Frippery in Manhattan

Robert Fripp is one of the very few guitarists who are recognizable almost as soon as they play a note. Most of the others in this category — Jimi Hendrix, Richard Thompson, Muddy Waters, Mark Knopfler — are emotional players who rip loose on their instruments and grab you by the throat. Fripp is exactly the opposite, an intellectual player who seemingly never plays anything he hasn’t thought out in advance, and for whom a raised eyebrow is an outpouring of emotion. Nonetheless he is a compelling and passionate player; it’s that contradiction that draws me to him.

Along with his League Of Crafty Guitarists, he played a formal and precise show tonight at the Ethical Culture Society. Fripp, whose careful interlocking guitar parts were at the center of every incarnation of King Crimson, and whose howling guitar drove songs ranging from Bowie’s “Scary Monsters” to Blondie’s “Fade Away and Radiate,” is in his sixties now, and in some ways white hair suits him better. After his formal bows left, right and center, he kissed his guitar, took a seat on a stool, and began to layer guitar loops one over the other, hardly moving or looking up.

After a few pieces (not songs, surely), he gave a nod offstage, and the ten Crafty Guitarists filed out in a line to their stools, set in a semicircle, with Fripp at one end, and the never-introduced leader* of the group on the other. At another nod from Fripp, the leader played a single note, then moved his guitar and his body towards the woman next to him, who in turn played the next note, and “threw” the piece to the man to her right, and the song began, each guitarist playing a single note in turn, a complex melody created by precise timing enforced by physical motion. Soon all ten were playing interlocking parts in strange time signatures as Fripp sat back, expressionless, listening to ten acoustic guitars build a wall of music, something like a Philip Glass piece, until he shattered it with a close-to-feedback howl from his guitar, the only electric on the stage.

This was pretty much the entire evening. The group’s timing was incredibly precise, and the playing passionate enough to save it from being mind-numbing minimalist masturbation. They even managed to elicit a few “Yeah!”s from the audience, when particularly complex and powerful pieces stopped perfectly on a dime.

The songs ranged from their own compositions to King Crimson songs (“Vroom”) to the only instrumental the Beatles ever recorded (“Flying” — “Revolution #9” doesn’t count as a song) and a television theme song I couldn’t identify. (I have a very hard time identifying instrumental music; I’ve played fiddle tunes at jams from start to finish, played them well at high speed, and at the end turned to the person next to me and said, “What’s that one called again?”)

The LCG is the performance ensemble of Fripp’s Guitar Craft workshops, which focus on developing “relationships” with the guitar, with music, and with oneself, and which depend on what Fripp calls the “New Standard Tuning,” (CGDAEG). This is about as far from the music I play as it’s possible to get and still be enjoyable, so it was an interesting evening but not one that made me come home and want to play.

I first saw Fripp play more than 20 years ago, back when they had concerts on Pier 84 next to where the Intrepid is nowadays (or will be when it gets out of drydock). It was the summer of 1984 and he was playing with the best incarnation of King Crimson, when the band was himself, Adrian Belew, Tony Levin and Bill Bruford. He sat on one side of the stage, on a stool, surrounded by his samplers and synthesizers, seemingly unmoved and unaffected by the antics of Belew and Levin and Bruford with his 360-degree drumkit. The beauty of that band was the perfect interplay between the studious Fripp and the outrageous Belew, their guitars interlocking and contrasting perfectly. Fripp hasn’t moved from that stool nor changed his black clothing in all the intervening years. His hair is white now, and he wears contacts, and while I missed the contrasts and energies of the King Crimson days, it was a joy to sit and watch him create his sound live, and hear extremely intellectual music that can still reach me emotionally.

*I assumed this was Curt Golden, since he usually leads this group in North America, and the guy looked like Golden’s photo. I’m told by a couple of anonymous posters (one polite, one childishly rude) that it’s not him; this is an unfortunate side-effect of Fripp not uttering a single word during the show (and in fact, any time I’ve seen him play). I’m told this was indeed Hernan Nuñez but the LCG site has no further info. Fripp’s performance philosophy is vastly different from my own; I was disappointed to listen to ten very talented musicians without ever knowing who they were or what else they’d done, but this is in line with Fripp’s overall focus on the music to the exclusion of anything he’d consider extraneous.

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7 Responses to Frippery in Manhattan

  1. rosefox says:

    I’m glad you had a good time. *)

  2. doodlegoat says:

    Thanks, that was well written. I remember reading a newspaper story fifteen years ago describing a similar piece by the LCG. That writer did not enjoy the piece, and led me to construct the phrase “The League of Fripped-out Guitarists.” It’s good to read a more empathetic review.

  3. harrietbrown says:

    You write well, but you do something a lot of people who can write well can’t: Write about music (think music critics). “Mind-numbing minimalist masturbation”! Hey, I like Glass, Reich, Reilly, et al! Then again, it’s not like a have a staggering collection of their various works. I like my minimalism lite.

    I believe Robert Fripp joined with Andy Summers formerly of The Police for a while. They produced some good stuff *goes to look for it on bn.com*

    Funny story about Andy Summers: Well, no, maybe not. It’s kind of offensive.

    Glad you had a good time. Sometimes it’s nice to just savor the performance without feeling compelled to play.

    • ken says:

      Thanks, I think — that phrase was labeled “offensive” by one of the anonymous posters. Not that I lose a lot of sleep about “offending” people by poking fun at music. I like some of Glass’s work, although very little of Reich’s, but my problem isn’t just with the music (though it can be terribly monotonous) but also with the attitude. It takes itself far too seriously, and has too little emotional depth, to interest me.

      Summers and Fripp did two albums in the 80s, both of which I have only on LP and both of which are pretty good; the first (I Advance Masked) is better than the second, whose name I don’t recall. But I don’t listen to them much anymore, again because they’re more interesting technically than they are emotionally. I want to know what music is saying, and minimalism has very little to say to me.

      Which goes to your last comment as well (though I know that’s a big issue for you). When I’m really touched by music I want to play it; when I enjoy a performance and don’t want to try to play what I heard, it means my interest was mostly intellectual.

      • harrietbrown says:

        Frankly, I’m surprised that the entry provoked anonymous posters. Music, like any art form, is a matter of taste and as such is subjective. So the minimalist police were out in force, eh?

        I only know about Fripp & Summers because John Schaefer used to play them on New Sounds (back in the days when I had a working radio) on WNYC.

        I can understand wanting to play what you hear. I air play drums and violin and piano. Yeah, I’m a virtuoso in my own mind. Thanks for understanding about my various musical neuroses.

        The only music I can think of that I listen to that would fall under the “intellectual” as in musical-fiber-is-good-for-you would be Bach, and even Bach can sometimes move me to tears. Some Bartok I have would fall under that category, too, but I think that’s because I haven’t listened to it enough. I have a lot of Bartok on iTunes, but I only have the Brandenburgs on iTunes. I have the Sonatas & Partitas for Violin Solo (2 recordings on CD, one a period recording with Sergiu Luca and the other with Nathan Milsten), but I haven’t put them on iTunes. I don’t want familiarity to breed contempt. Anyway, enough babbling.

        Sorry people misbehaved and you had to delete posts. But it’s good to know that people care enough about music for it to be controversial.

  4. ken says:

    Please note the following, which is also repeated on my profile page:

    Comment Policy

    You are more than welcome to comment here, either to agree or disagree with what I am saying, but please keep in mind that you are having a conversation with me in my space. If your comment is something that, if said in conversation, would generate an “Excuse me?” reaction, I am most likely to delete it.

    Additionally, you don’t have to have an LJ account to post here, but I don’t have conversations with strangers who don’t bother to introduce themselves. If you don’t want to post your introduction publicly, do it in a separate post which I will not unscreen. I generally do not unscreen anonymous posts in my personal journal unless I know the source.I’m posting this because this entry is attracting a surprising number of anonymous comments, some of which would be worth a conversation, but not with faceless strangers.

  5. dkuznick says:

    The TV theme song is Mission Impossible.

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