Ear-Tickler: “Frame by Frame”

For this entry, I want to talk a bit about the King Crimson song “Frame by Frame”, from 1981’s Discipline.

This album marked the debut of the band’s fourth (and longest-lived) lineup of Robert Fripp, Adrian Belew, Tony Levin and Bill Bruford (Bruford having already appeared on the mid-70s records Larks’ Tongues in Aspic, Starless and Bible Black and Red). The record also marked a very distinct change in sound for the band – less heavy, less outwardly “progressive” and showy, with more of a new-wave aesthetic (incredibly clean studio production, the Byrne-esque vocals of Belew, etc.).

Some of the sounds that characterized this lineup (especially in contrast to the oft-raucous 70s bands) are clean/clear interlocking guitar parts and a minimal use of cymbals. Musically, there is a strong gamelan influence and a sort of Reichian quality to some of the compositional devices. Many of these approaches had been tried in earlier pieces by the band, but they are laid out much more matter-of-factly in this music and “Frame by Frame” provides clear examples of some this lineup’s compositional mainstays.

The first example is a general use of polyrhythms and over-the-barline figures:

Fig. 1: Polyrhythmic, over-the-barline figures.
Fig. 1: Polyrhythmic, over-the-barline figures.

Here we have the opening riff on the recording, which features a repeating, alternate-picked pentatonic figure from Fripp. The figure is only 1.5 beats, moving against the band’s 4/4 pulse. Fripp maintains this figure, only dropping one sixteenth note to change keys with the rest of the band in the 12 bars before the main figure.

This simple polyrhythmic approach is used several times on this record and in the lineup’s later output, some examples being “Indiscipline” (the heavy riff in 5/4 against Bruford’s 4/4 groove), the intro to “Thela Hun Ginjeet” (Fripp’s 7/8 figure against Belew’s 4/4 strumming), “Discipline” (Levin’s figure against the band’s 5/4 groove), etc.

Another variation on this is where Fripp and Belew begin with the same figure and then Fripp removes the last 8th note of the figure to create different interlocking patterns:

Fig. 2: 7/4 vs 13/8

This is fairly reminiscent of Steve Reich’s phasing concept (demonstrated in pieces like “Piano Phase“, “Violin Phase”, “Drumming”, etc.), only without the actual phasing itself. This method of displacing a melodic figure by an eighth note creates a very different effect than the basic polyrhythmic approach, especially with a simple line like this. Instead of being disorienting or disguising the beat, the application here creates a perpetual texture change, and a wonderful resolution when the guitars lineup again.

To increase the amount of variations this approach can create, Fripp delays it by a bar each time the figure returns (i.e. here, before the first verse, he plays the figure as written for one bar followed by the shortened figure in the next. Before the second first, he plays the original figure for two bars, then the shorter one. At the end of the piece, he waits three bars to begin the process).

This same approach is used pretty explicitly in “Discipline” and also appears (in a slightly subtler manner) on “Waiting Man”. It also feels like a stepping stone to some of the rhythmic devices they would explore on later albums.

Check out this fantastically 80s performance of “Frame by Frame” from the Neal and Jack and Me DVD (originally released as Three of a Perfect Pair – Live in Japan).