Robert Fripp &The Orchestra of Crafty Guitarists
by Brent Cole
Having helped define prog-rock in the 60s and 70s with his band King Crimson, Robert Fripp has gone on to create different forms of musical expression over the decades. Nearly 30 years ago he formed a course that became the basis of his current musical outlet, The Orchestra of Crafty Guitarists. This group of guitarists creates improvised music as one – thinking, feeling and moving as one unit operating on a seemingly higher level of consciousness.
The Orchestra of Crafty Guitarists are all alumni of Guitar Craft, guitar courses Fripp began in 1985 with the goal of developing relationships with guitar, music and oneself. At GC, students use new standard tuning (C, G, D, A, E, G) and developing a unique picking style. While the school welcomes students without experience, most have been playing guitar a couple years. The intensive classes also feature instruction on relaxed sitting for guitarists who play daily, among other practices. Over 3,000 students have taken the courses held on four continents.
After years of training and discipline, the best guitarists from GC can become part The Orchestra of Crafty Guitarists, a group whose purpose is the specialized “study in self-organizing properties of complex wholes,” states their website. “A group comes together in service of an aim. At a particular level, each member of the group is that group, and the group may act in and through that person.”
The Orchestra of Crafty Guitarists play shows sporadically with a fluid line up of guitarists, many of whom have been studying GC’s techniques for years. Their upcoming Bellingham show will feature between 50-60 guitarists, according to Bill Rieflin, the group’s spokesman for this mini tour as well as one of the performers. Rieflin is best known as the drummer of industrial icons Ministry and REM (after Bill Berry retired), among countless other projects.
He took the course for the first time in August 1989. “You learn all the tools and all the techniques to be good at your craft,” Rieflin said. “It’s no different in playing a musical instrument, you need to know how to organize your body in such a way that it makes playing work.” The course and subsequent teaching, though, move beyond the idea of just getting together and jamming. “There is a vocabulary, there is a body of technique,” he stated, “we’ve all learned or been instructed on the body of techniques,” including “techniques that develop and strengthen attention.”
The last point is one of the key fundamentals to the Orchestra of Crafty Guitarists, and Rieflin compares it to driving a car. “Driving is not something that’s automatic. You have to learn what to do. It’s teaching people not only what to pay attention for, but how to pay attention. You are out there in the world in the real time and if you make a mistake there are very serious consequences.”
He continued, “Not only do you have to have the skill to operate the machinery, you have to have the inner skill to make decisions to respond. With the orchestra, we work with a body of techniques that aid us in strengthening our attention of our awareness – it increases a person’s personal presence,” adding, “You are present in a situation.”
With approximately 50-60 guitarists all playing improvised music, knowing the common language and being acutely aware of what is occurring around you transforms the group from individuals to one unit working together. “The essence within the orchestra there is the possibility for all of the members to be able to speak with the voice of one guitarist playing with one guitar,” stated Rieflin.
While the musicians’ creation is at the heart of the orchestra, Rieflin stated the audience is also important. “The role of the audience is crucial. A good audience will really elevate the performance and bring something to life and a bad audience will make the performer slog for nothing.” He added, “We talk about attention or presence. If you’re coming to a performance and you’re giving yourself to it,” and are, “intentionally and willingly open to possibilities of the performance,” stunning transforming feelings can come from the night. “Musical performance is successful if you feel better afterwards than when you first went. If that’s the case, then something has changed… something new has been brought into your life and that’s fantastic. That in itself is not insignificant.”
According to Rieflin, the orchestra will get together for a few days prior to the three performances, “rehearsing, living, working, eating and sleeping together, forging bonds and all the things we need to forge.”
Orchestra performances are often performed in non-traditional music venues; each of the Pacific Northwest dates will be performed in churches.
“In a traditional church, you can find really wonderful acoustics. They’re really big spaces and sound can really soar. Churches are centers of where people go to pray, people go to focus their attentions in a certain way, worship, prayer, contemplation. They find solace – these are calm places – these are havens. These are where people go to deal with the greater issues of their lives. There’s a certain kind of energy that can build up in these places. It’s a good thing. It helps us sore.”
While the thoughts of the orchestra can, at times, seem grandiose, it’s really grounded in something extraordinarily human. “It’s an improvised music situation – it’s a creative situation – it’s dynamic and it’s unpredictable. But that’s the exciting thing, that’s real life. If you’re looking for an analogy, it mirrors life.”
Rieflin doesn’t hide his excitement for the performance, with “the highest hopes that the heavens will open and the world will be a better place afterwards.”
See The Orchestra of Crafty Guitarists perform Friday, May 23 at the First Congregational Church of Bellingham. Tickets are $25 per person. For more about the group, or to purchase tickets, see www.orchestraofcraftyguitarists.com.