NEW YORK, NY—Robert Fripp brought his soundscapes to the Winter Garden at the World Financial Center for a two-day, four show residence, playing his Monolith Of Effects for an audience as well as passers-by.
The risk of performing live in unusual territory is a personal challenge Fripp has undertaken for much of his musical career. The venue, the space at The Winter Garden, held special significance. It is a beautiful space filled with soaring trees and a cathedral like windowed ceiling, and it also overlooks ground zero of the World Trade Center. There is a constant procession walking by, looking over the site of the September 11 attacks, making for a most unusual space to play music. Or, perhaps, a most necessary one.
For every worshipper of Fripp there were at least two people eating lunch and/or using the space to rest or play. Many listened just as many ignored or had no idea a music performance was taking place. Thirty minutes before the performance I saw Fripp, sitting quietly in the seats about 20 rows back. No one else seemed to notice.
To put any value judgment as to good or bad on this is reductionist. This is performance as pure science, in a way, experimentation with no idea of the outcome. Soundscapes are improvised on the spot. The audience has no idea what Fripp will play each set, but neither does Fripp. He puts himself in a place where the patches and notes choose themselves, improvisation in its most naked pure form. In the end, the audience and venue had as much to do with the performance as what was coming out of the speakers. In a way, they contribute to what happens.
Soundscapes evolved from Frippertronics, where Fripp would feed the output of one reel-to-reel tape recorder into another, creating a loop of sound that repeated with a decay that lasted many seconds. Highly unusual at the time, today there are effect pedals that do the same thing. But few have used such a system to play 40-50 minutes long single song sets, as these performances were.
The sounds: Lush strings, ominous bass drones, high notes sprinkling and shimmering. The dynamics live presented another challenge, soundscapes are often very quiet, at the edge of listenability, and several times the music went into this territory, where seemingly nothing was happening, unless you were really listening. Fripp soloed over the loops, usually quiet passages that didn’t overpower the background he had set.
When Fripp first decided to take Frippertronics out into the world he specifically chose public places, pizza parlors and record stores, non-traditional places to play and/or listen to live improvised music. Fripp and his soundscapes now seem more at home in sacred spaces like churches and houses of worship. The Winter Garden was not a church, but a place where people gather because something extraordinary happened. The possibility of the extraordinary would seem to be an apt description for Robert Fripp’s most unlikely, wonderful performances.