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Robert Fripp, the amazing guitarist (7): Guitar Craft
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Birth of Guitar Craft
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One day in late 1984 Robert Fripp sat in a room signing a stack of posters of the Bewitched cover for use in the record’s publicity campaign. In the room were Andy Summers and Vic Garbarini, who had been dispatched from Musician magazine to do a joint interview with the two guitarists. Fripp was in a good mood, wryly reflecting on his work as a professional musician, saying that he hadn’t thought being a musician involved sitting around signing posters. When the last of the hundred posters was signed, Fripp looked up with a beatific smile and announced, “I’m off to clean latrines in West Virginia!” (Garbarini 1984, 38).
It had been seven years since he had leaked back into the music industry in 1977, and Fripp, who with the posters and interview was completing his last official obligations, was ready for another sabbatical. He was about to enroll in a three-month residential course at the American Society for Continuous Education at Claymont Court, the 369-acre property of forest and farmland near Charles Town, West Virginia where Bennett had established the ASCE as a permanent community and school shortly before his death. As an early-1980s pamphlet outlining the ASCE’s objectives explained, “The focus is on helping to restore an ecological balance to the environment and on creating conditions favorable for man’s development in harmony with nature.”
In addition to carrying on work in agriculture, horticulture, cottage industries, building, and alternative energy sources, the ASCE offered residential programs of up to nine months based on Gurdjieff’s, Ouspensky’s, and Bennett’s methods as outlined in Chapter 7 of this book. Formal meetings, manual labor, spiritual exercises, work on the Gurdjieff movements, and study themes combined to place the student in a situation of personal growth and awareness of others.
As the pamphlet said, “Every experience can be used to develop presence, intention, and balance between the inner and outer life. The Residential Program creates conditions which can lead to the threshold of genuine work beyond which the significance of life and one’s own purpose become manifest.” (The ASCE has recently been renamed the CSCE – Claymont Society for Continuous Education – and as of this writing no longer offers long-term residential courses.)
In late 1984, with King Crimson IV behind him, Fripp had no further plans for working in bands; like ten years before, he had no specific plans at all, other than to go on his Claymont retreat and then to “let the future present itself.” (Garbarini 1984, 38) As it turned out, the future presented itself with crystal clarity. Fripp had been involved with the operation of the ASCE since 1978, and had been on its board of directors since 1982. After his three-month retreat, Fripp was elected president of the ASCE, and was asked if he would give a few seminars based on music. (A regular feature of life at Claymont was then, as it is now, a variety of educational seminars led by permanent residents and also by outside speakers.)
As Bob Gerber, current Chairman of the CSCE, who was in continuous contact with Fripp at this time, put it to me, Fripp said “no” to the idea of guitar seminars twice, then the third time realized this was something he was meant to do. Thus was Guitar Craft born.
(By 1990, Fripp was no longer officially involved with the CSCE; although Guitar Craft continues to offer seminars on the Claymont property, it is purely a business arrangement, Fripp renting space to house students and hold classes.)
Robert Fripp had been thinking about teaching for many years, however. As far back as 1974, immediately after the breakup of King Crimson III, Fripp had spoken to Rolling Stone writer Ian Dove of his interest “in creating a new kind of guitar technique that is really working on three levels of being, heart, hands, and head. A way of life. More akin to yoga than formal guitar technique, actually an approach to living.” He had gone on to speak with admiration of Pablo Casals, Yehudi Menuhin, and Ravi Shankar – musicians who through personal discipline had been able to achieve contact with higher energies. Most rock musicians, by way of contrast, Fripp had seen as “hopelessly inadequate, rooted to the earth … thrashing around on stage using a very low-grade energy [which] comes from a very nasty quarter.” (Dove 1974, 14)
In an interview with Guitar Player’s Steve Rosen, also from 1974, Fripp had talked about the importance of relaxation, of establishing a relationship between one’s head and one’s hands, of practicing “like hell” in order that the limitations of one’s technique not get in the way of the free expression of ideas. “I suggest,” he had said, “that guitar playing, in one sense, can be a way of uniting the body with the personality, with the soul and the spirit.” (Rosen 1974, 38) All of these ideas would turn up much later in the context of Guitar Craft.
Long fascinated with both the mechanics of playing the plectrum guitar and with systematic means of coaxing the Muse out of hiding, Fripp had been searching for a teaching method, and he would press the musicians he came into contact with for their insights into their craft. When in 1982 Fripp interviewed his peer in picking, John McLaughlin, for Musician magazine, he repeatedly tried to get him to be more concrete about the way he worked on music. Both guitarists readily agreed on the importance of getting the ego out of the way in order to let music in, but Fripp wanted more details: “How do you get out of the way? Do you have specific techniques or regimens that you use? Can you just get yourself out of the way without thinking about it?” (Fripp 1982B, 54) McLaughlin’s responses, although colorful and suggestive, were on the vague side.
From conversations like this, Fripp had to be realizing that even the greatest musicians often operate intuitively, that is, using those parts of the mind which mere language does not easily penetrate – thus a musical genius may find himself or herself unable to articulate exactly what his or her inner processes consist of.
This may all be commonplace, but the position did not satisfy Fripp. If he were to have students, he had to be able to conceptualize, to concretize, to verbalize his relationship with music in order to pass it along. The method he came up with is the subject of the remainder of this chapter.
Elements of Guitar Craft
First, a few facts. The first Guitar Craft course was given at Claymont in March 1985. The original idea was to give three seminars of five-and-a-half days each, but due to unexpected demand, the number of seminars was soon augmented to eight. At a certain point Fripp decided to make Guitar Craft a continuous, ongoing process, and as of this writing, without any signs of slowing up, there have been some thirty courses in the United States (mostly at Claymont but also in other locations), plus others in England, France, Germany, Switzerland, Holland, and Norway. More than six hundred guitarists have participated in seminars, and the latest GC Directory, which serves to facilitate networking among active Crafties (the colloquial name for one who has attended a seminar and keeps in touch), lists the addresses and phone numbers of over one hundred and sixty musicians. Fripp is the primary Guitar Craft teacher, but he is assisted by a number of experienced guitarists intimately familiar with his methods, and by non-musical teachers whose function will be explained in due course. The League of Crafty Guitarists, which represents the performing presence of Guitar Craft in the world, has played concerts in America, Europe, and Israel, and has released three albums, with plans for a fourth in the works.
As Guitar Craft has grown in size it has generated its own organizational infrastructure, complete with its own newsletter, literature (the Guitar Craft Monograph series), folklore, mythology, advertising, and merchandising (guitar accessories, decals, cassettes, bumper stickers, T-shirts, logos, and posters). For the seriously committed Crafty, Guitar Craft is indeed a whole way of life, centered on the discipline and practice of music.
Like all such groups which have passed beyond initial groping stages into existence as more or less streamlined organizations with a more or less strictly defined protocol, Guitar Craft has had its inner conflicts, and Fripp’s control over the diffusion of his ideas has been less than total – on occasion he has had to chastise those enterprising yet unauthorized disciples who, after taking a seminar, have had the gall to bill themselves as bona fide Guitar Craft teachers for the sake of attracting private guitar students. Not that Fripp rules out any possibility of his students being teachers – to the contrary, as we shall see, he views teaching as its own genuine form of apprenticeship, a logical step for the committed musician. What he objects to is superficial students who greedily apply the imprimatur “Guitar Craft” to their own feeble methods, tapping into the iconic source without the requisite preparation.
It’s an age-old story – disciples bringing grief to their teacher on account of having only dimly understood the teaching, and going out and telling the world all about it. It is a dilemma facing the discoverer of any great idea which is right for the times. Carl Jung disliked the idea of “Jungians,” and dreaded the inevitable institutionalization of his insights: on the wall of the lobby at the Jung Institute of Los Angeles hangs a plaque quoting Jung which reads, “If you must have a Jung institute, for God’s sake make it as disorganized as possible!”
In 1989 the forty-two-year-old Fripp called Guitar Craft his “life’s work now.” (Drozdowski 1989, 29) After a grueling public career battling the fickleness of public taste, critical fashion, and the music industry, and after harrowing experiences in bands which just could not seem to stay together but inexorably degenerated into yapping egos, Fripp could say, “Within Guitar Craft is the first time I’ve been able to live in a sane world.” (Drozdowski 1989, 32) Fripp has always formed mental constructs and systems through which to channel his energies – King Crimson, the Drive to 1981, Frippertronics – and Guitar Craft is the grandest and most systematized of them all. Aside from his role as a teacher, Fripp personally gets a charge out of playing with students in his seminars: he says it “can be as good as King Crimson, playing in front of thousands of people.” (Milano 1985, 34)
The goals and ideals of Guitar Craft are lofty enough. Fripp aims at no less than inaugurating a tradition of pedagogy for the flat-picked steel-stringed guitar. He believes that there is one best way to approach the mechanics of guitar playing, and that he has found it. He is quite uncompromising on this point: although sincere in his admiration for the likes of Hendrix, Beck, and Clapton as musicians, he is quick to find fault with the mechanics of their technique. Just examine any photograph of guitar heroes in action, he will say: right hands sloppily and inefficiently disported, left thumbs craning over the top of the fretboard. (Personally, I really doubt we would see so many of these wayward thumbs if there weren’t some good reason for it. Fripp himself, though he’ll bend a note here and there, doesn’t use a whole lot of string-bending vibrato in his playing; if he did, he might find cradling the neck between the thumb and first finger more effective than planting the thumb in the middle of the back of the neck, which is his recommended position.)
Along with the dissemination of a scientifically precise method of playing goes the creation of a new repertoire of exercises, etudes, compositions, and improvisational formats, all of which have grown and are continuing to grow organically out of Fripp’s and his students’ engagement with the playing technique, the new tuning Fripp invented and teaches to all Guitar Craft students, and the whole mind-set that goes along with Guitar Craft. The new repertoire is conceived as fulfilling more than a merely aesthetic function in the sense of new music for its own sake: it also fulfills a social purpose, bringing Crafties into a special relationship with each other through creating and practicing the music. As Fripp put it in 1987, “You can construct music in such a way on a purely structural and technical level that it pulls musicians together.” (Diliberto 1987, 52)
Guitar Craft, like King Crimson before it, is conceived as a microcosm of society at large, or, perhaps more accurately, as one possible model blueprint of the inter-relationships in an ideal society. To put it somewhat less grandiosely, Guitar Craft music works by give-and-take, communal effort, selflessness, cooperation, and listening to others. Fripp has said, “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 [in Guitar Craft].” (Diliberto 1987, 52) This sounds very Platonic – Plato with his musical modes that had certain definite, inevitable effects on the human soul – and also echoes Gurdjieff’s ideal of objective art.
In a recent interview, Fripp compared himself to thirteenth-century English carpenters who took large numbers of apprentices into their homes. Extending the analogy, he likened Crafties to anonymous cathedral builders of the late middle ages: “They didn’t carve their names in the stones and leave testimonials to who they were because it would have gotten in the way.” (Diliberto 1987, 52) Once again, the selfless and humble devotion to one’s craft, the idea of working in the service of a purpose unimaginably greater than oneself.
Jung had a similar idea, which he relates in his autobiography, Memories, Dreams, Reflections: he dreamed of the men and women of today working for consciousness as the myriad builders of an immense new cathedral of human fulfillment – each builder playing perhaps only a small, anonymous part, but nonetheless contributing significantly to the realization of the overall design. How long would the construction of this vast symbolic cathedral take? In Jung’s view, about six hundred years.
In Guitar Craft courses, Fripp and his students use acoustic guitars exclusively. This is partly due to purely practical considerations – the prospect of fifteen, twenty, or more electric guitars simultaneously playing raises possibly insurmountable balance problems and equipment hassles. But there was more to the choice of acoustic instruments than that. Fripp’s first guitar had been an acoustic, but in the early King Crimson years he had switched over to electric almost completely. In 1974, while allowing that the acoustic had a potentially lovely tone if properly played, he called acoustic guitar “an anachronism … As a form of contemporary expression, the electric guitar is the only hope for the guitar at the moment as a creative instrument.” (Rosen 1974, 34)
In the early 1980s, particularly in his work with King Crimson and Andy Summers, Fripp delved into the latest effects and guitar synthesizer technology. Like many guitarists, though, he was frustrated with the slight tracking delay of even the best guitar synths – and like many musicians, after initial flirtations with the awesome sound capabilities of MIDI rigs, Fripp seemed to come around to the conclusion that music is more important than sound – and that good music could not be purchased at the local electronics hardware/software store but was every bit as elusive as it had ever been. (Even Milton Babbitt, twelve-tone guru of the early RCA synthesizers of the 1950s and early 1960s, had concluded that “nothing gets boring so quickly as a new sound.”)
Fripp also spoke of the disturbing distance, in playing an electric guitar, between the sound (coming out of an amplifier speaker somewhere) and its source (at the fingers of the guitarist). He said, “As soon as you plug in you have a state of ‘schizophrenia.’” (Diliberto 1987, 52) This distance or schizophrenia was something a professional player could learn to work with, but only at some cost in terms of a sense of intimacy with the music.
In playing the acoustic guitar, the sound emanates directly from its source, and both are held close to the body, so that a certain direct proximity to the music inheres which is intrinsically impossible with an electric guitar.
For the type of group playing practiced in Guitar Craft, it is vitally important for each player to be able to hear what everyone else is doing, for there to be no ambiguity between the sound and its source. Fripp settled on the acoustic Ovation Legend 1867, which features a gently rounded super-shallow body design that may be about as close to the shape and depth of an electric guitar as is possible without an intolerable loss of tone quality. Fripp liked the way the Ovation 1867 fitted against his body, which made it possible for him to assume the right-arm picking position he had developed using electric guitars over the years; on deeper-bodied guitars, the Frippian arm position is impossible without uncomfortable contortions, as I found out with my beloved Yamaha dreadnought.
The Ovation 1867 also features a built-in pickup and graphic equalizer for use in performance situations where amplification is necessary; of course, the moment it is plugged in, the guitar no longer sounds like the guitar itself, but like the speakers it is running through, and the source/sound schizophrenia rears its head again. But – shall we say – life is full of compromises, and the Ovation 1867 has become the officially recommended Guitar Craft model.
So what is Guitar Craft? Perhaps I should have begun with the concise definition given in the 1989 Guitar Craft Services Brochure. “Guitar Craft,” it is therein written, “is three things: 1) a way to develop a relationship with the guitar; 2) a way to develop a relationship with music; 3) a way to develop a relationship with oneself.” The name Guitar Craft itself implies a certain concentration on the attainment of a level of competency in very practical terms.
Competency may then pass into fluency, and fluency into mastery. But the emphasis in Guitar Craft is on concrete methods, not speculative metaphysics or “bright ideas” as they are known in Crafty folklore: as the Brochure goes on to say, “We approach the intangible by working on the tangible. At a certain point of application, of concentrated effort, craft becomes an art.”
The League of Crafty Guitarists
Live Guitar Craft music has been heard by audiences under a variety of circumstances. Even Level One student’s have been thrust into public to display their craft, as at the Iron Rail gig described in the previous chapter. On other occasions, Fripp has had students at particular seminars mount more formal concerts and make radio station appearances. In early 1987 Fripp took a six-week Level Three/Four group on a performance tour in Holland and Israel. Various local groups of Crafties, with names like the New York Chapter and the Potomac Working Group, have organized themselves and given performances without Fripp, sometimes with his blessing and sometimes without. Fripp has talked about Guitar Craft in terms of an image of “one guitarist in many bodies”: at least in theory, wherever two or more Crafties are gathered in the name of that metaphysical guitarist, there is professional-quality music.
But the League of Crafty Guitarists proper is Guitar Craft’s primary performance vehicle, and over the past few years Fripp and various incarnations of the LCG have toured extensively, particularly in the United States. As the League is envisioned as a visible presence of Guitar Craft in the world, Fripp is concerned to put his best foot forward, and only the most committed Crafties are admitted to this exclusive group. Guitar playing is only part of it; among other things, to become a performing member of the League of Crafty Guitarists you must be able to look Fripp in the eye and say you have not taken any kind of drugs during the past year.
In the Guitar Craft Newsletter of May 3, 1988, Fripp announced, “There will be a Special Project in California during the second half of January 1989. This will require a high level of performance skill. Should any Crafty be considering this, begin your preparation now.” In time, a team coalesced, and, billed as Robert Fripp and the League of Crafty Guitarists, presented concerts in five cities from San Diego to San Francisco in the week of January 14-21.
The venue for the two sold-out appearances in San Francisco on January 15 was the Great American Music Hall – maximum occupancy 470 persons. A handwritten notice on the door read: “NO cameras or recording devices permitted at this performance. Persons found in possession of cameras or recorders – in use or not! – will be asked (then told) to leave. No refunds will be issued. Ya wanna tape – go to a Grateful Dead concert.”
No longer an active Crafty (not that I ever really had been, save for my week at Claymont), I came as a member of the audience for the early show. I squeezed into a chair at a front-row table and contemplated the Music Hall’s strange baroque architecture and the audience – mostly white males in their twenties and thirties, a few young women, lots of beards and intelligent-looking faces.
Fripp and company made a grand entrance, walking in single file from the door at the left of the stage to the back of the hall, then up the central aisle to the stage. Standing in neat semicircular formation, the League suddenly looked at the audience, with exaggerated expressions of curiosity – as the audience looked back and giggled. This seemed to be a gesture in the direction of breaking down the barrier between audience and performers, or even reversing their roles entirely. Someone from the balcony yelled out, “Starless!” and Fripp threw a mock-peevish glance up in the offender’s direction.
The music was mostly memorized, with portions of some pieces possibly improvised. The fifteen Level Six guitarists sat on their chairs with perfect poise and concentration, almost expressionless, occasionally looking around the hall with an air of slightly self-conscious bemusement. The League performed on amplified acoustic Ovations with built-in pickups.
What the League of Crafty Guitarists lacks in visible passion it makes up for in an awesomely understated display of discipline and technique. At the San Francisco concert the overall musical impression was one of a smoothly-functioning V-8 cruising along comfortably at ninety miles an hour, sometimes downshifting into low gear with a tremendous release of energy.
The music – a carefully planned sequence of full ensemble playing, duets, trios, quartets, and larger combinations – whether fast or slow, intricate or thrashing, was almost uniformly difficult, impressive, and peerless executed. The audience, almost throughout, seemed quiet, attentive, blown away, responding to almost every piece with thunderous applause. There is nothing like it – a virtuoso acoustic guitar orchestra playing all original material in styles that blend rock and minimalism, Bartok and blues, gamelan and extended tonalities.
The only real negative criticism I could muster was to the effect that most of the pieces were on the allegro side, structurally static and non-developmental, somewhat at the expense of expressive shifts of dynamics and tempo. But even this seemed perhaps less a critique of whom the League were than a concept of what I would fancy doing, compositionally, with such an extraordinary ensemble at my command.
After the first fifty-minute set, Fripp stood up and, in that smiling gentlemanly way of his, asked the audience if they had any questions about Guitar Craft “or what we do.” Someone said, “Well – what exactly is it that you do?” Laughter.
Fripp eyed the questioner with feigned exasperation and said, “Where have you “been” for the past fifty minutes?” Gesturing gracefully to his ensemble, he added, “This is what we do.”
Someone else asked how he would classify the music. “I wouldn’t,” he said, and, after a pause, “‘Contemporary music for guitar ensemble,’ but that doesn’t really tell you much.” In general, Fripp’s manner of fielding audience questions resembled the way he interacted with students from the head table at Claymont: confident, cheerful, ironic, and witty – rather like an impish fount of wisdom.
The second set was considerably shorter than the first, and after six pieces – the final one a big loud polymetrical chordal thrasher – the League rose from their chairs to a standing ovation, took their bows, and filed neatly back out the way they had come in, following a beaming Fripp, who nodded to acknowledge the acclaim.
The League of Crafty Guitarists: Recordings
Fripp has always considered most of his music difficult if not impossible to record properly, and the problem of conveying the sense behind the sound is particularly sticky when it comes to the Guitar Craft repertoire. The ideal way to hear Guitar Craft music is live and unamplified; live and amplified – as at the concert just described – is second best; and on the home stereo a distant third.
Live and unamplified, the sound of the guitar orchestra evokes a feeling of immense depth and spaciousness: a circle or semi-circle of five, ten, fifteen, or twenty guitars playing concerted polyphony can be a marvel of acoustics, presenting a thrilling experience of translucent three-dimensional musical space. Quite aside from the philosophical issue of live versus canned music, there is simply no way that this music will sound the same coming out of loudspeakers, no matter how immaculate the mixing, no matter how sophisticated the playback and/or amplification equipment, no matter how well-engineered the recording.
Live and unamplified, the sound of a fifteen-piece guitar ensemble is emanating from fifteen distinct points in space, animated by subtle acoustic harmonics and reverberations reinforcing each other and canceling each other out in a fantastically complex way that speakers cannot physically duplicate. In live, unamplified situations, the Guitar Craft sound surrounds the listener or participant with a tangible yet chaotic, turbulent yet oceanic expanse.
I felt this directly at the GC XII seminar in February 1986 as we sat around the circle in the ballroom and played. When the first Guitar Craft album came out a few months later, I was inevitably disappointed at the sound, which seemed to be completely lacking in depth. But Robert Fripp and the League of Crafty Guitarists – Live! is an affecting, impressive record nonetheless – the more so given the facts surrounding its recording. The “challenge” of GC XII, the reader will recall, was to present an evening of original music at the Iron Rail.
Two months previously, Fripp had given the two-week GC IX group of seventeen guitarists a set of challenges: preparing music for a live radio broadcast, a recording session in the Claymont mansion ballroom (with a mobile twenty-four track studio parked outside), and three concerts at George Washington University.
Of the eleven pieces on Live!, eight were recorded at the University concerts. One (“Crafty March”) was a take from the sound check at the University. Another (“The Chords That Bind”) was recorded in the mansion ballroom. “The New World” consists of solo Frippertronics recorded live, overlaid with a linear studio solo (the liner notes don’t clarify exactly what this piece is doing on a Guitar Craft album). Eight of the pieces are by Fripp, two are by Fripp and the League, and one is by Andrew Essex, one of the Crafties.
Most of what I have already said about Guitar Craft music applies to Live!: it’s relentlessly intellectual and rhythmically difficult, stimulating and challenging to the listener; its sources are Indonesian gamelan textures, Bartokian counterpoint, Stravinskian tonality and meter, and rock rhythms; it’s predominantly polyphonic and linear, even the slow pieces; it’s admirably executed for the most part. And it is almost literally unbelievable, a vivid testimony to the power of an idea (Guitar Craft) – that the intricate, precise, and altogether coherent and accomplished music on the album was whipped into shape in such a short space of time.
“Guitar Craft Themes I and II” (subtitled “Invocation” and “Aspiration”) are the foundation of the entire repertoire: an introduction to the new tuning, the style of group playing, and the characteristic picking and fingering patterns in Fripp’s method. Every Level One Crafty learns the “Themes”; they are the same pieces my seminar played in our final “concert” described in the previous chapter.
Live! was released with a “companion” album, Toyah and Fripp, Featuring the League of Crafty Guitarists – The Lady or the Tiger? The premise of the album consists of Toyah Wilcox reading, to the accompaniment of gentle modal music by Fripp alone (Side One) and by Fripp and the League of Crafty Guitarists (Side Two), a pair of allegorical stories by a certain Frank R. Stockton (1834-1902). Stockton, Fripp explains in the liner notes, was a wood engraver and writer who bought Claymont Court in 1899 and lived in the mansion until his death; the room on the second floor he made his study is the room Fripp uses for private guitar lessons at Guitar Craft seminars.
Stockton’s stories, “The Lady or the Tiger?” and “The Discourager of Hesitancy,” beguilingly recited by Wilcox, are metaphorical fairy tales set in a mythical kingdom, written in a studied, deliberately archaic, romantic style; little more can be said about them without depriving the reader of this book the opportunity to be drawn into their special paradoxical magic in as it were a virginal state. I shall thus refrain from further explication except to point out that unless you are exceptionally fond of fairy tales, it is unlikely you will find yourself wanting to play through the album more than once or twice.
The Guitar Craft music that accompanies “The Discourager of Hesitancy” was recorded in the mansion ballroom by GC IX, the same group that made Live! It is unclear whether the evocative music – a long piece titled “The Encourager of Precipitation” – was conceived with the intent of using it as the soundtrack to Wilcox’s reading, or whether it was originally a long independent instrumental; it could easily stand on its own.
The third GC album, Get Crafty I, was recorded by Fripp and a twenty-six-member incarnation of the League of Crafty Guitarists in October 1988, in Wessex. Some of the selections were taped at concerts, others during rehearsals. To the best of my knowledge, Get Crafty was never distributed to record stores, but exists solely as a cassette available by mail order through Guitar Craft Services. Which is too bad, because it is far and away the best of the three Guitar Craft recordings to date.
The album represents a quantitative, if not quite a qualitative evolution within Guitar Craft in the three years that had elapsed since Live! The music on Get Crafty is much more difficult and complex, the playing of a uniformly polished and virtuosic character, as opposed to Live!’s occasional lapses. If Live! can be compared to the eight-year-old Mozart’s valiant and inspired if somewhat raw and naive attempts at symphonic composition, then Get Crafty is Mozart in his early twenties, in total command of a sparkling idiom he has completely assimilated.
Get Crafty also represents a maturing Guitar Craft in the sense that the sixteen pieces were written by a total of ten Crafty composers: Fripp, Tony Geballe, Ralph Gorga, Curt Golden, Trey Gunn, Steve Ball, Burt Lams, P. Walker, Spazzo Ray, and Juanita. In other words, by late 1988 the ongoing creation of the Guitar Craft repertoire had become a collective enterprise; although Fripp composed five of the tunes (more than any other individual), his students at this point were eminently capable of tapping into the creative source and producing from their own imagination music in certain immediately apparent respects equal to Fripp’s own efforts in the genre.
Now, this brings up some interesting issues. On the one hand, I find it hard to write about Get Crafty without lapsing into breathless superlatives – awesome, incredible, intense, sans pareil, fantastic, incomparable, musicians’ music. On the other hand, viewing the music dispassionately (which I am honestly unable to do), one might comment that in spite of having ten different composers, Get Crafty sounds rather as though it came out of a single mind, a single fount of style and inspiration. A cynic might say that Fripp had finally succeeded in finding a way of cloning himself, growing experimental cultures of his musico-genetic code and devilishly standing back to observe the resulting mutations.
A musicologist might point out that the greatest composition teachers (Bach, Schoenberg, Nadia Boulanger, Olivier Messiaen) have historically been those who have guided their students to their personal voices rather than imposing their own style upon them. In a paradoxical formulation, Fripp himself has said that in the early stages of King Crimson IV individual egotism – the urge for self-expression at the expense of a higher-level musical organism – was not a problem … because he himself was “emanating” to the other members of the band what the music should sound like.
There are a couple of pieces that strike me as being more individuated. Ball’s “The Breathing Field” uses graded dynamic swells and contrasting textural planes to good effect; Lams and Walker’s “Chiara” is a lovely, slow, almost achingly hesitant harmonic essay. Fripp’s own compositions on Get Crafty stand well above those of his imitators – they have real shape, real contour, real inner motion and line as opposed to a mere illusion of motion produced by a lot of fast notes. The juxtaposed textures of “Intergalactic Boogie Express,” the exploitation of open-string resonance on “The Moving Force,” and many other touches, show that Fripp is still (or was still in 1988) Guitar Craft’s master composer.
But for the most part, the approach to rhythm, texture, harmony, and melody is interchangeable from piece to piece, with slight variations on the overriding stylistic theme. Why aren’t there slower and medium-tempo Guitar Craft compositions? Why so little true harmonic variety? Why so many dazzling ostinati and so little melodic lyricism? Why so few structural crescendi and diminuendi? So few real contrasts of mood and texture within individual pieces?
Complicated stuff, this. Even though one can point to the relative lack of compositional differentiation in an artifact like Get Crafty, there is something uncanny precisely about the way all the music seems to be flowing from a single group mind – a mind seemingly so much greater than the sum of its individual parts. And I suppose there is nothing inherently wrong with an artistic movement wherein unity of stylistic language is stressed at the expense of self-expression. When I was a graduate student, we used to have a little game where someone would play obscure compositions by Mozart and Haydn and see if the others could guess which composer it was – the point being that the idioms of the Viennese masters were so very similar.
Rather than accuse Fripp of cultivating clones in Petri dishes, I am disposed to remind the reader that the whole Western concept of the composer as an individual Artist with a capital A is a phenomenon that dates back only roughly to Beethoven (1770-1827), successor to Haydn and Mozart in the classical tradition. It is probably safe to say that before Beethoven’s time, the composer, though he may have enjoyed a certain privileged status on account of being affiliated with specific prestigious institutions of church or aristocracy, was inclined to view himself – and was apt to be viewed by the society he moved in – more as a craftsman than as a prophet, a more skilled worker than a genius.
And thus we come full circle to the idea of Guitar Craft as such. Across the horizon rises a new, or renewed concept of art: not individualistic but wholistic, not personally confessional art set apart from life on a podium but communally experienced craft which blends into life itself; not designated musicians entertaining designated audiences, but rather crafts manlike musicians participating with fellow human beings in the universal drama of time, tone, music, rhythm; not the “me generation” but spaceship Earth.
New communities that embody such insights in their everyday activities, productivity, nurturing spirit, craft, and art – maybe Guitar Craft, for all its very human weaknesses, is one such community.
Toyah & Robert Fripp Vs King Crimson – Heroes for #VEDay2020
- Libertango (Piano Solo) – Astor Piazzola
- Milonga del Angel by Astor Piazzolla (arr. piano solo)
- Nocturne – by Secret Garden (piano solo)
- Oblivion (A. Piazzolla) Two pianos – pianists Argerich and Hubert
- Out of Africa – music by John Barry (piano solo)
- The Creative Development of Johann Sebastian Bach (1695-1717) Vol. I and II