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Failure to Fracture: Learning King Crimson's Impossible Song


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Failure to Fracture: Learning King Crimson's Impossible Song
Anthony Garone
322 Pages
ISBN: 978- 1949267457
Stairway Press

Failure to Fracture: Learning King Crimson's Impossible Song. It's as clear a mission statement as might be found anywhere.

But musician, guitarist, husband, father, son and high tech professional Anthony Garone has spent more than two decades striving to play a song described, at different times, by composer, King Crimson co-founder, guitarist and visionary Robert Fripp as "one of the hardest pieces I have ever played in public" and "impossible to play."

"Fracture" is the (largely) 11-minute instrumental first documented on King Crimson's Starless and Bible Black (Panegyric Recordings, 1974). This beyond-complex composition was, in fact, drawn from a live recording by the band at Amsterdam's Concertgebouw on November 23, 1973, brought back to the studio and augmented in post-production. Most difficult is the 210-second moto perpetuo (Italian for "perpetual motion") section that represents the core (and biggest challenge) of "Fracture."

The song had already been in the band's live repertoire for some time, beginning in the middle of September, 1973, when King Crimson embarked upon a 20-date North American tour that subsequently crossed the ocean and finished up, at the end of November, in the U.K. and continental Europe. The song remained in the group's set lists throughout 1974, until it played its final live performance on July 1, in Central Park, New York City. In total, between 1973 and 1974 King Crimson performed "Fracture" live roughly one hundred times. This might not sound the big deal it really is until the moto perpetuo is examined in greater detail.

A relentless barrage of 16th-note (four notes per beat) whole tone/tritone-driven, string-jumping rapid picking, the moto perpetuo was usually performed, back in the day, at no slower than 125 beats-per-minute and was sometimes delivered as rapidly as 138 BPM. As Garone writes in his technically in-depth yet unerringly transformational Failure to Fracture, this demands a guitarist play somewhere between 8.3 and 9.2 notes per second for a full three-and-a-half minutes. Forget about the varying dynamics and perfection of both articulation and tone, and that's still somewhere between 1,743 and 1,923 notes, folks.

But that's just mathematics. Garone's Don Quixote-like dream to perform the impossible "Fracture," in particular the moto perpetuo, is a far more engaging tale. Failure to Fracture is technically deep enough to either challenge guitarists to begin their own quest for the impossible or cause them to scratch their heads in wonder. And yet, the book remains entertaining, educational and, perhaps more importantly, philosophical and inspirational enough to encourage more than just musicians.

Failure to Fracture is absolutely not just a book for guitarists, though it's likely to find its broadest appeal with that subset of humanity. But that really is an unfortunate reality. In its ultimate description of the many changes required of Garone in order to be able to (sometimes) play "Fracture," it's really a book for everyone. It is especially suited, however for those prepared to consider that, in order to attain whatever impossible dream motivates them, they'll require the humility that Garone demonstrates throughout the book. Garone details, often in an appealingly self-effacing manner, just how much he had to unlearn before beginning to meet the technical skills, mental and spiritual frames of mind, and physical demands required to approach a piece like "Fracture," in particular the moto perpetuo.

The beauty of Failure to Fracture is that playing "Fracture" has been Garone's "impossible," and he describes, often in the most minute detail, the many things he had to master in order to (occasionally) achieve it. Playing "Fracture" need not be every reader's "impossible," however. Failure to Fracture provides, across roughly 300 pages, a bevy of techniques and truths, indeed a multiplicity of life lessons, many of which can be applied to anyone's "impossible," whatever it happens to be.

Failure to Fracture is part autobiographical, part philosophical and part instructional. Garone details first picking up guitar ... even being taught a Gentle Giant song by his musician father on an acoustic guitar that was way too big for his ten year- old body. Garone "found his calling" at 13, however, when he discovered Steve Vai's music through a chance radio encounter. More significantly. through his father's connections, Garone actually came to meet, become friends with and even be mentored by the masterful guitarist known for his early work with Frank Zappa, along with solo work including Passion and Warfare (Relativity Records, 1990) and Modern Primitive (Epic, 2016).

By the time Garone was 14 he was performing live with his father at, amongst other things, an annual Jethro Tull convention. But the real transformation began when, as he writes in the book:

It was around this time that my father issued The Challenge in response to my quickly-escalating guitar playing skills when he said something like: "Try playing Fracture. Once you do that, then I'll talk to you."

It's unlikely that his father knew how much, with those few words, he would alter the trajectory of his son's life. Garone had already chosen the guitar as his instrument of choice, but it may be true that it was at that moment that the guitar chose him.

If some of this sounds a bit "whoo-whoo" or "airy fairy," it's not. Across the ensuing two decades or so, Garone made playing "Fracture" an objective that would change his life, even though he ultimately chose a career path that wasn't music. That path into high tech really is connected, however, as it provides a diversion, an alternative, to the thousand and thousands of hours Garone has put into mastering his instrument.

Garone talks about nitty gritties in great detail, from his assertion that, at least for him, "Fracture" can only be played on certain guitars, ideally a twin-pickup Gibson Les Paul, or another guitar of similar design. He also explains why the piece requires a "sharp" pick that, in its best, triangular form, can only be purchased through Fripp's Guitar Craft/Guitar Circle courses and, at worst, can be found in Jim Dunlop's sharp tortex picks. He spends considerable time discussing how to properly hold the hand and how to properly hold a pick ... even how to find moments in the music, even when it's as relentless as the moto perpetuo, to readjust the pick position after it naturally begins to slide out of the ideal place. He goes into considerable detail about using wrist movement to pick the strings but employing the elbow to move from one string to the next. These are all skills that take plenty of time to master. Fripp has even said, to aspiring guitarists, "spend eight hours a day picking one open string and then we can have a conversation."

Fripp is a guitarist who, Garone describes as "one of the most underrated electric guitarists of the 20th and 21st centuries," and he's absolutely spot-on.

Fripp's groundbreaking work with various King Crimson lineups over the course of fifty years, combining technological innovations with ever-evolving compositional and performance acumens, would be enough to position him as one of the most important guitarists and conceptualists alive today. Fripp has, however, developed even more new contexts for the guitar, most notably the idea of guitar as orchestra.

Fripp's twin reel-to-reel, real-time looping experimentations of Frippertronics were first heard in his duo with Brian Eno on albums including (No Pussyfooting) (Panegyric Recordings, 1973), but he also began to embed the technique into his writing/co- writing for projects like his first solo album, Exposure (Panegyric Recordings, 1979).

With the advent of MIDI and sampling, Frippertronics evolved into Soundscapes, which have formed the basis, beyond their use in Crimson, for a multitude of live solo performances. These have been documented on (largely) solo albums including Love Cannot Bear (DGM Live, 2005) and The Wine of Silence (DGM Live, 2012).

Fripp has also used Soundscapes to collaborate with other musicians in an improvisational setting, like his duo performances with like-minded reed/woodwind multi-instrumentalist Theo Travis and Between the Silence (Panegyric Recordings, 2018).

Suffice to say that in a just world, Robert Fripp would be considered, on a grander scale, as important a musical shapeshifter and innovator as Miles Davis. And like the late, great (largely) jazz trumpeter, it's no coincidence that the word "silence" seems to factor as large in Fripp's work as the notes between the silences.

Fripp's Guitar Circle course has figured large in Garone's development. These courses (along with Guitar Craft) that Fripp has offered around the world are often about things that, on the surface, appear to have little relationship to mastering the instrument. But they do.

Garone describes the discomfort he encountered shortly after arriving at his first Guitar Circle, where drugs and alcohol are not permitted. With this particular course taking place in Mexico, attendees were responsible for keeping the location spotlessly clean, quite literally from washing dishes to cleaning toilets. And these tasks were largely done in silence, a lesson Garone learned early on when, upon trying to strike up a conversation with a fellow attendee while washing dishes, was promptly and quite abruptly told: "The work will be done faster and better if you stop talking. Please try to work in silence."

In many ways, Guitar Circle is about discipline and dispensing with many of the baked-in (mis)behaviors that many often share. Its foundational rules often seem cryptic, but they encourage attendees to think about their actions more deeply. For example:

1. Nothing is compulsory but some things are necessary.
2. You are not asked to accept any direction that violates conscience.
3. Although we are asked to act from conscience, this assumes the virtue: to act from conscience is a considerable freedom.

Some of Fripp's thoughts can be equally arcane:

"How we hold the pick is how we live our lives.
The less I try the better I play (or, in Guitar Circle terms, 'effortless effort').
Our approach to playing reflects how we live our lives.
Correcting and preventing mistakes is as essential a skills as playing a song.
Play with extreme diligence, patience, humility and folly."

Even more enigmatic, yet ultimately sensible, are Guitar Craft's aphorisms, which can be applied far beyond playing an instrument:

1. Begin with the possible and move gradually towards the impossible.
2. Desperate doesn't mean hopeless. Hopeless doesn't mean impossible. Impossible doesn't mean unnecessary.
3. Efficiency: as little as possible and as much as is necessary.
4. One measure or possible and impossible is the probable.
5. If we are to describe the characteristics of the level to which we aspire, our aspiration becomes possible.
6. It is not possible for the musician to play music. But, it is possible for the musician to be played by music.
7. Perfection is impossible. But I may choose to serve perfection.
8. Sometimes the impossible is necessary.
9. The artist is a bridge between the possible, the impossible and the actual.
10. The greater the seeming imperfection, the greater the possible transformation.
11. The necessary is possible.
The optional is expensive.
The arbitrary is unlikely.
We are asked to work honourably.
Honourably = what is possible + 10%; too hard =
Two steps beyond hard, rather than one.
When determination becomes "grim determination."
When we lose a sense of ourselves.
12. We do what is possible and allow space for the impossible to enter.

Many musicians proudly profess to being self-taught, and there can be advantages to that. However, not long after the attendees arrived at the Guitar Circle Fripp rendered a particularly salient point:

"Who here is self-taught? All right. So, someone who knew nothing about the instrument, knew nothing about technique, and knew nothing about music or performance taught you everything you know. Well, we shall get to correcting that right away."

Now that's humbling.

That said, Garone makes crystal clear that Guitar Circle is much more than just a humbling experience. It's a life-changing one for those prepared to accept its many premises, many of which are philosophical and existential. Through them, Fripp endeavors to teach students that mastering guitar (or, really, mastering anything) is far more than mere technique. As Garone quotes, from a 2007 Robert Fripp diary entry:

What is the Challenge?

For those engaged in the flows and flurries of contemporary living, what is the challenge?

The challenge is to be present in the maelstrom and the nonsense, respond to its demands when necessary and not react to its pressures.

The word for this is freedom, but not a freedom outside the bustle; it is holding s still point within the bustle.

Outside: nonsense.
Inside: purpose, poise, grace.

Outside, the bustle continues.
Inside: the bustle has no purchase.

It is not our aim to drive out noise.
It is our aim to invite in Silence.

How can we force quiet on the exterior world?

But inside is a place where quiet is present.

How can we force peace in a world in conflict?

But inside is a place where peace has entered.

This may all seem to be esoterica and conceptual ephemera, but as much as Guitar Circle tears down conventions, misconceptions and preconceptions that many learn through life experience, it also provides attendees with the tools to break through them. Amongst the many concrete techniques? The Alexander Technique, and learning how to literally sit still for 45 minutes, focusing on and locating and relaxing tensions and stresses throughout the body, preparing it for the "extreme diligence, patience, humility and folly" that leads to greater success at approaching the "impossible." Garone is enthusiastic about how those sitting sessions have literally changed his life, mentally, physically and spiritually.

Guitar Circle is, of course, far more than even these examples can articulate. There is, indeed, plenty of playing too, along with criticism and encouragement. Garone details his Guitar Circle experience and how it altered not just his approach to guitar but to life, writing:

"I came into GC in a state I call 'cluelessly clueless.' By the time I left I had some awareness of my cluelessness. I call this state 'known cluelessness.' It's been five years and I am still discovering ways in which I am clueless. This is why my story is called Failure to Fracture and not How to Play Fracture. It's why my first book is called Clueless at Work [(Stairway Press, 2019)]."

Like Garone's experiences with Guitar Circle, Failure to Fracture and Garone's quest to achieve the "impossible" also represent something far, far greater.

Yes, there are plenty of transcriptions (including tablature) for interested guitarists. Just reading Garone's transcription of "Fracture" while listening to the version on Starless and Bible Black can be a revelation.

Beyond his admittedly close but imprecise transcription of "Fracture," however, and many suggestions as to how to approach it, Garone also includes a variety of other challenging pieces that will help aspiring guitarists get closer to it by working on mastering specific techniques. These include self-written exercises, as well as classical pieces from composers like Vivaldi and Bach. More notably, however, transcriptions of early Fripp compositions performed by the pre-Crimson group Giles, Giles & Fripp are also included. "Suite No. 1" and the remarkable "Tremelo Study in A Major" reveal themselves as clear precursors to what Fripp would achieve with "Fracture," just a few short years later.

Garone breaks out certain sections of the "Fracture" moto perpetuo as a means of explaining picking technique and how to begin approaching the piece. But for those interested in attaining this particular "impossible," Failure to Fracture makes clear that doing so requires far more than mere technical mastery.

Garone also spends considerable time with Fripp's "sequel" to "Fracture." "FraKctured" appeared 27 years later on King Crimson's unfairly overlooked The ConstruKction of Light (Panegyric Recordings, 2000). Garone includes a transcription, and also discusses the challenges Fripp self- imposed when he switched from the largely fourths-based standard guitar tuning, where the second string is tuned a major third above the third string (E-A-D-G-B-E), to his New Standard Tuning, where the guitar is tuned in fifths for the most part, barring the top string, which is tuned a minor third above the adjacent string (C-G-D-A-E-G).

Garone also ensures clarity that "Fracture" and "FraKctured" may be pieces which can be played alone by a guitarist, but they are only performed in the context of a group, engaging with other musicians and introducing improvisation into the picture. Former Crimson bassist/touch guitarist Trey Gunn and still Crimsonising drummer Pat Mastelotto provide plenty of useful insights into the kind of effort involved in bringing a piece like "FraKctured" to a performance-ready state. And that it's rare for the piece to be performed "perfectly." Instead, as Sid Smith, Crimson's in-house scribe and author of the band's definitive biography, In the Court of King Crimson: An Observation Over 50 Years (Panegyric Publishing, 2019), contributes: "it's not about the mistakes, it's about the recovery. King Crimson's members negotiate in real time."

Failure to Fracture includes many useful sidebars and quotes from a multitude of sources. Most compelling is Ricardo Odriozola's contribution. A violinist who teaches at the Grieg Academy in Bergen, Norway, Odriozola has adapted "FraKctured" for a string ensemble, available to view on YouTube:

Odriozola demonstrates how the piece, performed by Crimson at high volumes and with all manner of harshly overdriven and aggressive sonics, can become something far subtler, and even beautiful. His lengthy contribution to Failure to Fracture clarifies that there is no single approach to attaining this "impossible." Instead, and as many guitarists around the world (many of them Guitar Circle/Craft alum) have demonstrated, there are many ways to approach these most complex guitar compositions.

The transformational nature of Guitar Circle was, however, essential in providing Garone the tools, physical, mental and spiritual, to not just attempt to play "Fracture," but to actually succeed on occasion. And in that ultimate revelation, that Garone can actually play the moto perpetuo if a number of conditions all line up, Failure to Fracture is more than just the "success story," as Fripp is quoted on the book's front cover; it is most decidedly a triumphant one.

The book itself is a wonder of design and function that mirrors Garone's quest. A large, 8.5" x 11" coffee table-sized book with an attention-grabbing cover, the graphic design of each and every page is remarkable, with a broad spectrum of colors and imagery that underpin text of varying fonts and sizes. Perhaps the only criticism is, as beautiful as Failure to Fracture is, for aging eyes there are some pages where the color of the text over that of the page can sometimes be a touch difficult. A relatively small quibble given it's never actually impossible to read. More definitively, if Failure to Fracture's design can be said to mirror its contents, then it can be summed up in a single word: fun.

If there is plenty about Failure to Fracture that is challenging, Garone still manages to tell his story, and even include some very complex exercises and transcriptions in a way that is, indeed, fun. Between exercises for guitarists and a great density of other information for the general reader, Failure to Fracture may demand multiple reads but it never becomes dry or overly academic. Garone has actually documented his quest over the past several years with his popular Failure to Fracture YouTube series, with the seventh installment here:

That said, Garone has been able to turn his tale into a book which operates on a multitude of levels while never falling short of being a captivating, entertaining and thoroughly enjoyable read.

Failure to Fracture reflects the many lessons learned in Garone's 22-year quest to play the "impossible" moto perpetuo from King Crimson's "Fracture," but it's much more than that. In its intrinsic appeal to a surprisingly broad readership, Failure to Fracture is a truly triumphant work that deserves the attention of any with their own impossible dreams.

Failure to Fracture can be ordered here.

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