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Columns > David Steinberg - Some Are Mathematicians

Published: 2005/05/08
by David Steinberg

A Momentary Lapse of Reason

It was a Friday night. Melissa had it off, so we were deciding what to do. We thought about seeing some local bands but it was raining and she wasn’t feeling that well and it just seemed like too much work, so we sat at home and talked and played Tetris. Occasionally I checked to see if there was a setlist for the Trey Memphis show; no one was reporting anything.
I took a break from all of this to run to the store and get a snack. It was a frustrating trip. I got behind a gaggle of giggling high school girls. There was only the one register open and they were chatting with the cashier and I just wanted to buy the ice cream and go home. I was in that frustrated-consumer-whose-five-minute-trip-took-a-half-hour mode when I got home.
Mel was waiting for me at the door and handed me the phone. There was a call for me. It was from some concert. The only show that I knew of that might have people call from was the Trey show. I couldn’t really hear anything that was played.
Right before I hung up, the band stopped. Some familiar chords were played. ‘The Divided Sky!’
Now before we go any further in this story, I want it on the record that I tried to verify. I put the phone on speaker and let Mel listen. ‘Does that sound like Trey?’ We both agreed that it sure did. I asked over and over again who was playing and where the caller was, but I couldn’t make out the responses.
Maybe I should have tried harder to check, but that song does things to me. I bought Junta at my first show and it was ‘The Divided Sky’ that first fueled my Phish obsession. Some dancers in the audience at Pearl St. in 1990 caused me to create a theory that the song was about the creation of the universe; the slow part after the pause was the world coming out of nothingness, the upbeat section after that was a celebration of the existence of life1. Of all of the Phish compositions, this is the one that I never got sick of. I even owe my current relationship to this song. Before the Greensboro show, she mentioned that she had never seen a Sky. I told her I would give her one. At the moment when Phish chose to play it in the first set, she fell in love with me.
‘The Divided Sky’ short circuits the parts of my brain that deal with logic and fact checking. Instead of my usual cynicism, I bought into it. I left calm mode and posted this everywhere. ‘TREY IS PLAYING THE DIVIDED SKY!!!!!!’
I brought the phone back into the living room so we could both hear it and I danced around the room. The version was flub free and I got so excited by it. Maybe I would go see the Gorge Zooma tour after all! One of my favorite songs was alive. I never thought I would get to have the moment of seeing it performed again, but everything seemed possible.
I assume by now you can see where this story is going. I wasn’t hearing the Trey show at all. Rather a friend of mine was seeing Phix and thought I’d enjoy hearing it. She didn’t even know that Trey was playing that night, let alone that she was calling at the same time that Trey’s set was winding up. It all was a series of coincidences. If people had reported the setlist or if I had been home to hear the beginning of the call where it was explained that it was Phix, I would have been much calmer. Instead – fueled by belief that something incredible was happening – I had one of the best musical rushes I’ve had since SPAC. [2]
Enjoying music lately has been very hard work for me. I try to force myself to get that feeling from Umphrey’s or the new Trey band or whomever is being pushed as the next big thing. I listen to all of the suggested jams. I try to hear what people love about it. Occasionally I can get a good moment or two, but it’s a struggle. It’s reached the point where I’ve started to worry that the whole thing was a myth, that I never really had the peak experiences at concerts that I remember. It’s getting close to a year of seeing music as a social event, not a religious one (even the Jamcruise experience was as much about the wonderful environment of the boat as the music that the bands were playing) and the memories of what it felt like to be otherwise start to fade.
In the wake of that, having a brief period where the bliss flowed easily was an incredibly powerful experience. I wasn’t trying to love the music or listening for a way to get the feeling that I remember. Instead it completely overwhelmed me. Sure it was based on an illusion and the comedown when I realized that this wasn’t some sort of new beginning for me was pretty harsh, but I’m still glad it happened. It was a reminder that there was indeed a reason why I care so much about Trey, and music in general. It was proof that I wasn’t always jaded. Even as the real setlists and mixed reviews of the actual Trey show start to pour in, it doesn’t bother me.
Maybe I don’t experience it currently with any band [3], but the potential is still there. I just have to keep trying, to keep putting the effort out there to see shows even when it’s easier to sit at home. Sure, most of the time what I’ll be seeing will be just some sort of pleasant background music, but the potential is there. One day I just might get blind sided again by a band. Tonight proved that it can happen, I just need to find the right people once again.
In the meantime, I’ll just sit here and remember wistfully what was, what I thought was going to be again, but what just isn’t going to be again – at least not anytime soon. At least we’ll always have Cypress.
[1] Why yes, I was cold sober, why do you ask?
[2] This raises an interesting question – why does it matter who it is who is playing the music? It obviously does, but how does that mechanism work? The part of my brain that explodes in bliss when presented with the right music usually isn’t affected by logic. However, the same exact music would produce extremely different reactions depending on who it was performing it. There’s something interesting going on there that I don’t quite understand.
[3] Which isn’t to say that I don’t like any current bands. There are new albums and recent concerts that I have enjoyed. There just isn’t anyone that gives that pure bliss experience.
David Steinberg got his Masters Degree in mathematics from New Mexico State University in 1994. He first discovered the power of live music at the Capitol Centre in 1988 and never has been the same. His Phish stats website is at
He is the stats section editor for
The Phish Companion and is on the board of directors for the Netspace Foundation. You can read more of his thoughts at

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