The following foreword to the second edition of The Phish Companion was written by Lois Harris, who taught Page, Trey, and Fish at Goddard College.
I suppose this little contribution to The Phish Companion should be called a Backward rather than a Foreword, but I guess Foreword will do, given that we will all seem to go that direction without requiring any declaration of the fact. Backward is a different business altogether. In music it’s called retrograde – taking the melody and playing it backwards – in life it is simply memory.
So here are some memories of Phish, as individuals and as a band. First, you have to imagine Vermont: multiple small buildings covered in snow – not always snow, but just to keep this thing rustic, let’s say snow. One building, large by Vermont standards, covered in brown shingle and punctuated by two former hay silos at the far end of the two corridors is the so-called Community Center. The other end of the hall gives access to the Haybarn Theater, wood paneled and multi-functional – a far cry from the massive performance venues the Band would later fill.
Some yards away, past the “Clockhouse” and other small buildings, and down a long sloping hill stands the former milking barn of the farm estate, now the Music Building of Goddard College. This was where I went about teaching piano, theory, history and various other sundry topics to serious and non-serious students for 19 years. The building has a functional basement with two large studios and a main floor with five practice rooms. The top floor – an attic really, and pretty much unusable for classes – boasts one main room, virtually no light, and a low ceiling. This is the space I gave up for the use of the most serious of all of the would-be rock stars I had known over the years. Trey, Page, and Jon were all Goddard students at that time, and Mike would travel from Burlington for rehearsals. These went on late into the night, no doubt disturbing the serenity of central Vermont’s bovine population, but seemingly non-intrusive to human slumber. The dorms were located a fair distance away.
In relation to the upper floor, I had two consistent interactions with the band.
One: enter Classical Piano Maven, also facilities manager for the building. “Guys, it’s really loud now and other students can’t hear themselves playing. Can you keep it down?” They did, and tried to put off the really loud stuff until after 10 or so at night.
Two: enter same Classical Maven, also housekeeping staff. “Guys, I hate to say this, but this place is really a mess. How long has that banana peel been decaying over there? And is that the chicken a la king that they served at the cafeteria last Tuesday? You really have to clean the place up.” They always did, although they always seem to require some prompting. (By the way, Beethoven, too, was not exceptionally tidy. The difference being that Beethoven threw people down the stairs if they complained.) I can’t tell you the pride I have in having contributed in this wholesome way to the musical education of Phish. I wonder if they are neat lads now.
This is not to say that I had no musical experience with the members of Phish. All but Mike were students. Drummers were always a problem at Goddard, even before Jon. The good ones seemed always to be practicing, more than pianists, more than instrumentalists, more than anyone. On the other hand, maybe it just seemed that way. In any case, the attic was a good place for John to be, and he often practiced sotte voce so that other activities could also take place in the building during prime hours. Page and John both took classes with me. Page always impressed me with his innate musicality, as well as by his capacity to shift seemingly without effort between rock and jazz styles. Trey proposed one of the most interesting independent studies I’ve ever encountered. He approached one day and said that he would like to work his way through Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier, Book I. Clavier, by the way, refers to any of the various keyboard instruments of the day, most notably the harpsichord, clavichord, and organ. So, I guess in 1740, Page would have been announced as being “on Clavier,” but he would have had to provide his own electricity. In any case, this is the first of two books of collections of 24 Preludes and Fugues written by J.S. Bach in all of the major and minor keys. The volumes are exceedingly challenging technically and musically and provide a mainstay in the training of classical pianists. Trouble was, Trey was not a pianist. Hmm. Enter again Classical Piano Maven: “So, Trey, unless I am mistaken, you are a guitarist, are you not? Yes, I thought so. What makes you think you can play these pieces, and why do you want to?” The answer was compelling. “I want to know how Bach composes, and I’ll just go slowly enough to be able to work it out as I go – not for performance or anything, just to understand it.” Bingo. What a good idea! In my experience, one thing that distinguishes serious artists from others is the desire to experience and understand as much source material as possible. Never before, or after, have I encountered such a sensible, and totally unreasonable request from a student. (Well, there was the one who wanted to study guerilla theater in Mexico without knowing Spanish, but I’ll do that foreword another time.) I wish I had known Mike, but I do feel privileged to have had these experiences with the other three.
I agreed to write this foreword for three reasons. First, I always liked the individual members of Phish, and I have enormous respect for what they have been able to accomplish. Second, I want to support the impulse of the many very successful popular groups, including Phish, through The Mockingbird Foundation, to contribute meaningfully to important causes, such as the environment, literacy programs, and global relief efforts. Third, because I am now Provost at Cornish College of the Arts in Seattle, I am very much aware of the critical need for financial support for the arts and music education in particular. As primary and secondary schools are given increasingly less financial support for programs in music and the arts, young people of talent are denied access to experiences that will engage them in the arts meaningfully. Some will be unable to afford to pursue their artistic passions even after significant preparation. This is to the detriment of the whole society, and for this reason, I want to applaud The Mockingbird Foundation for its mission of support for arts education. I also applaud Phish on their extraordinary success and wish to extend to the individual members of the band – Trey, Page, Mike and John – my fond memories and warmest regards. At this point they may or may not as yet be tidy, but they appear to have, beyond their talent, a great deal of both kindness and generosity of spirit.
- Lois Harris, Ph.D., Provost, Cornish College of the Arts
Seattle, February, 2004
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