[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.
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).
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.
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 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.
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.
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).
*** *** ***
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
*** *** ***
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.
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