It's not unusual to find English rock stars camped out in rustic estates, but it's definitely odd to find Robert Fripp giving guitar lessons at Claymont Court, a dilapidated estate outside Charles Town, W.Va.
Fripp, after all, is one of the most capable guitarists in rock, a master technician whose precise playing bespeaks decades of practice and discipline. His career has virtually defined the English art-rock movement, from King Crimson, a band he founded in 1969 and has led through some seven incarnations, through albums with rock icons David Bowie, Brian Eno and Peter Gabriel. In addition there have been the recordings with such American acts as Blondie, Talking Heads and the Roches.
But Fripp says he feels that what he's doing in West Virginia is in many ways the most important work of his career. "This has been wonderful for me, wonderful," he says, his Dorset accent bright with enthusiasm. "You really only assimilate something when you try to pass it on. Music is a gift, and the quality of a gift is that it remains in motion."
Since late March, Fripp has been taking groups of 18 guitarists -- most in their twenties and slightly awestruck -- and leading them through a series of exercises designed not to make them play faster or flashier, but rather to put them in touch with what he calls "the quality" of music.
It isn't an easy task. "With guitar students, who are here for 5 1/2 days, it takes about three days to get to a point where we've established enough common experience to discuss and establish a common vocabulary," he says.
"For example, here we are to learn guitar exercises. That presupposes that one has a relationship with one's hands, so that one can learn to do the guitar exercises." But as the students correct one bad habit, only to discover that another has risen to take its place, whatever confidence they arrived with is quickly worn down. "Within two or three days, everyone is convinced that they have no relationship with their hands whatsoever," Fripp says, smiling.
"So by the time we're convinced of this, we can begin to work with it. We establish a framework of common experience -- individual and group lessons, common map and language -- we can accomplish things in the final two days by setting a challenge sufficiently high that people have to exert themselves to meet it.
"Actually working on the ordinary details of simple, practical manual exercises changes our state," Fripp explains, "and within two or three days of working intensively together, we become sensitive in a way which we weren't before. So we listen, we see things differently, we're able to be open to other members of the group. At that point, the spirit of music is very close. The notes may not be organized in a very clever way, but the spirit is close."
As theory, this may smell a bit of snake oil. Certainly, "the spirit of music" is not the sort of phrase that turns up in the Mel Bay guitar books. Furthermore, it's worth remembering that the reason Fripp has chosen Claymont Court as his base of operations is that the American Society for Continuous Education, of which he is president, is headquartered there, and that the ASCE is a group devoted to furthering the teachings of J.G. Bennett and the Russian mystic G.I. Gurdjieff.
But Fripp says he's not there to proselytize. In fact, he seems put off by the notion of zealotry. "I get very nervous about the word 'disciple.' Mr. Bennett was my teacher, and Mr. Bennett viewed Mr. Gurdjieff as his prime teacher, although he learned from many people, and was quite eclectic," he says, later adding, "This place is not dogmatic . . ."
Indeed, Fripp's classes stress experience, not devotion to theory. If his technique owes to anything, it's to the age-old Arab and Eastern methods of musical instruction, where, in some traditions, the student studied for years before even being allowed to touch his instrument. Fripp doesn't go that far, although his students are advised not to play guitar during the week before arriving.
He says his devotion to bringing out "the quality" of music has bred some impressive results. "This is the surprising thing, that it's taken on a life of its own. I can't really talk of what remarkable things have happened to other people, but . . ." He pauses, as if considering his words, then says, "Quite a few of the students have told me their lives had been changed. Whatever that might mean -- that they're going home to sell all their equipment, to concentrate on this, or come back. Quite exceptional efforts are being made to keep going with this."
As a result, Fripp has adjusted his own plans to continue the seminars. Although only three courses were initially announced, Fripp expanded the program to nine courses, stretching into November, with an additional set slated for late winter and early spring. A second-level course is scheduled in December for those students ready to move on.
Fripp also is trying to expand the program to nonmusicians. In early August, a weekend of "Music for Non-Musicians" took place at Claymont Court. With basic instruction being given in rhythm, song and on ocarina, and students ranging from "the competent musician who feels out of touch with the quality of music" to "the tone deaf with no sense of rhythm," it was designed to teach that "a concern with developing the skills of producing sound . . . very often leads us to forget the music is a quality, and available to everyone."
For information on the music seminars, which are $475 plus room and board, write to the American Society for Continuous Education, Rte. 1, Box 279, Charles Town, W. Va. 25414.