Progressive Ears Presents
ROBERT FRIPP - FROM CRIMSON KING TO CRAFTY MASTER
by Eric Tamm
|Chapter 1 >>|
This book is not a biography of Robert Fripp. I know next to nothing about the man's personal life, and even if I did would not be particularly inclined to write about it. This is a book about music and ideas. It is a book about how a certain definition of music and a certain approach to the making of music have in recent years crystallized around the public figure of a certain individual guitarist.
To put this in a different way, this is book more about art than about the artist. The late Ananda K. Coomaraswamy, curator of Indian art at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, criticized the modern sensibility: "Our conception of art as essentially the expression of a personality, our whole view of genius, our impertinent curiosities about the artist's private life, all these things are the products of a perverted individualism and prevent our understanding of the nature of ... art." As for "genius," a term which, as we shall see, Fripp has idiosyncratically incorporated into his own systematic writings on the act of music, Coomaraswamy wrote: "No man, considered as So-and-so, can be a genius: but all men have a genius, to be served or disobeyed at their own peril."
In the current artistic climate we are obsessed with the artist's personality. The artist, let alone the pop star, is not an ordinary human being or humble craftsman, but a living myth. We have an insatiable appetite for the dirt dished out on our gods and heroes by the media. Supermarket tabloids are only the most colorful and obvious examples of a point of view that reaches even into academic musicology, as enterprising scholars publish posthumous psychoanalyses of famous composers. What sort of affair did Andrew Wyeth really have with Helga? What is Elizabeth Taylor's latest diet? Where does Madonna get her hair waxed, and exactly what parts of her body does she submit to the treatment? The reader should not expect to find out in these pages whether Robert Fripp gets his hair waxed, and from exactly what parts of his body. Such few indiscretions as may exist herein come from previously published interviews with Fripp himself, who tends to use them as comic relief from his otherwise rather serious (if not solemn) agenda.
I must ultimately beg the question of how much, or in what ways, our appreciation of music is governed by the "facts of life" surrounding its creation, creators, and sensitive participants. Coomaraswamy represents an austere, lofty view, but even he did not believe art could be understood in a vacuum - that is, in ignorance of the circumstances and culture that surrounded the making of works of art; on the contrary, he took it as his mission to educate the museum-going public to the point where they could have some inkling of the cosmic, archetypal forces which motivated medieval and Oriental artisans to produce the artifacts they did.
In this book I attempt to construct a conceptual and historical context for the understanding of Robert Fripp's music. There is no way this book, in and of itself, will enable the reader to understand the music itself. To understand the music you have to hear it (preferably live), experience it firsthand; you have to learn how to listen to it, and this can take time - a lot of time. Perhaps my words can take the reader to the brink of musical understanding but no further: they can't make you take the actual leap, as you poise yourself over the Kierkegaardian abyss. You have to jump yourself.
While less than eager to discuss his private life publicly, over the years Fripp himself has made known his thoughts on music and other topics in a variety of written media; I have drawn on these sources extensively in my research. In addition to the many interviews that have appeared in the rock press, he has supplied informative if elusive liner notes for a number of his records (notably The Young Person's Guide to King Crimson, God Save the Queen/Under Heavy Manners, Frippertronics/Let the Power Fall, and The League of Crafty Guitarists Live!). In the early 1980s Fripp worked as a contributing editor for "Musician, Player and Listener" magazine, writing an extended series of essays on music, the music industry, and aspects of his own work. In more recent years he has begun to publish a series of "Guitar Craft Monographs" which relate to his current teaching practices, this material is echoed in his current column in "Guitar Player."
What I offer in this book is an (I think) objective summary and exposition of Fripp's major ideas as culled from the above sources; a critical and occasionally analytical account of his recorded music (conditioned, certainly, by the totality of my own musical experience and education, as well as by my individual taste); a representative sampling of the published commentary on Fripp by other critics; a personal account of my experience as one of Fripp's Guitar Craft students; and an evaluation of the meaning of the body of his work from such perspective as I have on music history as an historian and on music as a musician.
I first heard Robert Fripp's music in 1969, when I was fourteen and attending boarding school at Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts. As I recall, I bought King Crimson's first record, In the Court of the Crimson King, because of its cover: anything with a sleeve that bizarre, I figured, had to be heavy. And, strangely enough, it was: even through my tiny, tinny plastic/leatherette monaural record player, "21st Century Schizoid Man" screamed like a banshee, "Epitaph" echoed like a funeral dirge to a whole technological way of life. Parts of "Moonchild" on Side B I could have done without, and in fact I usually only played the album's A side, but in this music I felt I had made a deep discovery - concrètea discovery poignantly heightened by the fact that none of my friends seemed to grasp what the big deal about King Crimson was. I taught myself "Epitaph" by ear, and remember playing and singing it solemnly and mournfully at the piano in my parents' house in Rhode Island.
Somehow (those were scattered days) I missed out completely on Crimson's second album, In the Wake of Poseidon. I ordered their third, Lizard, through a record club, and even though by now I had an actual stereo system, the music sounded strangely disjointed to me, like an odd attempt at a fusion of styles that I could not quite make to gel in my mind. I was irritated by most of it, enthralled by brief moments. At the age of sixteen, my musical horizons were broad enough, ranging from be-bop to Beatles and from Beethoven symphonies to Switched-on Bach, but of Lizard I could make neither head nor tail, though I uneasily suspected the fault was at least partially my own.
I then forgot about King Crimson for several years. The next time the band's unusual appellation came up in my life was around 1978, when my best friend in college, Chris Roberts, a bass player and composer, turned out to have a passion for Fripp and Crimson. To my astonishment, Chris could play with facility all kinds of torturously difficult Crimson guitar and bass licks, and to my chagrin, he was always trying to get me to listen to the trilogy the group put out before disbanding in 1974: Larks' Tongues in Aspic, Starless and Bible Black, and Red. Although at the time I was enthusiastically jamming and occasionally playing gigs with a coterie of Los Angeles new wave musicians, my interests were basically elsewhere: in the twentieth-century classical tradition of Mahler, Debussy, Stravinsky, and Bartok, which I was studying in school as part of my training to be a composer, naively - I saw little connection between such pursuits and Fripp.
By 1985 I had worked my way into candidacy for the Ph.D. in musicology at the University of California, Berkeley, and it gradually began to dawn on me that I had to write this monster thing called a doctoral dissertation, and that I had to come up with something to write about. Traditional subjects such as the history of the sixteenth-century motet or analysis of Beethoven's sketchbooks failed to galvanize my attention. I loved the classical tradition but still had a visceral passion for rock and roll. Casting about for topics, I zeroed in on the "progressive rock" of the 1970s, a music in which the head of classical sophistication was grafted Frankenstein-like onto the erotic body of rock. My nervous advisers said the topic of progressive rock as a whole was too broad and that I should pick a single group. From my vantage point at that instant in time, it seemed that King Crimson was an ideal choice: there had always been something challengingly different about their style - a rough-hewn, almost nasty quality that belied the obvious intelligence and musical awareness with which the music was put together and dispatched.
So I set about researching Fripp and Crimson, getting all the albums, finding and reading all the reviews and interviews, immersing myself in the music. It became clear that although it would not be precisely true to say that Fripp "was" King Crimson or that King Crimson "was" Fripp, he was nevertheless the sole common denominator throughout the band's many incarnations, and had been involved in a variety of projects having nothing to do with King Crimson per se. Fripp himself - not King Crimson - became the focal point of my research.
The more I studied, the more information I amassed, the more ideal my choice of topic seemed to be. Here was a guy - Robert Fripp - who was not only undeniably a guitar virtuoso and a creator of new, hybrid, innovative musical languages, but who had incisive, brilliant things to say about the music-making process, who cut through all the absurd hype of the music industry and set forth his own defiant yet coherent program for bringing sanity and art - existentially, not historically defined - into the rock marketplace.
I wrote up a fifty-four page "Dissertation Prospectus" for my U.C. Berkeley committee; they gave me a tentative go-ahead. I had learned that Fripp was currently conducting a series of residential guitar seminars in West Virginia under the evocative but enigmatic title "Guitar Craft." On October 20, 1985, I wrote him a formal letter to tell him about my dissertation project, and to ask whether I could interview him at some point. On November 1, he called me at seven in the morning (California time) to inform me that he had deep reservations about my project: for instance, he wished to distance himself as far as possible from the movement known as "progressive rock." He said, "If you want to know what I do, come to a Guitar Craft seminar."
So I did. I attended Guitar Craft XII at Claymont Court near Charles Town, West Virginia, between February 17 and February 22, 1986. My experience at the seminar is documented more fully in Chapter 10 of this book. In brief, it was the most stimulating week of my musical life, and Fripp turned out to be the most effective teacher with whom I have ever had the privilege of studying music. Fripp and his team presented ideas - not just vague theoretical concepts, but physical, practical, concrete principles and exercises - that four years later are still presenting challenges and inspiration to me in my own musical practice. Guitar Craft - which, prior to experiencing the discipline for myself had meant little to me other than an interesting concept glimpsed through a couple of scattered references - seemed to be an obvious and logical yet simultaneously unexpected and wondrous development in the saga of Robert Fripp. In spite of the riches he had contributed to the development of the practice of music and to musical vocabulary before 1985, his previous work seemed to pale in comparison with what the man was now putting forward - not merely a distinctive rock guitar style or an abstract philosophy of dealing with the music industry, but a whole approach to music's very essence, a style of life.
Fripp, however, never warmed to the idea of my writing about him or his work. In several conversations during the course of the Guitar Craft seminar he gently but firmly endeavored to dissuade me from carrying out my project. Reading over today the prospectus I showed him then, I am struck by how dry and analytically vacuous parts of it sound; I was, after all, trying hard to make the whole thing acceptable to my advisors at Berkeley - bastion of traditional musicology - and probably went somewhat overboard in the direction of formality and irrelevant minutiae. My impression at the time was that Fripp based his disinclination to being written about by a budding musicologist on a number of factors, including: a general mistrust of the written word (which is related to his mistrust of music notation); his strong feeling that what he has to offer is best presented in person, and perhaps can only be presented in person; the fact that I had not been there with him throughout his career; and the fact that writers in the popular music press have often said small, totally uncomprehending things about him and his music. Fripp seemed to want total control over what he and Guitar Craft were putting out to the world - a control which extended to a measure of actual secrecy concerning specific guitar exercises and such things as his "new standard tuning" (which he has since publicly revealed). I also got the feeling, which may or may not have been a product of my imagination, that Fripp was deliberately setting a stumbling block in my path, the way a Zen master might ask a student to perform some incomprehensible action with a hidden lesson.
Fripp must have intuited a strong sense of my dilemma, for in one conversation he suggested to me an alternative course of action: that I research and write about Brian Eno instead. At the Guitar Craft seminar itself, I vacillated and told Fripp I would write him a letter. Back in Berkeley, after a week or two of deliberation, I gave up on the idea of writing about Fripp, wrote to him of my decision, and set about tackling Eno. (The results of that study may be seen in my book Brian Eno: His Music and the Vertical Color of Sound.) On seeing the state I was in because Fripp had refused to "cooperate," my primary dissertation adviser, Professor Philip Brett, said, "Well, Eric, that's one of the advantages of doing historical musicology; it's much easier to wait until they're dead."
But I never forgot about Fripp. He called me graciously a month or two later to ask how I was doing on my Eno research; synchronistically, the moment the phone rang I was engaged in an analysis of one of his recorded collaborations with Eno, No Pussyfooting. We exchanged a few letters. I got my doctorate in May, 1987 and carried on, teaching music at Bay Area universities. My half-done Fripp research sat idle around the house in neatly organized filing cabinet drawers and three-by-five index card boxes. The idea of writing a book about his work gnawed at me. In spite of his hesitancy, I felt that what Fripp represented - a certain way of approaching music, a way that through my experience teaching and studying in music departments of established universities I have seen to be neglected if not completely undreamed-of - was important and vital enough to addressed in the form of a book. On attending a performance by the League of Crafty Guitarists in San Francisco in January 1989, my vacillation was transformed into determination: here was music that really kicked ass, in such a polite way! It demanded to be chronicled. A little voice spake into mine ear, saying, "Go ahead, write the dang thing! If you don't do this, someone else will sooner or later, and chances are it'll be someone less sensitive to the subject, less versed in the critical issues involved."
Hence the book that you hold in your hands now. Since in the end I wrote this as a book (not as a dissertation), I have been able to make it a more personal statement, unconstrained by the demands of academic musicological style. Furthermore, I ultimately concluded that if Fripp approved of the book beforehand, it probably wouldn't be worth writing. There is always something suspicious about an "authorized" biography (even though this is not a biography). Fripp's own words and thoughts are available to all who would seek them out - in the existing interviews, liner notes, articles, and Guitar Craft monographs. Perhaps he feels it would have been unseemly for him to collaborate actively on an outsider's book about his work.
As will become clear in the following pages, there are areas of music on which Fripp and I cannot see eye-to-eye - for instance, the real meaning of the Western classical written music tradition. Like any two contemporary musicians, we each have different spheres of musical experience: when any two musicians meet, there will be areas of recognizance, affirmation, and agreement, just as surely as there will be areas of xenophobia, negative judgement, and disagreement.
I am all too aware of the element of subjectivity. Perhaps the reader may take this as a forewarning: ultimately - as if it needed to be stressed - I speak not for Robert Fripp but for myself.
In critiquing the music of Fripp's albums (both King Crimson and non- King Crimson) I have adopted a variety of formats. I treat some albums on a song-by-song basis. Others I discuss in more general terms, with special attention to chosen pieces deemed particularly representative. Still others, such as the 1980s King Crimson trilogy Discipline/Beat/Three of a Perfect Pair, seemed to call for an approach acknowledging their essential stylistic unity. It is my hope that the reader will not be distracted by this pluralism of critical methods, but rather will be able to accept what is offered herein as the residue of one writer's prolonged struggle to come to terms with a plurality of musical styles - and as an indication of his considered disinclination to artificially systematize a personal encounter with a body of work - Fripp's - so remarkable for its very variety.
Progressive Ears Presents
ROBERT FRIPP - FROM CRIMSON KING TO CRAFTY MASTER
by Eric Tamm
|Chapter 1 >>|