, as I was to find out; bearded Steve Patterson the psychologist, at forty the oldest student on the course, thoughtful and kind; jump-suited Phil who dreamed strange dreams, more on which anon; tall, lanky heavy metal Rod, who seemed to keep to himself pretty much, and who was one of the few Crafties to employ the Dungeon; one-legged Tom, who played lead guitar in some kind of experimental rock dance band in Texas; Ray Jung from Schenectady, New York, Asian in appearance and deeply devoted to creativity and music; the gentle bearlike Bob Gerber, who although acting in the capacity of a teacher as regards the "Systematics of Music" (discussed below), was a beginning guitarist and participated in the guitar lessons as a student.
These, myself, and nine others comprised the Guitar Craft XII student body, and I have no doubt that were one to ask them all what happened that week at Claymont, one would get twenty-six different answers.
When, Tuesday night at the library session, it came round my turn to introduce myself, I didn't know what to say. Though I appreciate their function, I always hate these affairs - summarize your life and being in two sentences or less. I said something nondescript about being a keyboard player who happened to be also a guitarist who had liked King Crimson from way back when. Fripp made matters worse for me by saying, after my brief recalcitrant soliloquy, "I think it's only fair to say that Eric is a musicologist who came here with the intent of writing his dissertation about my music." He said it, or at least I heard it, with that slightly malicious, sadistic, yet innocently veiled sarcasm at which he must be the world specialist.
The reason this made matters worse from my point of view was that I had wanted to blend in and be unobtrusive - the better to observe, and, as it was rapidly turning out, to learn. So Fripp blew my cover, which he had every right to do - I was in the wrong for having fancied, without having thought it through too clearly, that I could drift in and dissect Guitar Craft by stealth. The uncovering put me in a personally uncomfortable position, because the last stereotype I wanted hung around my neck was "musicologist." As it turned out, the Crafties I spoke to had few hangups about musicology: they didn't know enough about the discipline to have savored all of its unsavory elements: the cultural tunnel-vision, the reams of meaningless statistical scholarship, the relentless pursuit of mediocrity, the flawed "objectivity," the detachment from the real world of real music - all of which I'd been in the thick of for several years in my role as a lowly graduate student. On the contrary, the Crafties who took any note at all of Robert's introduction of me accorded me a respect and deference which I neither deserved nor wanted. I did find myself occasionally cast against my will into the role of the defender of classical music, running up against the prejudice, fervently fanned by Fripp, of the rocker who views the orchestral player as a mere automaton who never expresses himself.
Was it all mind games? Petty insignificances blown up into mountainous proportions? "Very perhaps," or "très peut-être," as Gurdjieff used to say in his broken French, meaning "quite possibly." But the point here is the sense that under the conditions of a Guitar Craft seminar, I was beginning to get an unusually clear sense of myself precisely through being forced to confront aspects of my personality, motivations, and role-playing which in normal life I'd just as soon ignore. Under the conditions imposed by a teacher, Gurdjieff said, the student is able to step out of habitual roles and for a moment become himself. And that self, it often happens, is nothing like what one ordinarily believes, expects, or desires.
Fripp, poised and alert in his corner chair, proceeded to lead a discussion. It is difficult to reproduce on paper the real sense of such events - so much of their significance seemed to lie in the tone, the underlying strata of meaning, the very presence of the man who for a week was stepping into the role of teacher. Fripp told the story of his dozing in a friend's Chelsea loft in the early 1980s. He leapt from the sofa with a sudden realization. "Music stands at the door and knocks," he said. "One day we hear it faintly, but by the time we get through all the junk on our floor, it is gone. So we clean up the mess. Next time, we answer the door and meet it, but the house has such a stench that it goes away. Finally we set our house in order, because ..." and here Fripp did one of his long pauses, turned his eyes down to the mid-foreground, and grew visibly grave and saddened ... "because we just couldn't bear for it to go away and not return," these last words pronounced in a quiet, slightly wavering voice. It took him a few minutes to recover from the thought; he appeared disoriented and shaken.
There followed an initial presentation of the "four terms" of music, which Fripp encouraged us to visualize in a cross as follows:
This was an introduction to the "Systematics of Music," a subject upon which Bob Gerber was to expound at great length over the next several days, and which initially left me, and still leaves me, rather cold. Later I wrote in my journal: "I don't know if I will ever swallow Fripp's guitar techniques, his four-term system, his dismissal of written music ... but just being here may drive me to myself."
The lecture/discussion was adjourned around eleven o'clock. Fripp spirited himself away, perhaps to his quarters on the second floor hallway near mine. Some students went off to find quiet nooks in the spacious mansion where they could practice. Some went downstairs to the basement rec room, where English beer was being served up on tap by one of those ghostly Claymont kitchen workers. There was little prospect of getting buzzed, as the brew was doled out so conspicuously and under such close observation - it was a civilized, nourishing, relaxing quaff at the end of a hard day. Some students formed little discussion groups in the living quarters, getting to know each other and reflecting on the day's events - it was still only Day One, but a universe of time seemed to have elapsed since twenty-four hours before. Some perhaps went to bed.
I found quiet in the darkened dining hall, lit only by light emanating from the adjacent hallway to the lobby. The wooden tables and benches were cleared, empty, their finish dimly glossy in the darkness. The glass-fronted bookshelves where the night before I'd picked up the trashy novel had now a different countenance - utterly useless, in view of the profound work to be done. The coffee urn, and the hot water urn for tea - a selection of regular and herbal teas being provided - stood on a table in the foyer between the dining hall and the hallway. People would occasionally drift in, hellos would be exchanged - what to say? - take their drinks and drift out. I sat, sometimes on a table, sometimes on a bench using my footstool to support my right leg.
I played guitar. The exercises, the germinal fragments of pieces-soon-to-be, everything I could remember of all that had been given in the day's group lessons and my private lesson with Robert. I explored the new tuning, strumming the open strings one by one, top to bottom, bottom to top, feeling my way amongst scale possibilities, harmonic possibilities. What unfamiliarity! What newness! What as yet unheard music lay locked in this acoustically self-evident yet so unrecognized disposition of six steel strings stretched across a box of wood?
I did not know how to practice or what to practice, but I was practicing ... something. The silhouetted shape and visage of Matt appeared as I was playing. I said, "My fingers hurt." He said, "Good - that means you're working." He disappeared. I left the confines of the physical guitar exercises and just played. Something - music? - poured out. In the strange newness of the fingerings and the tuning - the tuning being based on that eternal archetype of music, the perfect fifth ratio 2:3 - I heard something, a quality as if eternally present and yet forgotten, a union of the physical, emotional, and intellectual, the rhythmic, melodic, and harmonic. It was a quality that was there - all you had to do was hold out your hand. Ask and ye shall receive.
Looking back and remembering, re-living this now, it was like the trajectory of a rocket. On Tuesday night in the darkened dining hall I felt the force of multiple G's pressing me back in my capsuled seat. In terms of sheer energy, Tuesday night was a high point, never to be recaptured. In the days to come, the force of take-off lessened bit by bit, and I settled into the arc of a spaceship ultimately bound for earth.
I got up, went to the ballroom, played guitar, and at seven-ten wrote blandly in my journal: "I practiced in the dining room until about midnight last night, and had a couple of good improvs in the new tuning, which does appear to have certain possibilities. Noises kept me awake until probably at least one o'clock. I woke up at about six-fifteen and decided to stay up, as a guy in the next room was taking a shower anyway, and the guy upstairs was apparently moving furniture. I've been practicing down here in the ballroom. A strange mind-set is overtaking me."
Morning relaxation, breakfast, and a group guitar lesson with Fripp followed as the day before. He began the group lesson with a sort of improvisational exercise: "Pick a note from the following: A, B, C, D, E, F#, G [an A-Dorian scale]. When you are ready, play that note. Then pick another note from the same series. Play that second note as the situation demands it. And so on." While I felt we failed miserably in terms of really listening to each other and adapting our notes to each others', there was yet such a fullsome quality in the resulting Dorian cacophony that I couldn't help but be impressed.
The evening before, Fripp had surveyed our picking with exaggerated displays of displeasure and woe, and announced, "Your left hands are extremely bad, but your right hands are infinitely worse." He had proceeded to introduce us to the correct way to hold the pick, the correct angles of the arm, wrist, and hand, and so on.
In the Wednesday morning class Fripp complimented us on the improvement in our right-hand technique since the night before, and went on to introduce a new cross-picking exercise - a slow mournful arpeggio that would become the backing rhythm for one of the "Guitar Craft Themes." Fripp walked around, always nimble and poised, drolly doling out advice: "The thumb is never bent, always straight. If your thumb is bent, you are in error." As we did the exercise in pathetically accelerating unison, Fripp would zero in on someone and yell, "Why is your thumb bent?!"
Fripp teaches that there is one true ideal tone color for the acoustic guitar, produced by plucking the strings directly over the sound-hole, with the plane of the pick immaculately parallel to the line of the strings. I found this difficult to accept. For one thing, it was impossible to do on my guitar: the Yamaha's body was too deep and its top too large for me to locate the pick in precisely the right place with the angles of arm, wrist, and hand coordinated in the approved manner. In a private lesson, Fripp acknowledged this, and suggested I get a smaller guitar. Well, fine. But one particular pleasure of the week at Claymont was the opportunity to wander around and borrow Crafties' guitars that were not in use. I played Ovations, Martins, Guilds, Gibsons, funky old cowboy guitars, unfamiliar makes. I studied each one's tone and playability carefully. I came to the conclusion that my 1977 Yamaha FG-295S, a made-in-Taiwan copy of a Gibson Hummingbird, sounded the best of them all: precisely because it was so gigantic, it put out the clearest, most resonant, loudest, most balanced, and overall just the most beautiful tone.
Surely I was prejudiced. But after twenty years as a guitarist, I was starting to trust my own judgement. And that is one thing Guitar Craft was supposed to be about. As Gurdjieff would say, "Accept nothing you cannot verify for yourself." Furthermore, my style of playing was based to a large degree on giving life to the tone by deliberately playing on different parts of the strings, with different pick angles, all the way up to scraping the string with the side of the pick so that each pitch is preceded by a little percussive scratch, or snapping the strings against the fingerboard. The Guitar Craft method of playing was asking me to give all this up in favor of production of an idealized tone - a tone which, to the extent that I could produce it, I did have to admit had a certain gorgeous classical roundness to it. So although I had serious doubts, I persevered in the exercises as best I could.
After lunch Fripp called a meeting in the library, and announced the "challenge" of the course. He had arranged, he said, for Guitar Craft to give a public performance the following night, at a drinking establishment in Charles Town. We Crafties were to form ourselves into small groups of four or five, each group to compose a ten-to-fifteen minute set of material. We were to practice the material and work on its presentation. We had twenty-eight hours to do this - effectively much less time than that, given all the scheduled lessons, meetings, Alexander sessions, meals, and the need for at least a few hours of shut-eye. Fripp painted a gloomy picture, trying his best to scare the crap out of us. "There is nothing like exposure to public ridicule to galvanize the attention," he intoned. He was less than forthcoming as to the precise nature of the venue, alerting us only to the hazards of playing music for uncomprehending foot-stompers who were under the influence of alcohol. A brave Crafty ventured to ask what the name of the place was. Little cause for solace was to be found in Fripp's reply. Raising one eyebrow menacingly and screwing up his face in best Vincent Price fashion, he drawled out slowly, "The Iron Rail."
"I must warn you," Fripp gravely continued. "You may be heckled by a loud drunk ... sitting right next to you ... it may be me." As the challenge, in all its dubious glory, slowly sank into our baffled awareness, Fripp was unable to contain his smug demented levity. He chuckled happily to himself, tears almost coming to his eyes. "It's a great challenge," he said to no one in particular. "A wonderful challenge." We sat speechless.
After the meeting we ran off in terror to form our groups. To appreciate the nature of our fear and loathing, consider that it had been only the previous morning that we had tuned our guitars to the new standard tuning for the first time, and hence were still struggling to remember or figure out basic things like where the notes were, where middle C was, how to finger a simple major scale, and so on. It would be like a saxophone player waking up one morning to find that someone has rearranged all the holes and fingering keys on his sax, so that the notes make no sense, aren't where they used to be. It would be like someone introducing you to an unfamiliar language with a strange alphabet one day, and the next day telling you that the following day you were to give a lengthy public recital, from memory, of an original poetic thesis on the new language's grammar - in the new language.
Perhaps I, with my theoretical bent, my tendency to want to know before I do, was more terrified than most of the other Crafties. But the challenge kicked our already feverish activity into a new gear.
My group consisted of Big Jim, jump-suited Phil, California Karen, myself, and Tim Bauman the novice. We had some preliminary discussions in the afternoon, but as I recall our first major rehearsal took place after the day's official activities were over, beginning around eight P.M. and lasting until close to midnight. I will describe it in a moment.
At around five in the afternoon I had my daily individual lesson with Fripp. He gave lessons in his quarters, which were only slightly more spacious than the Crafties' - from the looks of it, a single room that served as office, teaching studio, and bedroom. I seem to remember a high ceiling and bamboo mats on the floor or walls. The room was filled with light from the windows. There were a couple of framed prints or watercolors on the walls, and a small laptop personal computer on a writing desk. He gave the lessons in a chair facing the student's chair.
Today we did not play guitar, but talked about my proposed dissertation. After the meeting I wrote in my journal: "He said (not necessarily in this order) that he would still try to dissuade me from writing about him. He said he had worked with Bruford for twelve years and Bruford still didn't know what he [Fripp] was trying to do. How then could I, an outsider who had never been with him on tour and so on, hope to get any feel for his musical life and working methods? He described experiences of trying to communicate with his musicians by direct telepathy, such as projecting himself psychically into his drummer's body and seeing directly - literally, not metaphorically - through his drummer's eyes. The whole Western approach was different from his; his approach was more like the way kids learned gamelan music in Bali - as part of a vivid social context, a whole life-experience that did not divorce art from life itself. He said that at this point in time he'd rather nothing was said about his music: he used to want to be famous and all that, but now he doesn't need any more publicity. The things written about him have mostly been wrong, he said. We talked a bit about non-verbal communication, the difference between reading an interview and talking to someone in person. I said he came across very differently in person than in print, and he concurred."
In between official functions and meals, I was practicing guitar at every available moment, as were many of the other Crafties. Every day, the Claymont mansion was filled with music from early morning until late at night.
At six o'clock Bob Gerber led a discussion on the "Systematics of Music" in the library. Some of this material has subsequently been published in the Guitar Craft Monograph series. (See the Bibliography at the back of this book, under "Guitar Craft"; the moving force behind the "Systematics" was, however, Gerber, current Chairman of the Claymont Society for Continuous Education, who has been one of Guitar Craft's assistant teachers from the very first seminar, and whose articles on Systematics are listed in the Bibliography.)
In February 1986 the Systematic approach was all still very new and unfamiliar. The Systematics of Music consists of an elaborate theoretical framework within which the four fundamental "terms" of music - music, performer, audience, and industry - can be grasped in their multiple aspects, combinations, and inter-relationships. For the sake of relative simplicity, our Systematics sessions with Gerber left out the "industry" term and labored to understand simply music, performer, and audience.
At first I found the whole system farcical, and thought it was a colossal waste of time and energy. Gerber's method involved writing equations using the terms on a little blackboard and then asking the group such brain-teasing questions as, "If music, by means of the performer, attains the potential of the audience, then whom does music as a demand challenge the craftsman's skill to reach?" (Answer: the critic.) I objected to the system because it seemed preposterously arcane, unreasonably and unnecessarily difficult, and, perhaps most important of all, it seemed dubious, ill-informed, and misleading from a world-music or ethnomusicological point of view: it seemed to me that many musical cultures of the world simply do not have such rigid dividing lines between musician, audience, critic, industry, and so on. Scholars like John Blacking, who researched Venda music in South Africa, had come to the conclusion that the musical "division of labor" into distinct audience, composer, and performer roles in "advanced" Western societies was by no means the global norm, but rather a kind of aberration of technological civilization, symptomatic of our warped values.
Near the beginning of the Systematics discussions I voiced some of these criticisms, partly because I believed them to be valid, and partly in an effort to broaden the discussion out onto a more philosophical, less picayune level. I saw some danger in this particular form of indoctrination, which I called "psychological terror tactics" in my journal: I felt that some Crafties might lapse into simply accepting Systematics as some sort of revealed gospel truth. Gerber basically ignored my passionate comments and went back to his formulas, pulling answers like impacted wisdom teeth out of the mouths of the student body. I shut up and irritatedly kept listening, trying to follow the Byzantine logic of the music-performer-audience equations, all the while wanting most of all just to cut out and play my guitar.
As an intellectual theory, the Systematics of Music reminds me very much of Ouspensky's interminable explications of Gurdjieff's law of octaves and myriad forms of hydrogens: tedious, inelegant, forced, and not worth the effort to even try and understand. I came to think, though, that the whole point of the Systematics discussions was perhaps not so much the result - the theory itself - as the process of arriving at the theory. Gerber did lead the discussion along certain pre-determined lines, but he was sincere in his desire to have the students construct the theory piece by piece as he went along. In other words, it was all an exercise in learning how to think logically, given a certain set of terms each endowed with experiential value. And as such, for some Crafties it may have served its purpose. As for Systematics' being ethnocentric, well, I figured most Crafties would be working in the Western world anyway.
At dinner, my table was talking about Gerber's Systematics when Fripp tinkled his glass and announced that the late student, Jay, had just arrived, having missed a day and a half, and wanted to know what had already happened. Jay was seated to Fripp's left at the head table. "So," Fripp dead-panned, "Can someone please tell him what has happened?" This drew a burst of laughter from the troops, since it was painfully obvious to all that a three-sentence summary of what seemed like a universe of time, events, and mind-trips was totally impossible. But some brave soul did manage to rise and say a few words.
After more eating, Fripp rang his glass and said with feigned gravity, "Did anyone notice anything today?" What a question. A long pause as our minds raced up and down labyrinths, thinking of things we had "noticed," trying to figure out just what the hell the man was asking for. I was speculating to myself that he was talking about special moments when the stream of associations is stopped in its tracks by some inner or outer phenomenon and one is forced to become particularly aware of oneself, when young Arnie got up and spoke.
"I went out for a walk this afternoon," he said. "I went through the woods over to the Claymont community where the farm is. Everything was so beautiful in the cold and the snow. I saw a line of ducks walking along. Then, as I was walking back to the mansion, there was a cow behind a fence. And I looked at this cow, just an ordinary cow ... and it turned its head ... and ... and I noticed ... I noticed that the cow was staring at me!" Gales of laughter from the assemblage.
Arnie went on. "This cow was looking straight at me, and I was looking straight back at it, and it kept staring at me, and I turned to walk away, but even as I walked away I kept looking back, and it was still staring at me!" Arnie was growing animated, emotional. He was nervously laughing but he was close to tears. Clearly he had had some kind of primal or peak experience. Finally he said, in a quavering voice, directly to Robert, "So this cow was staring at me, even when I was walking away. What ... what does it mean?"
Nervous guffaws from the Crafties, then a pregnant pause. The atmosphere was electric. It was one of those close-to-the-edge moments. Fripp took the situation in hand. "Well," he said with gentle irony, looking good-humoredly at Arnie, "It probably means the cow was looking at this turkey walking down the road, wondering, 'Why is that turkey staring at me?'" Explosions of laughter. All tension defused. Fripp was a master at this sort of thing.
More people offered interesting observations on what they had "noticed," and were bombarded with questions from Fripp as to every last detail of their experiences.
At length Fripp posed another question: "Did anyone ... get irritated today?" The concept of "irritation" enjoys a special status in Guitar Craft folklore/mythology. Irritation is what lets you know you're alive, or at least one thing that does so. Irritation with other people is an opportunity to work on oneself. In Jungian psychology, one gets irritated at people who are the focus of one's own shadow projections - that is, we despise in others the qualities that we hate most, and are often therefore most unconscious of, in ourselves. So to become self-aware at moments of irritation is potentially to withdraw the projection from others; it is an opportunity to form a more rounded, realistic picture of oneself.
In spite of this (and other connections with depth psychology I have pointed out in this book), neither Fripp nor the school he has created in his image, Guitar Craft, puts much stock in classical analytical theory or methods per se - symbolic dream analysis, the archetypes of the collective unconscious, and the rest of it - at least so far as I have been able to make out. Frank Sheldon, and the Alexander technique in general, are similarly disinclined to probe for deep symbolic meanings, repressed psychological traumas, and so on. When Sheldon noted that I carried my right shoulder lower than my left, and I said I believed that this was the result of a car accident suffered ten years ago, he seemed uninterested. And when he was working on my posture - which was a mess - and I asked him why I had been walking around in these contorted positions all my life, he said, "The Alexander technique doesn't look for deep causes. We deal with the body as it is now." I didn't have to look far, of course, to find a psychological explanation for going around with my nose in the air - it seemed an apt expression of one of my less attractive personality traits. But I could see his point. It had to do, so to speak, with working on the intangible by means of the tangible.
I don't remember what the Crafties had to say at dinner about what had irritated them on Wednesday. After the dinner and group discussion, jump-suited Phil, California Karen, Big Jim, novice Tim, and I went into Phil's room with our guitars and sat on beds and chairs to prepare our act for the following night's performance at the dreaded Iron Rail. My journal entry, written after midnight, reflects the tone of my experience with the group: "Not the joy of discovery on solo guitar, but revelations on an entirely different level: how people interact; what their personas say to each other; how just the exertion of a little attention by everybody would make things ever so much more efficient (less talking and more listening); how even when you think you hear everything going on, you feel powerless to affect the course of events - you don't know what to do; how much I wanted to share my musical ideas and inspiration with my partners, but ended up feeling guilty for having exerted my will too much over the group."
In short, aside from the element of working with the new tuning as a compositional exercise, the challenge turned out to be a crash course in group dynamics in a music-making situation under intense pressure of time. Our total inability to come to any reasonable, rational delegation of responsibilities within our group was painfully evident to me. We riffed and tuned out, we got working in one direction for five minutes and then it would all fall apart and we'd go off in another direction. At least half of our vitally valuable rehearsal time was spent chit-chatting about matters wholly removed from the task at hand, as our collective mind free-associated from this to that irrelevant subject.
I saw clearly how one solution would be for one person to take command, assuming the role of leader. But how to settle on a leader? We were incapable of even broaching the subject. And if one person was to lead, did that not fly in the face of the idea of a communally made, democratically organized music? Looking back now, it seems to me that our little group experienced the perennial organizational chaos of King Crimson in microcosm.
Somehow we stumbled and bungled our way toward three pieces. The first one began with lots of spacey improvised harmonics, until one or two jagged melodic riffs were introduced, leading into slightly decrepit four-part polyphony. The second one was a sort of slow acoustic ballad based on a simple chord progression borrowed from a song I'd written for my daughter when she used to dance around the home piano as a toddler: I melodramatically strummed the chords in the new tuning one by one, someone else played a bass line, there were also perhaps a melody and arpeggio work on top. It was called "Round and Round." Our third piece began with everyone stomping their feet and was a loud, boisterous, rhythmic, dissonant pot-boiler.
About halfway through our rehearsal, Robert's form appeared in the doorway. We were playing my precious little major-key ballad with the big chord strums. I looked up to see his lips tightly puckered together as if he'd just bitten into a lemon, eyes agog, eyebrows drawn down in piqued mock horror and distaste. His whole expression said, "What - my splendid new tuning - all my careful teaching - being used ... for THIS?" I found his reaction hysterical. I didn't care if he didn't approve - Kate thought the song was beautiful, and I did too.
Robert, in fact, was flying all over the house that night, guitar strapped on, wings on his feet, floating from room to room, checking on each group's progress, offering comments. He seemed happy, energetic, the mad master of the house. Penguin Joe later told me that Robert was seen around mid-evening poised in the middle of the grand stairway, ecstatically letting rip with a phenomenal improvisation.
By one o'clock in the morning, my fingers didn't hurt any more. I think that after two days of pain ranging from annoying to excruciating they just sort of turned their nerve endings off.
Private guitar lessons were held in the morning, but once again Fripp and I talked not about guitar but about my dissertation. It was now that he suggested I contact Eno's management and write about him instead. Fripp said he had read my entire fifty-four-page "Prospectus," an outlined plan/summary of the projected work, which I'd written up for my Berkeley advisors and had given him a copy of the previous day. "It's good for what it does," he said judiciously, giving me to infer that what it did wasn't good enough. Then with heavy sarcasm he remarked, "I'm flattered you see fit to compare me with Harry Partch."
(What I'd actually written was, "I will argue that Fripp's place in history is not solely among the ranks of the progressive rockers, but in the company of a group of individualistic composers who pursued their unique, idiosyncratic vision of music essentially outside the major 'serious' and academic musical trends of their day and tended to espouse uncompromising, quasi-mystical views of the nature of music: Edgar Varèse, Harry Partch, Charles Ives, John McLaughlin, Sun Ra, John Cage, and I.A. MacKenzie, to name a few.")
Partch or no Partch, Fripp was against me carrying the project through. A dissertation on Fripp would be a "dead form." He talked about his feeling that there are no bona fide apprenticeships in music today, certainly not within the academic world. That was why he started Guitar Craft. Whereas what I was proposing to write about was in effect the period of Fripp's own apprenticeship - a subject about which, he argued, I could know absolutely nothing. Moreover, he said, his real task would begin only after another two to three years. Just what that task was I had no inkling, nor have I today.
I had a problem. I had been in graduate school at Berkeley for nearly four years, was lucky to have been given permission by my advisers to work on popular music at all; I was behind schedule, was virtually ready - or so I thought - to start writing, and had to get cracking. And here was Fripp calling it "dead work" and doing the best he could to stop the project. At the very best, I'd be writing without his co-operation; at the worst, I'd be violating the better judgement of the teacher who in two and a half days had already shown me more about music than had all my combined professors in some eight years of higher education in music.
I volunteered, "Actually, the prospect of one year of dead work doesn't sound so bad to me at this point, and perhaps preferable to returning to the drawing board to start over from scratch with Eno." Don't despair about starting over, he advised. Nothing is ever wasted; no real work is ever wasted.
From this point on I had serious doubts and reservations about writing about Fripp, some of which linger to this day, even as I write this.
Fripp concluded our appointment by saying, "Let's get together later to work on guitars."
I had to clear my head, so I donned my running clothes and went out for a jog in the cold bracing air. I'd done the same thing Tuesday morning, when time hadn't seemed quite so valuable. Now every minute seemed precious, but I needed a grounding in the earth: I needed the rush of blood in the veins, the pounding of the feet, the crunch of the snow, the beauty of the woods, fields, streams, snow, ice, trees, animals. Being in the snowy outdoors also unlocked, particularly in my sleep-deprived, dreaming-while-awake frame of mind, ancient childhood memories of winters in New York and New England. Since moving to California in 1977, I had effectively forgotten about ... all this. The feel of freezing air on the skin, the steam bellowing from the mouth and nostrils. I was meeting myself in those woods.
After this jog I seated myself in my room, turned the metronome on at a fast clip, and did a fierce, driving, pointillistic, ostinato improvisation on our fourths-and-fifths exercise, each note presenting itself out of nowhere. This was not "me" playing, but rather little decisions being presented to my judgement as my mind and body held a swirl of patterns in motion like a juggler. At some point Fripp shimmered in to give me some pointers. Observing my right-hand technique, he said, "Wretched - but not hopeless."
After lunch, at two P.M. there was a discussion meeting in the library. As there were many such meetings throughout the week, I am unable to remember specifically what was said in which. But I remember the gist of much of the material. And I remember the apparent ease and confidence with which Fripp spoke to the group, never using prepared notes of any kind, sitting relaxed yet erect with one leg crossed over the other in his corner chair. There was a fluidity in his discourse - evidence of contact with such a vast range of ideas that simple guided association led him naturally from one to the other, as in an accomplished musical improvisation. He was an inspiring speaker with a lively and much-used sense of humor.
I contemplated Fripp the man and wrote in my journal: "Fripp's person: part of his effect comes simply from being in his position. Of course, he has created, and continually creates that position." I imagine that many Crafties - myself very much included - were, initially upon seeing and meeting Robert, victims a bit of the staruck syndrome: here you find yourself face-to-face with this cultural symbol, this giant of a guitarist, this hero or anti-hero of contemporary musical mythology. Fripp himself might phrase this aura in terms of the iconic rock-star energy he had earned and was now able to draw on for his own purposes. But even after the initial staruck sheen had worn off, I could not think of another human being I had met who possessed such presence. When he was in the room it was impossible to ignore him. When he spoke, people listened. When he led, people followed. How much of this was due to the position he was in, the role he had created for himself, and how much was in the person himself? It was impossible to make out. Eventually I concluded that even if Robert Fripp did not "naturally" possess the aura of the genuine teacher, he was a consummate actor, able to act the role of the teacher down to the last detail. Bob Gerber once put it this way: "Robert's role is to represent the demand of music to you."
And maybe, I sometimes speculated, I was fabricating all this "aura" business in my mind, projecting onto Robert the image of the timeless inner teacher within myself. Who at other times I have had reason to suspect is actually none other than Johann Sebastian Bach.
The mind games went round and round and never stopped.
The great teacher could also be maddening. During one of the group discussion meetings - it might well have been the one at two P.M. on Thursday afternoon - Fripp spoke of the origin of the new standard tuning, how it "flew by" his inner field of vision at a certain visual angle, in certain colors, as he was sweating one day in a sauna in New York in September 1983. He did not want to go public with it because he felt it would deprive future Guitar Craft students the opportunity to experience it for the first time in its proper context. He also felt that when guitarists experiment with different tunings they usually do so casually, haphazardly, and superficially, and that at least two months' solid work with the new standard tuning was necessary to appreciate what he modestly called its "infinite superiority" to other tunings.
Because the new tuning calls for the second string to be tuned a full fifth higher than in old standard tuning, and the first string a third higher, it was not uncommon for strings to break when Crafties tuned up. I found Fripp's explanation for this mundane operation of the laws of physics and metal stress exasperating and mystifying: he said the guitar whose strings snapped was not "ready" for the new tuning. He suggested that those guitarists whose strings were breaking should somehow mentally prepare themselves and their guitars to accept the new tuning, and that then the strings would hold. I objected heatedly: why didn't we just use lighter-gauge strings specifically engineered to be tuned at higher pitches, which would also result in considerably less string tension, especially on the unwound second string, which was so tight that it was a real bitch to play? Fripp responded testily, "I'm telling you, it's not the string gauges that are causing strings to snap," ending all discussion on the matter.
When I went home the following week I went to the music store, purchased a selection of gauges, and restrung my guitar intelligently for the new tuning, resulting in a marked improvement in tone and playability. Fripp has since reconsidered the matter and Guitar Craft Services now offers custom sets of rationally gauged strings (11 13 23 32 46 56 and 12 15 23 32 46 60).
As with the idea of uncontrolled experimentation with his new standard tuning, Fripp in 1986 seemed to take a dim view of an enterprising student who had taken it upon himself to work out a series of chord fingering diagrams in guitar tablature for the new tuning, and to distribute the resulting manual of harmonic possibilities amongst interested Crafties. (I actually heard this from another Crafty, and did not talk to Fripp about it myself.) There was thus, in the early years of Guitar Craft, a certain element of guardedness, bordering on secrecy, as regards types of basic technical knowledge that have traditionally been considered public domain. It made me a little uncomfortable. Not that Fripp ever demanded his students to swear in blood never to divulge such information. With the new tuning, he gently but firmly requested that we not share it with anyone who would not give it at least two months' solid consideration. (Fripp went public with the new tuning in an interview in Musician magazine published in February 1989.)
You could never figure Fripp out. One minute he would be talking about the new tuning flying by in a spontaneous unbidden vision, about previous Guitar Craft group exercises in visualization that sounded something like mass hallucinations or collective hypnosis, about entering his drummer's body and seeing out from behind his eyes; and the next minute he would be ridiculing fuzzy-headed musical-spiritual experiences, viciously lampooning musicians whom he'd seen playing "'Really with the spirit, man,' while putting out the most unbelievably awful clichés."
Fripp would often discourse on big words, giving them all precise definitions. One such series of words had to do with the sensation of being aware, the topic having been brought up by a student's imprecise use of the word "consciousness" in a question. I may be over-systematizing this in my recollection, but the pith seemed to be a concept of a graded series: irritability, sensitivity, and consciousness - and beyond consciousness, that ineffable realm Gurdjieff called soleil absolu, literally "absolute sun."
Irritability is a fundamental quality of all living things, and some scientists have even spoken of irritability as part of the definition of biological life itself. Irritability is the capacity to respond to stimuli from the outside; even the smallest micro-organisms display "irritation" in their automatic responses to external conditions. At the human level, irritation can indeed be nearly synonymous with annoyance and its negative connotations; but in a larger view, human irritability carries the capacity to reflect the irritated person's disturbance back on himself, thereby representing an increase in awareness. Irritability in the Guitar Craft scheme of things is a precious quality, a tool for work on oneself.
Sensitivity, in Fripp's definition, is what most people call consciousness. That human sense of being aware, alive, attentive to oneself, and not merely irritable in the automatic, biological sense. The word "sensitivity" also happily carries with it a social meaning, as in sensitive to other people. Sensitivity can even take on a global meaning when one considers sensitivity to life processes on earth as a whole - processes of which one's own limited awareness is but a small part.
Consciousness Fripp spoke of in respectful, majestic tones, as the hard-won achievement of only a very few people who worked for it diligently and strenuously over a period of many years.
And as for soleil absolu, Fripp said almost nothing, quite possibly because of it nothing can be said.
Fripp used two words related to this whole series, "attention" and "awareness," Fripp used with more or less their everyday meanings, in various functional contexts: "Concentrate your attention on your left hand and feel what it is like to be aware of the pulse in your fingers."
Fripp's lectures could go off on the loftiest speculative, philosophical, and psychological flights, but he was not advocating experience of altered states of consciousness for its own sake. He loved to make fun of Zaven, the spiritually-minded young man who was just a bit too eager to share with the group his own experiments in meditation and other disciplines. Through my eyes and projections, Zaven was simply an obnoxious holier-than-thou braggart of the worst sort. Once in the library Zaven was telling the assembled group how at one time in his life he had meditated for hours every day for weeks and months on end, and had gotten so that he was in a more or less permanent blissfully detached frame of mind, which he fancied might be the samadhi of Hindu and Buddhist mystics. At length Zaven asked the patiently listening Fripp, "What do you think? What is this samadhi all about?" Fripp paused for a couple of beats, smiled condescendingly, said, "It's ... nice," and returned to his own agenda.
At the two o'clock meeting on Thursday afternoon, Fripp also talked about rhythmic exercises as a means of practicing the division of attention. He is fond of doing a certain musician's party trick for magazine interviewers, and tried it out on us: moving one hand to a beat of four and the other to a beat of five while continuing to talk, explaining that if we could keep part of the mind on the beat of four and another part on the beat of five we may find we have achieved something of significance. Watching his hands bob up and down and listening to his words flowing out in clear, natural cadences is enough to impress most people. He finished by saying, "You might try to find some way of doing this ... But you needn't talk at the same time ... That's only for if you're a smart-ass." He was a smart-ass, that's for sure - but such a loveable smart-ass.
The meeting was concluded with an announcement of the schedule of our departure for the Iron Rail gig that evening.
That afternoon each of the performance groups met with Frank Sheldon, who showed us how we could apply what we had learned in terms of posture and relaxation to our group rehearsals. Essentially the procedure involved taking a few minutes to slow down, still the mind, relax the body, feel the awareness in the hands - all this done as a group, seated on chairs in a little circle. Frank talked us through it, and we played my precious ballad, "Round and Round." It sounded, for the first time, how it was supposed to sound: magical, pure, crystalline - a few minutes of utterly transcendent beauty. Enthusiasm was high: everyone in the group heard it better. Why? Because Sheldon had relaxed us enough to listen.
At three-forty-five Robert found me in my room and told me to get ready for a private guitar lesson. "I'm ready," I said. "A bald statement," quoth he. In his studio, after an analysis of my right-hand technique, I asked him how all of this impeccable technique related to the slashing chordal guitar solo on "Sailor's Tale." He said that solo was inspired, laid down in the studio at three or four in the morning during days that began at eight A.M. and included writing out string parts for "Prelude - Song of the Gulls" and other such duties. He said that when one really plays, one forgets all the technique. Yet we study the technique in order to get to that point where we can forget it. He said to get to that point takes about fourteen years. Meanwhile, the more we study technique, the more access we have to actual Music. I said yes, this seems to happen with increasing frequency. He agreed. As for thrashing guitar solos, he said he had had to develop plenty of musculature and stamina.
During this lesson Robert also spoke of the perils of trying to develop too fast, as cases of burnout in ASCE ten-month residential programs at Claymont prove. My attention was wavering. Was he trying to warn me about something? He also said that pure anger could set one back three years, and that he knew about this from personal experience. Later when I got to thinking about this, I would contemplate Fripp's immaculately performed, completely convincing actor-like presence and wonder where his real emotions were. It disturbed me a bit. All these numbers - fourteen years, ten months, four against five, seven years for this exercise, two years for that. Uncontrolled expression of anger setting one back three years sounded like a nice formula, but it also sounded like a recipe for emotional repression that could have truly disastrous consequences in the long run.
But most of what he said about the development of technique made sense. I had experienced the process of "inspired" improvisation for many years, but hadn't had the vaguest idea what it consisted of, much less how to teach it. I was starting to get an inkling of how it could be taught, and it boiled down to emphasizing the physical aspects of playing - relaxation, posture, hand position, and so on - along with the mental aspects of concentration, attention, and awareness. From this point of view, ideas about music theory - which were how I had tended to approach the teaching of improvisation - were quite secondary.
Our group, which we had dubbed My Five Sons, had a dress rehearsal at about five-thirty. It went O.K., but for me the music had none of the scintillating presence it had had with Frank Sheldon earlier in the afternoon. The source was undeniably there, but tapping into it was no easy matter. During the rehearsal Phil told us of a bizarre dream he'd had: we Crafties were all a bunch of incompetent midget plumbers running around trying to fix a pipe that had broken here in this house and was gushing water all over the place. In the dream he saw this spectacle and laughed and laughed. The telling of this dream affected me strangely. It seemed a preternatural manifestation of the state of our collective psyche.
At dinner Fripp clinked his glass and said with a smirk, "Although I am now a teacher of Guitar Craft, as you may know for many years I was a professional musician and worked in a number of bands - among others, one known as King Crimson. If anyone has any stupid, irrelevant, pointless, idiotic questions they may wish to ask, please feel free to do so now." After this introduction it may seem a miracle that anyone said anything at all, but, idiots as we all knew ourselves to be by this point, asking Robert a question about his life as a rock star seemed only a minor embarrassment in the face of the prevailing humiliation. The brave souls who asked the first few questions were faced with scorn that was, all in all, par for the course. I forget what the exact questions were, but it really doesn't matter. The exchange went something like this:
"Would you care to comment on how you re-formed King Crimson in the 1980s?"
"No. Next question." Laughter from the head table.
"Would you mind commenting on how you composed 'Larks' Tongues in Aspic'?"
"Yes, I would." Snickers from the assemblage.
It gradually dawned on people that even this was a mini-challenge: you had to phrase the question exactly right, so that it really was a question. Fripp had an aphorism for this: "The quality of the question determines the quality of the answer." Which I have never been able to reconcile with his quoting of Gurdjieff: "Speak roughly, it is only necessary to indicate the sense." Later Fripp would tell me that both aphorisms say the same thing. But tonight precise, academic, pedantic speech-forms were in order.
Eventually things got going, and in spite of the often fascinating tidbits of information thrown out by Robert about his career, the overall impression was that it was indeed all irrelevant, pointless, and idiotic - that it belonged to a different order, a different world, than the one in which we found ourselves currently engaged. But for the rock fan in all of us, it was fun - a little diversion.
Ever the unwilling idiotic musicologist, I volunteered an ever-so-carefully-phrased question myself: "What kinds of music do you like to listen to, and what sorts of music have been a big influence on you in the past?" Fripp responded courteously that he listened to many kinds of music, with a decided preference for live music over records. Among recorded artifacts, among his favorites were Elvis Presley's Sun sessions ("excellent stuff"), Bartok's String Quartets ("at one time, very important in my life"), the Beatles ("although I don't listen to them much any more"), the Renaissance polyphony of English composer Orlando Gibbons, Balinese gamelan music, and Bulgarian women's music ("incredible").
It may have been at this dinner - though possibly the night before - that Fripp delivered a short remonstrative homily to the effect that Guitar Craft XII had not yet developed a "group mind." It may have been immediately after this that Dick the firecracker chimed his glass, got up, and made an impassioned, agitated speech. He had an Americanized British accent, with emotion causing his voice to break at irregular intervals.
"Here we are," he said. "In less than an hour we're gonna be setting out to play a gig representing Guitar Craft. And we don't know what the hell we're doing. We don't know where we're going, but more important, we don't know how we're gonna present ourselves. We haven't even discussed things like what cars we're gonna ride in, where the guitars are gonna go. Robert talks about a group mind. We don't have the slightest awareness of who we are, what we mean, how we're gonna do this thing. What are the names of all the acts? What order are we gonna play in? How long are we gonna play for? Who's gonna tell the management what we're doing? We have no group mind. And I'm telling you, we'd better get our shit together right now or it's gonna be pretty bad. What we need is a stage manager, and I'm calling on someone right now to step out and be our stage manager, to get this thing set up right so that we can do it."
He sat down, fuming.
Robert sat through Dick's speech wearing that inscrutable grinning grimace of his, made no reply, and I had a sneaking suspicion that he was preparing a colossal embarrassment for us all on account of all the things that Dick was talking about. I was having visions of twenty-six disorganized guitarists arriving at some honky-tonk redneck bar with no clue as to what was going on, no leadership, no way to set things up with the joint's surly manager. After the experience of rehearsing with my group, an experience largely of directionlessness and ineffectual flopping around with no one willing to step forward and take charge, I couldn't bear the thought of standing along the sidelines witnessing the sheer chaos of impatient beer-guzzling country music fans watching a bunch of long-haired acoustic guitarists milling around and then presenting an ill-planned succession of nervously executed, jive, intellectual-shit-music acts. I feared for my personal safety.
Tormented by these premonitions of disaster, and feeling very important and decisive, shortly after Dick finished his speech I stood up and said, with all due butterflies in my stomach, "I'd like to volunteer to be stage manager, and immediately after dinner I'd like to talk with a representative leader of each group to discuss the plan." Fripp said nothing.
We met, I made a little list of the acts (which I have since lost), and soon everyone was piling into cars and vans. We drove through the dark and the cold to the Iron Rail.
Having found the place, we parked the car and I scampered out and ran to the door, wanting to be the first one to get there in order to nip confusion in the bud. It turned out the Iron Rail was a small, classy cocktail lounge in a dignified old colonial-style building in downtown Charles Town, possibly adjoining a respectable inn or bed-and-breakfast-type place. The bartender wore a stiff white shirt with a black bow tie, and the place was almost empty. The only people sitting at tables looked to be upper-middle-class tourists quietly sipping mixed drinks.
I found the manager and told him Guitar Craft had arrived. He obviously knew we were coming, and didn't seem very interested in my agitation. He told us we could put the guitars in the middle room, and that we'd play in the back room. He disappeared. The Iron Rail looked to be a converted residential house, with handsome woodwork and old-fashioned wallpaper. There was the front room with the bar, a small middle room with a few small tables, and an only slightly larger back room, with five or six slightly larger tables, elegantly set with white linen tablecloths, silverware, and roses in slender glass vases. There were no people in the back room, nor was there a stage of any kind. In fact, the main organizational duty of the stage manager turned out to be clearing away a space to accomodate the Crafty performing groups.
The twenty-six Crafties filtered in, got unbundled from their winter clothing, stashed their guitars in the middle room, milled about, ordered beer or soft drinks. Soon the place was packed - but it was clear we were to be our own audience. I ordered a 7-Up, which, served in a glass with ice, a twist, and a plastic drink mixer set me back about two dollars. I repaired to the back room, where I sat at the corner table on the left and contemplated bitter fate.
Soon Robert arrived with an entourage of several women - a couple of the ghostly kitchen workers, now all elegantly dolled up, plus the beautiful Nina, Matt's girlfriend. They were all smiles and joviality, and settled into the corner table on the right, on the opposite side of the door from me. Frank Sheldon, posture statue-perfect as always, took his place among them. With a flourish, Robert ordered champagne for the table, and when, to the delight of his ladies, he procured a broomstick handle from somewhere and began banging it on the floor and ceiling, evidently practicing the form of music criticism he would soon be dishing out, I began to garner the distinct impression that that table, at any rate, was planning to have a good time tonight, probably at the Crafties' expense.
I don't remember exactly how we got started. As stage manager I probably should have introduced each act - but there seemed little point, and instead I just let things happen in the order we had planned.
The music. I had heard only fragments of each group's set as I had wandered around the house over the past day and a half, and was quite unprepared for the splendor of the concert that unfolded. Each group had a distinct personality, and some pieces were rather more accomplished and polished than others. But as a whole it was quite overwhelming - set after set of mini-acoustic-rock gamelan - now fast, pointillistic, polyrhythmic, and stimulating; now gentle, lyrical, poignant, and heartbreaking. Some of it was old-fashioned tonal, some was modal, some was based on unusual empirical scales, some was more rhythmically than tonally based. What impressed me most was that we had made this - created a whole mini-repertoire of interesting, difficult, varied, convincing music - in a day and a half of work, following another day and a half's preparatory exercises with the new tuning. From this point of view, it was just stunning, and I shuddered at the awesome energy, efficiency, and vitality of the organism - Guitar Craft - that had made it possible.
Without a doubt the best performance was turned in by Matt and Tony, who walked in the door playing, guitars strapped on, smiling, weaving their way through the crowded room. Never glancing at their fingers, they engaged the assembled Crafties with playfully meaningful looks, bopping through one of the most convolutedly logical, lurchingly lively Bartok-meets-Chuck-Berry compositions I have ever heard - until, finishing up, they glided back out the door again to the thunderous applause of the audience. Later I gushed to Matt, "Your piece was fantastic, beautiful, incredible ... It was - art!" He shrugged off the compliments with a good-natured "Naaah."
The criticism. As the Crafties performed, Robert took it upon himself to "galvanize our attention" with hoots, whistles, shouts of "Heavy metal rules!," banging of the broomstick, and in general making as big a pain in the ass of himself as possible. He reserved his worst abuse for my group's precious ballad, "Round and Round." Every time I strummed a big six-note chord - and there were a lot of them, in perfectly predictable places - Robert would let loose with a sound resembling a sick cow in orgasm. This, along with gleeful titters from his entourage, the broomstick, and other unspeakable verbal ejaculations from Robert, made it quite impossible to hear the piece. Somehow, though, I had seen it coming and didn't get too flustered; the ego dimly wished for the piece to be heard in the spirit of its making, but the attention was certainly galvanized to the present situation. After "Round and Round," we did our foot-stomping piece (ecstatic, abandoned cries of "Rock and roll! Rock and roll!" from the head table), finished, and took our seats.
The performances of all the groups took less time than expected, and after a short break it was decided to do them all again. By this time a few curious customers were peering in the door, and occasionally staying to hear a set or two. A very, very drunk blonde woman in her thirties literally staggered in with a friend and loudly offered her opinions on the proceedings. Robert's banter with this sozzled specimen, egging her on to be as rude and disruptive to the musicians as possible, was priceless, but unfortunately I cannot remember any of the exact words. (He later moralized to the Crafties, "We were very fortunate to have the drunk blonde.")
Toward the end of the evening Bob Gerber, who was a rank beginner, having played guitar for all of four days, gave a touching, endearing solo performance. He cradled his guitar like a big loving teddy bear and plunked out his notes with sensitivity and conviction. Gerber's playing was a living reminder that technique isn't everything - that music can speak through a person at any level of expertise.
Back at the Claymont mansion, at twelve-forty-five, I wrote in my journal that I was feeling a let-down after three days of unremitting intensity. It was still hard to unwind, but, for better or for worse, I was feeling more my normal self again. I reflected "how in the Iron Rail Gurdjieffian situation, everyone could and did learn something individual and profound at their own level." I speculated that "Fripp has perhaps made a successful conversion of his chief negative feature - being an egotistical smart-ass - into his chief asset."
Fripp's stream of aphorisms continued unabated. At breakfast on Friday a Crafty made a public confession of his temptation to have too much to drink the night before at the Iron Rail, and explained how he had handled it. "Temptation is a reward," Fripp pontifically intoned. "The devil cannot make use of people who are drowsy ... Until now, you were just a turkey."
In the two days that followed, guided by Robert, we worked on integrating the various musical patterns, exercises, rhythms, and ostinati we had learned into a number of large-scale pieces for the complete ensemble of guitarists.
I wrote in my journal, "What are Fripp's GC exercises? They are aural/physical mandalas for individual or collective (they all work together) use." I was impressed by a sense that everything we had learned was fitting together like a gigantic jigsaw puzzle. I had a vision of an immense sphere composed of thousands, millions of inner oscillations of many different frequencies and rhythms: composing music was not a matter of starting from scratch and piling notes, lines, chords on top of each other, but rather was a matter of eliminating all but an infinitesimal fraction of the oscillations in the great sphere, which harmonized with each other automatically, and the fewer lines - the more transparent the music - the better.
Friday morning after the group guitar lesson I walked over to inspect the Claymont community bookstore. It was closed. I sat on a rock near the farm houses and barns, watching young boys play war games. On the way back a turkey of the genuine biological variety gobbled at me.
During the afternoon group guitar lesson Robert had us start work on odd meters in earnest. Difficult counting games, counting out loud or silently. To play in a meter of 5/8, for instance, he recommended feeling a steady quarter-note beat underneath. A typical pattern involved playing big slashing chords on eighth notes one and three, counting eighth notes, and tapping the foot to the quarter note:
This is the rhythmic basis of many passages in King Crimson and Fripp's solo work; once practiced and grasped it become quite natural and automatic, but as most of the students, myself included, had had little if any experience in quintuple meters, it took some getting used to. The basic pattern of septuple meters is similar.
Then what you do, or what Fripp had us do, was to get one group of guitarists playing in five and another group playing in seven, so that it will take thirty-five beats to run through one complete cycle. With one group slashing in five and the other thrashing in seven, the combined slashing and thrashing is most disorienting, and took us the remainder of our time at Claymont to work out - even by the end, as a group we didn't quite have it:
Then Fripp would give to a third group of guitarists who had distinguished themselves for their rhythmic aptitude a hairy ostinato figure or some lacerating melodic riffs to play over or under the slashing and thrashing. He would set everything in motion, part by part, group by group, walk around the room, adjust it - and then leave. We would hack away for a few minutes, lose it, start it up again, lose it. Such exercises took enormous concentration.
When it worked, it was an incredible sound. It sounded like a giant lurching soul-train locomotive with five seven-sided wheels on one side and seven five-sided wheels on the other, running at ninety miles an hour and hauling hundreds of empty tin cans strung along behind.
I remember one afternoon session in the ballroom when we were all bombing down the track, the asymmetrical soul train in full rampaging flight, and the strangest sense of silence and confidence came over me - I guess this was one of the first moments it clicked for me, when it went beyond arduous labor and unnatural-feeling counting and became, however briefly, utterly intuitive and effortless, as easy as breathing in and out. I couldn't help but break into a big grin as I kept slashing away. Looking up and around the room, whose eyes should I see fixed on me but Tony Geballe's - he was wearing the exact same smile that a couple of days earlier I had found irritating in the extreme. Now it seemed that I suddenly understood what it was all about, and I smiled at Tony and he smiled back at me and for a brief minute or two we were locked in complete sympathetic resonance, leading the ensemble in an ineffable musical coniunctio.
Then it all fell apart, and I had to work at it and count it out all over again.
During my Friday afternoon guitar lesson with Fripp, I pushed the dissertation idea for the last time. He didn't budge. He said music - which I proposed concentrating on in my thesis - had always been only a small part of his work, all the Musician editing and writing, the Frippertronics tour, everything, how could anybody but himself write a book on him, he asked. I said perhaps it depended on the kind of book. He said music was easy for him, always there; the rest, all the other stuff, had been hard, and in a way much more significant.
After dinner the ensemble of twenty-six Crafty guitarists was given an unscheduled, surprise lesson by Robert at eight o'clock. The emphasis was on exercises in five and seven. We were clearly working toward something.
There followed a meeting discussion in the library at nine, during which Fripp magnetized me, discoursing on creativity, sensitivity, consciousness, visualization, the screen of the mind's field of vision, Walter J. Ong's theory of the evolution of the aural-visual split in Western society, and other topics. I remember some details of this most mighty of Frippian lectures. He talked about how musicians tend to hear only the note they are playing at any given instant, but how with practice one can train one's field of hearing - in a certain visual way - to include a measure, a phrase, a section, an entire piece, even a whole concert's performance of music, so that even though one is still only playing one note at a time, one's awareness is nevertheless also focussed on that note's place and function in a much larger hierarchy of frames of reference - by implication extending out to one's life itself, and beyond.
Fripp talked about visualizing meters, devoting special attention to meters based on seven, explaining how one can train oneself to almost literally see the pattern of seven beats as it goes through recurring cycles against the backdrop of the mental field of vision. This led to a consideration of sacred geometry and architecture, Fripp expounding on the symbolism of the number seven as interpreted through Gurdjieff's "Law of Seven" or Heptaparaparshinokh, and as glimpsed by Fripp in a cathedral in Belgium.
Once or twice I had the impression that Fripp's ordinarily crystal-clear logic and powers of exposition were lapsing into nonsensical gobbledegook. However at such moments it seemed that this was through no fault of his own, but rather because language itself was being strained past the breaking point - ideas arising, flowing, criss-crossing each other in a way that mere prose simply could not duplicate. It has also occurred to me that perhaps I could have made more sense of the more impenetrable passages had I had further preparation to receive what was being imparted.
I also had the peculiar, uneasy, yet exhilarating feeling that Fripp was speaking directly and personally to me almost throughout his lecture. Perhaps others felt something similar - this was apparently a fairly common experience among Gurdjieff's followers. Fripp looked into my eyes a lot as he spoke. Once, as my back was getting stiff from sitting cross-legged on the floor, I leaned back on my elbows and stretched out my legs on the floor in front of me; staring directly at me, Fripp immediately started talking about how our body position affects our whole frame of mind, how if we adopt a posture of reclining laziness, our minds will surely quickly tune out. Staring back at him, I continued to recline defiantly for a few minutes, but it was no use; soon, feeling gently chastised, I sat up again.
In some strange way, Fripp revealed himself - or revealed something - in this lecture. And if it sounds lame to say that there was a knowledge and knowing in the library that evening that is impossible to convey through the printed page, so be it. I do know that a few others besides myself tasted it, felt it, sensed it, perceived it - a certain quality. For when Fripp was finished and left the room, followed by most of the Crafties, Tony Geballe, Ray Jung, heavy metal Rod, and I remained sitting on the floor, in effect stunned into speechlessness. We just sat in silence for several minutes. There was nothing to say.
At length, as the relishing of that certain quality died away of itself, I got up, ran down to the basement and scanned the rec room - civilized beer being served up by the ghostly attendant - decided against partaking, ran upstairs, grabbed my guitar, ran into the dark deserted dining hall, and let rip with a loco improvisation. Then I started practicing one of the thrashing/counting exercises in five and seven, the sound reverberating off the bare wooden floor and walls. Firecracker Dick soon drifted in with his guitar and we each took a different part in the exercise. One by one, about five or six more guitarists came in, and we carried on, getting it right, losing the count, trying again, switching parts. The thrashing piece was the loudest of all the exercises, and before long the dining hall was booming with a joyful noise. Penguin Joe later told me that it could be heard all over the house, and that he had chanced to pass Fripp's doorway on the second floor just as the locomotive in the dining hall was revving up. The door had opened slightly and a single eye - for some reason I was reminded of the victim's vulture eye in Poe's "The Tell-Tale Heart" - had appeared in the crack.
I went to bed late that night. Every night at Claymont, sleep came hard - it was difficult to wind down.
In the morning I did make it over to the Claymont bookstore while it was open, and marveled at the shelves stocked with all manner of devotional, practical, mystical, psychological, and philosophical literature by all manner of authors from parts West and East. There were tapes of Gurdjieff music, tapes of Bennett lectures, Bibles, Bhagavad-Gitas, tomes by everyone from Meister Eckhart to Sri Aurobindo. Out of this bountiful cornucopia of enlightenment I selected Bennett's cassettes entitled "Sex I," "Sex II," and "Sex III," or, as I remarked to the cash register clerk, trying to cover up my slight sense of embarrassment, "Sex, sex, and more sex."
In the afternoon Fripp had a percussionist - whose name I cannot remember - come in and teach us the principle of beating four against five - four steady beats in one hand against five in the other. The underlying principle of common-denominator subdivision could be applied to many other meters, such as the fairly commonplace two against three and three against four, as well as more exotic species such as four against seven and three against five. By the end of the session we were starting to get an inkling of how to pull off such exercises in the division of attention. By the end of the plane ride home to the West Coast the following day I had four against five and four against seven down pat in terms of simply hitting all the beats in both hands at the mathematically correct instants; in terms of actually feeling both metrical cycles simultaneously - true division of attention - four years later I am still working on it. Of exercises in the division of attention through musical counting of one kind or another, Fripp would say, "This exercise has changed lives."
Later Saturday afternoon Fripp called together the Crafties and told us to practice the four pieces which by now had coalesced from the many exercises - "Guitar Craft Theme I," "Guitar Craft Theme II," "Thrang Thrang Perboral Gozinbulx," and "Thrash." We split into groups before dinner to do so. After dinner there would be a final concert, the assembled Crafties playing with Fripp all together for our own edification and enjoyment.
Firecracker Dick, Penguin Joe, California Karen, another guitarist, and I were in my room thrashing when jump-suited Phil flew in with the startling news that a toilet had overflowed on the second floor - water was everywhere, and was leaking profusely through the ballroom ceiling. I ran down to the kitchen to collect mops and buckets, and into the ballroom where we did our best to clean up the mess. This mishap - perhaps just a coincidental accident due to ancient plumbing - bore for me the weight of tragedy, and had an unusual effect on my already overwrought psyche.
For toward the end of the ensuing dinner, unable to quiet my raging thoughts, intently staring into space in front of me, overcome with a feeling of profundity and prophecy, I tinkled my glass and, shaking, got up to deliver a speech. "Robert has talked," I said, "about our failure to develop a group mind during this seminar, and I wanted to add a couple of things to that. In rehearsing with my group for the Iron Rail performance, and in the other groups I've been in here, one thing has been clear, and that is our complete inability to work efficiently together, to get and stay organized, to formulate and work through a plan - to listen to each other and communicate with each other democratically and effectively. Nobody listens, time is wasted, nothing gets done.
"Whereas," I continued severely, "has anyone noticed that whenever we're sitting around the circle in the ballroom and Robert walks in, we are instantly completely attentive, silent, and ready to work? This may be how the whole seminar is set up, and how we've been able to accomplish so much in so little time - by relying on the presence and charisma of a single leader. But my feeling is that in the long run, that's a very dangerous way of getting things done."
"A couple of days ago Phil had a dream that I'd like to share with you. He dreamed that all of us Crafties were a bunch of incompetent midget plumbers rushing around trying ineffectually to deal with the gushing flow of water from a broken pipe. It seems to me that the dream sums up our situation perfectly - here we are, being given a glimpse of an unending flow of creativity, of music, and we are utterly incapable of taking the steps needed to harness it. And now it has happened in reality - before dinner the toilet overflowed upstairs and flooded the ballroom through the ceiling."
The connection seemed obvious to me, but among the Crafties were some who weren't quite ready to buy into my little self-possessed feat of dream interpretation. "But - but it was so funny," stammered Phil himself, protesting that the overriding feeling-tone of the dream was one of boundless hilarity. Matt, taking a dim view of my speech, said, "Look, dreams come from individual people, and refer only to that individual. What could Phil's dream have to do with all of us?"
I was starting to respond that if there were such a thing as a group mind, then surely there is also such a thing as a collective unconscious, particularly in a group such as ours which had gone through this amazing week together, experiencing things collectively at all kinds of levels. But before I could get the words out, Fripp, who had evidently been observing the debate with bemusement, spoke with the ironic air and timing of the true comic: "That is the first time," he said slowly, grinning with infinite self-satisfaction, "that my musical creativity has been compared to an overflowing toilet."
Uproarious hoots of laughter from the assemblage. Fripp followed up by milking the metaphor for more than it was worth, each extension more absurd and each one eliciting more mirth than the last, "My cup runneth over" ... "My bowels are poured out for thee," and so on and so on. At some point in the general cathartic uproar I sat down, laughing self-consciously. I saw that once again Fripp had decided to use humor to defuse a hairy situation: a contentious discussion on the niceties of Jungian psychology was not what we needed at that point, and the teacher took action.
For myself, the dream, the plumbing accident, their timing, and my response to the apparent synchronicity never lost their significance, though I would be hard pressed to define that significance precisely. My speech, though I experienced it as heartfelt and prophetic in the heat of the moment, may have been sheer and utter idiocy on my part, mind-gaming, irrelevant self-indulgence. But the dream of the midget plumbers still seemed the culminating symbol of the entire week, the course's final emblem and image, a symbolic message from GC XII's group mind, collective unconscious, whatever you want to call it. It remains a tantalizing perplexity, a twisted circus mirror, an exclamation point followed by a question mark, a garishly colored comic-book tableau thrown up on the screen of my - our - awareness.
And maybe it doesn't make a damn bit of difference.
The final concert. After last-minute rehearsals amongst small groups, we all assembled in the ballroom. I wanted to be close to Fripp, and sat immediately to his left. Bob Gerber was on his right, and the circle of Crafties stretched all around the room. When all was quiet, Fripp - without a word - began the music with ethereal improvised harmonics, and we all followed suit. After a time, Fripp struck the initial notes of "Guitar Craft Theme I," and waves of gratitude washed through me - the harmonics followed by the slow, mournful progression were identical in concept with "Round and Round," my little ballad Fripp had jeered and ridiculed at the Iron Rail two nights before.
We all joined in with our parts to the "Theme," and went around the circle clockwise according to a pre-arranged format in which each group of four or five guitarists had a sort of highlighted section. This accomplished, with the underlying structure of the "Theme" still going on, Fripp leaned toward Gerber, inviting him to take a solo. After Gerber played, Robert turned to me with an extraordinarily expectant, pregnant expression on his face. It was so unexpected and present as to be almost alarming, and involuntarily I turned away. Glancing back at him to find the same expression of gentle insistence, I gathered myself, left the ostinato, and tore a few slow aching strains out of my soul. Still a novice in the new tuning, I muffed a note here and there, but I can tell you my heart was in what I played.
Fripp looked at student after student, going clockwise around the circle, and each one responded, in his or her own style, with a few musical phrases, to the soft accompaniment of the "Theme." After going a little more than halfway around the circle, he brought the piece to a close. (One Crafty - I think it was Arnie - later told the group how he had been planning and thinking, so eager to play his solo, only to be disappointed when the music was ended before he got the chance. Fripp laughed and said, "Life is like that.")
Again silence, and it was up to me, by pre-arrangement, to count off the first of the thrashing pieces. I did my best to collect my wits and set a reasonable tempo, and counted, "1 2 3 4 5 1 2 3 4 5", but from the very start we botched it - the intricate rhythms and cross-rhythms weren't quite there; some players were holding together but others, including myself, were soon completely lost and coming in on random beats. After a few minutes of this pathetically limping locomotive, Robert stopped playing and looked at the floor, laying it to rest. We all stopped.
The second thrasher went somewhat better, but in my recollection a few of our rehearsals of the piece over the past day or two - supervised or spontaneously erupting - had been far superior. I suppose life is like that too.
More silence and centering, and then Robert struck up "Guitar Craft Theme II," to which we all had pre-determined picking patterns. What was not pre-determined, or at least not known to us, was that Robert would rise from his chair, and slowly, deliberately, beginning with me, play each of us a little musical benediction on his gleaming black Ovation. He stood square in my sights, and, looking straight at me, played a phrase or two that in some incomprehensible way seemed to be his parting message, his summing-up of the musical relationship that had grown between us. He paused, looked away, moved to the player to my left, and did the same for him, offering subtly different thoughts, different phrases, different bodily gestures and facial expressions. And so on around the circle. Some of Fripp's wordless words seemed comical, some serious, some light-hearted, some grave.
This - whatever it was - blessing, advice, commentary, soul communication, adieu - was patiently carried out for each student, and took quite some time. Finally Fripp returned to his chair and brought the concert to a close.
We gathered shortly thereafter for the final meeting in the library, which I remember largely for our discussion of the concert, as well as for a whole series of awful Frippian New Jersey jokes which had us all rolling around on the floor laughing with tears in our eyes. Then Guitar Craft XII was declared completed.
A bit later - probably around ten-thirty - I wandered down to the rec room, where Fripp was comfortably ensconced in a padded wicker chair, quaffing a brew, chatting with students, and looking very much like your everyday normal guy. I talked with a few Crafties, but still found myself reluctant to imbibe - my edge was just too strong, and I wanted to drink that sensation to the dregs. So, hauling myself up to the ballroom, I ran into Dick and Karen, and we played "Round and Round" in all its feeble glory, followed by what was probably a rare, quite possibly unique, rendition of Bob Dylan's "Blowin' in the Wind" in Fripp's new standard tuning. Karen filtered out, mountain Annie filtered in, and Dick, who was even more wound up than I was, began a series of insane, electrically charged, volatile, superbly creative improvisational romps, which Annie and I struggled valiantly to keep up with. (It was Annie who said of Dick that night, "You're a firecracker tonight, boy!")
It was a final lesson in music-making. Annie was quite overwhelmed and lost, though she stuck through it, seeming to want to be there; I fell into the role of trying to be the conducting rod or middle ground between the two of them, and generally failed miserably, though there were a few wonderful moments of an alchemical blending of three very, very disjunct elements. I ended up being slightly annoyed at Dick, bless his creative soul, because he just refused to slow down and listen to us - he was in another world, in the grip of a spirit or demon. But I found it hard just to come out and say what was on my mind.
At about half-past-twelve we went into the gloomy dining room for a cup of herbal tea. Dick was hot to play on into the night, but I was finally verging on exhaustion. I said, "I have to take the leap of faith that music will still be available tomorrow, so I'm going to give my body a break." I went up to my room and lay in bed in the enveloping darkness, staring at the thick dusty curtains and thinking by free roller-coaster association for at least half an hour before I fell asleep.
Bright and early there was a small group relaxation exercise in the library. The course was over, and some Crafties had already left. At breakfast, Fripp abandoned his post, or should I say throne, at the head table and came over and sat down to my left, mingling with the commoners. Karen told some hilarious story about being attacked naked by bees in central California, Fripp told more abominable New Jersey jokes. He talked a bit about Toyah Wilcox, his wife-soon-to-be, and I asked if we could soon expect to see little itty-bitty Fripps toddling about. "No," he drawled out slowly in best Dorset accent. "Read - my - lips ... NO."
I went out for a quick jog in the crunchy snow. In the shower afterwards I broke down and wept the most cleansing weep I had wept in a good ten years.
Phil, Ray Jung, and I packed Phil's car for the drive to the train station at Harper's Ferry. Robert was nowhere to be seen, and I had the idea to collect a few people and run up to his room to say goodbye. Robert, ever light on his feet, was running down the stairs just as we were running up. "I just wanted to say goodbye," I blurted out.
Fripp said, "It's all a hoax."
I stayed with the new guitar tuning for about three months, and continued sporadically with some of the exercises. I was ultimately frustrated because, being primarily a rhythm-type player, after considerable effort and search I just could not find a good set of chords whose sound I liked. I saw that it would take many months - indeed years - to become adept at the new tuning, and that working with it would of necessity change my style of guitar playing. And I liked my style of guitar playing - it represented a labor of some twenty years in its own right. It was a sacrifice I was not prepared to make, and so, not without some sense of loss and guilt, one fine day I tuned my guitar back to the old way, where it has remained ever since except for a few occasions when I have wanted to re-experience that very special Guitar Craft sound.
Fripp's influence over the way I make music, think about it, practice it, and teach it, however, extended far beyond my fleeting commitment to the new tuning. Several technical or music-theoretical ideas I latched onto at Claymont provided a seemingly limitless source of inspiration and sense of challenge for about two or three years, after which they assumed their place in the totality of my musical-conceptual repertoire. For many months, for instance, I was productively obsessed with octatonic scales and their harmonic implications, so different from conventional tonality - and practiced them incessantly on keyboard in numerous shifting polymetrical contexts, giving rise to magnificent quasi-improvisational structures along trains - so to speak - of thought directly derived from the Guitar Craft exercises.
Of the deeper, extra-musical, super-musical, meta-musical layers of labor, meaning, and suffering I found in Guitar Craft - what is there to say but that there is enough material there to study for a lifetime, whether within the way of Guitar Craft itself, or, as seems to be my lot, through other methods and channels. It has taken me longer to write this chapter than the week I spent at Claymont itself, and I have left out many details, some intentionally, others through laziness and lapses of memory. Doubtless as many chapters on Guitar Craft could be written as there have been Crafty Guitarists. For me, Guitar Craft was one of the single most vital links in my own continuous musical education.
|<< Chapter 9||
Progressive Ears Presents
ROBERT FRIPP - FROM CRIMSON KING TO CRAFTY MASTER
by Eric Tamm
|Chapter 11 >>|