Robert Fripp – attention, attention, attention!

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.

These are

  • 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.

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.

The lineup who recorded Larks Tongues in Aspic: Jamie Muir, Bill Bruford, Fripp, David Cross and John Wetton

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.

Mr Bennett

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.

J G Bennett and wife Elizabeth

“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

The Guitar Circle of Europe

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)

Fripp resources

Waveforms ambient looping (or Frippertronics 3)

Guitar and effects pedals

In my last couple of posts on Frippertronics I’ve shown how Robert Fripp started playing this form of wave-like looping soundscape, and I’ve demonstrated how I tried to copy it for my own enjoyment using various bits of equipment I’d accumulated over the years. That was very much derivative of Fripp’s music. In my own Waveforms I’ve added my own take on it, using a wider range of sounds on the synth. Each piece has a written structure although the notes and textures are different every time.

In this video I’m playing one of my own pieces, The End of the Road. The annotations on the video describe what I’m doing at each stage.

I hope you enjoy it and if you’d like me to post more like this, let me know.

Related

 

More on Waveforms – my soundscapes approach

How to play Frippertronics (2): into action

In my last post I described how I approach Frippertronics and ambient looping in general. I also talked about the equipment I use. But how do you approach it in a performance? Even if the performance is just for your own enjoyment? Over and over I’ve seen friends try the equipment and very quickly create the sonic equivalent of mud – a thick and unappealing mess. How do you avoid that?

In this video I build a short Frippertronics loop, using only one guitar sound. That means I’m emulating the original Frippertronics from the late 70s and early 80s. In the next video I’ll show my own development of it, Waveforms, but for now I’m firmly in ‘copy and try to get it right’ mode.

There’s not a lot to look at. If you’re lucky there may be paint drying somewhere – go watch that! But the beauty of this music is when less is more, and when you’re listening to what’s playing before you feed in the next note. So you’ll see me sitting doing nothing a lot.

A few points about what how I do this:

  • As I described before, I have two pedals looping independently of each other. One decays and fades, the other doesn’t.  I start by feeding two notes into both of them. Because they’re independent, they go out of sync quite quickly, creating a feeling of waves and floating right from the beginning.
  • I then listen for a bit before adding more. When Fripp plays he tends to set a lot more going at the beginning, but he has a better ear for what’s working and strategies to deal with unintended stuff. Plus he loves the ‘pointed stick’ created by something unintentional that keeps coming back at you. I’m less skilled, so more cautious.
  • I leave only a few notes looping on the Jam Man (the non-decaying loop) to allow space to focus on the more transient stuff.
  • I feed in a maximum of two consecutive notes at a time. I never play chords.
  • I give attention to the whole range, from the bottom of the fretboard to the top. Too many notes in the same octave tend to sound muddy.
  • A figure of two notes, maybe a tone, or a third apart, give a nice movement to the piece when they loop.
  • Back to being cautious. The only aspect of this where I think I’ve improved over the years is in stopping to listen before I play. Often I’ll kick the decaying loop off ‘record’ to try out a note or figure before kicking it back on to commit it. Call me chicken. At around 4:17 you’ll see where I was glad of that.
  • After building a loop Fripp would solo over that. I do sometimes but not for public consumption!

I’ve never really articulated my approach to this, it’s just something that’s developed as a result of hearing this type of music in the 80s and really REALLY wanting to play it. If you love it as much as I do, then I hope this article will inspire you to give it a try.

In the next post I’ll demonstrate my Waveforms approach, using the same equipment but not trying to sound like Fripp.

Related:

And if you don’t want to play it on guitar – play it on my site with my Waveforms Soundtoy!

More on Waveforms – my soundscapes approach

How to play Frippertronics (1)

What’s Frippertronics?

Robert Fripp’s typically mock-academic definition of Frippertronics is

the musical experience resulting at the interstice of Robert Fripp and a small, mobile and appropriate level of technology….

The origin of Frippertronics

The origin of Frippertronics is well documented. Brian Eno introduced Fripp to the recycling delay effect of playing into a set of two tape recorders with the tape running from one to another. The note played returns again and again, slightly decayed each time, as you layer more notes on top, each one returning. The results of their first afternoon’s experimentation became the first Fripp and Eno album No Pussyfooting (1973). Fripp subsequently took the system on the road, playing non-concert venues such as building lobbies and pizzerias where the audience, having not paid money, were free to listen or ignore and Fripp was free to improvise without the audience expectation of hearing the hits of King Crimson. (The origins of the system before Fripp and Eno are recounted here )

Apart from these ‘pure’ Frippertronics performances he used the sound to beautiful effect behind songs like Peter Gabriel’s Here Comes The Flood .

… and with a sense of humour in Under Heavy Manners with David Byrne. (“I asked David to sing ‘I am resplendent in divergence’ as he would imagine a country singer would sing those words.”)

 

Later Fripp developed the system into Soundscapes, using digital loops rather than tapes, and guitar synths to create lush orchestral sounds.

I fell in love with Frippertronics when I first heard it. I was a new guitarist and folkie when I heard No Pussyfooting, so although I loved it, it was a bewildering other world that I couldn’t conceived of playing. In 1979, however when Fripp put out the first ‘pure’ Frippertronics tracks I could hear it being built up from single notes to the enrapturing fadeouts and I began to imagine that given the right technology I might one day be able to play it.

Once I had assembled the equipment, I found my own way to play this style of music but not without months of just trying to sound like the man himself.

How I play

Simple Frippertronics

This involves playing only single long notes, on one instrument – either the distorted guitar tone, approximating the sound of the original Frippertronics, or a synth tone. A typical improv would involve feeding into the delay or the looper:

  • Note 1: this becomes the root note of the key of the piece, so for example if the first note is A, the natural tendency is to follow it with other notes in the key of either A or A minor. Of course this doesn’t have to be the case, you could go into any key depending on ..
  • Note 2: often either the fifth, or the third. A lot of early Frippertronics improvs began with the root followed by a minor third.
  • Note 3: I usually try to make this something less obvious – a higher octave, a second or a major seventh for example. Or a slide from one note to anotherAt this point I will usually hit the delay off so I leave the three notes looping but can then play other notes, often quite rapidly, layering on top but not recording. Sometimes I just don’t play – I sit and listen to the three looping notes until I have an idea what I feel like adding. It’s this moment that tends to set the emotional feeling of the improv. Adding too much to the loop at this point creates the sonic equivalent of mud, and it’s all going round all the time, so there’s not much to get a purchase on as a listener.

This is just one strategy; of course there are many things you can do while remaining within the spirit of pure Frippertronics. Short notes rather than long give a more playful effect. (The ‘beeping’ in Fripp’s original description of ‘beeping and droning’). Sometimes I pick out a note or couple of notes I like and hit the delay to On, doubling them in a higher or lower octave to emphasise them. It’s a bit like a sculptor trying to feel his way into what shape is hidden in his block.

Simple Soundscapes

The operation is much as above except that I’ll use a synth or strings patch at the beginning, only bringing in the distorted guitar tone to emphasise something I’ve heard in the shifting waves of sound. It can be nice to use it to lend a bit of menace to a swirl of strings. I’ve learned in doing this for years to leave as much space as possible, so keeping string notes well apart from each other in time and in pitch, using all the octaves on the guitar and the higher octave the guitar synth gives you by changing the pitch with the pedal. Too many close sounds gives you sonic mud, particularly as the sounds in the GR20 aren’t as good as those Fripp uses. Once I have a pleasing set of waves going, I’ll sometimes improvise over them in a subtle undistorted guitar voice.

Structured pieces

This is where I’m using the techniques but not trying to emulate Fripp. I’ve created quite a few structured sequences using many more of the guitar synth voices – marimba, koto, tabla – in a set sequence and key.

So for each I have a written plan that goes, for example:

  1. Set up organ drone in D
  2. Sprinkle some high glockenspiel notes randomly in the loop
  3. Guitar improv in Dm
  4. When organ drone has faded change chord to A or Em, let it cycle
  5. Return organ drone to D
  6. Guitar improv in D major but fed into looper so very few notes

So each time I play it, it follows the sequence but sounds different – the notes, speed of playing, character are all different. It removes the need for decisionmaking about voices and loops and allows me to focus on the musicality of it. I have about eight of these sequences, each one tending to last around 7-8 minutes. Some use the Jamman, with its non-decaying loop, to set up a rhythmic base on something like marimba or tabla. The tracks Jodrell and The Necklace Smile on my Waveforms album are based on two of these structured improvs.

Here’s a video of a performance, annotated with what I’m doing at each stage.

Do I really need all this kit?

No! Fripp was playing infinite sustain on ordinary guitars for years before Sustainers were invented. He achieved it with a couple of standard pedals, classical vibrato, controlling his proximity to the amp, and – yes – hours and hours of dedicated practice. The Boss Giga Delay, or any single looper that gives you a long, decaying delay, will suffice. So I’d say the minimum kit is:

  • any electric guitar
  • distortion FX
  • volume pedal
  • long, decaying delay.

And if you don’t want to play it on guitar – play it on my site with my Waveforms Soundtoy!

More on my Waveforms

‘Waveforms’ is now on Bandcamp

Waveforms album cover

Waveforms album coverHaving been unavailable for a while the Waveforms album of ambient instrumentals is now up on Bandcamp, with a couple of extra bonus tracks.

It’s priced at £4.00 rather than free. Why? Because I think music is worth something. It’s not much and you’re welcome to pay more if you want. The first track is a free download.

 

 

The sleevenotes say:

Each track is the first and only take of an improvisation using using Fernandes Sustainer guitar, Roland GR20 guitar synth, Zoom G2 guitar effects, Boss GigaDelay DD20 and Digitech JamMan looper.

All were recorded in February 2010 except Kyle, which was recorded late in 2007 for a friend whose son was missing. While intended as a message of hope, it now stands as a memorial.

The influence and inspiration of Robert Fripp and Brian Eno are obvious and the album is respectfully dedicated to them.

Songstories #8 Come With Me

Come With Me was written from my memories of a very hot summer in Edinburgh in 1976, when I’d moved here for the first time (the second time was in 1990). I lived near the Meadows and had a part-time job stacking boxes in a fruit shop before opening time. I’d finish my work by 8:30 and walk home across the Meadows, sometimes stopping for a nap. The weather was that good.

It was also at that time I encountered serious practitioners of Zen Buddhism. I’d always been interested in the general meditation area, but by that time it was emerging from the association with psychedelics and ‘freaks’ with their head shops, man, but the beginnings of the twee, sentimental New Age infatuation were becoming apparent. Zen seemed to counter both those tendencies with its emphasis on discipline and its dismissal of the ‘be nice to yourself’ culture (“It’s not enough to be a freak, you’ve got to be a strong one” and “It’s not enough to be set free, you’ve got to love the jail” still sum it up for me).

I wrote the song in the early 2000s, and recorded it for the Roadblock album in 2005. At the time I recorded it, I was using the Robert Fripp tuning CGDAEG on my acoustic, and the basic track uses that, but I layered another guitar in conventional tuning with it, in the background. I’ve noticed that not many people use that thumb-slap picking style I use. Mary Robbs sang the harmonies and Nelson Wright played some percussion. Daniel Davis said it was my one of my best recording jobs, and it’s certainly one I can still enjoy listening to.