I had lunch with Robert Fripp, the founding guitarist of the British progressive-rock institution King Crimson, Friday afternoon in the Winter Garden atrium at the World Financial Center. I had a sandwich — Swiss cheese and tomato on rye. He played a Les Paul guitar, through a five-foot-high stack of digital-effect racks, on a stage at the far west end of the space, with his back to the Hudson River.
The performance was the first of four recitals there: lunch and dinnertime performances over two days by Fripp in his Soundscapes mode, a liquid blend of programmed loops, lava-like sustain and pensive melodies played in real time. It is a solo format descended from his Frippertronics work in the late Seventies and Eighties, itself the product of the Crimson guitarist's 1973 tape-delay collaboration with Brian Eno, No Pussyfooting. Fripp apparently relishes the extra dimensional possibilities in the Winter Garden reverb — he has performed Soundscapes there previously — and delicious parts of today's midday set, about 45 minutes split into two main improvisations, hung in the air, ringing around the room, although Fripp wasn't actually playing, instead attending to the controls on his racks and the pedalboard at his feet.
It was fascinating to watch Fripp's performance from some distance, behind an aisle running through the crowd, as office workers walked through with their lunches and nannies pushed strollers, briefly turning their heads to look at the stage and the monastic-looking man — dressed in severe black, now with white hair — at the center of the din. Fripp took the stage with a touching eccentricity: a small smile, bows to the audience, a ritual kiss on his guitar before strapping it on. But there is emotional force in his Soundscapes. He might take time launching a pattern or drone, flicking at his strings, generating vibrato with an extended shiver of his fretting finger. Yet there was rapture too — thoughtful elegiac passages, in orchestral distortion and slow grand sweeps up a single string, that recalled his Crimson solos and fills in the long shadows of 1971's Islands and the majestic balladry on 1969's In the Court of the Crimson King. When Fripp hit one of those moments, it shone — however faintly — on his face.
Although Fripp has released satisfying albums of his Soundscapes — you can find everything Crimson at dgmlive.com — the suspense and rewards should be experienced live. Actually, I'd like to have that balm with my sandwich every day.