The Daily Ghost

26 in 26 #9 07/16/2013 Verizon Wireless Amphitheatre at Encore Park, Alpharetta, GA (Mike Hamad, @phishmaps @mikehamad) #phish

Selection: “Chalk Dust Torture”

From Mike Hamad:

Planet-hopping in Alpharetta

alpharetta CDT

​When I was asked to participate in this series of essays, I assumed it was to bring some quasi-technical musical analysis into the discussion — my background is in musicology and music theory — so that’s what I’ll do. My apologies, however, if some of the terms I use aren’t all that familiar to non-musicians; still, I’m happy to follow up through email if anything I say needs further clarification.

The most important thing, I think, about the relatively short “Chalk Dust Torture” performed on July 16, 2013 in Alpharetta, Ga., musically speaking, is the tonal distance traveled, and — more interestingly — how they get there.

What is tonal distance, or tonality for that matter? Think of every song as a planet, with its own set of gravitational forces. The song portion of CDT have a set of chords (G major, A major) that are different from the home key of the song (E), but they all fall back to (E)arth, eventually.

Modulation, meanwhile, refers to the act of jetting off to another planet — one that’s either far away or relatively close by. (Any tonal planet you visit, ultimately, is part of the same, well-traveled universe, until you start getting into non-tonal systems of organizing music. But that’s another story.)

All CDTs start out in E, but it’s an interesting planet that fall somewhere between major and minor; we’ll call it E minor, but really it’s a blues-rock version (where the third scale degree is interchangeable between G and G#). In Alpharetta, the song part played out as we expect it to (0:00-3:04).

The jam portion (3:04-9:53), however, jumps from planet to planet, first to G major (the relative major of E minor, and thus not that far away) then to D major (the dominant of G, thus closely related), to a switch from D major to minor (jarring, though not unheard of) and finally B-flat major, which is a distant tritone away from the home planet (E). If the song part of CDT is Earth, we end up on Pluto.

Blah, blah, blah. But tonally speaking, B-flat is about as far as you can get from E. Keys that are a tritone apart have very little in common. Play an E major chord on the guitar and then a B-flat major chord in succession: it sounds pretty far out.

Over the years, classical composers have used that far-out sound (i.e. tritone-related keys) to juxtapose oppositional ideas or forces. Examples of this are all over Phish’s music (see “It’s Ice,” “Esther,” “Fly Famous Mockingbird” and a few others).

The jam in the Alpharetta “CDT,” however, is not a composed piece of music. It’s improvised. How does it work?

I’ve talked about this elsewhere, but I’ll recap: in any improvisational rock band, think of the bassist as the Keymaster.


He or she holds the power to modulate (i.e. “planet-hop”). The upper voices — guitar, piano, organ, etc. — certainly play a role in the planet-hopping (listen to 19:15-19:30 of the Tahoe Tweezer, for example, where Page signals he wants to hop from C minor to F major by simply leaning on that key until everyone hears him). But unless Keymaster Mike plays along, it will remain a local coloration that remains on Earth.

Mike, meanwhile, can change the key whenever he wants. That’s the unusual, subtle power of the lowest instrument, not only in improvisational rock but in any musical texture (and also why Phil Lesh’s free bass playing during “Dark Stars” often obscures any sense of a strong tonal center). I’m not sure exactly why the lowest voice holds this power, but I’m sure there’s some acoustical explanation somewhere.

How this played out in Alpharetta is interesting. Mike heads from E toward G around 3:45 (where it says “bass leads” on my schematic: my way of suggesting Mike was “leading the way” toward the new key). Trey and Page follow suit. Mike then seems to have a change of heart, slipping back to E minor temporarily. Here, Trey and Page communicate (through playing) that they want to stay in G.

That’s something I’ve heard in a lot of Phish jams. Mike knows he has the power to planet-hop, but he uses it sparingly; he knows it’s an interstellar move you can’t easily return from. Sometimes (often) he starts to hop, then — perhaps sensing the others aren’t on board — fall back to earth. (I’m reminded of the brief move from E to A in the SPAC 13 “Bowie,” or the even briefer move from A to D in the early stages of the Tahoe “Tweezer” jam.)

In Alpharetta, Mike starts playing a lot of Gs from 3:45 to 4:00, then alternates between E-G for awhile after that. Around 4:45, the others have caught on. At 5:00, however, you sense Mike wants to go back to E. He doesn’t get the chance: Trey and Page gang up on him.

Around 5:30, in the new key (G), interesting things start to happen: a shared riff between Mike and Trey, a dip in the volume (“dynamics dip”), and so on. Around 6:35, we sense another jump is coming: to D major (the dominant, or V, of G), another close jump (but still farther than E to G, which are relatives). Once D is established, Page kicks in with the clavi-wah sounds and everything gets more ambient. The modulation, then, either signals “newness” or simply coincides with it.

Mode-mixture, as I mentioned earlier, involves switching between major (“happy”) and minor (“sad”) within the same key. I’ve indicated on the schematic where that happens (from D major to minor). When mode-mixture happens in jams, it’s a kind of seismic shift that’s just as jarring as a modulation. (You’re still on Earth, but you’ve just flown from New York to China, and you’re probably jet-lagged.)

The move to D minor (around 7:30, we’re pretty much there) facilitates another short hop to B-flat (around 7:45). Notably, Trey initiates this one but jumping on the pitch B-flat (while Mike is still noodling around on the pitch D). In geeky terms: D minor gets reinterpreted as the mediant triad (iii) in the new key of B-flat major (I).

When you add it all up, it’s a lot of tonal distance to cover in a short jam. They didn’t seem that interested in hanging around in any particular key for long. They were exploring.

Returning to the Chalk Dust head would have involved jerking us back to E from B-flat, which they don’t do. (Anyway, the subsequent song, “Wilson,” is in E, so the head-jerk thing does happen after all.) The last thirty seconds of the CDT jams involves Fishman (briefly) kicking into double-time (which he abandons).

Tonal motion by minor thirds — E to G (D) to B-flat — is a device they use often. The Dicks 13 CDT essentially follows the same trajectory (with spectacular results), while the MSG 13 CDT moves travels from E to A to D, a sort of trip through tonal space via the circle of fifths.

One of the most tonally adventurous jams of summer 13 is the SPAC Melt, which travels from C# through A, f# minor, B, D and all the way to G — another tritone distance from the home planet (C#-G). Unlike the Alpharetta CDT, however, they jerks us back through the tritone and complete the Melt (in C#).

There are tons of noteworthy things you could say about the Alpharetta CDT — set placement, energy, what it was like to be there, surface details, and so on — but the modulation thing, I think, is important.

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.

From LawnMemo:

What a boost to our community Mike has been!  His maps are breathtaking and he always has a great intellectual take on Phish.  I always look forward to reading what Mike has to write!