Dear Trey: You’re a really good guitar player, and I’m still a big fan of Phish and, to a slightly lesser extent, your solo work. But I’m not sure this gig as a writer of orchestral compositions is really your forté. I don’t begrudge you giving it a try, but it’s not really working out very well. Love, Chris.
The last time Anastasio dropped a disc of orchestral music, it was the forgettable Seis de Mayo in 2004. Not even making it to 30 minutes, the album featured six short compositions that were mostly variations on Phish songs and arranged instrumentally for strings or other small ensembles. The album’s highlight was “Guyute”, a 12-minute full-on symphonic rendition of one of the band’s more intricate pieces. “Guyute”, with its shifting styles and heavy reliance on folk dance structures, worked extremely well in this setting. But the rest of the album was absolute filler.
Now Anastasio and his orchestrator, Don Hart, have given us Time Turns Elastic, a symphonic piece that also runs just under 30 minutes. This time, Anastasio brings his guitar and voice along to the project, so the result is more like a concerto for electric guitar and voice than the more symphonic “Guyute”. Several problems crop up soon after listening to the piece, and unfortunately the familiarity that comes with additional listens does not iron out these issues. “Time Turns Elastic” is a perfectly pleasant piece of music to listen to, but it isn’t particularly compelling. Nothing about the original 13-minute song—included here in demo version with just Anastasio and an acoustic guitar—really screams out for expansion into a full orchestra version. There’s certainly more space for the music to breathe in the orchestral arrangement, but more space doesn’t make the piece more interesting.
The orchestration itself is fine but certainly not stellar. The piece is divided into three movements and then further divided into nine individual tracks. The first movement is dominated by gentle strings and a quiet introductory guitar solo by Anastasio. Woodwinds also pop in from time to time to accent Anastasio’s guitar. The way the chords and vocals progress in this opening movement is very similar to Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue”. The second movement finds Trey lending his voice, which doesn’t blend well with the orchestra. In fact, after 10 minutes of the first instrumental movement, his vocals sound intrusive. Musically, this movement has a lot more of the brass section, as they play lush, close chords under Anastasio’s guitar work and occasionally come close to playing an actual countermelody. But the music never gets intricate enough to fully pull it off.
The third movement opens with a slightly jazzy guitar solo that turns into a minor-key version of the main melody and then slides through several other styles in the course of about three minutes before Anastasio returns with more lyrics. The centerpieces of the third movement are titled “Hailstorm” and “Funnels”, but the music in each of these sections resembles neither of its namesake weather occurrences, although “Funnels” does manage to at least sound stormy. These two brief sections effectively set up the grand finale, “Carousel”, which is really the only time the piece gains any momentum and energy. But a great final two minutes doesn’t make up for the other 28.
Phish has also released “Time Turns Elastic” as a 13-minute song via iTunes and will be including it on its upcoming studio album. This version works the best of the three Anastasio has now put out. It’s a sprawling track, but the rock-band instrumentation gives the song more urgency and certainly more energy than the expanded orchestral version. The acoustic demo tacked onto the back end is rough. All the basic elements of the piece are there, but Trey’s voice is not in very good shape, and it definitely sounds like a demo. Even in its Phish version, though, the song is merely solid and maybe not even in the top ten among the band’s epic prog-rock-oriented compositions. The earlier take on “Guyute” showed there is a way to effectively turn a Phish song into an orchestral piece, but “Time Turns Elastic” is not nearly as successful of an attempt.