Electronic Musician JUNE 1987 - by John Diliberto


One doesn't talk with Robert Fripp; one engages in a philosophical treatise - a Zen foray into life, music, and the marketplace. Robert Fripp is an artist who has followed a distinctly personal path. This is a musician who dropped out of music in the mid-'70s, after several tumultuous years as the leader of King Crimson. When he emerged, instead of playing twenty-thousand-seat auditoriums, he was playing in record stores, pizza parlours, and offices for audiences of one to two hundred.

He espoused a new philosophy and way of life born of his studies at the International Academy for Continuous Education, a descendant group of philosopher/mystic G.I. Gurdjieff and J.G. Bennett. He spoke of himself in the third person and put forth two three-year plans, the "Drive To 1981" and "Incline To 1984."

Robert Fripp has always been an enigma, a musician who lent an unusual intelligence to rock and roll. The first King Crimson album, In The Court Of The Crimson King, stands as the high-water mark of the progressive rock movement, and 21st Century Schizoid Man alone would assure Fripp and Crimson a place in rock's iconography. The version of King Crimson in the early '70s that put out Larks' Tongues In Aspic, Starless And Bible Black, Red, and USA was marked by its freewheeling sense of adventure by playing against complex time signatures and arrangements. The most recent edition of King Crimson featured charged ethnic rhythms and the interlocking guitar cycles of Adrian Belew and Fripp.

Interestingly, more people know of Fripp through his work as player or producer with other artists - among them David Bowie, Peter Gabriel, The Roches, Blondie, and Talking Heads. But through it all is Fripp's guitar, sometimes a violin-like wail of grace and sustain, at other times a jagged knife.

In 1972, Fripp began working with a tape-loop system he learned from Brian Eno, but which had also been used earlier by composers such as Terry Riley. His albums with Eno, No Pussyfooting and Evening Star are inner meditations, soul-searing inroads into the musical psyche of Fripp. The sound-generating system was dubbed "Frippertronics" and he took it on the road in the late '70s. He currently uses an Electro-Harmonix sixteen-second digital delay for a similar effect, played in conjunction with a Roland Space Echo, fuzz boxes, wah-wah and volume pedal, and occasionally an Ibanez digital delay.

Now Fripp is in semi-retirement again. He emerged to marry British pop singer Toyah Willcox, record an album with her called The Lady Or The Tiger, as well as Robert Fripp And The League Of Crafty Guitarists - Live! He also contributed some beautiful, ethereal guitar to David Sylvian's Alchemy cassette and the Gone To Earth album.

When we talked, he was in the midst of a guitar-craft seminar at Claymont Court, an elegantly decaying mansion in West Virginia. Here he teaches guitar classes that are as philosophical as they are technical. The students come to Fripp as if he were the Dali Lama of the guitar. And while they may learn something of the philosophy of Frippertronics, they learn it exclusively on acoustic guitars. The interview was conducted in front of about thirty students to whom Fripp directed many asides.

For an artist who has been embroiled with electronic music, be it the electric guitar, the guitar synthesizer, the Mellotron, or Frippertronics and the Electro-Harmonix delay, Robert Fripp opened our interview with comments about the limits of electronics. Perhaps in clandestine support of his views, my tape recorder mangled those opening moments.

So you're not satisfied with the guitar synthesizer work with King Crimson?

If you ask me if I'm satisfied with any of the work I've done I have reservations, but my reservations would be towards the music rather than any of the instrumentation used. The Roland GR-300 guitar synthesizer was among the first synthesizers for the working guitar player - very limited in terms of sound but you could use it. We used it mainly to extend the timbre and range of the electric guitar. But with the penetration and development in guitar technology, none of it very much to my satisfaction, my approach - rather than plunge into the morass of nothing quite settled - was to go to the acoustic. That was my solution.

How do you view those first collaborations with Brian Eno, especially No Pussyfooting?

It's wonderful. It's wonderful. Side one particularly is just... it's true. Simply that.

And have you done anything since then that has equalled that feeling?

Yes. Yes. But you see in terms of feeling, when one does it in the moment... I have a little aphorism: "Distrust the musician." All they can say at the end of a performance is if they've liked it or not. They can't say if it's good or not. They can say "I had a great time thrashing around." They can say "I think it was a wonderful feel tonight." It's often irrelevant (to equate) whether the music's been good with what you feel about the evening. So sometimes it's very difficult to put your feelings on the side and simply play regardless of how you feel.

There were four performances by King Crimson, the "Discipline" King Crimson in 1981 - it was at the Savoy in New York - which were true. The music was different. It wasn't as innocent as No Pussyfooting, but it had the same quality. It was true for those four performances. And there've been other occasions. It's very, very rare that you can actually, in some way, capture a moment like that.

Some of the work I did with Bowie was in the same kind of category of immediacy and honesty for me as a player. Eno, again, the solo on Baby's On Fire was there. I'd just gotten off a plane from America. I had the flu. I was exhausted. I was wretched, and yet the solo was burning. It doesn't matter how you feel.

The solo on Bowie's Fashion happened at 10:30 in the morning after a long drive back from Leeds gigging with The League of Gentlemen. There's nothing you feel less like in the world than turning out a burning solo - fiery rock and roll at 10:30 in the morning - just out of a truck. But it doesn't matter how you feel, you just get on with it.

You were on David Sylvian's record, Gone To Earth.

He asked me to play on his record. The actual message I got was - this was from EG, my office in London - "David Sylvian phoned. He has this piece of music and he says you're the only guitarist in the world who can play on it." Well I said "Yes!" I mean how could you say no to a line like that? So I went along and played. It's called Wave on the Gone To Earth album, The very long track, yeah. Sensational. Oh! Yes, that's true.

That music has something about it. That particular piece. The song was originally called The Holy Blood Of Saints And Sheep. Now I don't know why he changed the lyrics, but I loved the original vocal which I heard and worked through. The current one is fabulous too. He said "Go. Here you are. This is what we've got. Come up with something. Go." And I work well like that.

With the Frippertronics, were you familiar with the previous tape-loop work that had been done in a similar vein?

No. I knew nothing of Terry Riley, I knew nothing of Steve Reich. I knew nothing of La Monte Young. Yeah, I think Eno had. My understanding as Eno told me was that he came up with the idea for the tape loops system himself, although there is some thought that someone else came up with it in the '50s or something. But Eno told me he discovered it for himself. I had no prior knowledge or experience of any of the so-called minimalist or repetitive music schools. When we did No Pussyfooting, to me it was fairly obvious, I used my ears. There it was, a way for one person to make an awful lot of noise. Wonderful!

And now you you've replaced the tape-loop system with the Electro-Harmonix box.

No! With two hundred and eight guitarists. Regarding the Electro-Harmonix, we read this advert for the Electro- Harmonix sixteen-second digital delay with this phrase in it, and the quote is "A Fripp in the box." So we got in the touch with them and said, you know, Fripp would like one for nothing. And they said no. So I bought one. You can't get them anymore.

Yeah I have a lot of fun with it. What I would do at the David Sylvian sessions, for example, is I'd set the equipment up and just for fun punch something in to the "Fripp in the box," and leave it playing in the studio. I did it on some Crimson sessions too, walk out and come back some three or four hours later and there it was still going except the sound had changed in the three or four hours in between. And with Sylvian, he really liked what was coming out so he recorded lots and lots and lots of these little soundscape pieces and they're all over his Gone To Earth album.

It seems like the Frippertronic format lends itself to long, droning patterns. Is that something that's inherent in the system or is that how you chose to use the system?

You don't have to use sustained notes but if you use impact notes without much sustain it gets very, very choppy. Very choppy! Sometimes to good effect, but I prefer the sustained approach. You can cut in and out in different ways but there's a number of ways of using the system. The way that I've used it is the way which I prefer. There are a number of other ways though.

What do you think of that music process as Eno uses it, because he uses it in a much more passive way than you?

Yes, yes. Brian doesn't really have a very strong musical background in terms of the craft of music. But what he does have is good taste. He has good taste and a perception of what's right that very, very few musicians have. So working with Eno, it's refreshing to hear the few notes but right, rather than the many, many, many that are wrong from most musicians of my acquaintance. So working with Eno was a cleaner experience and he's a very entertaining, captivating man. Lots of fun to be around.

You say that working with Eno was a "cleaner experience" and you talk about the spontaneity and how rewarding it was to do something like The Heavenly Music Corporation. It seems like this music, Let The Power Fall, your later Frippertronics works, is a purer music and it comes through fewer filters before we hear it. What I'm wondering is, why would you go do this other music?

Which other music? With thrashing, crashing musicians? If you've ever been in the best performing live rock band in the world, it's an experience which is very difficult to put into words. But for reasons which are beyond knowing, at one particular point music bent over and took this band into its confidence. And it's very difficult not to have another shot at that.

It's very strange because it has nothing to do with you. On the other hand you must have some involvement in the process and it is an intensity of experience which leaves you never quite the same. When the power turns on, and not from you. This is the point. It's coming towards you from music in such an incredible way that the possibility of a musician living a life without that experience again is just too, too awful to contemplate. So I thought "Hey, let's have another shot at this." There you go. Easy as that.

But for having a second shot at that in 1981, for having maybe six months of something quite, quite remarkable for a second time in my life in a band like that, the next three years were utterly wretched. There you are.

On Discipline, you were getting involved in these very intricate double guitar pieces and that seemed to go away as the band became more involved in the process.

You noticed? Yes, I noticed that too.

Discipline was a very tightly arranged record. There were spontaneous improvisational moments, but the pieces were very tightly arranged, whereas Three Of A Perfect Pair, the whole second side sounded like a fairly free improvisation. Were those reflecting changes in the band? Why did you go towards that improvisational...

It wasn't a group anymore. It had ceased to be a group. It was a number of individuals. It began as a group. It began at the top and worked downwards. Yes. Very clear, very clear. It was a band of very, very fine players. The best. The best.

Bill Bruford said that when you formed that group that you wanted to do something very new and part of that newness was that you all had new instruments. He had Simmons drums. You and Adrian Belew had guitar synthesizers. Tony Levin played the Stick.

Yes, yes. There was new technology involved. My interest in new technology is new music, but people will rarely thank you for interrupting their playing habits. They will maybe allow you to interrupt their playing habits for six to twelve months, and then there will be a change. And they might thank you years later but at the time they won't thank you.

When King Crimson started out it was involved with a general movement towards infusing rock music with classical elements.

Most of the so-called art rock music I heard, or progressive rock music, was a badly cobbled pastiche of a number of badly digested and ill-understood music forms. Yes.

And to a certain degree, King Crimson did a little bit of that. I don't mean that in a negative way but your music was infused with sort of early twentieth century music. Devil's Triangle is from Holst's The Planets, obviously, but there was the Bartok sensibility that came in which was early twentieth century. It seems like the late edition of King Crimson was much more contemporary classical, minimalist, and had a greater affinity with that whole movement.

All right. Go back to that night in early in 1967 when Sgt. Pepper was on the radio and I didn't know what it was, and my listening involved Bartok and Clapton and Hendrix and The Beatles and Stravinsky. To me they were all speaking with the same voice but with a different accent. Now for me it was if only the feel of Hendrix, if only the vocabulary was a little more sophisticated and if only Bartok was on guitar with a Marshall stack and the power turned up on 11, you know. There was a viscerality, about standing in front of a wall of Marshalls and Les Pauls and thrashing Fender basses that didn't speak directly to the intellect. Why not? And yet in a chamber ensemble - quite wonderful, of course - but it hasn't got me by my nuts. Why not? I want that visceral [approach]. So for me it was a question of how could you bring the two together. And Crimson in '69 was one approach, if you like to draw on the vocabulary of the Western tonal harmonic tradition with the power of the Afro-American musical tradition known as rock and roll. Well that was '69.

In '81 we could draw on what would now be called ethnic music. In other words, the formal properties of different music systems were more readily available in 1981 than 1969 with better technology for playing them but may I say, if you're going to have a [melody] line [playing] in fourteen, one in fifteen, and a rhythm section in seventeen all playing together, you've got to be pretty good. So its no good pratting about ethnic music forms unless you've got the chops to deliver on them. If you want to know how long it takes to learn to tap your left foot in four, beat five on top and have a conversation at the same time, it's twelve to fourteen years. I think everyone in the room knows that one.

When I think of Robert Fripp I think of Larks' Tongues In Aspic, I think of Starless And Bible Black, and I think of you as an instrumental musician, not as a rock musician. It seems like when you are involved with rock songs very often they tend to be satiric and kind of a parody of rock form. I was thinking particularly of The League Of Gentlemen and You Burn Me Up, I'm A Cigarette from Exposure.

I love You Burn Me Up, I'm A Cigarette. Life with you is a loser's bet. You make me anxious. Strategic interaction, terminal inaction. Bitter hostile faction. Wonderful! Hall was phenomenal, you know.

Daryl Hall, you know. I said there's the words, go sing. He went out and sang, you know, one take. Fabulous. Oh, yes. Lovely, visceral. Yah-keh-keh-keh-keh-keh-keh-keh-keh. Very, very hard to play with that intensity because it requires an awful lot of effort for down strokes at that speed, Yah-keh-keh-keh-keh-keh-keh, on those chords.

On his projects, what's your relationship with Eno? Do you come in as a sideman and he presents you with tracks that are already done, or are you there - he seems to compose a lot in the studio - are you there during that composition process?

I generally turn up and he says "Go" and puts it up and I respond and he gives me all the space and support to do that. Simply that.

I believe he was the one who created Sky Saw Guitar.

Yeah, Sky Saw was a name for a particular sound which had to do with feeding the guitar through a VCS Synthi synthesizer and digital feedback. Its a specific technical approach for getting the sound. You can get the sound or a very close approximation in a number of different ways, but that was the name he came up with. He came up with that particular sound. Wonderful rrrrr. So gripping. Great. Yeah. My response to that is visceral. Now you don't need lots of clever notes and theories about musical organisation. You just hit the G and go rrrrr. And that's it. It's all over.

You know, that used to really frustrate me. There I would be practising and working hard and all the different things one could play, and yet you turn up the amplifier and hit the one note and it would go hhhhhhmmmmmzzzm and it would be all you needed. Wonderful appeal. Wonderful appeal.

Can you get that out of an Ovation Acoustic?

In a different kind of way, actually. Its possible to have the same kind of visceral effect playing certain bass lines in a certain kind of way.

I think your electric guitar style is identified with a sustained sort of sound, but with acoustic guitar you can't really get that. Have you adjusted, or are you doing something on acoustic guitar completely and utterly different from what you do on electric?

Yes is the correct answer. I began as an acoustic player, and I was a good acoustic player. And it is a different instrument with only similarities to the electric guitar - the frets and the strings, basically, and two hands and a pick. But it's a different instrument with a different way of life involved in it. Different music. Different vocabulary. Quite different. I had to learn to be an electric guitar player, and it was only really after twelve years of being a player - about the time of the first Crimson Les Paul and Marshall stack - that I could find my own voice with an electric instrument. Until then, amplification hadn't quite been right. Electric guitar wasn't an instrument of itself somehow, whereas Marshall stack and Les Paul, that was an electric guitar. You knew. Then you put a fuzz box in line and yynnnggg. You were away. Yes. So I became an electric player about 1969.

Now coming back to acoustic guitar about 1985, I suppose it's an irony that the one thing at which I excel as a guitar player, my speciality, is right-hand picking technique. Would Americans call it flat picking? I call it something different but it's a very, very specialised style which few players can play well - and I'm one of them. The irony is almost nowhere in my professional life will you find any reference to it. Now that's one of the ironies which I accept with a good grace as I accept most of the ironies in my life. But nevertheless it's true. Now the work we do here on some of the things we play, my guitar playing is exceptional and almost unique but very few people will ever have heard it. It is another of the ironies of my life that my very finest playing very rarely gets heard, even the electric playing somehow mysteriously disappears from records. Yes it's interesting, isn't it.

Now much of your music has what I would call an almost demonic quality, and I don't mean that in a satanic sense, but I mean a very dark quality. Schizoid Man is an obvious example. Indiscipline would be another one, "Requiem, and most of Red.

Oh, Red is something quite, quite different. Red has a viscerality but intelligence, which combined is quite terrifying, or can be. The last Crimson played it well but it was never really played well. See, Larks' Tongues In Aspic was very, very primal. But young guys of twenty-three to twenty-five trying to play that music in 1972, they weren't good enough to play the music for a number of reasons. One, chops. Two, egotism. You can't play music if you're imposing your bright ideas of how it should be played on it. You have to give the music more respect. And in '81 for a period, a few Crimson gigs got into the spirit of Larks' Tongues In Aspic. But it still has never been played right, which is very frustrating for me.

Was it a matter of chops, or was it a matter of understanding the spirit of the music?

The difficulty is that both are involved. Now you have good players, good chops people. How can you be a good player with chops but drop all your chops and just play one note? It means you have to be fully what a human being can be and at the same time plugging into this very, very primal situation where we are all animals and yet we're all animals. This is the creature we inhabit. Well, that may be part of what we are, but there's something more which is possible for us, and the demand is made in this music that that element must also be involved. So what you're asking for is four musicians in a rock and roll band that are enlightened. Well, let's face it: It's asking a bit much, especially if you want to earn a living, too. So maybe one could realistically say that the demand is a little high. Well, fair enough. So from my vantage point its excruciatingly suffering, excruciatingly painful, but there you are. I'm a hero. What more can I say?

The Fripp Philosophy Of Guitar Craft

Over the last year or so, Robert Fripp has been conducting his guitar craft seminars at Claymont Court in West Virginia. He takes in students with no experience to twenty-year classical guitar pros. They all come to Fripp to learn his plectrum style of playing, but perhaps more importantly, to tap into the spirit that has powered music as diverse as Evening Star and Baby's On Fire.

The students play Ovation acoustic guitars almost exclusively. Fripp puts them through his new compositions, with intricate rhythms and torturous unison lines played by twelve to thirty guitarists seated in a circle. Sometimes they give concerts or record albums like Robert Fripp And The League Of Crafty Guitarists and The Lady Or The Tiger.

The mood at Claymont Court is somewhere between a summer camp and a monastery. The Claymont Mansion is austere and in disrepair. The only furniture I saw was folding chairs and pillows, except for the dining room which has picnic benches. Fripp's approach could be called Zen and the Art of Guitar Craft. His approach is as philosophical as it is practical. He describes it as coming into a relationship with the guitar, with music, and with the person.

I was wondering If you could talk about your teaching methods, because from what I've heard, they sound very non-Western.

If you said what is it closest to, probably in terms of my cultural background which is England primarily - it's what might happen if a carpenter in thirteenth century England took two hundred and eight apprentices into his home. And in England, we had a dozen or so come to live and work and that's the closest to a craft apprenticeship. You know a craft is a mystery. You reach a point with your craft where the craft speaks directly to you, and at that point you enter into a kind of relationship with the craft where the craft is at least as alive and real as you are. That's the point at which you realise it's better to be anonymous than to be a star - because to be a star gets in the way of craft, and you begin to value the anonymity of the craftsmen. Like who are the guys who built all those great cathedrals and so on? They didn't carve their names in the stones and leave testimonials to who they were because it would have gotten in the way. You can figure out who some of them were.

If you said what is guitar craft, I'd say one, it's a way of coming into a relationship with the guitar. Obviously. We're playing guitars.

Two, it's a way of coming into a relationship with music. So that implies that music is something of itself that you can come into a relationship with. And I'd say that's quite true. As we would express it here, music is a benevolent presence which is constantly available to us. It never goes away. Never. We do, but the music never. So when we sit in there and we thrash our way through these different tunes, sometimes the music is there despite what we're doing. That's remarkable when you know it's there despite all these clanging sounds, these bum notes.

And three, it's a way of practising the person because to come into a relationship with one's instrument and music implies also that you're someone to come into relationship with. Guitar craft is a discipline; the discipline is the way of craft. There are other approaches. This is just one of them,

You've talked about music as being a state of mind and body of the whole being. You talked about working on four levels: automatic, sensitive, conscious, and creative.

Yes. Yes.

Please discuss this.

Yes, but in an adequate context. Otherwise they're just words. If you came in on a guitar craft course, for example, we'd have three or four days common experience working together before we introduced these clever words so that we'd have some information to draw on. What is habit? Does habit have a use? What does it mean to be creative? What is creativity? These are very difficult concepts.

With habit, with functioning automatically, as soon as the little finger flies up and down off the fingerboard, well, why are you doing it? It's a waste of effort. Why not instead just keep the little finger low? This is the power of habit. Within two or three days everyone can see for themselves that their habits are more powerful than their relationship with their left hand. If they had a relationship with their left hand, the hand would behave perfectly.

So is habit a bad thing? Well, obviously not. My playing is habitual. I don't have any time when I'm playing, or very, very little time to concern myself with how I'm playing and concerning myself with what I'm playing. So I've given habit over to playing the guitar. I call it a skill. It's a very, very efficient habit based on twenty-six years of developing a good habit. But if it's only habit well, there's going to be a load of dumb exercises. So I have to have a relationship with my habit so that I can direct it. Well, what part of me directs my hands? My thinking or what I feel? Very good question. Very good question. What on earth does it mean to be conscious? Well, it presumes we know what it means to be conscious. Have I been conscious? Yeah, now and again. Yeah! So I can say I know what it means to be conscious. Does it happen every day? No. Once a month? Oh,! doubt it. But I know what it means to be conscious.

Being creative? I can say whenever I've been creative it had nothing to do with me, and yet it must have had something to do with me or I wouldn't have known that the moment was a creative one. So this is when, for example, music turns over and breathes into the notes you play. One cannot fail to recognise it. It's not coming from you-the-player or me-the-player. It's something close but intangible because I can't walk into a room and say "Hey, I'm going to be creative." But what can I do to walk into the room so that I might stand a better chance of being in a creative moment? Well, using those four clever but mysterious words, if I walk into a room with my hands functioning automatically, superbly well, efficiently with no energy wasted, with me in a relaxed and alert condition with my attention engaged, something becomes possible. So. That's what we can do. But until we actually experiment with that and work with it and build up information and experience, they're only bright words.

It seems like the music here and the atmosphere here is not meant to disturb; the music is very pretty. It certainly isn't "red."

No. No. The music is, there's a subtlety in there which probably wouldn't be very easy to capture with electric instruments. It's difficult to say that but there's an immediacy with the acoustic instrument. You see as soon as you plug in you have a state of "schizophonia." You are removed from the source of the sound. There is this distance. Now if you're a professional player it's something you must learn to work with. The sound that people will be listening to will be removed from you playing it and it can be at the very least, an exercise in attention. But it is schizophonic.

Working in an ensemble like this acoustically, one must be present. One must be listening all the time and be here. There's an immediacy and contact and it's quite different. The music is very carefully constructed without any solemnity and at best, it can be a construct that draws together a number of diverse people who could never otherwise work or be together in an intimate way. Now if one becomes a little skilled with musical form you can construct situations which will necessarily almost inevitably pull together the people playing them. At that point, you're beginning to be on to something. These bright ideas about the ideal society... 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.

After being a guitar player for twenty-six years, working in a group context, in a studio in England I've found myself behind the hands of another member of that group looking out from behind his eyes, seeing things as he saw them, for just a fraction of a moment. We could probably accept the idea that a number of people together working as a real group would be able to experience the other members of that group in a close way. So let's say for twenty-six years I waited until I could know for myself that that was possible. Here I was behind the eyes, behind the hands of another member of the group, seeing things as they saw them.

Well, Bob Gerber here had this experience in a guitar craft ensemble after three days, four days? It doesn't take forever. It's always here, it's always available. And there in that moment Bob found himself behind the hands of another member of that small guitar craft group. So what would seem to be only a bright idea for us is quite real. Except Bob had it in three days and I waited for twenty-six years. Now there's the information: you can construct music in such a way on a purely structural and technical level that it pulls musicians together.