Robert Fripp’s Teachings on Leadership, Experience and Achieving Mastery

In Customer Experiences with Soul we explore the question of what it means to be human in a technological world. With our current COVID-crisis this question is now more pertinent than ever before as adoption of technologies for remote working and online collaboration accelerates. While today’s technology is introducing us to new ways of experiencing the world through mass connectivity and interactions, mass production has led to an obsession with efficiency, seeing everything – including people – as resources which must be optimised.

As just one example of this dehumanising mindset, White House adviser Kevin Hassett recently described people as “human capital stock”, saying that “Our human capital stock is ready to go back to work”.

In contrast to only viewing technology as an efficiency, creating solution, it is possible to explore the counter-position of personal mastery. The importance of this is that those people who have achieved personal mastery have a different way of being in the world. They have the ability to experience new worlds, and through art they have an ability to open up these worlds to us all.

In the documentary Being in the World, Philosopher Mark Wrathal defines worlds as “whole, organised, coherent ways of being human in activities”. This is a powerful concept when thinking about empathy and how to enter the lived experience of other people, since we realise that while empathy can allows us to appreciate the life of others, we do not necessarily have the mastery neccessary to truly enter them. But what can do is learn how to appreciate mastery, learn how to appreciate the craft of masters, and if we have the sensitivity to understand that while we may not yet have the ability to enter the world of the master, if we have humility, curiosity and a desire to develop ourselves in some way, there is a an incredible source of wisdom when we allow the worlds of masters to open up to us.

For this reason, Maria and I discuss the notion of both worlds and mastery in the narrative which unfolds in Customer Experiences with Soul. While this may at first appear to be a purely philosophical discussion, nothing could be further from the truth. In our own consulting practices which we have developed, our Holonomics Approach, there is no separation between theory and practice, and that is because without the theory, the practice is simply not possible. It is the theory which opens up new ways of seeing which enable the practioner to be more creative, and discover new forms of solution, services and ways of being of service.

A couple of years ago Maria and I visited Liverpool and it was an incredible experience, with the first day being one of entering into the world of the Beatles, and the second day watching Liverpool vs Manchester City which turned out to the most exciting Premier League game of that season, ending 4 – 3 to Liverpool. We also had the chance to visit the British Music Experience, which included an interactive Gibson exhibition at the end, giving me the chance to play a red Epiphone Casion Coupe which I absolutely loved.

Photo: Simon Robinson

This reminded me of my teenage years with my band which I formed at school, and so on my return to Brazil I bought a new electric guitar and started to really attempt to learn some technique, having just learnt a few chords with friends with no teacher.

At school I just had The Complete Beatles, a book with all of their music and which had pictures of the chords which was the only real book I used to learn from. Nowadays life is so different, with a vast range of videos on YouTube which you can learn from. I have also been discovering a great deal of archive interviews from the 60s, 70s, 80s and 90s from all of my favourite bands and musicians which I have been finding fascinating as well.

One particular musician I have been listening to and learning from is Robert Fripp, the guitarist from the band King Crimson and whose most famous solo is actually as a guest on David Bowie’s Heroes. Jimi Hendrix believed that King Crimson to be the best band in the world, with Fripp considered to be one of the world’s top 100 guitarists of all time. In addition to Bowie, Fripp has also collaborated with many other musicians and producers such as Brian Eno and Andy Summers.

I am not actually a fan of King Crimson. While their virtuosity simply cannot be denied, at times listening can be a challenge. But if you do wish to hear a sample of Fripp’s playing, his solo on Eno’s Baby’s on Fire is considered to be one of the greatest solo’s of all time.

I’ll come back to this solo and song later.

Fripp is no typical rock star musician, something which becomes immediately apparent in his interviews which are always thoughtful, intense, focused and at times intimidating for those interviewing him. In 1975 Fripp took a sabatical from music in order to study at J.G. Bennett’s International Academy for Continuous Education at Sherbourne in Gloucester, an experiment in a radically different and holistic form of adult education.

During this life-changing year for him, he was also taught by the philosopher Henri Bortoft, who I studied with at Schumacher College in 2009. So as well as studying the music and thoughts of Fripp, I have also sought to learn about his experience at this time, especially as I took had taken a sabbatical for my own masters degree in Holistic Science at Schumacher College where Henri taught. When Henri passed away in 2012, I entered into contact with Fripp who sent me a contribution to publish on my page of tributes to Henri.

In this interview below, Fripp starts by talking about his experiencs at the academy, explaining in his humourous manner how his aim had been to discover how to deal with his understanding of himself as a “small, mobile, intelligent unit”. Following this, Fripp then explores the notion of complexity and how to deal with the complexity in our modern age. He then returns to analyse a statement from J.G. Bennett’s inaugral address to Sherbourne House in October 1971 in which Bennett claims that “it is impossible to achieve the aim without suffering”.

The interview me becomes even more remarkable when (at 20.00) Fripp starts to talk about the different ways in which audiences at his concerts are able or are not able to participate through an active form of listening and also the manner in which people either look or stare at him.

Fripp discusses his accute sensitivity to crowd responses, and the way in which he can tell when there is concentration and intention in the audience and when there isn’t. If there is a lack of attention and concentration his craft, as he calls his musicianship, is not able to reach the highest level of performance and art. For Fripp, art is an intangible magical aspect of a performance, which cannot be controlled, whereas craft is “the discipline one understakes” in order to achieve that art. As he says, “art is where you wish to go, craft is how you get there”.

For Fripp, he uses a shockingly uncouth metaphor to explain how for him, a recorded piece of music can never reach the heights of a live performance. The aspect of this part of the interview which really stood out for me was the role of the audience in holding the space to allow the musicians or performers to reach that level. As he observed, in his previous night’s performance a man in the audience refused to switch off a tape recorder, thereby disturbing Fripp’s performance and craft.

In the 1980s and 1990s Fripp would continue to innovate and develop new forms of musical expression, including Frippertronics and later soundscapres which he distinguishes as being different to ambient music, a genre pioneered by Eno. On his website Fripp has described soundscapes as “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”. An example comes from his show in Japan from 2003, and you can experience the preparation and focus of Fripp as he spends minutes waiting to sound the first note.

I have always been attracted to the notion of soundscapes. In addition to my band, as a teen I also had a Casio CX 1000 synthesiser, and I always remember trying to create complex swooshes of layered harmonic sound. This interest naturally took me into more rythmic and tribal trance, ending up with an invitation to create the sonic opening performance of the Raise the Roof music festival in Leeds in 2007 with an experimental musical band with some extremely talented friends (having already played at the festival in 2006).

I also experimented with soundscapes with another friend in Yorkshire who had created the concept of a sonic henge, a circular henge of sound with between 12 and 20 speakers, recording with him at his rural studio near Ripon. Soundscapes are an art, a form of art which I feel is accessible to me. But as someone who has never played lead guitar, or been taught how to pick, I wonder how much it would really be possible to learn at my age, given the reduced time available to really dedicate myself.

The guitar playing of Fripp is quite possibly one of the most difficult styles to replicate. So difficult in fact that guitarist Anthony Garone has dedicated twenty years of his life to mastering just one King Crimson song, Fracture.

Outside of listening to Fripp himself discuss his music, this series of videos on this one song and one task is absolutely fascinating for the insights that Garone manages to articulate so well in relation to craft and personal mastery. Not only does Garone discuss the song, I have chosen to highlight this particular episode in the series for the way in which he includes some of the many of Fripp’s aphorisms.

For those of you who have read Customer Experiences with Soul, you will immediately see how these related to our approach to experience, consciousness and being which is phenomenological in nature, and which is expressed through a dynamic conception of wholeness. I wanted to arrive at these aphorisms since they are just as applicable to thinking about customer experience design and also of huge importance in our abilities to develop as leaders within our organisations.

Fripp lists all of his aphorisms on a single page of his website: Guitar Craft Aphorisms. While this page can be read through quickly, it is one to save, souvour and return to frequently, due to the collective wisdom each and every aphorism contains. Here are just a few which speak to me particularly:

A test of our understanding is whether we can apply what we understand in practice.

Attention is the prime tool of any line of craft.

Efficiency: as little as possible and as much as is necessary.

If we are able to describe the characteristics of the level to which we aspire, our aspiration becomes possible.

Interrogate the experience.

It is not possible for the musician to play music.
But, it is possible for the musician to be played by music.

Learn to recognise the changing qualities of our experiencing.

Music is a language through which we can express our struggle to be a human being.

Perfection is impossible.
But I may choose to serve perfection.

The artist is a bridge between the possible, the impossible and the actual.

The quality of the question determines the quality of the answer.

The questions we ask direct the course of our lives.

The real world is as available to us as we can bear to be present to what is real.

What we hear is the quality of our listening.

Where our attention is, is where we are.

For those of you who decide to watch the videos I’ve included in this article, you will enter into discussions of perfection and the impossible. There is a huge richness in these conversations I will allow you to discover, as you will when you fully explore the aphorisms.

As I said myself, I will never in my life reach anywhere near the mastery of Fripp, but remember that Fripp’s aphorisms talk of the way in which simplicity is harder than speed in guitar playing, and this is where we find sublime art in soundscapes. In another interview with Fripp which I watched recently, he admitted to there being a mistake in I Advance Masked which he recorded with Andy Summers of The Police. When asked why he kept it it, he said he decided to leave it there for those to find who were capable of spotting it.

And if we return to Baby’s on Fire, Eno himself has spoken about just how many of the intruments were out of tune, saying that:

“The instruments were incredibly out of tune, so out of tune you wouldn’t believe it. But it sounds fantastic. There’s one little bit in it where there’s a riff between the guitar and one of the bassists, and they’re so out of tune it sounds like cellos. Amazing! I mean if you tried to make that sound in the studio it would have taken you ages. You wouldn’t have thought of making it, in fact, it’s such a bizarre sound. And the piano and guitar are quite well out of tune as well. Ha!”

This is where we find soul in art, and remember how imperfections can create a different order of perfection. Some of us who are designers are always looking to create new products, services, platforms, concepts, brands and express ideas through our work which while not necessarily being cultural or artistic, can be thought of as being craft through which we can express something that is beautiful, truthful and good.

In Fripp’s aphorisms, we see no separation from art and artist, craft and craftsperson, and also ethics and performance. This is the dynamic conception of wholeness which I spoke of, and which we can discover in the performance of artists who have truly reached mastery. There is always inspiration in the greatest of artists and the highest level of art, and when we take this inspiration and wisdom into our working lives, we can achieve the truly astonishing as well.

Main photo credit: Pixabay

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