30 Musical, Literary and Cultural Reasons to Celebrate 30 More Years of Phish: Part One
In 2014, the legendary jam band Phish released its 12th studio LP, Fuego. Here are some reasons why this group's legacy is one worth celebrating.
This first installment of these 30 reasons addresses ten musical reasons Phish’s experimental nature and energy of delight is deserving of a closer look, to ascertain at what might be at play in the band's attracting of thousands of audiophiles to repeat musical experiences.
1. Phish Is an Inherently Open Form
Like the fish it puns upon, Phish refuses closure. It swims in ever-changing expanse and depths. It is always coming into being. It is difficult to wrap a meaning around.
In The Origin of the Work of Art, Martin Heidegger confirms that the energy of Art as it is quickening is Mystery. Thus, Art is most alive in process, in waters warmed with improv. Mystery exists when logic and outcome loses insistence and that state keeps us rampant in play.
For over 30 years, Phish has established an inflatable musical playground where rafts, slides and acrobat bars prompt music’s potential as a place to experiment, wreak havoc, to sully us in silliness. We romp and swing and risk flips, as if to say, Look Ma, no hands!
2. Phish's Use of Open Forms Fold a Field of Improvisation
Open forms invite an aesthetic capable of casting nets over art movements, current events, pop culture, philosophies, and genres. This openness is vulnerable: it can absorb or it can trawl.
Such is obvious in Phish’s supernal use of improvisation. Like their musical kin the Grateful Dead, Phish’s stylistic approach is steeped in the miracles of Miles Davis’s space jams.
Intuitively, any fan understands what Herbie Hancock said to the New York Times recently: "The thing that keeps jazz alive, even if it’s under the radar, is that it is so free and so open to not only lend its influence to other genres, but to borrow and be influenced by other genres. That’s the way it breathes."
At Phish we traverse those fields in one set, in one hour. Sometimes these are being collapsed at once, shifting from party-playtime into the unknown. In this you are caught, rolling ‘tween it, and you have to withstand it by breathing or instead be bullied. What activity field do we scurry from, then, when that recess bell rings?
3. Productive Ambiguity Bolsters Phish's Openness
Ambiguity bolsters this openness. Phish’s lyrical dexterity can ballad, can narrate, can joystick an interpretation, can populate a whole children’s songbook, and can nauseate a non-listener, for often they shunt away from the topical, from the trickery of surface.
Instead a willing derangement of the senses as Rimbaud wanted. Assessing such interpretations is seen in a litany of message boards, tweets, and daily musings: fans fanning literal discoveries soon show themselves stumped.
A force that makes one stop in uncertainty, one that wrenches us out of the mind’s meaning-making machine: this is a mark of art. While such difficulty pushes others away and an untrained ear hears only a din, thousands feel invited in. Ambiguity, juxtaposition, associative thinking and elliptical narrative have become a patterning that sets our ear to adhere intimate feelings, decisions, and dream-states to the song’s messaging.
In one mind’s eye, for instance, the song "Piper" is about what’s pied and heroic; in another eye, something about traveling wormholes. (In mine, words are wormholes.) Or perhaps it's about the story of enslaved Melampus, who heard woodworms warning him of the oncoming storm, that insect-work would destroy the house. The orphan-turned-prophet told his captors. They then set him free.
4. Phish Stimulates an Active (Instrumentation of the) Imagination
Such music fascination is integrally fastened to the imagination. Music can improve verbal skills, glue together a group, create instant intimacy and mediate moods, expand visual abilities, release woes, provoke, console, stimulate sweet diversions, and rejuvenate. What a strong sensation to carry in life, that music can key a different brain.
As neuroscience now knows, music insists on a whole brain endeavor. When sounds pummel out from grooves into the vibratory, our brain does a full orgy of multiple lobes. Music crosses bifurcated hemispheres via the bridge of the corpus callosum, where fibers that band together the left and right sides, defying its divisions. When a musician moves with their instrument, showing expressive intention, our mirror neurons fire, creating direct relationships.
Isn't it possible that those invested so heavily in live music must undergo a practice similar to what musicians do? Absorbing songs and seeing shows tour after tour offers a training for the listener-participant, as it were. Practicing musicians have hyper-development in certain lobes or display a more advanced auditory cortex and capacity for executive functions vs. non musicians.
A lifestyle is an instrument. A band is a bond. Hell yeah, teachers, we want to practice!
The brain will re-wire itself in support of musical activities. Whole generations of brains certainly have similar synaptic adaptations, aggregating a common musical memory over time.
Musical memory is powerful in the present as well. Those who frequent music know that once played or heard, it (particularly melody and rhyme-saturation) foments its own stature. It has the grand capacity to be recollected unprompted or to populate a mind on repeat.
But it’s what cannot be recalled that adds an enormity to this power. However hooked on the familiar we may be, it is the absence of it that feels so feverish. Broken patterns straddle anticipation and cuss our receptors. A jam, untied to lyrics, hinges on the ungraspable, it bonkers out with unpredictable vibes, literally. When the unexpected happens, electric shock fluoresces.
Into the unknown we swim, a school smirking around in the dark.
5. Phish Hearkens Back to (Musical) Cubism
Phish may be confusing at times, but is hard not to follow a compass here, for there are only four at work musically in Phish, and their disposition is alchemical. Imagine for a minute each member embodies a cardinal direction analog to an appropriated medicine wheel: going clockwise, Mike as North (Air, Winter, and Mind); Trey as East (Fire, Spring, and Spirit); Page as South (Water, Summer, and Emotion); and Jon as West (Earth, Fall, and Body).
While this may recipe may balance beams and sync elements, Phish are more dynamic than that.
At its best, Phish the band plus the audience-participant are musical Cubism. Abstracting musical structures, angles are approached and notes protracted to illustrate dimensionality. Picasso and Braque made their 3D canvasses not static but an entity; so too does Phish adjust a surface a refracted plane made 4D or more. Viewers further diffusing perception by listening, by dancing-viewing. When we arrive, we surround the sound with a bowl of locations, with optics.
Children everywhere learn a prism lesson through a broken classroom window. Eventually, we are brought back to familiar palette of feelings. Perhaps we can disengage color from form.
6. Chris Kuroda's Lights are Unparalleled (Artistry in the Industry)
For color froths form! The Lights, of course, already know this; lighting designer Chris Kuroda’s minimalism is a practice in vintage minerals manipulating subtle bodies, expressionism, and implied imagery. This is not just a palette wrought by a rig’s natural ability, but also color combinations set to rhythms that send us refracting then sharpening.
When one really really looks, indulging purposely on a riot of color, we get right with the dance of saturation and restraint. Not unlike Apollinaire, who advanced Cubism by insisting on more -- on Orphism -- Phish pushes the limits of lushness, slicing and coating in its bedazzlement.
These rays raise synaesthetes to raze roofs, dismantling auditoriums through attention and awe. This skill is unmatched in an industry where shows rely on gimmick and inundate with iconography, expected tech, and ejaculations of gratuitous lasers.
We see Kuroda vertebrate, having exposed a twisted rib cage, from the floor we crown our heads -- yes, to a diadem dense with settings! We send ourselves into dreams, to what poets might assess as our true waking life.
So what we have matches a kindergarten nap, when we watch the backs of our eyelids ground shadows, divulge hues, wreath dreams, and fire up a ship. We don’t have to see exact flowers, when we feel garlands, taste gems. In the firmament, there resides our crown, a claw surveilling the crowd.
7. A True Spectacle Asks a Question
A gargantuan chunk of the phenomena of Phish is phenomenology, the study of that which appears. With phenomenology, reality is interdependent with perception, and therefore alterable via applied consciousness. Since spectators here actualize their role based on being a part of the entity, point of view and attitude seem to affect each event, eliciting reports of mutual metaphysical reciprocity, joint influence, and synchronicity.
With a poetics of space only monopolized when spit on by hierarchical fans, great room for freedom is left to address a Semiotic interpolation -- that is, a reading of a series of signs: song (not just what song is being played but whatever meaning accrues when joined by another in a set), cues, as well as signs seen in signage in venues or billboards on the road. Shows and songs that pick up meaning and velocity score our sense with a series of constellating symbols hinged off an intention to plug into the magic and immediacy of aural-drawn landscape.
Heidegger, prophetic of internet dizziness, declared Art dead out of concern of the focusing lens of the viewer on consuming the image, an experience increasingly relegated to institutions. Luckily, the experiential nature that Phish insists on, a "live this" modus operandi, is not decimated in an age that prioritizes commodification and media dominance. An immersion event, Phish is a last vestige of concerts not colonized by cell phones.
In the Poetics, Aristotle says that spectacle is an artifice that is soggy as a literary component, although he does consider it a whole mode. Perhaps the performance plus production plus concert-participant can supersede entertainment, especially if such participation will strike contemplation again worthy of the poet’s contemplation.
By design, great curiosity and wonder can accompany Phish. At times, we turn off the babysitter-television and stare into our own marathon.
8. Phish Flaunts Uncertainty That Is Integral to Art
To live in the questions is postmodern art’s dominant characteristic; as an answer to late capitalism, though, it’s quite awkward. This substrate of uncertainty has long been fuel, fat tinder: see Coltrane’s pentagram, Beefheart’s Exploding Note theory, Ornette Coleman’s Harmolodics, or Santana’s Hose theory.
To traverse a charcoal curve and to mark with an open end is acceptance, but it is wily, disruptive at times, an uncomfortable noise stinking of the oncoming unknown. We have to spend a lot of time in the dark -- repeatedly. Willingly, we enter states of strange territory, trudging about whenever the funk muddles.
We have to navigate planning terrain, offended family, nightmare logistics. Frequently we deal with ridicule, that easy go-to for the non-initiate; certainly, we face flubs of a perceived social experiment. Repeatedly we agree to mangle expectation, coping instead with inquiry -- thus less disappointed by outcome. Alas, there is an ecstatic pay-off, some equation of effort plus actual presence. As with any difficult art, from the Avant Garde to Conceptualism, process is integral and deserves exhibition.
Certainly, we eat the journey up, but the destination in this case doesn't decay into cliché but rather into cochlea.
Subscribe as we do, then, to active, sustained listening in a world seduced by sound bytes, training toward the difficult, a musical dissonance can resolve a cognitive dissonance. Therein the pleasure of not knowing, uncertainty becoming common enough to temper anxiety, what Keats coined Negative Capability: when man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.
Turn that din into syntony – and, soon enough, a healing practice: a private biophony.
9. Phish Lives in an Exquisite Musical Realm
Phish’s existence raises important questions in regards to the Archives. Throttling several throats and at once -- what placeholders does Phish inhabit?
To answer this, a field trip to special collections is in order. Phish as band shirks the confines of music industry, just as an institution against orthodoxy wedges America’s best psyche of anti-hegemony. The band propels ideas more akin to our founding fathers: reformation, Freemasonry, Utopianism, and American Transcendentalism, Phish succeeds against monoforms.
Phish, against redundancy, against the gap in band-audience dynamics, are consistently dismantling systems of separation by purposely blurring the subject-object distinction. Chess-games are played together. Dialogues are abundant. There is an exciting polysemy -- the capacity for a sign to have multiple meanings, so communication loads the experience. Incredibly rife with codes associated sonic props, antics, spoken language, vocal jams, Phish has even their own secret language, a system of sound-symbols.
Phish have essentially picked up where our education system has failed. For many, it's tapped fans' stunted creativity, teaching fragments of the arts, music and theory, math, geography and travel, and vocal exercises through a shared songbook, cultural criticism, a personal historical materialism.
Gather as we then to unlock a vault of art-in-fact. To gig: to play rock, bluegrass, blues, funk, host myriad guests from Jay-Z to Jimmy Buffett; and to gag: to embody album-costumes, put forth a festival resuscitation, to play on Seminole land all night long, to exhume a true New Years, or erect a tower of aerial dancers -- not to mention the apotheosis of a gigantic flying hotdog. All of this is an exquisite trip for the viewer-participant; it accumulates meaning and magnificence.
Once there, discovery thrills! Aspects of our human orientation are unzipped toward animal habits, behaviors penetrate outer bounds of orthodoxy. Bakhtin's Carnivalesque and Cage’s musicircus are present here. There are communal coming of age rituals, a sense of adding to the walls by the time we sit down. Importantly, there is the presence of mistakes and great vulnerability, but when the music starts we are ready to face the face. In this, a togetherness forms. We link arms to make sure no one is lost on the way to get back on the bus.
10. Phish Fosters a Unique Social Geography
Let’s consider Phish a perfect incubator of white privilege, technology, a birthright to pursue art, and the gooey remnants of what Ellen Willis calls "Rock 'n' Roll’s Utopian Optimism".
Within a social geography, then, "Phishdom" is a petri dish containing U.S. states coagulating as people meet across the country. Within that, any human radius around a listener summarizes a portion; a crew of fans contains a catalog. Any quirk, quark, or new constituent incites the agar; as this happens, appendages go growing toward the new.
Students then crave and brave discovery, peak ears, discuss and assert lab results while contemplating musicianship in an attempt to resolve a contemporary problem in the music industry: that of historical incongruity, the lack of understanding from where these traditions arise. This education supplants gaps in American arts education made increasingly bland due to the denizen of standardized learning. From this, there arises a proliferation of audiophilia.
Yet wonky apprenticeship doth spawn a slew of poor reporters, drug-addled sludge makers, and synthetic matrices – and, at other times, fluorescent cyanobacteria. The incubator is semi-transparent, ornamented with a Baroque exterior of pomp tendriling with entertainment. Yet a velvet mold lines the tray with a yearning for Classical cosmogony, where music is medicine. We become entrenched in the question, What is the nature of music in relation to our greater selves?
At the least in the case of Phish, there is a mutually made music over a period of decades. As a process, it is known as inoculation or plating, but it is important keep the experiment's incubator upside down.
Splash image: photo of Phish concert on Halloween 2014 in Las Vegas, Nevada, United States. Photo by Rene Huemer © Phish. Taken from artist's website. Thumbnail image also by Rene Huemer © Phish.
Katherine Factor is a writer, educator, and the assistant editor at inter|rupture. She has her MFA from Iowa Writers’ Workshop and is a recipient of grants from the Iowa Arts Council and Arts Enterprise Lab. She has seen over 250 Phish shows and hundreds of other live music events.