From the editors: We'd like to welcome Mike Hamad (@mikehamad) creator of the amazing @phishmaps to the blog today. Mike has a fantastic post digging into a musician's viewpoint of Wingsuit and its connections to other music you are already familiar with. We hope you enjoy it!
When songs are grouped together, I sometimes hear connections.
What I hear before and after one song, or a segment of a song, influences the way I hear that music. I think a lot of people listen this way, and probably a lot of Phish fans. We’re always talking about sets, pacing, song selection, vibes that carry over from one jam to another, whole weekends, tours, years, and so on. Everything affects the experience of everything else, musical and otherwise.
I hear a few connections, spread out all over the place, in Wingsuit. Did they intend this? Who knows. Brains make connections composers didn’t intend us to hear all the time. Composers are pretty good at creating cool accidents; in a sense, all they really do is create the conditions under which we experience a piece of music, right? The rest is up to us, to take from it what we will.
Some of the connections I hear have to do with melody, and some with harmony. (I think there are probably some lyrical connections that should be discussed as well, and they've probably all been pointed out anyway.) It's tough to talk about this stuff without getting a little technical, and that sucks. But I'll try to make it tolerable if and when I say jargon-y stuff.
The word "mode," for example, has to do with the collection of pitches that make up a melody, or perhaps a whole passage of music that really leans on this particular group of tones. Mixolydian ("mixo" for short) mode is so common in rock music; I think we've all heard it over and over. To my thinking, the fact that we've heard it over and over and over, for years and years, means it signifies something.
It's probably up to everyone to figure out what that particular sound means for them – maybe nothing. For me, it's the sound of a few songs that jump to mind: "Dark Star," "Bird Song," "Wharf Rat." Three Dead songs are the first that come to mind.
If I think further on this: "All Apologies" by Nirvana and, to a lesser extent, Pearl Jam's "Evenflow." All five songs have mixolydian-mode melodies.
What is mixolydian mode, technically speaking? Think of it as a major scale with a lowered seventh scale degree. If you sang "do- re- mi- fa- sol- la- ti- do," the ti, in mixo mode, would be lowered a half-step. Or you can play all the white keys on a piano from G up to the next G and hear mixo mode.
So, I'll just hear something on the radio in mixolydian mode (or, less frequently, lydian mode, which raises the fourth scale degree a half-step and keeps the seventh as "ti") and conjure some association. The sound carries with it the accumulation of all the rock music I've ever heard in mixolydian mode.
Of course, one of the first things I hear in “Wingsuit,” the song, is the mixolydian melody in F major, which descends the distance of a tritone from E-flat (scale degree ^flat-7) down to A (scale degree ^3).
I'd hate to attempt to spell out what it means, so here's a few trigger words: weightlessness, ambiguity, stable but not completely comfortable. I’m not surprised a great deal of psychedelic and grunge relies heavily on the mixo mode. Mysticism, narcissism, drifting around in smoke and fog, drug use, escapism: it all kinda makes sense.
F major, the key of "Wingsuit," is the gravity. That gravity is what we call "tonality." Every sound in the tonal world relates to every other sound. The home key (sometimes called the "tonic") is like a planet, attracting or repelling chords to it with different levels of pull. Those chords, though, have tendencies: they lean in, drift away, flirt with each other, etc., but ultimately they get pulled back home (usually).Phish, "Wingsuit - 10/31/13 - Atlantic City, NJ
Music, however, would be really, really boring if all it ever did was stay in one key (unless, as is the case with a lot of great one- or two-chord rock, the musical interest comes from some other element, or host of them, like groove, lyrical stuff, what-have-you). So when a chord breaks free of the planet's gravity, if we end up feeling at home in another key, that’s what’s known as a modulation.
Here's an example: the Reading "Twenty Years Later," over the course of that awesome, long improvisatory section, modulated from B to D. It's not a huge move (B min and D maj share the same pitch collection; they're "relatives"). By 9:30 into the video below, they're still in the key of B, but you get the sense they're trying to figure out where to go next. Around 9:45 or so, Mike alternates between the pitches B and D (D is the third scale degree in the key of B minor, so it doesn't sound out of place here). At 10:23, he eliminates the B, leaving only the D. It's subtle, but it leads somewhere new: Trey joins in around 10:45, comping in the new key of D, and they're off on another three-minute adventure.Phish, "Twenty Years Later" - 10/29/13 - Reading, PA
Modulations to other keys, in other words, don’t necessarily signal that a jam was interesting or good. They tell us in measurable terms -- or metaphorical terms -- how far a jam travels from where it begins. And distance, I’d argue, is an important factor in how we perceive music, even if we're not always aware of it.
Actually, I've spent a lot of years working on how to hear distance. It wasn't always conscious work, but it sort of evolved into that. But composers have been hip to tonal distance for centuries. In the 19th century, composing a song meant grabbing someone else's poem and setting it to music. You'd grab a poem and analyze it, trying to figure out what notes to play on the piano and what to sing. You might notice the juxtaposition of two ideas or concepts: "when my love is with me" vs. "when my love is gone." Or God and Satan, high and low, rich and poor, whatever. Just two things that were different.
One way to approach that juxtaposition is by using contrasting keys: F minor and A-flat major, for example, which isn't a big, jarring contrast (it's the same pitch collection, only with a different note emphasized in the bass register; more on that later). How about F minor and A major? Extremely distant, and very Radiohead.
Mr. Anastasio even does this sometimes. Check out the song “Rift,” where the distance of a tritone (G-C#, tonally speaking an extreme, dramatic distance) represents, in harmonic terms, a descent down into a "rift" of some kind, mirroring the song's lyrics. In “Esther,” tritone distances similarly stand-in for physical distances in the story: “floating higher over the hills,” “the earth seemed to open and swallow her whole,” and so on, relative to the song’s ground-level home key.
Ironically, musical distance doesn’t equate to how many half-steps on a keyboard you’ve moved up or down. F to F#, for example, while only one key away on the piano, is a much more distant tonal relationship than, say, F to B-flat. Proximity on the circle of fifths is better indicator of tonal distance. (F to F# involves seven sharp-side jumps, whereas F to B-flat only requires one flat-side move.)
In Phish's music, most modulations during jams, I think, seem to move to closely related keys: the relative major or minor (iii or III), the subdominant (iv or IV), the dominant (v or V), the submediant (VI or vi), and so on. Mike, as the lowest voice in the musical texture, is the Keymaster; Page or Trey can suggest new tonalities all they want, and most often we’ll simply perceive them as harmonic colorings. But if Mike moves from, say, A to C and stays there for awhile, congratulations! We’re now in C. That’s just how register works. Mike plays the biggest role in how “outside” a jam gets, if we’re talking about modulations.
Instrumentation, too, has accumulated meaning. Piano (rather than organ, clavinet or Rhodes piano) signifies. Tremolo guitar is meaningful. These are all part of the accumulated baggage of years of listening to music, for us and the musicians.
In “Wingsuit,” F is tonic (home), but it’s also ambiguous, thanks to that E-flat melody note (at “steal away…”). What connects "Wingsuit" to “Fuego?” For me, it's partly the jam progression at the end of "Wingsuit" in the tonic key (F: ii-iii-IV-vi || vii-I-IV). This is where Trey rips a solo, right after they all stop and sing "time to put your wingsuit on," as the song spins toward its conclusion.Phish, "Fuego" - 10/31/13 - Atlantic City, NJ
The ends of "Wingsuit" really leans on that B-flat (IV) chord. The last chord we hear is that B-flat chord. It hangs around as "Fuego" gets started.
"Fuego" opens with an augmented piano chord, with B-natural in the bass, before spinning around to the key of A, which is the home key for most of "Fuego" (that double-time middle section is in F# minor, the relative of A major). (B-flat to B: remember that.*)
But that "Fuego" riff is in A phrygian mode. Phrygian is a little exotic sounding, and maybe a little evil, but certainly not stable. B-flat doesn't belong in this world of A. It throws everything off. A phrygian, spelled A- B-flat- C- D- E- F- G- A, the same pitch collection as F major, the key of "Wingsuit" (the mixolydian E-flat notwithstanding).
So, that's one connection I hear between the first two songs of the suite. Another connection: "Fuego," like "Wingsuit," has a mixolydian mode melody. So, for that matter, do "The Line" and "Monica." It's everywhere.
More connective tissue: the final sonority of “Fuego,” part of that final spinning-out progression (G- B-flat- E-flat- C- B), is a B chord. Personally, I hear that B slipping into the B-flat opening chord of "The Line." (Remember the B-flat to B mentioned above?* This reverses the process.) Composers dig this kind of stuff, I think, especially when they’re trying to create larger blocks of music that work together.
"Waiting All Night" is a great song. It also introduces a new sound world -- E-flat lydian -- into the mix.Lydian, as I mentioned above, essentially introduces a raised fourth scale degree (in E-flat, A natural replaces A-flat). The whole harmonic environment, as a result, sounds to me like one big IV chord: not unstable, but quite "home." It's just an observation of pitch collection, but maybe we want to use it in our interpretations of lyrics (does the protagonist seem satisfied, at rest, comfortable, happy, "home?").
(Lydian mode in improvisational rock is a pretty cool thing to explore. Duane Allman’s other-worldly coda in the Fillmore East “Whipping Post,” where he plays an A dorian scale over a C pedal supplied by the rest of the band, is my favorite example. The resulting pitch collection is C lydian, with much of Duane’s melodic emphasis falling on the pitches E and B. Not only is B a cool note to hit in this context, because he's truly playing A dorian, he usually bends to get there.It’s a truly special, exotic, emotionally charged moment that I’ve returned to again and again.)
Deeper in the suite, the A/B-flat relationship we heard connecting “Wingsuit” and “Fuego” reemerges in “555,” nine songs out from where we started. Here, that B-flat/A alternation serves as the jam progression, but now B-flat is home and A is the outsider (unlike the opening of “Fuego,” where it’s reversed). The final B-flat sonority of “555” dissolves into the B major of “Winterqueen.” Having heard two similar B/B-flat transitions already, it screams out at me.
Over time, more connections pop up. The ones I identified will get even more solidified. Maybe some will disappear. When they finally record the album, maybe they'll change around the order of songs, or add new ones in there. That's all fine. On this particular night -- and I've listened to it over and over since then -- that's kinda what I hear. The fun part will be hearing what they'll do with these songs at MSG.
What connections do you hear, either lyrical or in the music? How do they change over time, as you go back and listen again? Leave a comment and let me know. I’m interested.
- Michael Hamad (@mikehamad)
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March 27, 1993
25 years ago
Set 2: Buried Alive > Halley's Comet > It's Ice > Bouncing Around the Room, Chalk Dust Torture, The Man Who Stepped Into Yesterday > Avenu Malkenu > The Man Who Stepped Into Yesterday > Mike's Song > I Am Hydrogen > Weekapaug Groove, Hold Your Head Up > Cracklin' Rosie > Hold Your Head Up, Poor Heart > Golgi Apparatus
 Beginning featured Trey on acoustic guitar.
 Fish on trombone.
 All Fall Down signal in intro.
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