The Wire SEPTEMBER 1987 - by Robert Fripp


In the first in our new series where musicians talk about their work, the guitarist, composer and teacher discusses the performer and performance.

Our editor has asked me to write briefly on the practicalities of the musician in performance. What are the physical mechanics of playing an instrument, and improvising, in front of an audience, he asks?

My response is: when the musician walks on stage there is no time for their instrument, and little enough for the music. So:

1. The time to learn the mechanics of both instrument and music is before we walk on stage,
2. When we do walk on stage, we have a lot more on our hands than making music.

Music and instrumental education in England is still generally based in the European tonal-harmonic tradition, rarely an education suitable for the aspirant jazz or rocker. The situation is different in America, and is changing here. Meanwhile, we usually learn our instrument by playing in a group. This way, the accent is on repertoire and ensemble playing, rather than personal instrumental skill or music theory.

This has advantages. Pressure to learn to read music prior to proficiency in playing is rather like learning to read before one can talk: music becomes abstract and distant, hidden behind the daunting and irrelevant imposition of musical text. Later in life reading and a thoughtful view of music can be valuable, but - later. Better to question the ambiguity of the tritone after heating the opening bars of Hendrix's Purple Haze than to approach Purple Haze with bright ideas of axial substitution in polar relationship. When the experience is experience, reflection is useful and information a help. Information in the absence of experience can be a pain. Meanwhile, we train the ear rather than the eye.

But, Purple Haze is not the best way to practise the guitar. Perhaps, to draw on the energy to help us make the effort of struggling with wire on wood, but not to develop a balanced calisthenic.

So, there are advantages and disadvantages. The advantages stem from being in the medium of music from the beginning: contact with the instrument and music as a real and living presence, rather than an obscure and distant operation. The disadvantages stem from the inefficient techniques and ignorance. Probably, the advantages outweigh the disadvantages for a short while: living in the medium of music is a great beginning for living in the medium of music. But after a few years, maybe between two and seven, personal skill will be difficult to develop for anyone but the exceptional. And even genius does not require an incompetent technique.

If we assume that we have mastered our instrument and knowledge of music to the standard required for performance, what next? Few musicians appear as soloists without an accompanist. Most of us will be in a group, and any group of players is a disparate and varied selection of kinds, types and sensibilities. Some of them we may not like. Some of them may not like us. The unifying factor is a common aim. If the singer wants to be a star, the guitarist to get rich, the drummer needs attention and the bass player a social life, then the keyboard player who wants to become a musician is likely to have a hard time. But, if we share a common aim in our group, we will be able to survive necessary difficulties. Unnecessary difficulties include narcissism, greed, fear, waste and the failure to see farther than our nose. The first (necessary) difficulty is exposure to an audience.

At a certain point the musician, or coherent group of musicians, needs an audience in order to develop their relationship with music. Practising at home or in the basement is no longer enough. The audience is a very necessary element in the musical life. Not all audiences are polite and supportive, enthusiastic and grateful. Not all audiences listen, or wish to listen. For some music is background, or entertainment, escapism, a medium in which celebrity can flourish, a distraction from living rather than a reinforcement for life. Some audiences are more interested in the music than the musicians, others are more interested in the musician. Some have no interest in either. And the function music serves varies. The audience which views music as a rational activity will be found in the concert hall; the audience which uses music viscerally will be found on the dance floor; the audience which uses music emotionally will be found everywhere. Generally, the musician moves to the audience.

The place of meeting is the performance place. These have their own traditions and atmospheres, most of which are unhelpful to performance. Concert halls were often built to divide the audience along lines of class, with nobs at the front, riff-raff at the back, and the in-betweens in between. Musicians using music to bring the audience together find it unhelpful that the building is constructed to keep them apart. Anyone who looks on the act of music as a form of communion will find these places distressing: the working musician will have to work harder. Pubs have their own traditions: the audiences drink. Subtleties of musical expression are sometimes missed. The response of the dancing audience is quite direct, and instantaneous: the audience listen with their feet. An audience in church will listen with their ears.

But playing to the gallery will meet a sober response. Music designed to be played in a dance club will not work as well with a twelve-second decay and a seated, restrained, attentive and listening audience. A sports stadium will have another tradition to be honoured: spectator sport. The scale of the performance place affects the performance itself. Simply, some relationships are governed by size. The performer whose personality can fill a club may not be able to enthuse an arena. And intimate music will be a little lonely.

Anything within the performance is significant, whether intentional or not. The musician becomes a performer, whether they wish to or not. The performer can hide nothing, even the attempt to hide. When the musicians walk on stage they are visible at all times, and to be fully revealed is humiliating. Any lapse in presence is immediately apparent. Appearance, both in dress and movement, is quite direct and often louder than the playing. The stage set is also a clear statement of the performers intention in the performance. For some, the visual codes are more important than the music. In an arena for more than about eight thousand, large video display screens will probably be in use, amplifying the gestures of performance to the size of venue.

At this time the musician will have gone beyond business management by friends or relatives. Very likely, the musician will be a professional musician. This is a world qualitatively different from the world of amateur, even semi-professional, players. In addition to the mechanics of music, playing an instrument and handling an audience, the musician also has to learn the mechanics of playing and handling the music industry. This includes business, personal and financial management, booking agencies, media coverage, publicity and interviews. By now the performer will be expected to have a recording technique, clearly defined image, facility in looking glamorous at the drop of a camera shutter, and ability to throw off devastating or illuminating bons mots at the prompting of arrogant, graceless young twerps from a hostile music press. If in addition one can hold together an experienced and jaded team of road managers without viewing them as labouring serfs, so much the better.

The relationship between musician and audience is now a commercial relationship: the commodity of performance is in the market-place. Recognising as we do the essential commonality of music, and its unpinnable magic, we sense the contradiction. The audience makes the demand to have its money's worth. This is not an unreasonable demand, but is unhelpful to the unfolding of a process of discovery, as in improvisation, particularly when the scale of the event is such that che performer is more involved in crowd control and spectacle than musical development.

The performance has now lost its innocence, and it a remembrance of the representation of the performance, rather than a performance sufficient to itself. Does it sound like the record? Does it look like the video? By now the skilful performer will have learnt the craft of performance, and recognised the similarity between this craft and the craft of musicianship: they are the same, but in different fields. The quality of our attention governs the mastery of our craft, because the quality of our attention is the person we are. So, the craftsman in any field will practise attention, whether this is directed towards a relaxed, sensitive and alert digital calisthenic on the guitar, or a keen appreciation of an audience's condition.

Obviously, a dedicated audience will apply the same dedication co the craft of audiencing. Perhaps.

Dear editor: the musicians life is hard, we suffer, and then we play.