Space: Still Totally the Place
BRAIN TUBA: Space: Still Totally the Place
It wasn’t ambient at all, what Phish called "ambient music" when they played a 55-minute set—their fourth of the evening—on the first night of their Lemonwheel festival in August 1998. It leaked into rhythm too often, mostly at the hands of guitarist Trey Anastasio, who—during the jam’s first sections—tried to lay back, but couldn’t resist following melodies, regularizing his playing into elongated thoughts rather than the passive drifts of producer Brian Eno, whom he’d name-checked earlier in explaining what they were about to do.
But it was something, especially in Phish terms, which were—at the time—among the only terms I understood. Besides the roughly contemporaneous Siket Disc, culled from hours of in-studio jams, the Lemonwheel fourth set was perhaps the closest Phish came to achieving complete art, uncompromised by populism, geekery, or goofiness. Though Phish was a jamband, and certainly didn’t skirt on the long musical excursions, the notion of entirely improvised sets was one almost mind-bogglingly absent from their 20-year career.
That performance—known as the Ring of Fire set among Phishheads, for the advertising leading up to the event and the candles lighting the stage—however, put them in close orbit with another band I’d discovered five or so years earlier, whose own music was bringing them closer to abstraction: Sonic Youth. Formed just a few years before Phish in the wilds of downtown New York, the art-punk quartet had recently built their own studio, whittling hundreds of jam-hours down to a series of EPs, as well as using them—like Phish with The Siket Disc and Story of the Ghost—as a basis for next album, A Thousand Leaves. For me, though, it was about the EPs.
More specifically, it was about using the EPs to recapture what I’d felt when I saw Sonic Youth play a random spring fling college show in Rochester in May, where they filled a funky, old ice hockey arena with peels of shimmering, artful distortion. They’d opened with a long instrumental, probably only 10 or so minutes, but it seemed like much longer. It wasn’t quite ambient either, but it let silvery shapes into the room: the feeling of something beyond song, beyond a jam, even. Though I couldn’t articulate it until I saw Phish pull the same trick at Lemonwheel, and didn’t really understand it until hours of autumn dorm-room listening, it was the notion of music as space. By that point, I’d most likely already acquired Brian Eno’s Music For Airports, which certainly put it all into context, and—suddenly—the very notion of music had a completely different center.
In some small way, Phish ruined themselves for me, ruined jambands for me — or at least, made it so they rarely made me as happy again. Certainly, there were hippies who could create pleasant noun-scapes of their own, especially in that era—the Disco Biscuits, Sector 9, and the New Deal, most specifically—but, even with the guitar solos exchanged for trancier interactions, they were still about making people dance, most of all. Music-as-space seemed a designation that ignored genre, and—even more—ignored genre-crossing games. I found it on discs I’d recently found or was about: Balinese gamelan and Hawaiian steel guitar bands from the ’20s, on Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music, Philip Glass’s Koyaanisqatsi, John Coltrane’s ‘My Favorite Things,’ and at least one place I was already intimately familiar with: the Grateful Dead’s ‘Dark Star.’ It was everywhere. I was already knew enough with Sun Ra to know that space was the place, but—what I didn’t understand until I saw Phish’s fourth set at the Lemonwheel—was that space is everywhere.