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Review of Robert Fripp's Guitar Workshop in Nottingham, U.K.


Date Submitted: 13-Dec-93
Submitted By: Toby Howard (toby at cs dot man dot ac dot uk) and Ian Piumarta (ikp at cs dot man dot ac dot uk)

"Does anyone have any conceptual difficulty counting up to five?"
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Robert Fripp's Guitar Workshop, Saturday 19 June, 1993, College Street
Centre for the Performing Arts, Nottingham, U.K.

A review by Toby Howard and Ian Piumarta

One of the day's first pleasures, apart from the drive from Manchester to Nottingham through the wonderful Derbyshire scenery, to the accompaniment of obscure Frank Zappa songs with Ian's spoken annotations, and driving round the same roundabout seventeen times before we found the right turnoff, was to meet a stick player who turned out to be Discipline reader Mark Butler. Mark was a little worried that he'd brought his stick to a guitar workshop, and feared some awful withering comment from Fripp. In the event, he had nothing to worry about.

The workshop began at 2.30, when about 40 people clumped into a large rehearsal space, where we found chairs arranged in two rough concentric circles. And we _mean_ clumped. No-one new what to do, where to sit, whether to get their guitars out, to tune, to dweedle [this is Ian's term for what is perhaps best euphemistically described as guitar-based self-abuse], to sit quietly -- or what. Fripp was the perfect host, inviting people to seat themselves intelligently. He beckoned Mark to an empty chair. The adjacent chair was shortly taken by Trey Gunn, and Fripp commented to Mark "You are fortunate to have one of the greatest stick-players in the United States sitting next to you". Toby looked at Mark with a "er, like SCARY, man" expression on his face.

Gradually, people got settled and sat, quietly waiting. Fripp sat, perched on his chair in what appeared to be an hideously uncomfortable posture but which was, no doubt, a masterpiece of achievement with the Alexander Technique. We sat, and waited, and waited, and... after a few minutes there was a total silence in the room punctuated with only the occasional cough or embarrassed giggle. It was extraordinary.

Eventually, when some sort of silent calm seemed to have descended upon the congregation, Fripp pulled out a watch and said "And so, at 2.47 p.m. on Saturday 19th June, 1993, I declare this workshop in session".

Sitting next to Fripp were Hideyo Moriya, Paul Richards, and Bert Lams -- the California Guitar Trio -- and Trey Gunn. After some chat about it being his first ever workshop, Fripp asked everyone in turn to identify themselves and say why they were at the workshop. There was an extraordinary mixture of people, from perhaps the age of 12 and up. Folksy types, metal men, jazzers, people without guitars, -- B.J. Cole, the UK's number one pedal steel guitarist -- and a family of 4 there "for a day out". It was an almost exclusively male audience.

Working as "the inner circle" and "the outer circle", the first exercise was called "Circulation", and the object here was to practice the art of "listening". The idea was to pass a note onto your right-hand neighbour, who would respond to the note and pass another note onto his neighbour, and so on. We tried it. A more horrible noise you would be hard-pressed to imagine. This was about 40 guitars: nylon stung, steel strung acoustics and electrics, some plugged in, some not, and non tuned uniformly.

Then Fripp had the outer circle comment on what they had just heard. The inner circle tried again. It was better. We repeated this a few times and then again with the roles of the inner and outer circles reversed. It was fascinating to see the improvement. The California Guitar Trio demonstrated circulation between the three of them, and it was _seamless_.

Fripp launched into what was the to be the first of two monologues to occur during the afternoon, describing what the circulation was all about. Fripp explained that the note which was passed around the room wasn't merely a frequency, but something much more recondite: each note that was played took with it something of personality of the player, and was imbued with a quality all of its own that could be passed on to, and reinforced by, the next person in the circle.

The next exercise was to do with polyrhythms. It was at this point that Fripp asked whether everyone could count to five. Establishing that we could, he set half the inner circle counting 5's, clapping on 1 and 4. The other half were to count in 7's, clapping on 1 4 and 6. We did this together and, again, it was a mess. We practised a bit, and it sounded better. Then one group had to count 14 bars of 5's, the others counting 10 bars of 7, so that the pattern cycled every 70 bars. We tried it, and then discussed it. How do we keep track of the beats, was what the exercise seemed to be about. Instead of counting explicitly 1-2-3-4-5, 2-2-3-4-5, 3-2-3-4-5, and so on, Fripp proposed an alternative scheme where we _saw_ the notes in front of our eyes. This was the material for his second mystical monologue of the day.

"Hmm," thought Toby, "This is a lot for a 2-hour workshop." And it was. It had become clear that Fripp hadn't structured the workshop well. At no time we were asked to tune up; there were too many ideas thrown out and not followed up; then, towards the end of the workship Fripp asked: "would anyone care to play anything?" The atmosphere in the room instantly changed. There was silence, again. People either looked at the floor, or at the ceiling. Eventually someone plucked up the courage, or whatever it was that they needed. More followed. People strummed chord changes; played short compositions; little tunes; a kid of about 13 sludged out tortured Nirvana licks on his overdistorted electric guitar; Mark played a stick tune (and when he played a particular high melody riff Toby spotted Trey Gunn's expression say "hey, that's an interesting riff"); a kid of about 16 played a piece on a nylon-string. "Very good", said Fripp -- his only comment on anyone's playing. "How far would you like to take your music?" Fripp asked. The young man answered "as far as I could allow myself" and when asked to elaborate, he made the comment that many of the metal musicians, whose music he respects, seem to be not-very-nice-people, and he didn't want to be like that. Fripp commented on the dangers of the social power that comes with success.

We then had a short open question session, in which Fripp explained that there was to be a radio interview before which we might like to ask questions that would not be typical of such a radio interview. I think both of us were slightly annoyed when most of the questions were of the typical radio interview persuasion. One of the better questions was about the New Standard Tuning, which Fripp explained as having come to him while he was enjoying a sauna in New York. He said "it was very hot, when suddenly this tuning floated past me." The audience were, understandably, a little dissatisfied with this response. Fripp didn't seem able to comprehend the difficulty we had in understanding the concept of a tuning "floating past your head". Fripp made some more comments concerning how "wretched" the music business is, before winding up the workshop when a reporter from BBC Radio Nottingham came to do the live radio interview.

We were invited to stay if we wished, and about a dozen did. Afterwards, people chatted with Fripp and the California Guitar Trio. Ian, ever eager for stimulating musical experiences, quizzed Fripp about Guitar Craft. The only permanent base for this seems to be in Germany now, but there are plans afoot to start up a GC series in (of all places) Argentina. Maybe Argentinian guitars are "ready to accept" New Standard Tuning now?

Anyone who has read Eric Tamm's book on Fripp will have been concerned at the accusations leveled against the GC teachers concerning their attitudes to GC students now that Fripp is no longer involved full time with the courses. When asked if the teachers really had taken on a condescending "airs and graces" attitude with the students, Fripp made some obscure deflectionary comment about "never trusting people who want to teach you something". He seemed either unwilling to furnish a clear answer to the question of their attitude, or unable to understand the question. Ian was left rather baffled, and in no way reassured that GC still has the friendly unassuming atmosphere that Tamm's book describes.

It was an odd event, to say the least.

Sunday
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The next day Toby returned to Nottingham (without, alas, Ian, but with, happy to say, his partner Jane. Er... Toby's partner, that is, not Ian's). Toby and Jane met with Mark again, and some itinerant stick players, and had a few beers before the evening's gig. The gig, going from the reviews we've seen in Discipline, was very similar to the Californian shows in style and content. RF, Trey Gunn and the trio entered through the audience, and the music was a mixture of Fripp/Gunn frippertronics, trio pieces, and the five working together. There was no spoken communication with the audience. About 1/2 way through the gig Fripp and Gunn set up a very jarring discordant frippertronics loop, that was very loud, and -- to my ears -- not very musical. Jane was angry as it made her existing headache worse! Then, they all left the stage, with the loop in progress. The house lights stayed down, and noone knew whether it was an interval or not. Some people, us included, guessed it was, and I suspect some wanted to get away from what was, frankly, a bloody awful racket. We had interval drinks waiting at the bar too! But none of the staff knew what was happening either, saying that if we left the house, we couldn't get back in.

So we went back to our seats, and after a few minutes Fripp et al reappeared, and thankfully switched off the loop. They played some more, and came back for an encore. For a final encore, they reappeared from the back of the hall, each wearing the regulation black ovation. At the front of the hall they played a Guitar Craft-type piece (I think I recognised it from Show of Hands) and Fripp dedicated it to the itinerant stick players who were in the 2nd row. That was beautiful playing. Incredibly, some asshole took a flash picture from about 2 feet away from them. Fripp turned and looked at the person, and shook his head slowly, while not missing a beat playing his part of the piece.

It was a great gig, and our gin and tonics are still, presumably, waiting for us at the bar.


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