Pulling back the curtain.

From the October 2004 Guitar World interview with Phish’s Trey Anastasio:

GW: The other night I watched some of the Phish show from the audio truck in 5.1 sound, and it was almost like standing onstage. The guitar lines you were playing sounded to me almost like the cadences of speech, like the way people talk, or the way you talk.
TA: Right.
GW: And I was watching you as you were playing. With so many musicians, their physical gestures mimic the sounds they’re making. But you were leaning forward very intently and looking out, as it you were listening for something. And it seemed like your playing was an attempt to articulate whatever it was you were hearing. Does that make any sense to you?
TA: It does. I have to be careful about… I don’t want it to sound ridiculous, but I definitely feel like I’m listening to something. [laughts] I have this feeling that there’s a pattern that exists. I really do believe this. I mean, I know it. I’m sure of it. Even right now if you listen, right in this room I can hear about a thousand layers of rhythm: the air conditioner, the air, the sound in my head. There’s tones. It’s all there, and it’s just the sound of life. And if you listen to it and play it, people respond.
I think the way you learn that is to watch people while you’re playing. You start realizing that they hear it, too. They don’t know it, but when you play it, people respond—”Oh, I know that!”— because they’re hearing the same thing. And when I’m playing onstage, I find myself looking out, not usually into people’s faces, but over their heads and up. And the endless possibilities, the depth of it all, occasionally will come to you.
Even sometimes when I’m listening to music in the car, this thing happens to me—I wonder if it happens to other people—where you’re driving and when something good happens on the stereo, all of a sudden you become very aware of the mountains in the distance. Everything just opens up. I think that’s because the musician hit on something real, and anytime something real happens it resonates with the basic pattern of life. You suddenly become aware of, “Oh my God, there’s all these mountains and sunshine and clouds!”
When you experience that live, you want to go there more, and you start to find little doorways into it. And basically the doorway is through listening. People don’t really listen that much. But just listen. You want to learn how to play guitar? Sit in a room and listen and write down 20 things that you hear, and then try to play them. You have to get your own blocks out of the way to access that—all the fears and brick walls that you’ve put up through your life: “Oh, I’m not good at this,” or “I’m supposed to play this riff,” or “This is what I was told is good.” You’ve got to drop all that somehow. And it takes a long time.
GW: Was there a moment when you felt you had really discovered your own voice as a player, where you felt like, “I’m able to play all the things I’m hearing”?
TA: I think it’s happening now. Maybe that’s part of this process. Maybe as you push farther into your own voice it gets harder to coexist as a group. The group mind, while it can be glorious, can also have a watering-down effect.
But, see, I don’t think there is really an individual voice. I don’t. I think there’s one big voice, but there’s individual ways to access it. There can’t be an individual voice, because we’re not individuals. And yet we are. We’re all individuals, but we’re all connected to one bigger thing. So, in that moment on stage, where I’m playing something that sounds like an individual voice, it’s a voice that’s telling me of something beyond me. So if it looks like I’m listening, I am. I’m trying to.
Sometime's it's too much. It freaks me out. That's a problem with playing improvised music, like with Phish—it's so right, that it has a tendency to wreck your regular life because you can't communicate normally. When it goes well onstage, everybody talks at the right time. So if I go out to a bar sometimes after a show, I go insane because nobody's listening to each other, and it's this cacophony of wrongness!
GW: That’s hysterically funny.
TA: Onstage, it’s peaceful, despite the loudness. Maybe that’s why people are mad that we’re taking Phish away. Maybe other people feel that, too, that it’s peaceful.
GW: Well, it’s hard to find those doorways in. People will miss that.
TA: I will too. Like I said, I might go insane. But I think I’ll probably just wake up and start writing something new.
GW: Maybe it comes down to this: whether you stay in something or leave it, it’s about doing what you need to do.
TA: Exactly. It’s about doing what you’re told to do—from the inside. That’s what it is.!–>

From Winter’s Tale, by Mark Helprin:

She felt as if she knew the stars, and have been among them or would be. Why was it that in planetarium lectures the telescopic photographs flashed upon the interior of th dome were so familiar—not just to her, but to everyone. Farmers and children, and, once, Paumanuk Indians pausing in their sad race to extinction, had all understood the sharp abstract images, immediately and from the heart. The nebulae, the sweep ofgalaxies, the cetrifugal clusters—nothing more, really, than projected electric light on a plaster ceiling—carried them away ina trance, and the planetlarium lecturer need not have said a word. And why was it that certain sounds, certain frequencies, and repetitious rhythmic patterns suggested stars, floating galaxies, and even the colorful opaque planets orbiting in subdued ellipses? Why were certain pieces of music (pre-Galilean, post-Galilean, it did not matter) harmonically and rhythmically linked to the stars and suggestive of parallel light that rained upon the earth in illusory radiants bursting apart?

“…the universe… growls, and sings. No, shouts… Like a dog, but low, low. And then it shouts, mixed voices, tones, a white and silver sound… The light is silent, but then it clashes like cymbals, and arches out like a fountain, to travel and yet be still. It crosses space, without moving, on a fixed beam, as clearly and silently as a pillar of ruby or diamond.”

Here Isaac Penn was drowned out by a sound that rose from beneath them as if it were a thick misty cloud. Peter Lake immediately recognized it as the crackling static of the stars and the white wall. It grew louder and louder, until, finally, they came to the bottom of the stairs, and faced the painting, from which the sound was coming.
They stood motionlessly, clutching their sides, struggling to keep their balance; that is, everyone but Isaac Penn and Beverly—and Peter Lake, who was not afraid of heights. They were in a room of astounding proportions where the only illumination came from the painting ittself, which was easily thirty feet high and sixty feet long, and unlike any painting they had ever seen, for it moved. It sent changing images, moving light, and the static of clouds and stars speeding in a tidal wave toward its viewers, who felt as if they had discovered a hidden underground sea.
“What technique is this? What colors?” asked half of them at once.
Isaac Penn replied, “A new technique. New colors.”
The painting was of a city at night, as seen from above, and though they recognized some things they knew, most of itt was unfamiliar, because there were lights by the billions, actually sparkling, moving along distant roads in thick concentrations the likes of which the viewers had never imagined, moving along the rivers, and through the air. The city they saw looked real, of inconceivable scale, and frighteningly like their own.

This city enabled anyone who looked at it from afar to soar above it, to rise effortlessly, to know that despite its labyrinthine divisions it was an appeal to heaven simpler in the end than the blink of an eye. It was, like New York (and certainly it must have been New York—after the tribulations of the present had long been forgotten), a city of random beauty. Anything within it that was beautiful was beautiful in spite of itself, and would come to light surprisingly, apart from all expectations. Everything that moved was seen to move with a slow and unworldly grace. Flying machines moved across the sky like lucid planets in ascension, but they did not rocket away, they rose slowly—without shock, in full confidence.

If she were correct, it would explain why the world sometimes seemed to be a stage behind which was a strangely benevolent, superior, and indifferent pwoer. The suffering of the innocent would be accounted for, if, in ages to come or ages that had been, the reasons for everything were revealed and balances were evened. It would explain destiny, and coincidence, and his image of the city as if he had been looking from high above at a living creature with a pelt of dusky light. It would explain the things that called to Beverly from a far distance and a far time. It would suggest that Athansor, who could leap high into the air, was leaping toward something he already knew. It would explain the strong feeling Peter Lake had that every action in the world had eventual consequences and would never be forgotten, as if it were entered in a magnificent ledger of unimaginable complexity. He thought that it might explain freedom, memory, transfiguration, and justice—though he did not know how.

When I read the Guitar World interview (which is, by the way, worth reading in full, regardless of how you feel about Phish), I immediately started thinking of Winter’s Tale. I like this juxtaposition—somehow these things fit together for me. Anastasio is talking about what I was trying to articulate about Helprin: this sense of listening to the world and just trying to recreate that, because when you do it right people listen and respond and are moved.
I can only hope that one day I’m half as good at it as either of them.


3 thoughts on “Pulling back the curtain.

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