Friday 09/25/2015 by phishnet


[Editor's Note: We welcome back contributor and musicologist Mike Hamad, who shares his thoughts on the "Modulating Jams of Summer 2015." Below is the introduction and part one, of three parts. Parts two and three will run here early next week. -PZ]

Not counting the Magnaball Drive-In Jam, Phish played 513 songs – roughly three days of non-stop music – during the summer 2015 tour, spread across 51 sets and 25 shows in 16 different venues. That’s a lot of music.

A minor subset – 37 songs, clocking in at nearly ten hours – stands out not because of how good it was, but because of what happened during those ten hours: in every case, the band, as a unit, changed keys. In musical/analytical circles, this is known as “modulation.”

Each modulation lasted more than two minutes. It’s an arbitrary amount of time that I chose to distinguish between structural modulations, or key changes, that I felt would unmistakably weaken the music if they weren’t there, and last-minute swerves, to enter new keys and set up subsequent segues to other songs. Anyway, two minutes is a good, round number.

Technically speaking, this group of 37 jams represents the most harmonically adventurous collection of improvisational rock music played by Phish during the summer – the Type II-est of the Type IIs. In this series I’ll discuss the different types of modulation practiced by Phish, the common pathways they use to get where they’re going, and where they ended up on the other side.

In part one, I’ll talk about modulation in a general sense, before getting into the group of 37 jams that meets these conditions. In part two, I’ll lay out the four different types of modulation heard in the summer of 2015, as well as common pathways heard in each category. Finally, in part three, I’ll discuss compound modulations, jams that nearly made the cut, and how Phish treats segues after modulating jams.

What is modulation?

Inclusion on this list has nothing to do with taste (or even “Taste”). Each song/jam meets a single condition: it modulates to a new key for longer than two minutes. Improvisational rock music has many things going for it, and modulation is only one. Obviously it’s possible to enjoy Phish jams without hearing any of these, and that’s because, at its most elemental, Phish music is dance music.

I’ve written about Phish and modulation for, and also for Lawn Memo’s The Daily Ghost. Improvising rock musicians – arguably all musicians – think in terms of keys (F, G, A, D, etc.) and modes (major, minor, Dorian, Mixolydian, Lydian, Phrygian, pentatonic, and so on). Part of that is physical, and has to do with hand placement on an instrument. Piano players can attest that playing in B minor, for example, feels very different than playing in A minor; the same goes for the guitar and bass. (You may recall Trey’s comment to member Andrew Hitz, when they discussed the Mike’s Song second jam in Nashville: “Ooh, I like jamming in F.”)

Modulation isn’t required for a jam to be considered “good” (check out the list of honorable mentions later in this article). But looking across Phish’s enormous output over the years, there’s an argument to be made that a significant percentage of Hall of Fame jams modulate at some point. (A quick scan of Matt Burnham’s HOF poll tells me that six of the seven Tier 1 jams modulate.)

In a general sense, every Phish jam starts out the same way: in a certain key (A, for example, if you’re talking about “Ghost”) and mode (minor; more specifically, the Dorian mode, which employs the raised ^6 scale degree and the flatted ^7 scale degree). Countless “Ghost” jams (7/21/15, for example) begin and end in the same key and mode, without straying, and they’re awesome.

After a while, particularly during longer jams, ears and fingers get tired of being in (and hearing) the same key and mode. Phish often switches modes from major to minor (what’s known as “mode-mixture”) for variety, while remaining in the same key. Mode-mixture is fairly easy, and Trey or Page, because they play chordal instruments, are responsible for this slice of the pie.

Modulation occurs when Mike decides he’s going to make a new tonal center the “tonic,” or “home.” The lowest voice in any musical texture has this power. It’s some sort of physical thing, but it’s true. The other guys can (and very often do) signal that they want to go someplace else, but Mike has to buy in.

Still, I’d argue that modulation is an important part of what makes great Phish jams great. You’ll find many of the most talked-about jams of summer 2015 on this list: Atlanta “Kill Devil Falls”; Blossom “Chalk Dust Torture” -> “Tweezer”; Mann “Twist”; MPP “Twist”; Magnaball “Bathtub Gin,” “Tweezer” -> “Prince Caspian,” and “Blaze On”; Dick’s “CDT” and “Down with Disease,” and so on.

Other beloved 2015 jams are not on the list: Bend “Simple”; Nashville “Stash” and “Mike’s Groove”; Mann “Cities” & “Scents and Subtle Sounds”; MPP “David Bowie,” and so on. I’ll discuss some of these later.

Table 1 lists the modulating jams of summer 2015:

Date Location Songs
7/24 Shoreline, CA Twist,” “Light,” “Harry Hood”
7/28 Austin, TX “Ghost”
7/29 Grand Prairie, TX “Chalk Dust Torture”
7/31 Atlanta, GA “Ghost,” “Kill Devil Falls,” “Twist”
8/1 Atlanta, GA Tweezer,” “Carini”
8/2 Tuscaloosa, AL “Down with Disease”
8/4 Nashville, TN Golden Age
8/5 Kansas City, MO “Down with Disease”
8/7 Cuyahoga Falls, OH “Chalk Dust Torture,” “Tweezer”
8/8 East Troy, WI “Down with Disease,” “Light”
8/9 East Troy, WI “Tweezer”
8/12 Philadelphia, PA Twist
8/15 Columbia, MD “46 Days,” “Piper”
8/16 Columbia, MD “Twist”
8/21 Watkins Glen, NY Simple,” “Bathtub Gin,” “Chalk Dust Torture,” “Ghost”
8/22 Watkins Glen, NY “46 Days,” “Tweezer,” “Prince Caspian,” “Blaze On,” “Light”
8/23 Watkins Glen, NY “Down with Disease”
9/4 Commerce City, CO “Golden Age,” “Fuego”
9/5 Commerce City, CO “Chalk Dust Torture”
9/6 Commerce City, CO Down with Disease,” “Carini”

Why these particular songs?

In this group of 37, you’ll notice that there are only seventeen different song titles. Alphabetically, these are: “46 Days” (2 examples), “Bathtub Gin” (1), “Blaze On” (1), “Carini” (2), “Chalk Dust Torture” (4), “Down with Disease” (5), “Fuego” (1), “Ghost” (3), “Golden Age” (2), “Harry Hood” (1), “Kill Devil Falls” (1), “Light” (3), “Piper” (1), “Prince Caspian” (1), “Simple” (1), “Tweezer” (4) and “Twist” (4).

The most exploratory song of summer 2015, if you wish to count them, was “Disease” (five modulating jams), followed by “Chalk Dust,” “Tweezer” and “Twist” (four each); “Light” and “Ghost” (three each); and “Carini” and “Golden Age” (two each).

This group of seventeen contains several different types of songs. Some are open-ended, meaning we don’t expect them to return to any sort of “head,” and are therefore natural choices for exploratory, Type II jams. Among this group: “46 Days” (it’s usually the second jam, though 8/22 only has one jam), “Carini,” “Down with Disease,” “Ghost,” “Golden Age,” “Light,” “Piper,” “Simple,” “Tweezer” and “Twist.” Some of these had typical returns in earlier days, and some still do return to the head; see the 7/25 “Disease”, for example.

Building on what they’ve done with “Chalk Dust Torture” in 3.0, its appearance on this list is no surprise. Prior to 2015, however, Type II “Chalk Dust” jams (7/13/14 or 8/3/14, for example) took off in the middle of the song, without the final chorus, and are therefore labeled “unfinished” by the setlist gurus. That changed in 2015; every “Chalk Dust” played during the summer was of the finished short: after a short guitar solo, Trey signaled the return of the chorus. Modulatory “CDT” jams, a la 8/31/12, are what you’d call “second jams.”

“Bathtub Gin” typically returns to its C-major head before ending (8/21 is no exception), but I’m also not surprised that at least one version got spun out in 2015 (oh, and WHAT a spinning out that was). “Fuego” sometimes ends formally (see: 7/25), but it also occasionally spins out without modulating (8/11) or spins out with modulation (9/4, and many examples in 2014).

“Blaze On,” a new song in 2015, always concludes before it either spins out (as on 8/22) or does not (7/28 and several others). Two additional songs – 7/31 “Kill Devil Falls” and 8/22 “Prince Caspian” – normally conclude and don’t get that spun out – but these two certainly did.

“Harry Hood” is another story. In 3.0, it’s unusual to hear a “Hood” jam that modulates, but it happened on 7/24, when we heard four minutes (!) of a modulation from D major to C major (flat-VII, from 8:26-12:28).

“Hood” is part of a group of songs typically known in 3.0, with important exceptions, as Type I jam vehicles, along with “Antelope,” “Bowie,” “Stash,” “Mike’s Song,” “Reba,” “Runaway Jim,” “Split Open and Melt,” “Wolfman’s,” “YEM,” and a few others. These are some of the most welcome jam songs in the 3.0 repertoire, and they seldom modulate (although a frequent, welcome occurrence in this group is the appearance of a lengthy tonicization of another key).

Tonicization vs. Modulation
Tonicization occurs when a key area outside the tonic (i.e. the “home” key) is temporarily treated as the tonic. This new area feels like home for a little while, but not for long. Modulation, on the other hand, is deeper and more structural. (Note: all timings are from LivePhish.)

The 7/28 “Antelope,” for example, is a jam that takes place in E minor, with a short tonicization of G major (III) from 4:11-4:42. For roughly 30 seconds, we feel like G major is home, before the bass slips back to E. It’s a good jam, but it doesn’t make this list because it doesn’t technically modulate. The 8/22 “Antelope” tonicizes B major (V) from 4:52-5:39, then G major (III) from 5:40-6:18, for 1.5 total minutes of being displaced from E minor.

Similarly, in the 8/4 “Stash” jam, we hear fifteen seconds of a move from D minor to F major (III, from 6:20-6:34), then fifteen more seconds of an A major (V) tonic (from 6:35-6:50) before Mike re-settles in D minor. The 8/9 “Melt” jam (in C# minor) contains a lot of dissonance and harmonic ambiguity, but it briefly tonicizes B (7:35) and A (8:18). The 8/11 “Bowie” jam (in E minor) tonicizes G major (III) twice (at 5:27 and 6:55), and the 8/16 “Bowie” jam contains extensive tonicizations of A major (IV) at 8:09 and 9:17.

Tonicization frequently happens in jams that also modulate. The 8/1 “Tweezer,” for example, a jam in A minor, contains a brief tonicization of D major (IV) from 8:25-8:46, before the eventual, seismic modulation to C major (III) at 9:51.

Location, location, location…
Not surprisingly, in 2015, the overwhelming majority of modulating jams occurred during second sets, either…

We’ve come to expect harmonic exploration in second sets, in other words, because that’s when usually happens.

Three exceptions: the first-set Ghost on “7/31,” which returned back to its home key (A minor) after a five-minute jam in D major (IV). And Magnaballers were treated to rare, modulating first-set bookends – the “Simple” opener and “Bathtub Gin” set closer – a phenomenon that recalls the latter years of 1.0.

[Look for parts two and three here at the blog next week...]

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