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Travis & Fripp: Between the Silence

John Kelman By

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Having reformed in 2013 with its distinctive three-drummer frontline and hitting the road for the first time in over a decade the following year, King Crimson's guitarist/keyboardist and only remaining original member Robert Fripp is another example of a musician in his senior years maintaining a more active schedule than, perhaps, at any other time in his career. With the group gigging extensively every year since, Fripp has also been busy, between tours, overseeing a growing catalog of live audio and/or video documents of this current Crimson lineup, beginning with 2015's Live at the Orpheum (Panegyric).

As if that weren't enough, Fripp has also been deeply involved with the 40th Anniversary Series of new stereo and surround sound mixes of Crimson's back catalog (in collaboration with Steven Wilson and/or current Crimson guitarist/vocalist Jakko M. Jakszyk), also leading to an annual series of multi-disc, archival mega-box sets, from 2012's Larks' Tongues in Aspic (40th Anniversary Box Set) (Panegyric) through (so far) to 2017's particularly revelatory Sailors' Tales 1970-1972 (Panegyric).

It's a work schedule that would flatten a musician half his age and yet, if anything, Fripp seems to be having the time of his life. With precious little time to pursue any of the other collaborations with which Fripp has engaged over the years, Between the Silence is especially welcome, a budget-priced three-CD set featuring a trifecta of complete performances by one of Fripp's most fruitful extra-Crimson collaborations: his duo with reed/woodwind multi-instrumentalist Theo Travis, Travis & Fripp.

Travis, whose résumé includes everyone from Gong and Steven Wilson to David Gilmour and, these days, the current lineup of Canterbury legend Soft Machine, has proven himself a particularly ideal foil for Fripp the improviser and soundscapist on four commercial releases, from 2007's Thread (Panegyric), to the duo's last release, Discretion (Panegyric, 2014).

Fripp has always looked for new ways to expand his instrument's sonic possibilities. Beyond innovations in the context of King Crimson, the guitarist's early Frippertronics experiments with Brian Eno (utilizing two connected reel-to reel tape recorders) on albums like 1973's No Pussyfooting (DGM Live) ultimately led, with increasing technological advances in the digital era including sampling, looping and more, to a substantial discography of Soundscape recordings, amongst them Love Cannot Bear (DGM Live, 2005) and the even more innovative soundscapes/orchestral collaboration, The Wine of Silence (DGM Live, 2012).

Listening to his Soundscapes recordings, it's often hard to believe that a single six-string guitar could create such a truly massive and, yes, orchestral sound, where Fripp's control of the technology is so thorough, so organic and so complete that he also blurs the line between form and freedom, often building extended pieces with compositional focus out of in-the-moment improvisational explorations. But between sounds that are impossible to create acoustically, and sampling that allows Fripp to build music of truly symphonic proportions, a variety of more guitar-centric textures have also become Fripp signatures over the decades, from clean, warm-toned timbres to silkily sustaining colors, all emerging as he creates contexts over which he can freely improvise through everything from sampling to synthesis, looping to altered attack, and chorus, vibrato and tremolo to pitch-shifting.

Like Fripp, Travis—also an impressive player in the jazz sphere on albums like Double Talk (Esoteric, 2015)—has explored the seamless integration of technology with his reeds and woodwinds, developing a system he calls Ambitronics, where a variety of effects and looping devices allow him to similarly (and simultaneously) build more expansive musical landscapes ranging from utterly free to compositionally focused...and everything in-between. While he has applied Ambitronics to saxophone, his most successful examples of the concept can be found on two specific solo albums: Slow Life (Ether Sounds, 2009), where Travis employs solely alto flute alongside his Ambitronics; and Open Air (Tonefloat, 2017), where he blends the technology with a broader range of flute variants.

Over the course of four releases from 2007 to 2014, the pairing of Fripp's Soundscapes and Travis' Ambitronics proved a match made in heaven, but while these albums would suggest an ongoing and active duo, the unfortunate truth is that Travis & Fripp was, in fact, relatively short-lived and, since 2011, inactive. The duo's history was restricted, in fact, to the one day in the studio that yielded Thread, a handful of live church dates in 2009 that resulted in Live at Coventry Cathedral (Panegyric, 2010), and seventeen British and European 2010 dates that, along with some additional recording in 2011, formed the foundation for both Follow (Panegyric, 2012) and Discretion.

In addition to Live at Coventry Cathedral, two other shows from 2009 alongside nine shows from Travis & Fripp's short 2010 tour of Britain and Europe have been available, in download-only form, from DGM Live, and it's three of these releases that are making their first appearance on CD with Between the Silence (subtly remastered, according to Travis, and with some minor mixing tweaks): All Saints Church, Broad Chalke, May 21, 2009; Spiegeltent, Bath Festival, June 5, 2010; and All Saints Church, Pittville, Cheltenham, July 16, 2010.

Still, quality easily trumps quantity when it comes to Travis & Fripp's output. For those who've not heard the DGM Live series of live downloads but want to hear more from a duo whose spontaneous improvisations and composed work range from gently flowing transcendents and near-ambient approaches to silence to occasional (and surprising) aggressive excursions, Between the Silence perfectly fits the bill. Throughout its nearly three-hour compilation of live performances, only two pieces can be found (and even so, in edited/different form) on Follow: the oblique and foreboding "Dark Clouds" and ethereal-turned-expansive "When the Rains Fall," both appearing on the July 16, 2010 performance at Pittville, Cheltenham's All Saints Church that makes up Between the Silence's third disc.

That said, there is some inevitable repetition of material amidst Between the Silence's shows, with two compositions showing up on all three: the atmospheric "Blue Calm"; and "Duet for the End of Time," which expands upon one of Fripp's most painfully beautiful solo Soundscapes, his title track from At the End of Time: Churchscapes—Live in England and Estonia 2006 (DGM Live, 2007).

Beyond the obvious metric of length, with "Blue Calm" ranging from under four minutes at the June 5, 2010 show in the Bath Festival's Spiegeltent to over eight minutes at the Cheltenham concert, there are, of course, the actual performances themselves, which reflect an ever-shifting duo that never plays the same thing twice, despite there being sonic and/or compositional roadmaps that underscore its unfettered approach to interpretation. With Travis contributing soprano saxophone to all three recordings of "Blue Calm," his playing in Broad Chalke's All Saints Church on May 21, 2009 (the set's first disc) is a clearer demonstration of Ambitronics. By contrast, his softer approach during the Bath Festival show is less overtly processed throughout the set's gentlest reading of this piece, while both Fripp and Travis explore a broader range of dynamics during the lengthier Cheltenham performance.

Travis & Fripp, while focusing largely on their own collaborative compositions and empathic spontaneous engagements, do draw on a couple of Crimson compositions for inspiration. In the Court of the Crimson King's haunting "Moonchild" was a strong extemporaneous vehicle, its original 12-minutes largely built upon free group improv once the initial three-minute song was sung. Here, however, it's even more a jumping off point for spontaneous creation. While the Broad Chalke version evokes just the first half of the phrase corresponding to Peter Sinfield's original lyrics "Call her moonchild," the Bath Festival version references the entire line, "Call her moonchild, dancing in the shallows of a river." In both versions, the phrase is looped and otherwise processed to create a soft contextual cushion, with Travis' Ambitronics-drenched alto flute more dominant at Bath, while Fripp's heavily overdriven and sustained tone turns the piece more angular (albeit only briefly) in both performances.

The Cheltenham show reprises the miniature title track to Crimson's (so far) last studio album, The Power to Believe (Sanctuary, 2003) that is also heard, from a different performance, on Discretion. Still, even this largely through-composed piece, lasting just under two minutes, is given significantly different treatments.

In Cheltenham, Travis' soprano saxophone delivers the start of the melody a cappella, before Fripp enters with gossamer sonics that gradually segue into the more string-heavy "Pastorale," first heard as the closer to Thread and featuring Travis on flute, and with Fripp ultimately employing a warm but still heavily compressed/sustained tone. In Discretion's version, drawn from an October 30, 2010 show at St. Peter's Church in Newlyn, it's Fripp who begins "The Power to Believe" with a cushion of soothing strings, before Travis joins in with the theme (again on soprano saxophone) and the duo segues into an even more melancholic "Pastorale."

Both Fripp's Soundscapes and Travis' Ambitronics are capable of creating music that crosses into ambient terrain. Still, if all three concerts documented on Between the Silence can be, at times, so soft, so gentle, so cloud-like as to be more trance-inducing than advertency-grabbing, both musicians still manage to imbue the music with a kind of enthralling, active form of interaction that ensures even the most hypnotic passages command attention.

Form may also underscore the majority of Between the Silence's nearly three-hour run time (only "Route 23," from Broad Chalke and Bath, and Bath's encore are specified as completely improvised), but Travis & Fripp's structural strategies can just as often be about sonic contexts as melodic or harmonic ones. Irrespective of the duo's collective, open-ended modus operandi when it comes to interpretation, and no matter how differently they employ their broad array of technologies when reproducing and reprising their material, one of the most wondrous qualities of Travis & Fripp's music is how familiar individual pieces ultimately reveal themselves to be, even if they are often devoid of more common compositional foundations.

The sound of surprise pervades this three-CD set, and for those only familiar with the Travis & Fripp's four commercial releases, Between the Silence will be a welcome addition to the duo's canon. Now, if only they'd reunite at some point between King Crimson tours and releases/reissues; with eight years having passed since they last worked together, it's no better a time to find out how Travis and Fripp's broader, individual experiences of the past near-decade would inform their work as egalitarian collaborators.

Track Listing: CD1 (All Saints Church, Broad Chalke, 21 May 2009): The Apparent Chaos of Stone; In the Field of Green; Route 23 (Improv); The Offering; Blue Calm; Moonchild; Duet for the End of Time; Coda: Duet for the End of Time.

CD2 (Spiegeltent, Bath Festival, 6 June 2010): Emporium; In the Field of Green; Rotary Symmetrical; Moonchild; A Careful Distance; Blue Calm; Route 23 (Improv); Duet for the End of Time; Encore: Bath Improv.

CD3 (All Saints Church, Pittville, Cheltenham, 16 July 2010): The Power to Believe; Pastorale; Rotary Symmetrical; Dark Clouds; Blue Calm; When the Rains Fall; Duet for the End of Time.

Personnel: Theo Travis: alto flute, soprano saxophone; Robert Fripp: guitar, soundscapes.

Title: Between the Silence | Year Released: 2018 | Record Label: Panegyric Recordings

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