By ProgBlog, Apr 5 2015 06:53PM
Around the time of the double trio King Crimson incarnation, Jim Knipe and I went off to see Robert Fripp performing soundscapes in the foyer of the Queen Elizabeth Hall on London’s South Bank. This attendance was fairly hastily arranged because of respective work commitments such as on-call and the Saturday 9th March was deemed to be the most suitable of the potential dates on offer, Fripp being in residence at the QEH for four days from the 7th to the 10th including what was due to be a marathon session on Saturday 9th, as part of a series of events billed as ‘Now You See It’. Strangely enough, Crystal Palace were at home to Jim’s team, West Bromwich Albion that afternoon, with Palace running out winners 1-0 and legend Dougie Freedman scoring the sole goal; this predated our arrangement to attend Eagles v Baggies and Baggies v Eagles reciprocal home fixtures by some years, when West Brom and Palace are playing in the same division.
I’m a fan of Fripp’s soundscapes. I’ve got (No Pussyfooting) and Evening Star, which I regard as early, lo-fi examples of guitar and tape loops which marked the beginning of Frippertronics (a term coined by Fripp’s girlfriend at the time, Joanna Walton). Though I don’t own either God Save the Queen/Under Heavy Manners (1980) or Let the Power Fall (1981) I do have the Fripp-produced Sacred Songs by Daryl Hall, recorded in 1977 but not released until 1980 which some believe contains the first examples of proper Frippertronics. I’ve charted their evolution from the original collaborations with Eno, through solo album Exposure (1979) and the 80s incarnation of Crimson to the work with David Sylvian, The First Day and the live album Damage (both 1993), that presaged the double trio King Crimson of the 90s. The calm, dreamy Bringing Down the Light from The First Day was probably the earliest recorded example of Fripp’s modern take on the soundscape; my collection ends with the four track CD EP Pie Jesu (1997) which contains material from A Blessing of Tears and The Gates of Paradise. By this time, technology had become very reliable and instead of twin Revox tape decks and his effect pedal that I’d seen give up the ghost while playing with the League of Gentlemen at the LSE in November 1980, he was now using industry-standard TC2290 dynamic digital delay modules from TC electronics.
The late 70s and early 80s saw Fripp embarking on a number of intimate solo performances in off-beat venues, in the guise of a ‘small, mobile, intelligent unit’. This modus operandi was revisited in the mid-90s with the new technology and resulted in a series of releases that sadly aren’t currently available (though a series of more recent compilations are readily accessible); these shows were sonically and physically disparate from his playing in a group context. In Crimson he migrated out of the front line, remaining in the shadows but he was entirely out of sight when I went to see Peter Gabriel at the Liverpool Empire in April 1977 performing his first solo tour, until his introduction as ‘Dusty Rhodes’ when he appeared to take a bow. As a solo performer, whatever the ambient lighting, he was always in the spotlight and the perceived barriers between Fripp and the audience were rendered insignificant. Fripp was able to trigger loops and delays and leave his ‘stage’ from time-to-time, blurring the lines between the distinction of guitarist and listeners. On http://www.dgmlive.com/rf/index.htm?group=bleeping&bio=true Fripp writes “The Soundscape performances are part of an ongoing series which has the aim of finding ways in which intelligence and music, definition and discovery, courtesy and reciprocation may enter into the act of music for both musician and audience.”
This interaction is one reason why the music shouldn’t be simply classed as ‘ambient’ music. The ambient tag suggests the listener is passive but it is Fripp’s stated aim to seek an interaction which may then shape the course of the event; proactive music making, with Fripp and a guitar able to make a great deal of noise should he decide to do so. These aren’t sampled atmospherics, sounds from nature or even urban background chatter but a controlled, improvised, sonic narrative that may be calming, dramatic, eerie, alarming or even jagged and angular.
The ambient genre had its origins in the 70s and could be described as a musical form with an emphasis on tone, timbral quality and atmosphere rather than a traditional structure or rhythm. To this extent, ambient music ought to have an unobtrusive quality. Early pioneer Brian Eno has said that ambient music should be able to accommodate many levels of listening attention without enforcing one in particular; that it must be as ignorable as it is interesting. This suggests to me that ambient music is passive and so, by applying Fripp’s description of soundscapes, soundscapes are not ambient music.
‘Ambient’ somehow seems mixed up with New Age ideas, or rather there is an association between the two through a construct of the marketing industry. Fripp’s critique of the music business is well documented, largely through copious sleeve notes that have accompanied Fripp-related releases through DGM; the corporate music world relies on consumer trends that are controlled via the medium of marketing.
Soundscapes aren’t electronica, either. This is a sub-genre I associate with sequencer pulses and (predominantly) keyboard washes. Whether intended or not, programmed sequences form the basis of rhythm, and they certainly provide a sense of drive and direction which removes them from the accepted definition of ‘ambient’. Thus Tangerine Dream, synthesizer innovators of the early 70s, are allowed to be described as producing ‘atmospheric’ music but their ephemeral melody lines that interweave with snatched, developing pulsating sequences excludes them from ambientism.
It’s the unknown direction of soundscapes that I find appealing. Some of my own improvised music using a Roland synthesizer falls into calming soundscape territory, though I have a tendency to overdub ‘natural’ sounds, rainfall, wind or waves and use reverse waveforms played over the original recording to produce smooth, soothing compositions. This is very unlike Fripp (and obviously nowhere near as good) with only his guitar and effects, conjuring angels and demons in response to his audience in an intimate, live setting. Each performance is unique and if Fripp has full recordings of his recital from March 9th 1996 (the piano-inflected Sometimes God Hides that appears on The Gates of Paradise released in 1997 was taken from that appearance) I’d very much like him to consider releasing it – the memory of standing sipping bottles of Becks watching the craftsman at work is beginning to fade.