There’s a great book to be written one day about the life and music of Robert Fripp, but it would have to be a fat one. The consistent theme of his life has been attention to detail, and it’s only in the details of the projects he’s been involved with that the insights would come. A broad-brush approach would obscure the spirit of the man. It would take a better writer than me to complete that book, but I hope someone does it one day. There have been a few brave attempts so far which I’ll mention later.
All I can do here is pull out what seem to me to be two central themes that run through everything he’s done from the early days of King Crimson to its current, very active, form, and from his achievements outside of King Crimson, probably the larger and more important part of his life’s work.
- A move from the informal toward the formal
- The pointed stick
A great band, but ..,
I was lucky enough to be a Crimson fan from the beginning in 1969. Although the music (and the album sleeve) of In The Court of the Crimson King were startling and powerful, there wasn’t a great deal that the casual fan had to distinguish King Crimson from the other ‘progressive’ or ‘heavy’ bands at the time. The fan’s window into that world was the music press – the Melody Maker, Disc and New Musical Express. There we saw that the only particular distinguishing feature of the bespectacled lead guitarist – Bob Fripp, not Robert in those days – was that he sat down while playing. No big deal. We weren’t aware of the bewilderment of his bandmates that when they were hitting the clubs and drugs he’d be sitting in his hotel room practising guitar arpeggios to a relentless metronome. That would have been a hint, but we didn’t know, so it seemed pretty much all rock band stuff, free spirits, blowing and jamming.
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As the 70s progressed, we learned that the owl with the Les Paul was the hub around which King Crimson lineups came and went. It may be at this time that he coined the aphorism
Turn a seeming disadvantage to an advantage. The greater the seeming disadvantage the greater the possible advantage.
Fripp became an expert at turning each disintegration of a lineup into a new and creative formation. After five years he was the only remaining member of the 1969 lineup. Relationships within each successive lineup were fraught, with the blame often laid at Fripp’s door. By 1975 the musicians recording the Red album were deeply frustrated with him, but still inspired by the music and eager to tour. They were as shocked as the fans when Fripp announced the end of the band, the band’s management having rejected his suggestion that it continue without him.
What had happened was that the foundations for the rest of Fripp’s life and career had been laid in a few moments of powerful insight when he heard a recording of a talk by philosopher J G Bennett; Bennett had been a disciple of the early 20th century spiritual teachers Gurdjieff and Ouspensky but had forged his own angle. He ran an intensive 7-month residential retreat under Spartan conditions, and Fripp walked away from the music world to throw himself into this, with no intention to return. Bennett died just before Fripp’s retreat began, but his followers ran it and it was the life-changing event Fripp had been looking for.
“What appealed to me about Mr Bennett was that he wasn’t an Indian guru or Japanese Zen master. He was an uptight Englishman like me, who had found a way to work with it.”
Fripp’s return to music after three years away has become the stuff of rock legend – a phone call from his friend Brian Eno saying he was with David Bowie and would Fripp like to come to play some guitar? OK, said Fripp, if they could accept that he hadn’t played for three years so he’d be rusty. Those sessions resulted in “Heroes”.
The pointed stick
We’ve probably all experienced how we become more alive when something – usually something unpleasant like bereavement, redundancy, or a falling out with a loved one – shocks us out of our everyday habits and well-worn grooves. I believe the Bennett influence, which led to Fripp’s own teaching in Guitar Craft, changed the way he looked at the turmoil of band life. Instead of waiting for circumstances to upset habit and expectation, he would deliberately give himself a challenge – something unwelcome – which he characterised as the ‘pointed stick’.
Guitar Craft students have to compose and perform pieces in very short times, with distractions and disruptions deliberately set by Fripp and the senior students – heckling, removal of stage seating or equipment, large pot plants appearing in the middle of the performance space, fart cushions unleashed during delicate instrospective pieces. It’s not that the performer has to ignore the ‘outside events’ – instead they have to split their focus between the musical performance and the environment, which Fripp sees as vital training for performance in the everyday world.
As Marc Sanborn points out in The Encore Effect, it’s not a new idea:
When Aristotle was training his student Demosthenes in oratory, he made Demosthenes practice speaking with a mouthful of pebbles. When Tiger Woods started playing golf, his father would deliberately cough or make other distracting noises as Woods began his swing.
Many of Fripp’s own decisions can be seen as pointed sticks – a very private person, he committed to a detailed online diary for many years, partly to demystify and de-glamorise the life of a musician and partly to give himself the challenge of exposing his thoughts, speculations, decisions and attachments. He has said that many King Crimson pieces contain ‘tripwires’ such as sudden tempo or key changes simply to bring the musicians back to alertness. Part of the Crimson process, and the reason only top-class musicians can be in Crimson, is the seamless recovery from mistakes. He rates the recovery skill of bassist Tony Levin much higher than his own. Even the guitar tuning used in Guitar Craft courses – CGDAEG – is largely there to stop unconscious noodling.
Shaking things up
Of the current three-drummer King Crimson lineup, he wrote something which suggests a continued interest in the pointed stick:
The current incarnation of KC is very different to the others, and happily so. But any seven-year, life-cycle process tends to go off course around the transition period between years three and four. So, how to address this in the wonderful Beast which is the present King Crimson? What pointed stick might administer a sufficient poke to the Crimson trajectory to keep the group alert and engaged, honouring the Creative Impulse that brought it into existence?
Perhaps, adding an Eighth Member? Now that’s going to shake things up!
(Fripp’s diary February 13th 2017)
Formality – it’s not about you
Another move I see in Fripp’s career is from the relatively informal to the formal. By formal I mean that everyone agrees to a particular forms – for example forms of posture, of coming onstage and leaving, of dress – and adheres to them instead of ‘doing their own thing’. This became evident in Guitar Craft where a group of guitarists numbering anything from 13 to 40 onstage means attention has to be paid to how you do things – such as getting on stage without tripping over each other. These forms apply also in practice sessions, but there it’s permitted to get it wrong and be reminded, as a prompt to paying attention. In my view, based on my limited experience of it, Guitar Craft isn’t remotely about guitars, it’s about attention.
In a Crafty Guitarists performance no individual stands out, not even Fripp. Each individual has their part to play and is only a contributor to the music. From a rock band point of view, it looks stiff and rigid, all those guitars pointing the same way at the same angle (the occasional leftie, who breaks the formation, is welcomed). But in the classical world it’s the norm. While the conductor of an orchestra and occasional soloist are singled out for attention, the majority of musicians are not there for ‘self-expression’ but as co-contributors. That is the only way an orchestra can function. We can see it in the big bands of jazz too. The musician accepts ‘it’s not about you’ and enjoys being part of the creation of something that only a well-regulated coordinated effort can create.
In the latest incarnation of King Crimson, eight top class musicians in formal suits perform their pieces without speaking, without changes of lighting (except for one during the last song of the set, which makes it all the more dramatic), bow and leave. It’s like nothing in rock, but it’s like everything in classical music. Formality offers a means to curb the ego and focus the attention on the task.
One day a man of the people said to Zen Master Ikkyu: “Master, will you please write for me some maxims of the highest wisdom?” Ikkyu immediately took his brush and wrote the word “Attention.” “Is that all?” asked the man. “Will you not add something more?” Ikkyu then wrote twice running: “Attention. Attention.” “Well,” remarked the man rather irritably, “I really don’t see much depth or subtlety in what you have just written.” Then Ikkyu wrote the same word three times running: “Attention. Attention. Attention.” Half angered, the man demanded: “What does that word ‘Attention’ mean anyway?” And Ikkyu answered gently: “Attention means attention.”
(Philip Kapleau Roshi, The Tree Pillars of Zen)
- In the Court of King Crimson by Sid Smith ( the definitive history, seems to be quite rare now)
- A Musical Guide to In The Court of the Crimson King by Andrew Keeling (a serious musicologist and composer’s view)
- Robert Fripp – From Crimson King to Crafty Master by Eric Tamm (written in 1990 and out of print, it’s available as a PDF. It was dismissed by Fripp with the exception of Tamm’s very personal description of a Guitar Craft course)
- Guitar Craft History Project (Fripp declared in 2017 that Guitar Craft would cease to exist, but this archive would collect teaching materials, reminiscences and attempts to articulate the ideas behind it)
- J G Bennett Foundation (insights into Bennett’s life and work)