‘When ready, begin.”
That was Victor McSurely’s introduction to the Orchestra of Crafty Guitarists. The orchestra’s leader and founder, Robert Fripp, issued that instruction to a room of 70 to 80 guitar players, recalls McSurely, himself a guitarist but on this occasion working among the orchestra’s crew during a rehearsal.
“Everybody was seated, and it was all quiet. Robert said, ‘When ready, begin,’ and it was extraordinary that something just began and sounded so interesting. After about 20 minutes it became silent. And then Robert again said, ‘When ready, begin,’ ” McSurely says, noting that this process unfolded three times, each resulting in a piece of intricate guitar interplay. “The joke afterward was, ‘Well that was unique. Let’s do it again.’ ”
The Orchestra of Crafty Guitarists sprung from Guitar Craft classes and workshops that Fripp first developed nearly 30 years ago. Guitar Craft workshops begat the performance ensemble League of Crafty Guitarists and ongoing Guitar Circles, which now exist around North America, Latin America, and Europe.
In 2009, the Orchestra of Crafty Guitarists — a really big guitar circle, if you will — went public with a performance in Spain. This week, the seventh iteration of Orchestra of Crafty Guitarists performs three concerts in the Northeast, starting Friday at the First Church in Cambridge. Fripp and his band of guitarists then head to Wesley United Methodist Church in Hadley on Saturday and conclude the tour at St. Mark’s Church in the Bowery in New York City on Sunday.
Bill Rieflin was among the 70 or so Guitar Craft practitioners coming from around the world to convene earlier in the week at Camp Caravan in Royalston to prepare for the concerts. Rieflin is perhaps better known as a drummer, having performed with Ministry and R.E.M.
Rieflin began studying Fripp’s Guitar Craft in 1989 and became active in a Guitar Circle for players around the Seattle area.
“It’s a lifelong undertaking,” Rieflin says. “Once I stuck my foot in the pool, I just kept on swimming. It’s made me a better musician and a better person.”
McSurely, who teaches music at a Montessori school and performs regularly with the band accompanying Blue Man Group in Boston, heads up the Guitar Circle New England and will be in the orchestra this time rather than listening.
Rieflin and McSurely joined in on a conference call, and both musicians emphasized how Guitar Craft extends beyond the particulars of learning Fripp’s New Standard Tuning or picking techniques.
“For instance, we were working on attention. When you direct your attention one place, you exclude something else. That’s something that happens not just in music but inside us and with other people,” McSurely says.
In this case, music becomes a means to resolve the exclusion problem.
“If you are required to get on a bus with 70 people and play as a unit, you need to understand how to be inclusive on the scale of community, not just the scale of a band. It’s not like you’re riding around in a van on tour with your buddies,” McSurely says.
Bringing these broader ideas into a musical realm inevitably leads to some pretty interesting sounds, and, Rieflin says, “creating something new is a hazardous undertaking.”
“What we ask of the audience is what we ask of ourselves,” Rieflin says. “The audience and the performers work together to bring about something called ‘music.’ If you show up with an open mind, open ears, and open heart, you’ll experience music that is life changing.”
At the very least, it will be unorthodox. The orchestra typically sets up in a spiral of seats, each player armed with a steel-stringed acoustic guitar. Then almost like an actor initiating an improv scene, one of the guitar players launches a chord, and the rest of the orchestra swings into action, applying learned actions and reactions rather than following along to a composed score sitting on a music stand.
McSurely and Rieflin say the work is not wholly improvisational and instead guided by various techniques and “a common vocabulary” learned through Guitar Craft. And while “all points are equal on a circle,” McSurely and Rieflin are quick to credit Fripp for nurturing this approach to playing guitar and performing as a group.
“Robert built the house that this takes place in. He purposefully leaves the house unfurnished so people can assemble it the way they want to,” Rieflin says.
McSurely is struck by Fripp’s devotion to Guitar Craft, recalling an episode from 10 years ago when he watched the founder of King Crimson and collaborator with David Bowie and Brian Eno patiently work with a teenager at one of the Guitar Craft workshops.
As for why this approach to music is guitar-centric, McSurely notes such factors as the instrument’s range of notes; its expressiveness and responsiveness; and, more cosmically, “The instrument acts like a mirror. The quality of who you are is audible in how you play.”
Rieflin had a more practical response to, “Why guitar?”: “You don’t want to hear 70 clarinets.”