March 1996 – live reviews – Robert Fripp’s South Bank Soundscapes @ Queen Elizabeth Hall foyer, South Bank, London, 10th March (“more challenging abstractions than Fripp’s ever attempted before”)

12 Mar

'Now You See It...':  Robert Fripp Soundscapes, 10th March 1996

‘Now You See It…’: Robert Fripp Soundscapes, 10th March 1996

Tucked against a curving concrete wall, under a sweep of plate-glass windows, there’s the familiar stool with a beautiful rock-fetishist’s dream of a Les Paul guitar, flanked by rack-mounted gizmos like a gaggle of worshipful Artoo Detoos and a flat henge of volume pedals and multi-purpose stomp-boxes. Over to the right, David Singleton sits at the mixing desk, quite the portrait of the calm fixer for the artist’s determined leaps. Arranged in a long staggered curve in front of the opposite wall, lining the long walk between the entrance and the Purcell Room, are at least eight tall speaker cabinets. Occasionally in residence is the sleek, compact form of Wimborne’s most formidable musical son.

These Soundscapes are part of the ‘Now You See It…’ season of contemporary performance art, sharing the building with the Hypermusic Symposium (in which Peter Gabriel, Brian Eno, David Toop and others debate the future of music, and people nervously finger such unorthodox instruments as literally musical chairs and picture frames or the Interactive Baton) while avant-garde dance groups hijack the Purcell Room and stick the audience on the stage, and (less happily) over at the Lyric Theatre in Hammersmith an appallingly pretentious bunch of Euro-thespians do a vandalistic mixed-media Schubert performance.

In these surroundings, Robert Fripp‘s increasingly out-there journeys in solo sound fit in surprisingly well, both physically and intellectually. When a squadron of incredibly young women in bare feet and little black dresses trot busily past (every quarter of an hour, on the dot) to meet their cues in a back-to-front theatre piece next door, it seems inexplicably appropriate. Tonight – Sunday 10th – is the fourth of Fripp’s residencies, a mere four-hour performance compared to the rear-numbing six- and even ten-hour marathons he’s performed earlier in the week. Some people have returned, regardless. Within that length of time, anything could happen: the music that Fripp claims to channel rather than compose could lead him anywhere.

Soundscapes, the successor to the layered sound-loops of Frippertronics, is a major leap forwards, sideways, anyways from its progenitor: the digital technology stores his patterns and transforms his tones to the point where there isn’t a single recognisable Crimsonic guitar sound to be heard all evening. In effect, Fripp and Singleton are playing a wholly new collective instrument, a community of speakers, desk, guitar and digital cyberspace. The end results are a swathe of overlapping, opposing electrophonic voices, sometimes beautiful and sometimes disturbing – polytextural hums; a sound like a seventy-foot high piece of glass being torn like cloth; wailing, spectral swells like American freight trains blowing a blue whistle into a desert of ghosts; aquatic, gem-faceted calls of a Loch Ness Monster; tingling pianistic or xylophonic ringing; squiggling crystal-bat chitters. It emerges as a sound that’s on the brink of being recognisable, somewhere deep down in the soul… but not quite.

As it rolls on, evolving like strata, burying what’s come before like the march of ages, you may find it impossible to concentrate on (four hours is a long time) but it saturates your mind regardless: you’ll sure as hell be thinking differently. While I’m here, I meet somebody who ascribes near-mystical powers to the first Soundscapes album, ‘A Blessing of Tears’ – “any pain you have, any problem, it will heal it…” Even on the basis of what I’m personally experiencing in the music tonight (the rollers, breakers, capricious tides and immense flickering lulls of an alien sea under a midnight-blue sky, occasionally rent by sheets of violet lightning and mile-wide twists in the current… I think I’m in for a night on the ocean wave) I can believe him. This isn’t New Age pretty-stuff.

And so the Soundscapes are installed, piece by lambent unsettling piece, more challenging abstractions than Fripp’s ever attempted before. But most of the people here seem to have missed the point – sitting deferentially in the arc of chairs facing Robert and his little cliffs of winking lights, watching him silently manipulate his gold-top Les Paul or peer into his effects racks, they pay a silent tribute. This isn’t how to do it. When Fripp calls what he does “Soundscapes”, he means it literally. There’s a fifth element in that communal instrumentation: three-dimensional space. Each of the eight speakers arranged in an arc behind the audience is fed by a slightly different sound source. Walking slowly back and forth across the foyer, one passes in and out of phase with the sounds: a different listening angle provides a different piece, an ability and opportunity to concentrate on a different section of the Fripp orchestra. Music to literally explore.

I feel a bit of a fool, though, pacing up and down the floor to curious glances from the audience; it’s not quite the same as hanging around, in gig-approved fashion, with a drink in your hand and lunging up and down gently to your favourite song. Mind you, the rest of the audience are behaving exactly in the way you’d expect at a Fripp-related gig or an art installation. Here are a couple snogging vigorously, French-kissing amidst the unsettling washes of the music; three rows in from the front, a man appears to have passed out, lolling over the back of his chair with his wide-open mouth pointing wetly at the ceiling. Music to intoxicate? Perhaps: it ignores standard musical dimensions in a way that one only otherwise hears in the most deliriously spaced-out Lee Perry dubscapes, although the notoriously drug-free Fripp looks more composed than I’ve even seen him before.

'Now You See It...':  Robert Fripp Soundscapes, 10th March 1996 (programme)

‘Now You See It…’: Robert Fripp Soundscapes, 10th March 1996 (programme)

But then perhaps once the music slips beyond the control of his fretting fingers, flexing feet and console-fondling fingers, it ceases to be his responsibility anyway. The nature of Soundscapes is such that Fripp’s very presence can become little more than a trigger. Turn away at the wrong time and you’ll turn back to find the guitar leaned against the stool and Fripp gone, sipping at a cup of coffee over by the mixing desk as the music wreathes onwards without him, or wandering out through the audience to check a corner of the sound. It’s a little disturbing when, conversing quietly and walking around the circuit of speakers to experience the different sounds, one comes within six inches of Fripp padding lightly in the opposite direction, close enough for you to sense the implacability of his will, pushing at the realms of the possible like a smooth arrowhead.

The element of hazard plays its role too. Sometimes, amongst the layers of harmonic tissue that Fripp is laying down, a mismatch occurs. Or a part decays too soon, or a speaker refuses to cooperate with the vision, and the musical organism is deformed, loses balance, develops cancer. At such times Fripp shrugs in frustration and looks over to Singleton, or out to the audience in the only acknowledgement he ever gives them, lets go of the guitar with palms turned upwards in the universal gesture of helplessness. The music thins out and he begins to build his organism again.

This continues for four hours: time to get several drinks, chat quietly in the background, arrange assignations with other musicians and writers, even formulate whole arguments about what we’re seeing (in other words, make our own contributions to the Soundscape ambience), and still not miss out on the crystallising veils of sound that drift around the foyer, perplexing this evening’s Mozart concertgoers, putting thoughtful expressions on the faces of the cloakroom attendants as it numbs their resistance. At the end, Fripp puts the guitar down, as he’s done so many times before during the evening, and walks slowly away to vanish down the passageway leading to the dressing rooms. The applause that follows his retreating back is sincere, but oddly unfocussed, as if the audience is unsure whether they should be applauding him or the air that’s been buoying up the music and carrying it around like a whispered ritual, I catch the train home, as I usually do; things seem just a touch sharper than normal. Soundscapes don’t so much take you to another world as grant you a shimmering new lens to experience this one through.

Robert Fripp online:
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