INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
The New Yorker OCTOBER 31, 2014 - by Jamie Malanowski
SURVIVING A WEEKEND WITH THE WIZARD OF PROG ROCK
All my life, I have loved music, and never in my life have I been the tiniest bit musical. Not only can I not sing in tune, I cause others to fall off key. Not only can I not dance, my dancing has often caused injury to others, most memorably on a St. Patrick's Day in Chestnut Hill, Pennsylvania, when at the conclusion of a dance I exuberantly dipped my wife-to-be and smashed her head into a door frame. I took guitar lessons for two years, giving up only when my teacher noted that inasmuch I had never been able to tune my instrument, or even tell if it was in tune, I would probably always - his word - stink. Clap in time? Forget it.
And yet, when I saw that the legendary progressive rock band King Crimson, in its eighth incarnation, was on tour again, I was reminded that there was one night, nearly thirty years ago, when I did play an instrument, in a band, before an audience, capably. And we were great. As much as anyone, the man responsible was Robert Fripp, King Crimson's cerebral, brilliant, exacting, intimidating lead guitarist.
In the summer of 1985, a full decade after King Crimson's original proggy heyday had ended, I was a struggling freelance writer. One day, I got a call from Glenn O'Brien, an editor at the music magazine Spin. I could not have been more surprised, since in those pre-voicemail days I must have left Glenn dozens of messages that were seldom returned. But now here he was, not only calling me but uttering those most welcome words: "I have a story you might be interested in." "Robert Fripp is teaching a course on how to be a musician," he said. "I was thinking of sending someone to go take it. Interested?"
I assured him that I was. At that point, he told me that the course was being offered two days hence in West Virginia. "Is that a problem?"
No, I assured Glenn, not at all. What I might have told him was a problem, had he asked, was that I had only the barest idea who Robert Fripp was. I knew him as the producer of The Roches, the 1979 album by the neo-folky Roche sisters, which I adored. He had also played on the album, notably an eerie, ethereal bridge on the group's semi-hit The Hammond Song. Beyond that, I knew nothing of his formidable reputation, nor of his more recent work with Brian Eno, David Bowie, and Peter Gabriel, and I knew nothing about King Crimson. At first, I confused them with King Harvest, a band whose lone hit was the bland, inoffensive Dancing In The Moonlight.
No, I soon learned, King Crimson was a prog-rock band, one of those British bands like Pink Floyd, Jethro Tull, Yes, and Genesis that combined rock, jazz, folk, electronica, and classical music into long, grand, grandiose, arpeggio-packed compositions that dominated album-oriented rock radio stations in the '70s. For whatever reason, King Crimson didn't have the airplay or the commercial success in America that those other bands did, but they were highly respected by their peers - the prog band's prog band - due in large measure to Fripp's musical skill and hauteur. Fripp was intellectual, remote, all about the music, and completely sure of himself. Disdainful of show business, he didn't even stand up when he performed but sat on a chair and closed his eyes as he played (and does so today). "He used his guitar as a probe," the drummer Bill Bruford said in a 2012 BBC documentary. "As an instrument of science, not sex." Bruford had left the band Yes to join King Crimson; he compared it to going over the Berlin Wall, "only the other way, into East Germany." In Yes, he said, when the band was working on a song, members argued about which chords to play, which time signatures to use. "With Fripp, nothing was said. You were just supposed to know."
I wasn't aware of any of this. But, thrilled to pieces, I set off for West Virginia.
The course, officially titled Music For Non-Musicians, was intended for three groups of people: "trained but incompetent musicians, untrained but aspiring musicians, and trained musicians out of touch with the quality of music." The course was sponsored by the American Society for Continuous Education, a group dedicated to the work of John G. Bennett, a British mathematician and philosopher who was highly influenced by G. I. Gurdjieff, a Russian philosopher who developed a method to help people develop a higher consciousness. The course was offered over a weekend at Claymont Court, the organization's headquarters, a brick mansion built in 1840 near Charles Town by Bushrod Washington, the President's nephew. Today Claymont Court is a fine-looking retreat house and seminar-hosting facility, but in 1985 the house was in genteel disrepair: peeling paint, falling plaster, and a hand-lettered sign in the second-floor hallway that read "Use the versanda at your own risk." There was very little furniture; under the twenty-five foot ceilings in the grand ballroom on the main floor there was just a tattered rug, covered with dozens of faded throw pillows. The only decoration was an undersized painting of Vishnu, probably not a period original.
It never pays to arrive at events like this too early; there was nothing prepared for us, and the volunteers who checked us in did little more than point the way to our sleeping quarters - large spaces on the second floor containing eight or ten iron beds, rather like a hospital ward. About a hundred students were on hand: nearly all young, hairy, and male. There were maybe a dozen female students, nearly all of whom had accompanied boyfriends. One of the unaccompanied young women, as I recall, wore leopard-print pants, kept her hair swept up in the style of Lucille Ball, and was, fortunately for her, in this crowd of undersocialized prog-rock geeks, very outgoing. As we waited, some of the fellows tossed around a football, some strummed their guitars. A bearish fellow with an Irish drum - a bodhrán - held forth about the superiority of the instrument, and, as young men will do about anything, some argued with him. Everyone was waiting for Fripp.
As we should have expected, once he did arrive, Fripp had a lot to do. Small and quick, he scooted from room to room and floor to floor, whispering to associates, leaving a lot of "That's Fripp" in his wake. He wore his hair brushed straight back from his forehead, and behind his round, rimless spectacles he projected a severe, almost Episcopal expression, which was undermined when he occasionally made eye contact with one of the students and grinned - a hard-to-decipher smile that seemed both conspiratorial and mocking. After an hour, we were finally called to dinner, a supper of lentil stew and assorted greens served on long folding tables in a richly paneled dining room. Fripp was seated at a head table, but at some point he must have left, because just as most of us were finishing our meals he reëntered the room, playing a guitar. He played beautifully and at length, offering a rich, dreamlike sound, and the audience absorbed every note.
After dinner, we repaired to the ballroom, where Fripp led seventeen students who were enrolled in his Guitar Craft course. A student of Gurdjieff, Fripp had developed the course on the principles of the philosopher's method. While most of us labored to make ourselves comfortable on the meager throw pillows, Fripp and his pupils sat in utter silence for what seemed like an eternity. At long last, one of them broke the silence by plucking a single note. In short order, all the rest piled in with a plunk or two of their own. This went on for the next minute or so. Then they stopped.
The room was completely silent. Later, one of my roommates suggested that we had all fallen under the spell of the music.
Some of the players then got up and changed seats. Then, in groups of three or four, they played short pieces that seemed more like conventional songs. The audience remained silent and unsure of itself until Fripp began hooting and beating time on the back of his guitar, at which point a few in the crowd hooted and warily clapped along. Everyone was waiting for more cues from Fripp.
When all the players had taken a turn, Fripp issued his final assignment. "Select a note," he told them, "and then, in silence, establish a relationship with that note. Keep it within you until you can no longer contain it and must give it voice."
For an awkwardly long time, all seventeen strained in silence, until one of them just had to give voice to his note. That cracked the dam, and within seconds everyone liberated his note, some of them two or three times. It was as close to a Monty Python experience as one could have without the presence of John Cleese.
After the concert, Fripp again spoke to the group. "What is music?" he asked. Predictably, answers were a long time in coming; no one wants to be the first to speak out in class. Also predictably, once the answers started to come, Fripp rejected every one. "Just sound?" he questioned. "Just organized sound? I would argue that you could take car horns and organize them according to musical principles of pitch and metre and so forth, and still that would not be music." Life in sound, someone suggested. "That's not bad, but I would argue that real music" - his voice now fell to a hush - "from something greater than life itself." Soon it became evident that none of us was going to be able to tell Fripp what music was, so we stopped pitching him softballs and waited for the answer. "Music is quality organized in sound," he finally said. Before we could ponder that for very long, he one-upped himself. "Music is the cup that holds the wine of silence."
I wanted to ask him why silence wasn't the cup that holds the wine of music, but there was no time; Fripp was talking about how the next day's activities would help us get in touch with the music within us. "Most of all, this weekend is about fun. Have fun. Enjoy yourselves."
He then divided the room into three parts. "I want this section to clap like this," he said, selecting a simple beat. He then assigned the second section a faster pace, and the third a pace faster yet. One by one, he started each section clapping, and then left he the room, accompanied by a sound that was identical to applause.
The next day, I became a musician. But the path was slow, and not without challenges. After breakfast and meditation, the student body was divided into three groups and assigned to workshops. I started with voice. My instructor was a short, sinewy German woman. "We are going to learn a song," she instructed us. "Here is your first line: Ave verum. Repeat!"
We did this a couple of times, until she was confident that we had those four syllables down pat, at which point she blew into a pitch pipe and said "Here is your do," to which we responded "Do re mi."
"Do re mi," I sang. Strongly. With my head back and my mouth wide open, just the way every singing coach and choirmaster says you should to do it. And lo and behold, no one intervened. Was that all there was to it? After years of my buddies turning up car radios, after hearing my kids complain about my singing in the shower many rooms away, was the secret just to open my mouth and enclose the wine of silence?
We had worked our way through Ave Verum Corpus Natum when the instructor pointed at me.
"You!" she said.
"Yup, he's off," said the singer next to me. All at once, I was transported back to my third-grade class, to the moment when Sister Marie Leone told me to stop singing because I was ruining Gray Squirrel for the rest of the class. Given that this was the prime of Catholic parochial-school education during the baby-boom era, ruining something for the whole class was no mean feat. There were one hundred and eight students in that class.
Suddenly, I noticed that Fripp was standing beside her. "He's all fifths and sevenths," Fripp said with diagnostic dispassion. "Isn't it interesting how he manages to be off the same way each time?"
The teacher agreed that I was fascinating. "You!" she said to me, and pointed to my neighbor. "Listen to him when he sings. You!" she said to my neighbor, "Sing right into his ear!" And thus we completed Ave Verum.
The subject of the next workshop was the ocarina, a clam-shaped wind instrument perforated by a dozen holes and a mouthpiece. The teacher, a slender fellow in a striped Lacoste knit shirt, was one of Fripp's guitar students. He told us to choose an ocarina from a box he passed around. Telling us to "get acquainted" with our instruments, he sent us into the field outside, where I learned that if I blew into the mouthpiece I could make the thing toot. After a while, I discovered that if I covered different holes I could make different toots. Brilliant.
"What did we learn about our instruments?" the teacher asked when we reconvened and formed a big circle. Pretty confident in the strength of my different holes, different toots discovery, I raised my hand, but the teacher recognized someone else.
"That the ocarina is a highly vocalized instrument very responsive to changes in the vocal chords or wind," the fellow said.
"Very good," the teacher said, then pointed to another pupil, who said, "If you stroke the sides, you can create a slide effect, like a trombone."
"Excellent!" said the teacher. Then he pointed to me. Suddenly, I realized that my different toots observation was not the breakthrough I once thought. "Yeah, trombone," I offered. "Like the other guy said."
"O.K.!" the teacher said, and went on. I sighed with relief. I thought my crisis had passed.
"Here's what we're going to do," said the teacher. "I'm going to play something." He pointed to the person on his left. "You repeat it, then play something of your own, which the next person will repeat, and then play something new, which the next person will repeat, and so on, all around the circle."
Repeat? Play? Who did this guy think I was, Benny Goodman?
My stomach began to tighten. The instructor played three notes. I highly doubt that I could have repeated those three notes, but I might have been able to fake it. Instead, sitting sixth in the circle, I listened as each of my predecessors nimbly tossed off six- and seven-note riffs, like refugees from the Ocarina Philharmonic. Just as it came time for the fellow next to me to play, I whispered, "Keep it simple, will you please?"
He played Ode To Joy. (Later, he told me he thought that was simple.)
"Toot toot," I responded. "Toot toot," I passed along. My time on the cross was over. Then I noticed Fripp in the corner of the room. He was smiling his mocking, conspiratorial smile.
After lunch, there were some talks. The president of the American Society for Continuous Education discussed creativity. He told us to concentrate on our hands. Then he asked us to feel our hands. Then he told us just to feel the creativity of our left hands. Then he took questions. "Why are so many jazz musicians drug addicts?" one fellow wanted to know. Another told us that he once thought of an idea for a melody just as he was falling asleep, but then couldn't remember when he woke up. But the next night he had a dream in which the melody came to him, and in his dream he wrote it down, and this time, when he woke up, he remembered it. "Was that creativity coming from a higher place or a lower place?" he asked. "Was that place open on weekends?" I wondered.
This was followed by a speaker who talked to us about Systematics, a science that, he said, does not measure things but looks at how they are perceived. We were going to use Systematics to look at an audience's contribution to the creation of music. "We are going to strive for the perception of the qualities and wholes of the triads and hexads in the event of musical performances." Right around then, I might have napped.
Soon there was a new speaker: Fripp, who was wrapping up. "Just relax and concentrate," he said, and he left, beaming beatifically.
The final workshop was on percussion. About twenty of us gathered around a pile of tambourines, cowbells, sleigh bells, shakers, big maracas, little maracas, bongos, cymbals, triangles, and sticks. Our leader, a rumpled laundry bag of a dresser with an unruly beard, invited us to grab something out of the pile and just fiddle around with it. I took a cowbell.
At once, the mysteries of the musical universe were unveiled. If the ocarina was a contemptuous countess who withheld her most precious secrets from me, the cowbell was a puppy, incapable of guile. Did you know that if you hold a cowbell in one spot, it makes a different noise than if you hold it in a different spot? Evidently, most people who have been to kindergarten have figured this out, but to me it was the Rosetta Stone. I could play the cowbell, baby! And the wooden block! And maracas! And shakers! Not bongos, though. Inscrutable bongos. I guess I still didn't have any creativity in my left hand.
We spent about an hour jamming. Yes, jamming! The instructor would lay out a beat and the rest of us would follow. As it turned out, some members of the group were quite good. One guy played the bongos with both hands, just as young men do in the Beach Blanket Bingo movies. The fellow with the bodhrán showed that it was all that he said it was. But another fellow brought a conga, and another had an Indian drum called a dholak, and when I joined in with my maraca we really cooked.
At a certain point, Fripp entered. "I'm here to issue a challenge," he said. "There's going to be a concert tonight. I'm challenging each of you to be a performer." He told us that we could choose to join the voice group or the ocarina group or the percussionists. After dinner, we would have about an hour to prepare. Then we would play. "Have fun," he said. "Just relax and concentrate."
After dinner, I headed straight for the percussionists. It didn't take long to come up with a number. Bodhrán, dholak, conga, and one or two more of the capable players devised a plan. All twenty or so of us would stand in a line. The least capable players would take the simplest instruments and stand on one end; the better players would stand on the other. One of the least capable players would begin, sounding out at beat. Then, in turn, each player would join in, echoing the beat or introducing a new one. Eventually, we would all be playing, some together, some individually. And then we would just as slowly unwind.
At concert time, the ballroom was packed. Fripp had invited several dozen members of the society. The show began with another performance by the Guitar Craft students, who played with more verve than they had the night before, perhaps because Fripp wasn't among them.
They were followed by the vocal group, who performed Ave Verum. What a disappointment! They sang well enough, but was Ave Verum the only song they all knew? Their complete lack of imagination was immediately demonstrated when the New Ocarina Ensemble, as they had dubbed themselves, performed Row, Row, Row Your Boat, which was itself a pathetically boring choice, but was at least different. Where was the Ode To Joy boy? Maybe everyone else was too jealous to let him play.
Then it was our group - the Nirvana Percussion Choir. At far right was a tall blond guy with a shaker. Standing by him was Miss Leopard Pants with a tambourine and me with a maraca. Blond guy started: Shoosha shoosha shoosha, he began, holding that line for forty-five seconds or so. Miss Leopard Pants joined in, using just one hand to produce a consistent shimmer shimmer shimmer shimmer. Then it was up to me.
There wasn't any note that I could establish a relationship with, nothing I could hold inside until I had to give it voice. But I did listen, and finally there came a moment when I knew it was time to join in. It wasn't hard to figure out the beat I needed to play. Just relax and con-cen-trate, I shook. Just relax and con-cen-trate.
I played that over and over. Eventually, the next player added his line, then the next man added his, and so on. I couldn't tell you what they were doing; I was focussed completely on Just relax and con-cen-trate. The last man joined in, and now the entire band was playing, everyone tapping or beating or pounding or shaking, and when that reached a boil, the top guys began taking turns soloing, setting each other up, tossing lines back and forth, and I was no longer thinking about Just relax and con-cen-trate, I was just playing and not thinking at all. At that point, my head was moving and my shoulders, too, and even my hips, and possibly even my feet. I was nowhere but in the rumbling bliss of a big percussive cloud. From the corner of my eye I could see the audience bobbing along. Some were even clapping. Fripp was smiling, not enigmatically at all.
Little by little, the drummers desisted, and one by one the players disassembled the performance. When it came to my turn, I shook out Just relax and con-cen-trate five or six more times, then stopped. Two minutes later, the blond guy shoosha shoosha shoosaed us to a close. Bushrod Washington's ballroom exploded in applause.
Not much more happened that night. The next morning, Fripp took us all into town to a café, where we played for whoever showed up for brunch. The Nirvana Percussion Choir, I'm sorry to say, expanded its repertoire and played a wan self-styled lullaby full of soft drum strokes and triangle tinkles. Fripp booed us off the stage. Sic transit Gloria. Later, I found out that Spin no longer wanted the story. That was fine. I had a moment of musicianship, and it was divine.