Robert Fripp, the amazing guitarist (and 8): Fripp’s Musical Legacy

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    Robert Fripp, the amazing guitarist (and 8): Fripp’s Musical Legacy

    In a sense, Fripp’s musical identity is as elusive as his personality. “Schizoid Man” indeed – for the titan of screaming distorted rock guitar was also the merry prankster of Giles, Giles and Fripp and “Ladies of the Road”; the avant-garde jazz enthusiast of “Groon,” collaborator with Keith Tippett, did double duty as the ambient-music landscape architect of Evening Star, fellow artiste of Eno; the classical British progressive rocker of Lizard and Islands metamorphosed into the new wave savant, with Exposure, Blondie, and the League of Gentlemen; the initiated member of the white brotherhood of soul, closing ranks with Daryl Hall, David Bowie, and David Byrne, found himself feminist fellow-traveler with the Roches; the devoted Les Paul technophile of Frippertronics, the minimalist world music/gamelan conductor of the 1980s King Crimson, became the uncompromising champion of new acoustic guitar music with The League of Crafty Guitarists.

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    Our schizoid man has been continually inventive in his use of what traditional analysts call music’s “elements” or “parameters”: form, rhythm, harmony, timbre, and melody:


    Fripp has always shown a refreshingly empirical approach to problems of unity, diversity, and coherence in musical arguments – concocting novel, unusual forms out of respect for the demands of the unique musical situation, for the specific piece, rather than simply pouring melodic and harmonic content into pre-existing song-form molds, as happens so often in popular music and traditional jazz.

    Though sheer length is in itself certainly no indication of musical virtue, the successful articulation of large-scale forms can be one indication of compositional vision, and here Fripp has been from time to time sufficiently convincing – as in the raga-like melodic elaborations of “No Pussyfooting,” the sonatoid clarity of “Starless,” and the sustained album-length epic musical poetry of Exposure.


    Fripp is among those rare rock musicians – Frank Zappa and Paul Simon also come to mind – who have relentlessly battered away at the tyranny of four: four beats to the measure, and four measures to the phrase, that is. Odd, complex, shifting, and overlapping meters churn and surge through most of his albums, beginning with the first bars of “Schizoid Man.”
    Harmony. Fripp’s relationship to harmony presents itself as a curious mixture of naïveté and sophistication. On the one hand, many of his earlier pieces exhibit ordinary, stock chord progressions – banal if often ingeniously voiced.

    On the other hand, he has explored a variety of linear modal and whole-tone/tritonic tonal structures, and, particularly with King Crimson IV, the kind of block-shifting harmony described in Chapter 9. The fierce linear counterpoint may derive from Bartok; the block-shifting approach to harmony may come straight out of Stravinsky. I am not completely convinced that Fripp has ever come to terms with the gravitational power of functional tonality.

    That is, I’m not sure he really understands harmony in the sense that Bach or Beethoven understood it: as a force of paramount importance in the articulation of phrases, cadences, climaxes, and large forms. On some composed pieces on Red, and in some of his later music, tonality is not so much engaged with as sidestepped, structural articulation being achieved through other harmonic, textural, rhythmic, and orchestrational means.


    From the beginning, Fripp has shown a creative and unpredictable approach to orchestration and texture – witness the variety of sheer sounds in the albums all the way from In the Court of the Crimson King to Get Crafty. Along with this studied concern for timbral interest goes a formidable production control, allied with a concerted effort to make even studio-produced recordings sound as believably live as possible – enormous dynamic range, and, all things considered, an absolute minimum of electronic “tricks” (excessive reverb, compression, overdubbing, sound effects, artificially spread-out stereo mixes, and so on.). Unlike his friend Brian Eno, Fripp emphatically does not use the recording studio as a compositional tool: he uses it in an effort to capture the feeling amongst real musicians playing in real time.


    Even if some elements of Fripp’s guitar style were in place as early as The Cheerful Insanity of Giles, Giles and Fripp – tasteful chordal punctuations, a capacity to play very fast, and a fascination with the noise potential of electric guitar – his playing has matured and deepened beautifully over the years. There is Fripp the power-chord thrasher (King Crimson III), Fripp the delicate acoustic guitarist (Guitar Craft), Fripp the gamelan pointillist (King Crimson IV), Fripp the colorist (with Andy Summers), Fripp the long-sustained-note modal melodist (Frippertronics), and Fripp the jagged linear contrapuntist (all periods).

    From the outset, you knew Fripp had at his disposal an almost superhuman set of chops. The question with Fripp was never, could he dazzle and stun his audience with amazing displays of speed and virtuosity? Everyone took that for granted from the beginning. The question has always been, rather, how to coax music out of those killer licks, how to put all that athletic technique at the service of a higher inspiration, in a particular band or other music-making situation. Fripp has faced the same dilemma as John McLaughlin: now that I can play anything I want to, just exactly what do I want to play, and why? And I suppose it must be said that at times both musicians have succeeded in answering such questions to the satisfaction of themselves and their audiences, and at other times they have failed.

    In Fripp’s case, the success stories include, for instance, the “Sailor’s Tale” solo on Islands and the twenty-minute rhapsody of “The Heavenly Music Corporation” on No Pussyfooting – both pieces requiring, when you think about it, not so much in the way of technical virtuosity as sheer inspiration and the ability to listen.

    One of the pass defenders on the Cincinnati Bengals, the team that was to play the San Francisco Forty-Niners in the 1989 Super Bowl, bragged to the sports media that he could run the fifty-yard dash significantly faster than the Niners’ star receiver, Jerry Rice. Rice responded to the taunts by saying, “This ain’t no track meet – this is football.” In the game, Rice made a fool of the defender with his subtle maneuvers: speed was no match for artistry. San Francisco won the Super Bowl, and Rice the Most Valuable Player award.

    In his mature years, the eighteenth-century composer Joseph Haydn, speaking ruefully of his youthful compositions, said, “I thought then that everything was all right if only the paper was chock-full of notes.” (Hughes, Haydn, 1970) The twentieth-century Viennese musical revolutionary Arnold Schoenberg was onto something similar: he said, “Rests always sound well!” (Reich, Schoenberg, 1971) Fripp is aware that when you can play anything, the challenge is to know what not to play. One, two, or three notes are often more expressive than ten, twenty, or thirty.

    This is one of the meanings that can be read into his aphorism, “Honor sufficiency.” (GC Aphorisms Monograph) Fripp may have been thinking along these lines when he used an athletic metaphor in a 1989 interview: “It may be that the visual appeal of the Tai Chi master is not equal in appeal to the heavyweight [boxing] contest. But I would prefer to see a Tai Chi master do nothing, superbly. I can see the appeal of two large men attacking each other, but only just.” (Drozdowski 1989, 31)

    Fripp as Composer and Improviser

    I said earlier that music, in a specific sense of the word, can be improvised, whereas composition, in a specific sense, cannot. For reasons I shall now attempt to explain, I have come to regard Fripp as more important for his qualities as a musician than for his talent as a composer. To begin with, Fripp himself has repeatedly complained that his best music has never been put on record – despite, I might add, over twenty years of ample opportunities to do so. What he means, I think, when he says his best music has never been recorded, is that the special quality arising from direct contact between musician and audience in a live performance is inevitably missing from a recorded account of the event. As we have seen, that special quality is for Fripp more important than the sound itself, and may be fully present even if what is happening musically – that is, compositionally – is “a real turkey.”

    For Fripp, that special quality of human contact is the primary substance, is the “music”; the organization of the sounding materials – the “composition” – is a secondary vehicle. This position does not satisfy that part of me which subscribes to the idea that some musical compositions are inherently more interesting, true, valuable, rewarding, and profound than others. This part of me, for better or for worse, is bound to argue that there is more genuine harmonic interest – a deeper revelation of tonal relationships – in almost any short twelve-measure four-part chorale by Bach than in many an extended King Crimson piece; more timbral vitality and nuance in Debussy’s Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun than in many an electronic Fripp soundscape; more rhythmic drive at the service of convincing formal architecture in Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata” than in any Fripp piece based on polymetrical procedures, no matter how complicated.

    And if earlier I called Exposure Fripp’s Sergeant Peppers, I am bound to say that in the final analysis it doesn’t quite measure up. Why? Because its control over all the elements of composition is not as complete. Thus one answer to the question of why King Crimson IV, as Fripp put it, never “found a way of putting [their best music] on record,” is that the pieces, as compositions, were simply not good enough. (DeCurtis 1984, 23)

    If it appears fatuous to compare Fripp’s compositional efforts to the canon of Western musical masterpieces, I might respond, polemically, that he asked for it. The historian in me finds some of his remarks about the art music tradition smug, self-serving, ill-informed, and unnecessarily inflammatory – destined, if not quite intentionally, to turn many young musicians away from a careful study of the tradition – a study which, I happen to believe, many young musicians with rock and the contemporary popular music industry as their sole reference point sorely need.

    I might respond, more neutrally, that what I am really after is a clarification of what Fripp is after, and that what he is after is ultimately not the production of compositions as such, but rather the cultivation of a certain set of relationships between music, musicians, and audience. Every now and then he cuts through the obfuscation of his own theorizing and hits the nail on the head: “Whether Orlando Gibbons excites you, Japanese Koto classics make you foam at the mouth, Hendrix bites your bippy or the Sex Pistols had you on your feet gobbing, whatever it is, you know you’re alive for that moment.” (Dery 1985, 56)

    It could be argued that we simply do not need more towering compositional masterpieces so much as we need enlightened instruction as to the inner meaning of music as a human experience: how to be able to use music to come alive. And it is precisely such instruction which Fripp, in his difficult, idiosyncratic way, has over the years endeavored to provide.

    Priest or Pythagoras

    The connections between rock music and the religious impulse are so multifarious that whole books have been written on the subject – see, for instance, Davin Seay and Mary Neely’s Stairway to Heaven: The Spiritual Roots of Rock’n’Roll. African tribal music, New World Christianity, voodoo, blues, gospel, Bible Belt country music, R&B, rock and roll: it’s all a continuous circuit. In a chapter titled “Hear That Long Snake Moan” in his book Shadow Dancing in the U.S.A., Michael Ventura dwells on the voodoo connection. Voodoo, a volatile blending of tribal rites and Christian symbolism, was, in Ventura’s words, “a metaphysical achievement as great as … the building of Chartres or the writing of the Bhagavad-Gita … These people built their cathedrals and wrote their scripture within their bodies, by means of a system that could be passed from one generation to the next. That system was rhythm.” (Ventura, 115) Ventura goes on to portray the rise of rock and roll as the revenge of a spirituality of the body that white mainstream religion had done everything in its power to suppress.

    Little Richard, Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles, Stevie Wonder, the Beatles, Bob Dylan, Van Morrison, Carlos Santana, John McLaughlin, Eric Clapton – the list of major popular performers influenced at one time or another by religious ideas goes on and on. Beyond such clear-cut cases, one could compare the contemporary musical landscape to an ideological geography of tribal affiliations – each tribe with its own slant on the truth, its own icons and heroes, whether it’s the Grateful Dead tribe, the Barry Manilow tribe, the hardcore punk tribe, the New Age tribe, the academic/straight tribe, the jazz tribe, the dance club tribe, the inner city tribe, the Guitar Craft tribe, or any other tribe. Each of these tribes, with their rituals and mythologies, does what any effective religion does: they help give their members an identity, defining their place in the cosmos – against other tribes perhaps inevitably, but most decisively against the ever-present threat of existential meaninglessness, chaos, non-being.

    Fripp strove with his demons through King Crimson, and had himself photographed more or less as a priest for the cover of The League of Crafty Guitarists – Live! He has linked Gurdjieff’s idea of conscious labor and intentional suffering with the Christian Orthodox idea of spiritual pain. (Milkowski 1985, 17) He has called himself a monk of the musical world (Dery 1985, 56), and has written of Indian classical music and European medieval music as attempts to “quieten the mind to render it more susceptible to divine influences.” (Fripp 1981B, 41) And then there is the whole body of Guitar Craft teaching, and Fripp’s central role in the school.

    In Fripp’s case, perhaps more cogent than comparisons to conventional religion would be to go back to a time when the world was, in some ways, very much younger than it is now. Around the sixth century before the birth of Jesus Christ, an historically unparalleled group of spiritual leaders walked the earth, probably unknown to each other, but working as if from a common source of collective energy to transform mankind’s destiny: in Palestine, various prophets communicating the word of God to Israel; in Persia, Zoroaster, founder of the Persian religion; in India, Gautama, the Buddha; in China, Confucius and Lao-Tze; founder of Taoism. And at precisely this time in Greece, classical Western philosophy was being born. It is difficult to regard this uncanny series of upheavals in consciousness as related soley by accidental chronological coincidence.

    Pythagoras (c. 582 – c. 507 B.C.) left no writings that have survived; yet scholars, using secondary sources beginning with Plato, have pieced together a tantalizing image of this seminal figure traditionally regarded as the father of philosophy.

    Pythagoras is best known for two doctrines: the transmigration of souls (a concept with striking similarities to Eastern concepts of reincarnation), and the conviction that all things are numbers (a belief that seems to take on new significance in this age of quantum physics, the genetic code, and the digitization of all information, including music).

    For Pythagoras there was no separation between religion and science, music and number. Applying mathematics to the study of musical intervals, he discovered that the Greek scale could be derived from proportions involving only the numbers 1 to 4. The most fundamental interval of music, the octave, was represented by the most fundamental of all number relationships, 1:2 (a vibrating string and half its length). The perfect fifth turned out to signify the ratio 2:3 (a vibrating string and two-thirds of its length); and archetypal relationship 3:4 translated musically into the perfect fourth. The fifth minus the fourth yielded the whole tone.

    (Anyone with a guitar and tape measure can easily replicate Pythagoras’ epochal experiments. The series continues: 4:5 is a major third, 5:6 and 6:7 are species of minor thirds, then come the seconds. It was not until the early eighteenth century that the French composer Jean-Philippe Rameau discovered that the Pythagorean interval ratios corresponded to the acoustical harmonics of vibrating objects.)

    Fripp, as should be evident by this point, fully embraces the idea of connections between numbers and musical relationships, seeing in such connections a sort of objective mathematics revealing a key to the order of the divine cosmos. Pythagoras is reputed to be the first to call the world kosmos, a word which, according to the Encyclopedia of Philosophy, for Pythagoras combined “in an untranslatable way the notion of orderly arrangement or structural perfection with that of beauty … By studying this order, we reproduce it in our own souls, and philosophy becomes an assimilation to the divine, as far as that is possible within the limitations imposed by our mortal bodies.” (Encyclopedia of Philosophy, vol. 7, p. 38)
    Fripp has mentioned Pythagoras from time to time in interviews. One such occasion was in his Musician account of the League of Gentlemen tour, when he wrote of the Rouens Cathedral that so impressed him: “Here I am again sitting in front of this symphony in architecture, but tone-deaf … In terms of Western culture the mathematics of music were explored by Pythagoras … This cathedral expressed, in mathematical propositions, combinations of proportions and distances of a form of universal order.” (Fripp 1980E, 34)

    Fripp is but one of thousands of Western musicians who have gone back to Pythagoras for the source of their numerological speculations and historical validation of their intuitive insights. Pythagoras did more, however, than work out cosmic mathematics. Having migrated from his native Samos to Crotona, he founded a secret society with aims religious, political, and philosophical. The society’s rites had much in common with the Orphic Mysteries – a cult founded, according to legend, by the celebrated musician Orpheus, devoted follower of Dionysus, god of fertility and wine. Pythagoras’ society had an ascetic element, and his followers performed various purification rites. Believers were bound to strict rules of moral conduct and dietary practice – eating of meat was forbidden, respect for animals cultivated. The belief in the transmigration of souls led to an equal respect for both sexes, rare in the ancient world. It appears that the dearth of writings by Pythagoras himself and his immediate disciples was due to a rule of secrecy: like Gurdjieff, and like Fripp, Pythagoras was wary of freezing a living teaching into mere writ.
    Pythagoreanism, thus, was not primarily an abstract doctrine: it was a school of practice, a group of followers initiated into a certain way of life, a league of adherents to Pythagoras’ ideas – ideas said to have been born of visions bursting into the teachers’ awareness, revelations of the whole cosmic system.

    Although no stranger to phenomena transcending irrational experience (I once fancied I felt the ghost of Gurdjieff floating up near the ceiling in the corner of a room), I scarcely wish to proclaim Robert Fripp a reincarnation of Pythagoras. But in broad terms the parallels between Pythagoreanism and Guitar Craft seem clear enough: philosophy as a way of doing things, a way of life; the emphasis on music and number as purveyors of absolute, objectively existing truth; the suspicion of written (and other recorded) media; the importance of right practice in moral conduct; the esoteric and ascetic atmosphere; the creation of workable channels for the religious impulse, fusing original ideas with elements of tradition – whether the Orphic Mysteries and ancient Greek mythology or the Gurdjieff system and Asian and Indonesian approaches to musicianship.

    Today the word “philosophy,” at least in its academic setting, may carry certain connotations – abstruse ideas detached from life, linguistic research, sheer abstract thought, mere logic, an absence of compelling ethical insight in a world faced with abundant and momentous ethical dilemmas in medicine, international relations, genetic research, women’s rights, global population, ecology, and other areas. Much twentieth-century academic composed music – with its emphasis on formal structure at the expense of sound and accessibility, its tendency to grapple with head rather than soul issues – presents a curious parallel to the way branches of modern philosophy have become increasingly solipsistic.

    In ancient times, philosophy – and tradition grants Pythagoras first use of the term – meant precisely what its roots implied: love (philos) of wisdom (sophia). I suggest, simply, that it makes sense to view Fripp as a philosopher in the original sense of the word.

    As early as 1980, Fripp wrote: “In the West, where we lack the tradition of objective art, those touched by the ‘otherness’ of music are groping intuitively to find and express this in terms of our own cultural traditions, such as jazz, rock and electronic music … It is my conviction that music has the capacity to radically change far more of ourselves and ‘the world’ than we ordinarily believe.” (Fripp 1980D, 33)

    Fripp Discography

    How “popular” is/was the music of Robert Fripp and King Crimson? Not overwhelmingly, to judge from an informal analysis of data in Joel Whitburn’s Billboard Book of Top 40 Albums. The only Crimson albums ever to make it into the Billboard Top 40 were In the Court of the Crimson King (highest point reached #28) and In the Wake of Poseidon (highest point #31). In the Court of the Crimson King is the only Fripp or Crimson record to have been certified gold (500,000 units sold) by the RIAA. By way of contrast, eight of Emerson, Lake and Palmer’s albums between 1971 and 1978 hit the Top 40 and have been certified gold. (Whitburn’s data reflects of course only the American situation.)
    The discography that follows includes Fripp’s major recorded efforts, but is not to be considered an exhaustive listing.

    King Crimson

    In the Court of the Crimson King: An Observation by King Crimson. 1969.
    In the Wake of Poseidon. 1970.
    Lizard. 1970.
    Islands. 1971.
    Earthbound. 1972.
    Larks’ Tongues in Aspic. 1973.
    Starless and Bible Black. 1974.
    Red. 1974.
    U.S.A. 1975.
    The Young Persons’ Guide to King Crimson. 1976.
    Discipline. 1981.
    Beat. 1982.
    Three of a Perfect Pair. 1984.

    Fripp Solo Albums and Primary Collaborations

    Giles, Giles and Fripp: The Cheerful Insanity of Giles, Giles and Fripp. 1968.
    Fripp and Eno: No Pussyfooting. 1973.
    Fripp and Eno: Evening Star. 1975.
    Fripp: Exposure. 1979.
    Fripp: “Silent Night” a la Frippertronics [Flexi-disk in Praxis 3 (Dec. 1979).]
    Fripp: God Save the Queen/Under Heavy Manners. 1981.
    Robert Fripp and the League of Gentlemen: Robert Fripp/the League of Gentlemen. 1981.
    Fripp: Let the Power Fall: An Album of Frippertronics. 1981.
    Summers and Fripp: I Advance Masked. 1982.
    Summers and Fripp: Bewitched. 1984.
    Fripp: Network. 1984.
    Robert Fripp and the League of Gentlemen: Robert Fripp and the League of Gentlemen/God Save the King. 1985.
    Fripp: Easter Sunday [Tear-out Soundpage in Guitar Player 20 (Jan. 1986).]

    Guitar Craft

    Robert Fripp and The League of Crafty Guitarists: Live! 1986.
    Toyah and Fripp, featuring the League of Crafty Guitarists: The Lady or the Tiger? 1986.
    The League of Crafty Guitarists: Get Crafty I. 1988.
    Fripp: How I Became a Professional Guitarist. 1988.


    Keith Tippett: Blueprint. 1971.
    Keith Tippett: Ovary Lodge. 1972.
    Matching Mole: Matching Mole’s Little Red Record. 1972.
    Keith Tippett’s Centipede: Septober Energy. 1974.
    John G. Bennett: tapes of various lectures.
    Peter Gabriel: Peter Gabriel [II]. 1978.
    Daryl Hall: Sacred Songs. 1980.
    The Roches: The Roches. 1980.
    The Roches: Keep On Doing. 1982.
    Elan Sicroff: Journey to Inaccessible Places and Other Music (Music by George Gurdjieff and Thomas de Hartmann.) Produced by R.F. and Tony Arnold. 1985.
    Keith and Julie Tippett: Couple in Spirit. (Mixed by R.F.) 1988.

    Contributions to Other Recordings

    Van der Graaf Generator: H to He Who Am the Only One. 1970.
    Van der Graaf Generator: Pawn Hearts. 1971.
    Colin Scott: Colin Scott. 1971.
    Peter Hammill: Fool’s Mate. 1972.
    Brian Eno: Here Come the Warm Jets. 1973.
    Brian Eno: Another Green World. 1975.
    Brian Eno: Before and After Science. 1977.
    Brian Eno: Music for Films. 1978.
    Peter Gabriel: Peter Gabriel [I]. 1977.
    David Bowie: “Heroes.” 1977.
    Blondie: Parallel Lines. 1978.
    Talking Heads: Fear of Music. 1979.
    David Bowie: Scary Monsters. 1980.
    Various artists: Miniatures – A Sequence of Fifty-One Tiny Masterpieces Edited by Morgan-Fisher. 1980.
    Flying Lizards: Fourth Wall. 1981.
    Various Artists: Recorder Three. 1981.
    David Sylvian: Alchemy – An Index of Possibilities. 1985.
    David Sylvian: Gone to Earth. 1986.

    Robert Fripp King Crimson and Guitar Craft (Film)

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