Selection: “Down with Disease”
I hear from some people who want to understand more about music theory. Others tell me they want no part of it.
The first group senses magic and wonders: Can I get closer to it if I know what’s going on, technically speaking, in the music? The other concludes that any attempt to pin it down, analyze it, chop it up, label it, rank it, and so on, is not simply a waste a time but potentially disperses the magic, like trying to wrap your arms around a raincloud.
I don’t know who to side with. Sometimes you just want to dance, and not think. Dancing at shows is a form of interpretation: moving to sound intuitively, carving physical space with one’s body, creating a spectacle for others, and so on.
But so is analyzing music: replaying it through speakers or headphones, or just in my mind, trying to argue an interpretation in words: I find it to be a creative endeavor — more right-brained and less visceral than dancing, sure.
Good analytical interpretations incorporate left-brain responses: gut feelings that lead to deeper discoveries, “a-ha” moments and synaptic connections across time, straight (we think, anyway) from the players’ hearts and brains. Like composition itself, perhaps, music analysis begins with raw discovery and ecstatic creation and ends with mental processing and rational thought, as you figure out how best to express what you hear in words (or music).
Let’s take the version of “Down With Disease,” performed in Orange Beach, Alabama on Aug. 1, 2014, as an example. (Timings shown are LivePhish.)
As a jam song, “Down With Disease” poses a unique, immediate challenge: when most versions enter the improv zone, somewhere around the fifth minute, they (like “Chalk Dust Torture” jams) almost always start from an elevated launchpad. That is, by the time the jam begins, the energy is already high, the dynamics are loud, the momentum is strong.
Where do you go from there? When you think of all the possible trajectories, there’s really nowhere else to go but down. But that’s part of the fun of “DwD”: the interest lies in how they go down.
(Launch pads are important. Think of where “Bowie” jams start, for example, or “Antelope” jams, “Reba” jams, “YEM” jams, “Gin” jams, “Tweezers”, and so on. They’re all different, and they play roles in how things progress: what expectations do the launch pads create? How are those expectations fulfilled or defeated?)
The Orange Beach “DwD” jams begins (4:11) after the last vocal chorus and the usual four guitar statements (3:41). As you listen, there are tangibles you can try to identify, such as…
Keys and modes: The jam begins in A Mixolydian (a form of major mode), switches to A Dorian (a form of minor mode, 9:24) and later modulates (i.e. changes key) to D Mixolydian (13:01). There’s some alternation between D Mixo and D minor within the final drive (17:15 or so; especially 19:33).
Switching between modes (i.e. Mixo>Dorian) within the same key (i.e. A) is known as MODE-MIXTURE, while MODULATION involves moving wholesale to a new key. There’s only one actual modulation (A>D) in the Orange Beach “DwD”, and it’s a pretty typical move in 3.0 jams (from the tonic key, or I, to the subdominant key, or IV).
Right before the first mode-mix from A Mixo>Dorian (9:24), you can hear Mike start to play riffs involving flatted third scale degrees (C naturals); Trey, having the big ears that he has, picks up on it immediately and plays a big A minor chord, while Page responds by switching from the piano to the Rhodes (electric piano).
The one modulation (A Dorian>D Mixo, 13:01), naturally, is a little more seismic than the mode-mixtures.
All the players kind of slide into it at once, after saying all they wanted to say in the previous key/mode: Mike asserts the D, Trey comps, and Page returns to the piano and introduces the clavi-wah keyboard, reserving the organ for the very end of the jam (19:50).
Tempo (fast), time signature (4/4), groove/feel (rock, straight, not swung): these remain pretty constant throughout the jam.
Dynamics: scattered throughout the jam are various DIPS (drops in volume or intensity), BUILDS (gradual increases in volume or intensity) and DRIVES (maintaining a full-throttle dynamic/intensity level, for a period of time). Fish’s big moment is the third/fourth quarter of the jam (beginning around 13:45), during which he kicks into a huge rock groove. But most of the time he adds occasional FILLS to a fast, rock beat.
Instrumentation and tone color: you’ve noticed by now that Page punctuates mode-mixtures and modulations with changes in tone color, like the switch from piano to Rhodes (9:24) with A Mixo>Dorian; Rhodes to piano/clavi-wah (13:01) with A Dorian>D Mixo; and the inclusion of three colors — piano, clavi-wah and organ — at the end of the jam (minute 19). Mike tends to alternate between his standard tone and space-bass tone at various points too, but he’s less tied to those tonal events than Page. Trey only really changes tone once (TREMOLO, around 10:53).
Melodic motives (MOT), figures and RIFFS: there are plenty of notable ones scattered throughout, including a familiar, unidentified melody that shows up in a number of DwDs (4:40, started by Trey and picked up by Page); Trey’s triadic riff (8:05), subsequent octave climb (8:20, played three times); and minor-mode figure (11:09); Mike’s octave motive in D (13:45), which really begins the next DRIVE; Page’s post-DRIVE piano cascades (17:47), after he flips the mode back toward minor.
I noticed very few peaks in this “DwD”, which is maybe a little unusual. Overall it’s not the best “DwD” of 2014 (those were probably Inglewood or Miami, if that one can be counted as 2014). But it’s not bad either.
From Mike Hamad:
After a year of listening to tapes, Mike’s first Phish show was 9/26/91. He walked into the State Theater in Ithaca, N.Y. in the middle of the “Divided Sky” pause, having never seen a single image of the band. Shortly after that night he changed his major to music. He now writes for the Hartford Courant. His current favorite Ghost is 12/31/10