Episode 6: Fracture is Impossible to Play
Robert Fripp wrote in his online diary that “Fracture is impossible to play.” What on earth could that mean?
What is Failure to Fracture?
Failure to Fracture is a video series I’ve put together about all the things that have stood in the way of my successfully playing the song Fracture by King Crimson despite years and years of study, practice, writing, and making videos.
- Episode 0: Introduction (includes notation/tablature)
- Episode 1: Stress and Tension
- Episode 2: Picking Picks
- Episode 3: Inefficient Picking
- Episode 4: Overzealous Precision
- Episode 5: Alex Anthony Faide Interview
- Episode 6: Fracture is Impossible to Play
Welcome to the 6th episode of Failure to Fracture, a series that highlights my now-20-year struggle to play the hardest song I’ve ever encountered: “Fracture” by King Crimson. Robert Fripp, the composer and guitarist on the track, writes:
Well, no wonder! I guess I’ve spent the last 20 years of my life unnecessarily angering my wife with metronome ticks and non-stop atonal picking. 20 years staring at my hands in mirrors and on camera trying to identify minuscule extraneous movements to eliminate. 20 years losing hope in myself as a guitarist. I could have used this insight 20 years ago, Robert! But maybe there’s more to this story. Let’s see what else he writes.
“it took a year to bring my practising up to speed, as it were; and four months directly and specifically on Fracture. my Wife had quite enough after a few weeks, so i had to lock the door to the Cellar; where i practice.” [Sounds familiar…] “to keep Fracture-fit takes 80% of my time and attention. which is too much. and it’s almost improper that a man of 70 should be doing the high-wire every night; when there’s a younger generation who might take it on!”
What does it mean when Robert claims “Fracture is impossible?” Clearly it’s “possible” because he has recorded it on more than one occasion and I’ve even seen him perform it. In fact there are recent live recordings of Fracture on King Crimson’s live Vienna and Mexico City releases. So, what’s he talking about?
There is a collection of Guitar Craft aphorisms that shed some light on this topic. If you’re like me and don’t know what an aphorism is, here’s a definition. According to Wikipedia, an aphorism is ”a concise, terse, laconic, and/or memorable expression of a general truth or principle often passed down via tradition. Aphorisms are distinct from axioms. Aphorisms generally originate from experience and custom, whereas axioms are self-evident truths and therefore require no additional proof.”
In other words, these expressions may only mean something to those who’ve pursued serious study in the ways of Guitar Craft. I do not include myself in this group because my formal study is quite limited. My mostly-self-guided practice gives me a little bit more insight. But because I’ve failed so expertly (and for so long) at playing Fracture, I have attained enough knowledge to allow me some understanding of the aphorisms.
The Guitar Craft aphorisms state:
- Begin with the possible and move gradually towards the impossible.
- Desperate doesn’t mean hopeless. Hopeless doesn’t mean impossible. Impossible doesn’t mean unnecessary.
- Efficiency: as little as possible and as much as is necessary.
- One measure of possible and impossible is the probable.
- If we are able to describe the characteristics of the level to which we aspire, our aspiration becomes possible.
- It is not possible for the musician to play music. But, it is possible for the musician to be played by music.
- Perfection is impossible. But I may choose to serve perfection.
- Sometimes the impossible is necessary.
- The artist is a bridge between the possible, the impossible and the actual.
- The greater the seeming imperfection, the greater the possible transformation.
- 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 = 1. Two steps beyond hard, rather than one. 2. When determination becomes “grim determination”. 3. When we lose a sense of ourselves.
- We do what is possible and allow space for the impossible to enter.
All this to say, Fracture is impossible in the same way climbing Mount Everest is impossible or eating the 72 ounce steak in two hours is impossible. Fracture is an etude. An athletic feat. I find it fun, engaging, meditative, meaningful, challenging, torturous, and worthwhile all at the same time.
It is important to understand the distinction between impossible and possible. If I believe Fracture is truly impossible, I will fail miserably. This is true for anything difficult. If I believe Fracture is incrementally possible, I will have a different aim. I always have the choice between torture and joy.
Steve Ball shared the following story about his first college math teacher, who said, “If a problem is too hard, no one will take it on. If a problem is too easy, no one will take it on.” Aspiring to learn and play Fracture is a ‘too hard’ problem that only one with confidence, determination and willingness to sacrifice all that is required can master the speed, precision, agility, mobility, tone and endurance required. Steve’s story doesn’t leave room for ignorant people like me who don’t know what they’re getting themselves into.
My view toward the impossibility of Fracture has shifted over the years. In my youth, I was driven by ego and a misguided sense of personal value. Either Fracture was impossible to play or I was a failure as a guitarist. Now I know better and am driven by a means of knowing myself, discovering subtle flaws, and relating my hands to an instrument through the action of playing music. My 20-year effort toward playing Fracture is a measure of my available will to master the piece. It was just this week that I identified inefficiencies in my picking. I am still learning every time I pick up the guitar.
So yes, Fracture is impossible. This is by design. And it’s designed as a horrendously steep mountain that may only be scaled via persistent, focused, daily climbing, one small step at a time. The point is not to get to the top of the mountain because it rises into the clouds. The point is to keep moving up the mountain in small steps each day.
For those looking to understand more about this, there’s is a new virtual training program available via Robert’s sister’s website, Fripp.com. Look for the Robert Fripp virtual training program. You can learn more about craft, mastery, and discipline on your own time directly from speeches by Robert. Let us know in the comments if you check it out.
I also suggest watching the documentary “Jiro Dreams of Sushi” for analogous lessons in this journey to Fracture. I’ve watched the film several times and have taken many notes while watching. It’s an amazing film about mastery, repetition, and awareness.
Finally, I want to thank the many people who’ve emailed and commented about this series. I can’t believe how many people are climbing this mountain with me around the world and have been paying attention to my efforts all these years. There’s plenty more to this series, so stay tuned. Leave a comment or send an email if you have ideas for the next episode.