This was one of the first stories I wrote in 1986, the year I became a self-employed (I hate the word freelance) writer. Alas, my modest powers of description never did justice to the feeling of being surrounded by Robert Fripp and a room full of guitarists playing a concert for an audience of one: me. It became just a graf toward the end of the story. And, though Fripp was charming and whimsical, I worked a little too hard to establish my persnickety detachment from my subject (who invited me to join the course). Yet the experience still resonates. Excerpts from Fripp's diaries are available at his website. Read more about the Guitar Craft seminars here. -- MF
As seen in Guitar World, November 1986:
HIGH C WITH MR. FRIPP
Our reporter sits in on a master class
by Mark Fleischmann
Robert Fripp makes his enbrance into the library and takes a seat, joining the 21 Guitar Craft students and one journalist already there. He starts the interview by interviewing the interviewer: "Is it easy making a living as a journalist?"
What the hell; I play along. A few questions later I mention my editor is "a neat person." "Neat in England," says Fripp, "implies a fastidiousness of appearance. Is American neat different?"
"It's a term that means nearly anything you want it to mean," I answer, "much like the word nice."
"Which means exact or precise," counters the obsessively precise Fripp.
"It's sort of a vague gesture of approval."
"Is he clean?"
"He's very clean."
My editor and I may now breathe a sigh of relief as Fripp begins talking about Guitar Craft. Fripp has been giving this series of unorthodox seminars since last year at Claymont Court, a sprawling 400-acre estate -- complete with threadbare mansion -- on the periphery of Charles Town, West Virginia. On this delicious spring evening Fripp and company are in the midst of the 13th seminar. After a few more months and a few more seminars Fripp will move the affair to Dorset in England.
"Guitar Craft," he says, "is a way of finding a relationship between oneself and a guitar." Fripp starts his course with simple left- and right-hand exercises. These mask his ulterior motive, which is to demonstrate to his students that they may lack something as primary as a "relationship" with their hands.
"Most people come here working on the assumption that they have a relationship with their hands," says Fripp. "Within a fairly short time most people are convinced they have none whatsoever. And I keep a kitchen roll [paper towels] in my room. I tear the sheets off and people come in and start crying." If things get out of hand, students may turn to Claymont's resident psychotherapist Barbara June Applejean.
The three key words in the Fripp philosophy of teaching guitar are relaxation, attention and sensitivity. His language often evokes that of his late teacher J.G. Bennett, who in turn studied with the mystic Gurdjieff. Claymont is, in fact, the center of the American Society for Continuous Education, founded by Bennett shortly before his death in 1974 -- the year Fripp met him.
"It's difficult to approach basic exercises for the left and right hands if the musculature is locked in tension," says Fripp. One means of relaxing this bottled-up tension are the "relaxation exercises" that begin each day in a Guitar Craft course; another is the "Alexander Technique," in which students work with physical therapist Frank Sheldon, who teaches them to identify and eliminate sources of tension in their necks, backs, shoulders and elsewhere. By actively attending to the task of relaxing, students may develop greater sensitivity. "And at that point," says Fripp, "something can start to happen."
Like what? "One can begin to develop a relationship with the guitar, and with music, and sometimes with audiences. One of the techniques of the course is to present the 'Crafty Guitarists' with a challenge. Like, 'Tomorrow evening, I've accepted on your behalf a concert in a redneck bar. You have 24 hours to write and rehearse the material for an audience who maybe will turn off the TV if you ask nicely.' That kind of challenge.
"Another challenge was given on a Thursday evening, five days into a course. On Saturday we drive into Charles Town and on Sunday we're giving a live broadcat for West Virginia Public Radio. And immediately after that concert another challenge was set. Tomorrow a 24-track mobile recording studio is turning up in front of themansion and you're making a record for commercial release. And on the Thursday evening of that week a notice was pinned to the bulletin board, an article in the Washington Post, announcing the three concerts which everyone was giving that weekend. Little things like that."
But "each course goes its own way. A particular topic emerges and we follow it. For this course the issue was finding a way of developing a personal practice." And as I rove through the mansion the following day I see them at work: one guitarist in a rec room in the basement, another in the library with a metronome. They're at it eight hours a day, with time off for lunch and private audiences with the Fripp, developing their craft, whose relationship to music Fripp expresses in a tantalizingly mystic way:
"Sometiems music takes a direct hand in the course. A melody emerges. So when a melody flies by, in a strange way, it has little to do with craft. The craft comes in picking the music out of the air and giving it voice. Our work with our hands, producing the sound, that's part of the craft. And being sensitive, being open to when it whizzed by, is also part of the craft."
The recommended instrument for the course is the Ovation supper-shallow-bowl cutaway, which Crafties get at half-price via Fripp. It has a three-band equalizer and is ideal, he says, for the mysterious tuning he has everyone use but declines to specify. "To really find something in the tuning -- and it is quite remarkable -- one has to work at it for a period of time. For most musicians who have to go out and play, it wouldn't get to a point of application where something would stick. So it's best introduced as part of the Guitar Craft course," he says. [Curious guitarists may read more about the tuning on the website of first-generation Crafty Curt Golden.]
How did he come by the tuning? "It presented itself while I was lying in a sauna in a health spa in New York. It flew by, there we go, there's the tuning, flying by that way, going that way. Guitar World, this is a graphic depiction of what was happening." About a week before the first course, he started using it and adopted it for Guitar Craft.
You can hear the tuning on Robert Fripp & the League of Crafty Guitarists -- Live!, an EG/Jem Records product. The album also features 10 minutes of "Frippertronics" with a "blistering guitar solo. Well, it blisters quietly." A companion video with some of the same music, made on home equipment and mixed by "my one and only trueness sweetness love" Toyah Willcox, will also be marketed by EG and Jem. A companion record features Willcox, a singing artiste in her own right, reading The Lady or the Tiger? and a second story by Frank R. Stockton. By the time you read this, Willcox and Fripp will be wed.
What do the students think? Several speak up. Michael Tedesco, a professional, says, "It just occurred to me last week to play our originals with the new tuning." Win Kurlfink is a jazz guitar major who intends "to complete my degree program without returning to that old standard." Trey Gunn likes the way he can use the tuning to "leap huge intervals with not much energy, just leap way up." Bob Gerber points to "two intangibles which seem really essential. One of them is relaxation and the other is economy."
But, says Roy Cappallaro, "It's still a guitar. You still have six strings. And part of the work is to learn the best way to press down, and release, pick a string and get from A to B or A to Z." Says Steve Jolemore, "We work with odd meters quite a bit, and with overlapping meters -- polyrhythms. The harmony is 20th century harmony. Part of what brought me here is an interest in music of the 20th century, and specific languages that have developed in the 20th century that seem somewhat overlooked." Fripp points to composer Bela Bartok as a current influence; Bartok was a master at working in alternate harmonic languages while remaining within listenable reach of traditional tonality.
Eventually the talk turns to King Crimson. Fripp startles everyone by intoning, "King Crimson is not dead." But it is inoperative at this point.
"The Discipline band of 1981 was as close as I could come to a perfect world. Couldn't record; never could. But live -- angels flew by! Four shows at the Savoy in New York -- that cannot happen. But it happened four shows in a row." He's right -- I saw two of them.
Nothing lasts forever, least of all the kind of disciplined, arpeggiated perfection was developing with the new Crimson. Fripp-brand transcendence is fleeing: "It worked for a year." But what with contracts and guarantees, Fripp had to commit for three, and lunges at the whizzing muse became more and more futile. "There you go, 1981. Then 1982 -- grab. 1983 -- grrrab! Then 1984," year of Three of a Perfect Pair -- "ugh! But that was my tradeoff.
"When the guys went in to do the second album, Beat, this time they wanted to 'get it right.' The end. Adrian [Belew] and Bill [Bruford] actually thought this was so much better than Discipline." Presumably guitarist Belew and percussionist Bruford are "nice" merely in the American sense. Fripp has turned his attention and sensitivity to other things for the time being: Guitar Craft, getting married, turning 40, playing and recording with David Sylvian.
When the interview is over we file into the mansion's ballroom and the Crafties play a set for the visiting "audient." The music is magical; at times I think I'm hearing a guitar-orchestra incarnation of Steve Reich at its best. When it's all over, the performers get up and applaud the interviewed interviewer -- the final reversal. As only he can, Robert Fripp has just made another point.