[Attention conservation notice: 4,000 words or so on bitonality in one band's improvisation, with many mp3 examples and no small amount of handwaving. If you don't know anything about this post's two topics, this is actually a decent place to start. If you like this sort of thing, you might be pleased to know I've written an entire book on the subject.]
I only learned the meaning of the word bitonality a few months ago – I’m 33, this is unforgivable, I’m over it – and now I have a new way of understanding (stating) something I’d been coming to informally for a while. I apologize in advance for the clumsiness and inconsistency of my theoryspeak – I have very little formal harmonic training, and am making most of this up as I go along.
Bitonality is what happens when music is played in two keys at once. Here’s ‘Mary Had a Little Lamb,’ clumsily played on my laptop keyboard (not a piano):
The melody clonks along in the lower register, C-major, and the harmony is just the basic chords: C and G with a dash of Dm to ease our passage. Most Western music sounds like this – it’s ‘correct’ in the sense that the melody fits the harmony. Even if you don’t know or care about the written rules, your ear knows them.
Here’s the same performance, same melody, with the chords transposed one step – now you’re hearing a C-major melody against Bb-major chords.
It sounds wrong in a familiar way. Everything has the same shape as before, but the melody and harmony are differently grounded. Crucially, you can follow either one and it’ll make perfect sense on its own, but unless you’re used to hearing this kind of stuff you’ll find yourself trying to ‘correct’ the sound in your brain, the same way your eyes get used to wearing someone else’s glasses.
Two more versions: melody in C, harmony in C# and F respectively. Note that the first is much more jarring – C against C# is a nasty, unpleasant dissonance to most Western ears (in this setting).
Here’s a far more complex example of real polytonality: Ornette Coleman’s ‘The New Anthem’ from his extraordinary orchestral album, Skies of America. Ornette’s ‘harmolodic’ method involved, among other things, giving a single written-out melody to differently tuned instruments. (The same frequency is notated as Bb on the flute, C on the clarinet, and G on the alto sax – so if all three instruments play what they call ‘C,’ you’ll get an interesting mild dissonance. Do the same with a whole orchestra, well…)
A much less complex example of the same principle, John Coltrane’s ‘Africa’ (from Africa/Brass), which has Trane’s melody set a whole step down from the accompaniment:
You encounter bitonality in Phish’s music all the time, but never for this length of time or at this level of intensity – generally it’s a temporary state to be resolved peacefully, often in the context of a transitional jam or segue. For instance, from the 11/17/97 Ghost:
After a few minutes of the usual Ghost jam in A minor (or ‘A blues’ more descriptively) Trey makes a suggestive move to C major, setting up a very comfortable bitonality; Page dongles around between the harmonic homebase and D major, opening up the sound and crucially including F# in the ‘musical information’ he’s providing. Then around 9:30 (roughly :45 into this clip) Trey plays a simple G-(C)-G-C-F#-C-G melody, which could suggest any of a number of harmonic directions; the entire band jumps on G major (with Page waving at Em/Am for colour) (everyone knows Page is one of the best rock pianists going, right?) and we’re off. The rest of the famous Ghost jam is in G/Gm.
The very mild dissonances and chromatic filigrees in this jam aren’t a patch on Ornette’s crazy scheme in ‘The New Anthem,’ but they’re a useful tool for Phish – when a band member wants to suggest a new direction, he can establish a harmonic tension by moving to a new key (even if it’s a very short trip, like Trey’s move from A minor to C major), and the rest of the band can come along in time – or just as likely, the ‘wrong’ notes can fall back into place in the original harmonic scheme.
Here’s another, more complex example from the same show, the jam out of ‘Johnny B Goode’ in the second set of 11/17/97:
There’s a lot going on here. Trey’s using an FX pedal that splits his tone, producing what’s known as ‘parallel harmony’ – he’s bitonal all by himself, generating the same melody in two keys. It’s an ugly sound in some ways, especially if ears are trained up on ‘voice leading.’ Meanwhile Mike is providing a solid root in funky time while Page studiously avoids what everyone else is doing, preferring little chromatic wiggles – again, he’s the colour man. Fish keeps up a clanging-bell sound on his ride cymbal by striking the middle of the cymbal with the center of his stick, vs a tip-strike near the cymbal’s outer edge; that makes for a more distinct attack on the cymbal, leaving tons of room for the choppy eighth notes being thrown around the ensemble.
This is one of those passages where dancing fans get lost in the music – it’s not clear where ‘home’ is, exactly (hint: Mike is probably home), and the hullabaloo keeps up for another couple of minutes, at which point Trey begins chording and wah-ing and staving off madness. There’s a relatively contained harmonic ‘area’ the band is working in, but they’re still providing a lot of information at once. Still, it’s not meant to be beautiful, it’s meant to be perverse, or at least aggressively tense.
A much more benign mirror image, from the blissful post-Roses jam on the Island Tour:
You might say all three tonal musicians are differently centered here, with Trey’s Ab major the magnetic pole and Mike and Page looking toward Db and a hint of Gb. That’s the most benign kind of superposition; the Phish from Vermont go to that sonic space all the time in their ‘majestic’ or ‘anthemic’ climaxes.
There’s something in Phish’s 2010–2012 music that sounds new to me, something to do with the use of bitonality and harmonic superposition, and I think it’s a big part of the music’s appeal (for me anyhow). Phish spent 2011 getting back into an experimental mode and reached new emotional depths in the process, and in the wake of the triumphant run at Dick’s in Colorado they’re arguably at a career peak. I think it’s worth examining the tools that have gotten them there.
- Rotating leadership. It’s still Trey’s band, and he does still self-consciously step back into the ensemble to let other voices come to the fore – nothing new there – but nowadays, there are three other lead voices pushing to the fore at different points in nearly every jam. Page is still the bedrock, Fishman still provides metronomic precision, but lately those two players alter the course of jams not by suggesting new paths but by jumping off in a new direction. Fishman in particular has been playing like a man possessed. And as for Mike…Mike has been onstage co-leader of the band for a couple of years now. For nearly a decade he’s built a new lead bass style that matches Phil Lesh for freedom…but built on a rock-solid rhythm role. Now Mike can do lead/rhythm roles all at once, just like Trey, which frees up the whole band.
- New logics of movement between sections. For a long time Phish’s basic transitional maneuver was the ‘cow funk’ groove: exhaust one groove, start up a funky jog, see what happens. (This approach ran its course in 2004, I think.) In 2009 they often turned to ambient spaces for the same purpose; their most interesting jams built slowly from cloudy ambience (think of 8/9/07 Sally, or 12/30/09 Back on the Train). But as their ambient work grew more complex (cf. 8/5/11 Roggae, 7/3/11 Ocean), they found ways to move smoothly between sections without relying on funk/space cliché. With four voices switching the lead role, they were able in 2012 to make stylistic transitions more smoothly than ever, without it seeming like a parlor trick: dig the 8/19 SF Light > Sally, 7/8 SPAC Piper, and Page’s Transylvanian organ work in the 6/22 Cincinnati Twist.
- Harmonic density. This is the big one, I think, a consequence of the first change that enables the second, and the focus of the rest of this essay. Short version: Phish’s music is a lot more complex than it used to be, but less complicated. Thank god.
The Grateful Dead were known for protean improvisations: ever-shifting responsibilities, amorphous rhythms, squirmy harmonies. Between Garcia and Lesh it could be hard to find solid harmonic ground (ask Bob Weir!), and the drummers were always chasing each other around like puppies; in tunes like Playin’ and Dark Star that was half the point anyhow. Phish have always taken a more architectural approach, treating improv as a structural element in extended compositions and striving to generate coherent musical forms: tunes like Bowie and YEM are actually built around the climactic arc of their jam segments.
Think of the way the full-band jams in Chalkdust, Bowie, Antelope, Slave, YEM, Gin, Bug, Free, Melt, Mike’s Song, Hood, Char0, Stash, and Disease all build directly to closing unison statements or section changes, with the energy of each improvisation spilling over into its song’s final movement. It’s one of the amazing things about Trey’s songwriting: he’s a master of treating improvisation as a compositional element and sustaining the energy of a tune through a potentially open-ended jam.
What this means, though, is that a Reba or YEM or Bowie jam can’t really afford to wander too far afield – it’s got a rhythmic-harmonic responsibility to the tune that surrounds it. There have been wild ‘Type II’ jams in all these tunes, Bowie especially, but they tend to come at the expense of the song’s integrity; often a really searching ‘psychedelic’ jam is basically a song unto itself. Dark Star works the same – you’ll get long periods of wandering in the woods, then a snatch of Dark Star, then another journey out, etc. There is nothing wrong with this.
Then there’s Light.
a few moments of whirling around
Of the Joy/Party Time batch of songs, the all-around best tunes may be Mike’s dazzling tune Sugar Shack (with its crazy-making circus-music break after the chorus and sly chordal movement that reminds me of Animal Collective’s tune Bluish) and Trey’s melancholy anthem Twenty Years Later (reminiscent of his own haunting Come As Melody) – but the breakout live song of 2009–12 has unquestionably been Light, an Eckhart Tolle-inspired rocker that’s mostly just two chords rolling along, six measures at a time. The closing four-part vocal sounds like the Doobie Brothers getting really caffeinated and converting to Buddhism. It’s awesome, even if there’s not much to it in terms of songcraft.
And the song itself offers no clue to where the jam will go.
If memory serves, the first few Light jams were just straight extrapolations of the song’s basic I-IV chord progression; even the 8/7/09 Gorge version, the first canonical take on the song, boils down from B-E to Bm, then slides to the relative major (D) and stays there through Trey’s gorgeous improvised D-G-D-A outro. What Phish do is difficult, but that kind of thing is relatively easy. The band took that approach to the song throughout 2009, keeping the jam mostly upbeat and harmonically straightforward.
They’ve taken it further each year, though. At first the song’s thickening harmonic Stuff was used in the old tension/release role: in the 8/7/10 (Greek Theater) and 12/30/10 (MSG) Lights, Trey gets into some gnarly bitonal soloing (wielding disconcerting whole-tone scales, mostly) to set up dynamic tension, which the other musicians push and deepen before making way for bright major-chord climaxes. It’s wonderful music, especially the sublime Berkeley version, dwelling longer in tension than was typical of Phish’s 90s/00s style but ultimately resolving peacefully. Here’s the transitional passage from the Greek version:
In 2011, the band dug into a new style of densely percussive dissonant near-industrial noise, which some fans dubbed ‘storage jamming’ (after the band’s midsummer watershed ‘Storage Shed’ experiment). Early summer versions of Light fit the mould of the Greek version. Here’s at bit of the 6/12/11 Merriweather version:
That passage ends with the song’s structure restored – a three-measure phrase within the original harmonic scheme. The piano and bass are bashing away in familiar dissonant fashion, still approaching the bitonal nature of the music as a counterforce to the tune’s ‘real’ meaning: triumphant I-IV. Their return to the Light chords is an amazing moment (what other improvisatory group covers such distance and still hits home with such authority?), but it’s a well-characterized species; nearly every version of Stash ever played, for instance, arguably has the same harmonic contour, even if the dissonance in Stash tends to be less protean, more schematic. Here’s three minutes of the 12/30/97 Stash to show what I mean. We join our lads in mid-thrash, hanging on the dominant:
Even with Trey’s tone-splitter going, the dissonance is almost old fashioned: elaborations on the dominant, playfully testing the audience’s patience as all involved look forward to the V-i resolution (the bang at the end). The 6/12/11 Light blurs its blade edge, but you can hear the same method at work in both performances. In each case the jam’s destination is clear, its shape consistent, even if the harmonic material varies.
But then the ‘Storage’ jam happens at Super Ball IX, the band starts digging into genuinely open-ended improvisations again, and what do we have here? the 8/9/11 Tahoe Light.
You’ve got several modes of harmonic opposition at work here from the outset: first Trey builds tension within a conventional I-IV solo by hanging on the fifth and seventh (nothing new but it works); Page starts a I-IIb swing and Trey responds by oscillating between whole-tone assault and fanned major chords at home; on bass, Mike takes turns hammering at the root and leaping across octaves to fill space with chromatic noise. And note what Fishman’s up to on drums: he never once gives us a steady rock beat for more than a couple of seconds, and his ride cymbal is surf rather than clockticks, but he still achieves both wild forward momentum and metronomic certainty. (Fish does rhythmically what Mike and Page achieve harmonically.)
Crucially, the high point of the jam’s first section isn’t a point at all, but rather a diffuse cresting movement – instead of I-IV fulfillment we return to chromatic swirl around the dominant, with Page suggesting iv and v and IIb to the other players. This is something new for Phish, I think: they’re in a complexly dissonant space without firm harmonic ground, but it’s no longer a tension-release technique. They really are just dwelling in that new space, treating the polytonal (eminently danceable!) machine noise as a harmonic end in itself.
And in a single stroke, they’ve equalled the harmonic freedom and perverse complexity of their inspirations while maintaining coherence and empathetic interlock.
Six days later they did it again:
That’s the 8/15/11 Light jam, which eventually melts away into a very fine performance of Trey’s rustic miniature Dirt (whence comes the title of my book, ahem). Listen to that early guitar-led climax, damn! The three tonal players arrive at melodic peak and harmonic home by different routes, each in their own time and tempo, and Fish’s drums are like a stretch of rubber skin giving way, reluctantly then suddenly…instead of landing on the root at the one, all four players gesture at conventional resolution without going for the easy answer. I don’t know about you, but to me those few moments are breathtaking.
The rest of the track sees the band groping for terra firma. It’s swell, but after all that (anti)climactic polytonality they can’t settle down until Trey calls for Dirt. (The rest of the 8/15/11 show is even better.)
Night became day and vice versa, and here’s the 6/23/12 Star Lake Light in all its glory. Ladies and gentlemen, the best rock band in America:
From 3:30–4:40 it’s mixolydian calisthenics, then now-standard Light dissonances sloooooowly unfurl (complete with i-IIb from Page) until 5:50 or so, at which point Trey begins looping a ghostly C# volume swell slightly off time, over everyone else’s Bmaj canter. Now something really neat happens: Trey swells an even more ghostly F, meaning we’ve got B-C#-D#-F (i.e. E#) all at once filling up nearby ears, then he lets out a comforting F# wail; for those keeping score, we’re hearing C#maj against Bmaj, with that F# consequently doing double duty as both sub and dom(-inant). At 7:00 Trey loops a G natural, which both destabilizes both the deep harmonic structure (the band banging away at B) and Trey’s own eerie imposed C#. By 8:30 the entire ensemble has stepped gingerly into C#m – see if you can pinpoint the moment where that happens) – and Trey begins a familiar C#m-F# chord strum with an implied Emaj, offering his bandmates several harmonic directions but insisting on none.
Now try, if you’re able, to identify the moment where the bedroom insinuations of this transitional sorta-funk passage become the carib lilt of Light’s final movement. (Hey remember how this jam used to be Light?!) Listen for Trey’s devilish gambit at 12:10 – talk about nervewracking bitonality, the bastard decides to solo over this blissful groove with his tone splitter on and the mirror line just a whole step above his melody. And listen closely, right at the end, for his zombie chords to signal that a transition to a new song is about to begin.
the end in itself
In the last few years I’ve grown to love a specific feeling that certain art gives me: something like semiotic overabundance, where a piece of art, or a piece of that piece, signifies or implies or is connected to so many different things, seems to move in so many directions, that I happily surrender the intellectual work of taxonomy and keeping track of what everything means, and experience a blissful dissolution of sense. Such art needn’t be super complicated to be wonderfully complex – Gravity’s Rainbow and House of Leaves certainly are, but Riddley Walker, Prince’s ‘7,’ Illuminatus!, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, Penn Warren’s poetry, and the Song of Songs of Solomon aren’t, particularly. Nor would be, say, a book full of Dali’s paintings. They’re dense with implication and intertextual connection but still welcoming. They’re lively – richly connected to real life. (I get this same feeling in a small way from Good Night Moon, which I’ll talk more about sometime.)
Phish’s new music, which pairs structural simplicity with (for them) unprecedented richness and freedom, also falls into this latter category. Having experimented with pitiless tension/release exercises, nightmarish open-ended deferrals, protean ambient grooves, and increasingly benign bitonality, Phish have evolved an improvisatory approach that can accommodate polytonality as an end in itself, while preserving the coherence and crazed momentum that have long been their calling card. They’ve been my favourite band for my entire adult life – even when I didn’t listen to them for several years, I was still learning from their music – but they’re playing out of their minds right now, and their evolved aesthetic joyfully affirms so many ideas that, though dear to me, I can’t quite put into words. (Lord knows I’ve tried.)
This isn’t the most ‘advanced’ music out there, to be sure. You might even call it ‘simplistic,’ which isn’t fair isn’t necessarily wrong. But I no longer care. They’ve discovered a blissful polymorphism that I find myself wanting to emulate in my own life. The music is change. I guess I am too.
Picture a hand on the piano. It makes a C major triad: C-E-G. You hear C major. The next chord is G major. Voice leading principles tell us to spell that chord as, say, B-D-G – the thumb moves a half-step from C to B, middle finger moves a whole step down from E to D, and the pinky stays on G. Crucially, no two fingers move in the same way – they’re all off on their own journeys. You’re avoiding parallel harmony, which in this case would be playing C-E-G then moving all three fingers the same distance, in the same direction, to play G-B-D. (Guitar players: think barre chords.) What does this sound like? Like Trey’s split tones, or a clumsy vocal arrangement (cf. the Grateful Dead or Fleet Foxes, or the more savvy Animal Collective in cheeky nails-on-chalkboard mode). ↩