Monday 01/15/2018 by phishnet

ADVENTUROUSLY FAMILIAR: SOME THOUGHTS ON MUSICAL FLOW

[Michael Hamad (@MikeHamad on dot net and Twitter), who you may know for his "setlist schematics" (including a recent one for UM's latest album), offers the following for your consideration. -charlie]

I get frustrated when Phish jams sound like other Phish jams. I crave the unknown. It’s where I’m at. I’m supremely jaded.

This feeling came over me most recently on Dec. 30, 2017, during the 28-minute-long “Down With Disease.” Let me walk you through it.

Photo © aZn
Photo © aZn

In minutes 4:00 to 7:30, we hear what we usually hear after the last “Down With Disease” chorus. Page alternates tonic (A) and subdominant (D) piano chords. Trey and Mike go off on complimentary melodic tangents, sticking closely to the pitch content of A Mixolydian mode (A-B-C#-D-E-F#-G-A). Fishman churns and burns, rolling the ends of measures into the next ones, always maintaining intensity. No complaints here.

(I’m not actually complaining through any of this, mind you. It’s just a rhetorical strategy. Don’t get mad.)

Something new, but not revolutionary, happens around 5:30. Trey shifts over to minor-pentatonic world (A-C-D-E-G; the big difference here is C displacing C#), with a few F#s thrown in -- the so-called “blues/rock” scale/sound. Mike joins in. Page stubbornly maintains that raised third (C#). The opening jam builds toward a peak, somewhere around the 7:00 mark.

Good, fine, great. Everyone’s grooving out. What’s next?

The expected dynamic “dip,” naturally, starting around 7:30, an opportunity to introduce new timbres. Page abandons the piano for a synth (7:45). Trey adds delay to his signal path. Mike steps out front a little. Fishman closes up his hi-hat (8:41).

By minute 9:00, we sense a new episode coming. What will it sound like? Will they modulate to a new key (I’m guessing D major, or IV)? Ambient weirdness? Will Mike step on a pedal? None of the above!

Not yet, anyway.

We get mode-mixture: a flip-flopping from major to minor mode (C#s being replaced by C naturals) in the same key (A). Happy to sad, light to darkness. Okay, got it.

By 9:30, Trey, Mike and Page commit to A Dorian mode (A-B-C-D-E-F#-G-A). Over the next few minutes, every note they play, more or less, will fall into this pitch collection. Bear with me.

Another change in timbre: Page moves to the Rhodes, Trey switches on a pedal that doubles notes an octave below and employs some sort of volume-swelling device, Mike adds a weird phaser-y sound, and Fishman opens the hi-hat.

To recap: in the first 10 minutes of “Down With Disease,” we’ve heard two timbral shifts (7:30 and 9:30) and a mode switch (A Mixolydian A Dorian at 9:30). Both of these devices point to the idea of change.

But within each episode -- and even, to some degree, from one episode to another -- why is there so much sameness?

*** *** ***

My friend, music critic Ben Ratliff, in his New York Times review of the Baker’s Dozen run, wrote that Phish’s music “is adventuresome exactly to the extent that it is familiar. It is adventurously familiar.”

“Familiar” suggests sameness, a lack of musical imagination, jam segments, like the ones discussed above, that remain within agreed-upon pitch collections, leading to what Ben calls “obvious, kill-me-now buildups toward a payoff.”

Here’s my theory, which I shared with Ben: after 34 years of making music, the members of Phish intuitively understand those combinations of notes, modes, chord progressions and grooves that maintain forward momentum, at the risk of sounding tonally uniform or bland. They know how to agree.

Why is that important? We go to Phish shows, and we tune with headphones, for various reasons, which may or may not include dancing, losing one’s ego, getting lost and found, experiencing musical continuation, exploration, length, bigness, endurance, ecstasy, exultation and release.

We surrender to the flow, as Rutherford might say, and it’s not farfetched to think that certain musical parameters, when correctly -- artistically -- employed, reliably create the necessary conditions for lift-off, even if we have to dive deep into metaphor to explain how it works (which, in a sense, I’m about to attempt).

In concrete terms: on pitched instruments (guitars, basses, various keyboards) and drums, Phish establishes -- and remains faithful to -- an unspoken (by now), agreed-upon pitch collection (^1-^6, Dorian, Mixolydian -- more on this below) and dynamic trajectory (the tension-and-release jam; the one-way, major-key ascent to the peak; the blissful, introspective moment; the dark, non-tonal weirdness jam), sacrificing all the other potential pitch choices (chromatic tones) and disruptive tendencies (launching suddenly into a new tempo or unprepared key), which they’re certainly capable of launching into (think: 1994).

In this context, musical flow is closely tied to transparency (fewer available pitches means greater flow) and restriction (loss of melodic/harmonic interest).

Here are five levels of pitch-collection textures I’ve heard in Phish jams, progressing from transparency (fewer tones, less meaning, fewer obstacles) to density (more tones, more meaning, more obstacles).

  1. Root-fifth jams: just the tonic (^1) and fifth (^5) scale degrees (in D major, the pitches D and A). Few associations; no struggle between good and bad, happy or sad; a screen door, a cleansed palate; maximum flow, but also (from the player’s perspective) maximum restriction; less melodic interest. Root-fifth Phish jams are rare, maybe only theoretical. Like opening the choke on a snowblower: the thing starts, but after a while, it sputters and dies. Unsustainable.

  1. Added ^3: a basic texture with either a major third (F# in D) or minor third (F in D) added to the root and fifth. Thirds add meaning (happy, sad) and impede flow, a bit; when, suddenly, you “mean” something, you explore it, explain it, engage with it; you justify your decision to introduce it. It’s an explicit mood influencer, a choice, and choices impedes flow. They distract. You’re signaling: now, tell us why. Also rare.

  1. ^1 through ^6: pentatonic with ^4 added, what I call “everything but ^7,” or sometimes “sexatonic,” a mode that affords the players way more melodic freedom without too much flow-impeding meaning. Still, ^4 is a mild dissonance, and so is ^2. Levels, people, nothing but levels. I often hear this texture at the beginning of new major-key episodes, after modulations, before ^7 gets added in.

  1. Added ^7: factor in the flatted (C natural, in D) or raised (C# in D) seventh scale degrees to ^1-^6 textures. If you hear ^7, you’re already hearing ^3 somewhere. Deeper shades of happy (major or Mixolydian) and sad (minor or Dorian); greater obstructions to flow; Mixolydian (“Dark Star,” grunge) and Dorian (“Whipping Post,” Coltrane) associations from times gone by; even more than ^3, ^7 demands to be explored. By far the most common tonal texture in Phish jams.

  1. Chromaticism: dissonant pitch content exponentially impedes musical flow, used sparingly like swear words; they’re contextually important. For a long time, tension-release jams, which relied on alternating dissonance and consonance, were everything. Coloristic and obstructive (that’s the point, really); the Big Payoff happens when consonance is returned. Found in most 1.0 tension/release jams.

When I tune in, I pay attention to these levels, which often morph from one into another; most often, ^1-^6 (“everything but ^7) textures turn into full-on Dorian, Mixolydian or “blues-rock” mode (where ^7 is always present). I still hear plenty of unbridled chromaticism in tension and release jams (the BD “Possum,” for example).

*** *** ***

Photo © aZn
Photo © aZn

Back to that 12/30 “Down With Disease”:

Not long into the new A minor/Dorian episode (9:30 to 11:00), Mike introduces a riff (10:16-10:22) that leans heavily on the note D, a highly suggestive pitch in an A minor context (the fourth scale degree -- D in the key of A -- is a dissonance, though not a particularly jarring one).

A signal!

Trey hears it. He forces a modulation to D major (IV, in A). By 11:00, Trey, Mike and Page are all committed. Modulation, specifically to IV, isn’t new, but rather a firmly established component of the musical style -- Phish’s musical style, as no other band I’ve ever heard uses modulation with the same finesse.

None of this is new. At this point in a jam, I’d be surprised if they didn’t move to D major. I’m pleased that it happens, though, because it signals continuation. We like continuation.

In 3.0 Phish jams, when the band modulates to D major (IV) 11 minutes into a second-set “Down With Disease,” this triggers a series of musical assumptions in me, which I’ll summarize.

  • I imagine the dynamic trajectory of the jam will grow steadily into some sort of major-key, huge blissful peak, encountering few, if any, obstacles (pesky chromaticism, disruptive groove or tempo changes) along the way.

  • But first, I expect to hear a transitional passage: a floating, ambient, blissful soundscape, characterized by sustained, single tones and long chords, with some active bass lines from Mike. This is where I’d expect to hear the ^1-^6 (“everything but ^7”) pitch collection I talked about above (yup: 11:40).

  • From there, I’m guessing Trey will take over, locking into melodic fragments and short riffs with strong “do-re-mi” (D-E-F#) flavors (bingo: 14:10).

  • I want Page to comp rigorously on the piano, sticking more or less religiously to the tonic (D) and subdominant (G) chords (few chords, if any, adding tones from outside the established Mixolydian pitch collection), eventually climbing into the upper regions of the instrument. (Maybe he’ll add some organ at the end.)

  • Mike and Fish will grow, churn and build, never letting the intensity flag or waver in any way, until said peak is reached.

Does all of this happen on Dec. 30, 2017? Big fat NOPE.

Not yet, anyway.

Around 15:00, Fishman drops (briefly) into a half-time beat. Mike and Trey mix modes (D major > minor/Dorian). At 15:25, Trey telegraphs his desire for another IV modulation, to G, but nobody bites (yet). Page adds weird synth timbres, spooky organ riffs and some clavi-wah. By 17:30, everyone is fully engaged in the otherworldly timbral stuff.

This, I believe, is what fans refer to as “Dark Phish,” and it’s great, and refreshing, and very welcome. I’m picturing Kuroda’s lights, reaching peak chaotic, freak-out mode. (Strobes, maybe?

Sometime around minute 18, I sense that Trey wants to get out of this. He clears out all his effects. He’s back in the moment. He’s looking for the Next Thing.

My expectations kick in again. Several possibilities exist. I know from experience.

  1. Will Trey switch modes, from D minor back to D major, doubling back to the path he abandoned earlier, in search of a peak? I’m guessing he won’t; flip-flopping from minor to major, for some reason, seems harder, and more rare. Who knows why. It’s jarring and nonlinear, and sort of unpleasant.

  1. Will he aim for the relative major, F? Doubtful. That usually happens earlier in a jam. It’s a weak move. The pitch content remains the same. Only the tonic note shifts (here, it would be from D to F), a soft landing into happiness. Not very dramatic.

  1. Better, maybe, to signal another MOD IV, to move from D major to G major, and to approach the peak from there, downshifting to get up a steep hill?

Option C it is.

The move isn’t subtle. Trey signals G major at 18:45. (Listen for a similar signal at 11:22 of the 12/30 “Tweezer,” which prods the band from A minor to D major.) Mike and Page immediately jump in. And we’re back on that upward dynamic trajectory, the one dangled in front of us at 11:40 and (mercifully) terminated (we like longer jams).

This passage isn’t without hiccups. From the start, Trey wills it into existence. We do get that payoff, though: the do-re-mi melodies, the upper register I-IV piano comping, Mike and Fish grinding and grooving all the way to the bottom of the hill. The peak -- we love it, and so does Kuroda -- arrives somewhere around minute 25.

Some liken this kind of episode to Allman Brothers (“Mountain Jam,” presumably) territory -- sure, fine. I’d argue, however, that the single-stream trajectory -- the build to a peak -- is uniquely Phish. Other jam bands (Umphrey’s McGee, JRAD) rarely engage in blatant peak-climbing. It belongs to Phish. You don’t want to sound like another band.

Still, I think to myself, I expected this.

*** *** ***

Photo © aZn
Photo © aZn

Note choice is a language the audience understands. The band controls the flow of information -- this is their show -- while trying to pick up on the mood in the room. (Trey has talked about giving that power to the audience, “playing” specific dancers, and so on.)

The band also knows how musical flow works across a wide range of venues (a club in Europe, Madison Square Garden) and at the level of jams, sets, shows, tours and years. They know when to turn up the flow or dial it back down.

So, while part of me bristles at the sameness I hear in, say, that 12/30/17 “Down With Disease,” I recognize the imperative to maintain forward motion: Everything hinges on flow. Musical agreement is the only proven way. And the band knows this better than I ever will.

From night to night, Phish makes a (musical) deal to remain within pitch-content parameters, because it keeps everything moving forward. The band toes the line, but they don’t often cross it anymore.

Why? Who knows. Maybe each band member is seeking harmony in his personal life. This isn’t 1994. They value agreement.

Everyone keeps dancing.

Occasionally, that “adventurously familiar” musical language bores those of us with appetites for dissonant sonorities and weird, disruptive trajectories. But I would never throw it overboard. I respect the flow.

Still, when they do cross that line, it’s amazing.

If you liked this blog post, one way you could "like" it is to make a donation to The Mockingbird Foundation, the sponsor of Phish.net. Support music education for children, and you just might change the world.


Comments

, comment by stimbuck
stimbuck Thank you for an in depth look at the mechanics of that jam
, comment by NightSpeaks
NightSpeaks Anyone else notice how in the 12/30 DwD (19:20 LP timing) Trey makes the exact same move as he did in the Dayton DwD (16:15 LP timing) before building the typical bliss peak?
, comment by TwiceBitten
TwiceBitten Basically here's what I tell people who are longing for "darker" Phish or more outside the box playing:

You have a lot of older Phish you can listen to that hits those places. In much the same way you don't find current Phish stepping outside of the established musical paradigms of "agreement", you often don't find anywhere near as much agreement, respect and frankly "good taste" in older jamming styles. The music Phish plays now makes sense for them, and who are we to argue with them really?

In addition there, is plenty of music both old and new that also will take you to those zones: krautrock, free jazz, noise. While it is certainly convenient to get EVERYTHING from one band, Phish doesn't need to be everything at all times. Expand your horizons and never stop searching for the sound.
, comment by Mothershusband
Mothershusband It's awesomely jammed Dad rock now.. 1st show was Red Rocks 1993 so I enjoyed the breakdown. Also I'm far from a musician, so the scales and things I didn't understand. But I got the message...
, comment by CameToPlay
CameToPlay Love this. Some/much is over my head, but I like to geek out and the writing is great.

So when is the jam chart crew going to make this Highly Recommended?
, comment by Col_Radicones_Ascent
Col_Radicones_Ascent Great breakdown even for the nonmusical! For excellent (relatively safe) 3.0 dissonance check out Night 1 Limb x Limb from 2016 Summer Tour at Bill Grahams. It's short and sweet but it begins with Trey cleanly riffing. Each go around becoming fuzzy and as the dissonance increases the melody resolves and it's incredibly satisfying.

I know 2016 is much maligned but it's really just a handful of non magnificent shows from the beginning of the summer. 2015-2016 NYE was great, The Mann and SPAC still hold up but after Syracuse things start rolling and once fall tour is in full swing we begin to see the continuation of 2015 and the brilliance of 2017 forming. Its hard not to see parallels between 95 to 97 and 15 to 17. If history repeats itself and '18 is like 98 than bring it on!
, comment by 12_29_97_4eva
12_29_97_4eva I feel like the overarching point of this post, with which I agree, is often explained by Mike (in less musical terms, of course) when he conveys his feelings about Phish to reporters. Familiar, safe, easy, yet fun and rewarding still.
, comment by smoothatonalsnd
smoothatonalsnd Great post Mike, I absolutely love following along with your thought process here. For me, that 12/30/17 DwD is ALL about the dark D dorian jam around minutes 16-18.

One counter argument to your point is that I think Phish, and specifically Trey but to some extent Page and Mike as well, are doing far more with timbre than ever before, and that Phish's main musical experimentation and exploration at this point in their career in along the lines of timbre (tone color, or the "sound" of the instruments, to anyone unfamiliar with the musical term). Consider that Trey has basically had the same hardware and path signal through pedals from around the late 1980s until 2015, with only minor tweaks and additions here and there. In 2015, Trey overhauled his rig. After the Baker's Dozen, Trey again overhauled the rig and installed a new custom pedal/effect activation system, overhauling the mechanism with which he experiments with sound. In the span of 2 years, Trey has done more tinkering with his sound than he had for the previous 25.

This has led to an explosion of experimentation with timbre, much of it in the department of digital delay and echo effects, but also a lot of it having to do with exploring different combinations of pedals and effects modules to create new combinations of sound. You can hear this throughout the NYE run - there's one moment during "Soul Planet" where Trey accidentally stumbles into a combination of pedals that lead to practically no sound coming from his guitar when he's playing! What this means, to me at least, is that Phish has shifted their pitch-based musical exploration - melody and harmony - to a timbre-based exploration. Page and Mike are doing it too (especially Page with his new synths during Baker's Dozen). For me this came to a peak during that dark DwD jam, as all three melodic instruments were deeply ensconced in murky, growling, sinister timbres, and of course the meterless noise jam after "Steam" when Fishman also experimented with his new sound toy, the Marimba Lumina.

For fans like yourself who listen in large part for pitch-based experimentation and weirdness (I include myself here, too!), it's no surprise that jams are sounding more and more similar. I agree - from a pitch standpoint, there is a lot of repetition. I find myself constantly hearing the same kinds of subdominant jams, and wishing they would find some other kinds of progressions to explore (I still love everything I'm hearing these days). Yet maybe our issue is that we need to change our mode of listening and expectation, and shift ourselves to listen for timbre rather than only hearing it as subsidiary to pitch.
, comment by MikeHamad
MikeHamad @smoothatonalsnd said:
Great post Mike, I absolutely love following along with your thought process here. For me, that 12/30/17 DwD is ALL about the dark D dorian jam around minutes 16-18.

One counter argument to your point is that I think Phish, and specifically Trey but to some extent Page and Mike as well, are doing far more with timbre than ever before, and that Phish's main musical experimentation and exploration at this point in their career in along the lines of timbre (tone color, or the "sound" of the instruments, to anyone unfamiliar with the musical term). Consider that Trey has basically had the same hardware and path signal through pedals from around the late 1980s until 2015, with only minor tweaks and additions here and there. In 2015, Trey overhauled his rig. After the Baker's Dozen, Trey again overhauled the rig and installed a new custom pedal/effect activation system, overhauling the mechanism with which he experiments with sound. In the span of 2 years, Trey has done more tinkering with his sound than he had for the previous 25.

This has led to an explosion of experimentation with timbre, much of it in the department of digital delay and echo effects, but also a lot of it having to do with exploring different combinations of pedals and effects modules to create new combinations of sound. You can hear this throughout the NYE run - there's one moment during "Soul Planet" where Trey accidentally stumbles into a combination of pedals that lead to practically no sound coming from his guitar when he's playing! What this means, to me at least, is that Phish has shifted their pitch-based musical exploration - melody and harmony - to a timbre-based exploration. Page and Mike are doing it too (especially Page with his new synths during Baker's Dozen). For me this came to a peak during that dark DwD jam, as all three melodic instruments were deeply ensconced in murky, growling, sinister timbres, and of course the meterless noise jam after "Steam" when Fishman also experimented with his new sound toy, the Marimba Lumina.

For fans like yourself who listen in large part for pitch-based experimentation and weirdness (I include myself here, too!), it's no surprise that jams are sounding more and more similar. I agree - from a pitch standpoint, there is a lot of repetition. I find myself constantly hearing the same kinds of subdominant jams, and wishing they would find some other kinds of progressions to explore (I still love everything I'm hearing these days). Yet maybe our issue is that we need to change our mode of listening and expectation, and shift ourselves to listen for timbre rather than only hearing it as subsidiary to pitch.
I agree: timbre is where it's at. I'm very interested in how those changes occur at important structural moments (hopefully you got that sense in this post).

Page's choices (piano, Rhodes, organ, clavi-wah, weird synths and so on) are so cool. He's the only musician who literally has to jump onto a new instrument, and that takes total commitment: he can't pull the trigger and then change his mind. He completely shapes the sound.

And yet (as I think I talked about above) I know when the piano is coming, when the organ might show up -- not a complaint, mind you. It's part of the musical language.

That moment in 'Soul Planet' is amazing (see also this "Disease" and the "Steam" you mentioned). Give me ambient stuff in every jam and I'll be happy.

I hope nobody gets the impression that I don't like what I hear. My current familiarity with the band's music, specifically the various tonal/timbral pathways I laid out, results in a new mode of listening for me -- I feel like a sort of an in-the-moment sleuth. No other music makes me listen that way. It's fun as hell.
, comment by aburtch
aburtch More posts like this please. Having musicologists dissect Phish proves what we all know instinctively, that Phish is musically the greatest band in the world and very few bands can operate on this level.
, comment by Playitleodan
Playitleodan And this is why I really liked the DWD from Dicks this year. It went no-where! (actually I am sure it went several places)
, comment by del4life
del4life Check please!
, comment by PhDCandidatePhishology
PhDCandidatePhishology I would like to see this post contrasted with a similar rundown of the Baker's Dozen ASIHTOS. That jam, more so than any other this year, reached some spaces that I absolutely didn't see coming beforehand. For the record, I love both styles and would probably choose the 12/30 DwD formula if put in a "gun against my head" scenario. I think it strikes a nice balance between musical complexity and flow.
, comment by Wombat_en_Fuego
Wombat_en_Fuego This must be what it sounds like when I talk about the intricacies of the tax code to my friends, wow. This is incredibly detailed. At first, I assumed I wouldn't finish the post because I just wouldn't get it. But I was fascinated by it! Posts like this is what Phish is about. Share your experiences, share your knowledge, and take it if you want it. But at least read the f*cking book...
, comment by jsauce
jsauce I really like the "kill me now" bit. Peak Phish is about setting up an expectation for a peak and then side-stepping it or obliterating it entirely. A very disturbing trend in 3.0 (at this point I guess it could be called a law) is those plodding, medium tempo numbers that set up a very lazy peak, followed by another lazy peak. Think 46 Days and Character Zero. THose songs used to shred. Now they're snooze fests. They're boring sex.
, comment by tek9rifleskills
tek9rifleskills @jsauce said:
I really like the "kill me now" bit. Peak Phish is about setting up an expectation for a peak and then side-stepping it or obliterating it entirely. A very disturbing trend in 3.0 (at this point I guess it could be called a law) is those plodding, medium tempo numbers that set up a very lazy peak, followed by another lazy peak. Think 46 Days and Character Zero. THose songs used to shred. Now they're snooze fests. They're boring sex.
And add Kuroda in for the snooze, he hits that white light (which he hits like 5 seconds before the music happens), and its about as cliche as I've ever seen Phish be cliche, which used to be kind of rare. Lazy peaks kind of rule the day now. What would be really cool is for there to be NO peak at all in some of these expected-peak jams and songs. I recall the 6-24-00 Tweezer as being a nearly peak-less jam, it sounded like Trey really wanted to shred some kind of high register notes to signal an end, but it just sounded like more building up to a peak with no payoff. (That's still one of my favorite Tweezers, simply because it's so non-peaky and different.)

I thought Mike was playing weird notes still and I still hear them, like a move up a half step and back down to the root, but I can't tell if Mike's "weird" notes are making the band do much. I know Page used to catch those and Trey would respond vividly, but I can't tell anymore (OP???).
, comment by TreysGuitarRig
TreysGuitarRig The octave and volume swells you describe around minute 9 both come from the POG2 polyphonic octave generator by ElectroHarmonix. The pedal includes an effects section that allows you to control the note attack, like a synthesizer would. By backing off the attack, you effectively wind up with a volume swell as the note approaches.
, comment by conormac
conormac Thanks for a nice write up. They certainly crossed the line a lot in 1994. And I find myself listening to that year more than any other. But more so than the unknown and jarring, I just can't get over the musicianship. It's one thing to jam the hell outta a song, but when you can come back down to earth and nail a straight forward version of a technical with energy, the band is unmatched. I love feel good 3.0 Phish, but thank god I have headphones and live phish to fulfill that void.
, comment by deceasedlavy
deceasedlavy Thanks for writing this. I've been trying for years to explain these things to fans, only without the theoretical expertise. Phish 3.0 is an undiminished in-person experience if you can surrender to it, but they used to be a lot better at tension and surprises, and a lot more interesting and dynamic upon respin.
You must be logged in to post a comment.


Phish.net

Phish.net is a non-commercial project run by Phish fans and for Phish fans under the auspices of the all-volunteer, non-profit Mockingbird Foundation.

This project serves to compile, preserve, and protect encyclopedic information about Phish and their music.

Credits | Terms Of Use | Legal

© 1990-2018  The Mockingbird Foundation, Inc. | Hosted by End Point Corporation