August 10, 2011
The Ives Touch
Q: Do you have musical ideas and impulses that aren’t satisfied by the Grateful Dead?
LESH: Yeah. There’s just things in heaven & earth, Horatio, that are undreamt of by the Grateful Dead. And things that are impossible for the Grateful Dead as a unit…
Q: Like what?
LESH: Anything with more than four chords! Ha ha – just had to slip that in…
CHARLES IVES AND THE GRATEFUL DEAD
Phil Lesh was a fan of Charles Ives long before he heard his music.
In college, he said, “My hero was Charlie Ives – even though I’d never heard his greatest music, because it wasn’t recorded. Neither was Stockhausen, nor Boulez, nor Berio. It was just written about – it was in no way commercial enough to be recorded, and at that time stereo was pretty new. Imported recordings were almost impossible [to find] – you had to go to New York, probably, to find imported recordings.”
Lesh discovered Ives when he was at the College of San Mateo in 1958. Working at the college library, Phil read Henry Cowell’s book Charles Ives & His Music: “The musical examples introduced me to truly original compositions: the song ‘The Majority,’ with its notated note-clusters and unmetered barring, and the Concord Sonata, with its free polyphony for two hands written on three staves. It almost didn’t matter what the music sounded like – it looked so cool on the page. The power and freshness of his music, together with the story of his life (neglect, misunderstanding, unwillingness to compromise in order to earn a living as a musician, going into insurance and making a fortune, composing at night, using his wealth to promote new music other than his own), made him, in my eyes, an artistic hero. All this, before I ever heard a note of the music, as there were no recordings available to me until years later. Together with that of Coltrane, the music of Ives was to become the foundation for my personal artistic aspirations, and both artists would exert a tremendous influence on the embryonic aesthetic of the Grateful Dead.”
So what in Ives’ music made such an impression on Lesh?
In the early 20th century, Ives was working on musical techniques that would later be developed by modern avant-garde musicians - “craggy atonality, grinding dissonances, tangled and changing meters, polyrhythms, tone clusters” - and I think Lesh saw him as the ‘father’ of the kind of music he wanted to make. In addition, there was the romantic element of Ives’ isolation in his own lifetime.
From one description: “Ives’ music was largely ignored during his life, and many of his works went unperformed for many years… Ives’ works were so rarely played during his lifetime that he never heard some of his major pieces… He taught no pupils and founded no school… He was not an intentional avant-gardist, conscientiously aiming for innovation, but a modest spare-time composer (who spent most of his days as an insurance salesman and then as a long-term convalescent).”
Another scholar calls Ives “a major composer who remained an amateur…writing music primarily for his own amusement and gratification, cultivating a style that seemed – at least for most listeners – utterly dissociated from the musical mainstream of his day. Ives was a quintessential outsider, an American maverick who followed his own idiosyncratic path in pursuit of private artistic goals, with little apparent regard for the demands of the world…” In college at the end of the ‘50s, Lesh must have found this very appealing.
Biographer Jan Swafford writes that Ives “discovered on his own, before anyone else, most of the devices associated with musical Modernism: polytonality, polyrhythm, free dissonance, chance and collage effects, spatial music, and on and on… He was already experimenting with sounds and concepts the rest of the musical world would not discover for decades … Even at its wildest, his music is often a texture of quotes from familiar national tunes [hymns, band marches, fiddle tunes, etc], plus echoes of Beethoven and other giants of the past: a universal symphony of myriad voices.”
One scholar writes that as his works were uncovered, “Ives started looking like the authentic hare of modern music, at the finish line before Stravinsky, before Schoenberg, before anyone.”
Stravinsky himself called Ives ‘the Great Anticipator,’ and in one interesting comment on the Fourth Symphony in 1966, said of Ives: “This fascinating composer was exploring the 1960s during the heyday of Strauss and Debussy. Polytonality; atonality; tone clusters; perspectivistic effects; chance; statistical composition; permutation; add-a-part, practical-joke, and improvisatory music: these were Ives’ discoveries a half-century ago as he quietly set about devouring the contemporary cake before the rest of us even found a seat at the same table.”
Richard Kostelanetz wrote in the Dictionary of the Avant-Gardes:
“He developed his own system of polytonality – the technique of writing for two or more keys simultaneously. In one piece…he assigned four different keys to four instruments. Ives was the first modern composer who consistently didn’t resolve his dissonances… He distributed musicians over a physical space, so that the place the music comes from affects what is heard… He invented the tone cluster, where the pianist uses either his forearm or a block of wood to sound simultaneously whole groups of notes…. Ives drew quotations from mundane culture – hymn tunes, patriotic ditties, etc – and stitched them into his artistic fabric. Though other composers had incorporated ‘found’ sounds prior to Ives, he was probably the first to allow a quotation to stand out dissonantly from the context, as well as the first…to distort a popular quotation into a comic semblance of the original…
“Other Ivesian musical innovations include polyrhythms – where various sections of the orchestra play in wholly different meters, often under the batons of separate conductors, all to create multiple cross-rhythms of great intricacy. In his rhythmic freedom, as well as his unashamed atonality, Ives clearly fathered the chaotic language of modern music, a tradition that runs through Henry Cowell and early Edgard Varese to John Cage. Indeed, Ives preceded Cage by inventing indeterminacy, where the scripts offered the musicians are so indefinite…that they could not possibly play exactly the same sounds in successive performances… [In one piece] he further discouraged musical unanimity by placing three separate groups of musicians in such a way that one could not necessarily see the others…”
All this was very exciting to the young Phil Lesh. He said in a recent interview, “We all love the great masters [like] Bach, Brahms and Beethoven, but music speaks most clearly when it comes from one’s own time. Ives is from the early 20th century, not particularly of my time, but of a more heroic generation. The sound of Ives’ music is the sound of inner consciousness, with all its side conversations going on during the main melodies. It really speaks to me.”
Lesh has also said, “The idea of Ives’ music caught my imagination, the simultaneity of it. The metaphor of consciousness – that in our consciousness, we’re not only thinking of one thing, but have things in the back and sides of our mind. That our automatic systems are running our body, while we’re blithely thinking about paying the rent. Ives’ music was the first music of any kind to address that for me – the simultaneity of experience.”
Lesh and Ives also shared a disdain for those who only liked harmonious “conventional” music. Lesh called such people “consonance chauvinists,” while Ives thundered that they were “white-livered weaklings who cannot stand up and receive the full force of dissonance like a man!”
Lesh wasn’t able to listen to Ives records for some years, so at first he admired the scores that “looked so cool on the page.” As Kostelanetz says: “Developing a distinctly eccentric music notation, Ives anticipated contemporary composers’ practices of using graphs, charts, and abstract patterns – manuscripts that resemble everything but traditional music scores… He also wrote notes that he knew could not be played… Indeed, Ives’ scripts were so unusually written, as well as misplaced and scrambled in big notebooks, that editors have labored valiantly to reconstruct definitive versions of his major pieces, some of which had their debuts long after his death.”
Reading Ives’ scores when he couldn’t hear the music, Lesh found inspiration for his own eccentric composing style. McNally describes pieces Lesh composed at San Mateo, shortly after discovering Ives: “He would create ten-bar exercises for bizarre orchestrations like the ‘mother chord,’ a dissonant blast that included all twelve chromatic tones, or his first chart, in which the bass player had to tune down his instrument for the first line and then retune it for the remainder, while the brass players began in the highest register, and each section of the band was in a different key. He would recall the piece as resembling ‘blocks of granite sliding together…’”
By 1963, Lesh’s ambitions had only grown. McNally describes the “monstrous polytonal piece called ‘Foci for Four Orchestras,’ which would have required 125 musicians and four conductors, and included a chord in four keys at once. It required sixty-stave music paper.” In his book, Lesh recalled “my big piece for four orchestras, Foci… The piece was composed spatially: I imagined the music rotating or sweeping around the audience with each orchestral group at the focus of an ellipse.”
He went into more detail in an interview: “I started to compose this piece for four orchestras, with the audience in the middle… There were no key signatures, no melodies… Mostly in that piece I used time signatures. In the next piece I started to write, which never was completed, I started working back into a polytonal kind of thing, where I’d write a chord that was in, say, four keys at once…. I was into polymusic. Polyphony traditionally means many voices, but what I was into was many musics… It was for five groups of instruments, each one of them playing essentially different music. That’s another offshoot of Ives.”
Lesh’s compositions made quite an impression on the people he met.
McNally describes it: “He was then much more involved with composition than playing, and when Hunter and Garcia saw him sitting at a card table at work on ‘The Sun Cycle,’ a piece planned for three orchestras, writing it out of his head without even a piano, they were stunned.”
Garcia said in ‘67, “He got into modern forms of music, serial music and 12-tone music, and finally electronic music, and he composed these monster things… I’d come over and he’d have these monster pieces of score paper and he’d be working away in pen, the notes are coming out of his head onto the paper, these things for like 12 orchestras! And the big problem, of course, when you’re a serious composer is getting anybody to play your stuff; it’s virtually impossible. And a young composer? No way!”
Sara Garcia said, “I first met Phil Lesh back at the Chateau [in Palo Alto] when he was a music student. He was this madman coming in with these musical scores where there were great slashes of music going down the paper and all over. He was just so wildly excited about avant-garde music, which didn’t seem to have anything to do with what Jerry was doing. Jerry could share his enthusiasm for some of it, but it wasn’t his thing.”
Peter Albin said, “I’d see these charts that Lesh had written; I couldn’t believe this weird shit. Like a symphony for fifty guitars. They were all circular; it was a circular chart, a bizarre-looking thing. How do you read this?”
Henry Cowell had earlier adopted Ives’ ideas to write pieces in which fragments of music could be played in a number of different possible sequences – and once Lesh wrote a piano piece for Tom Constanten where the score pages were to be shuffled in random order before performing.
Once he was in a rock band, Lesh had a little trouble adjusting to the different compositional requirements of a rock song. “Writing songs in the Dead was difficult - mine are a little more complicated than some of the others, and I had trouble getting the band to play them.” One instance was one of his first attempts, ‘No Left Turn Unstoned’ in 1966, of which Lesh remembered, “It was a truly awful song I wrote during the Matrix era… It’s godawful – it’s so awful I can’t even listen to it to find out what it was like.” [The song is more commonly known as Cardboard Cowboy.] He admitted, “It actually was called ‘The Monster,’ and I’m not sure why except maybe it was just so big and ugly and hard to play.”
From the following year, New Potato Caboose was not exactly a miracle of simplicity – Weir later admitted that it was “precise and heavily arranged…back then we could barely play it.” Lesh’s songwriting efforts diminished after that – by 1974, when he got two songs on an album, the Dead didn’t even bother playing them live, and Lesh largely quit songwriting after that until the ‘90s. “I gave up songwriting after Mars Hotel because the results were disappointing. Unbroken Chain could really have been something. Some people think it really is, but I wanted it to be what I wanted it to be… It just didn’t happen, so I decided to concentrate on playing the bass as best I can.”
Lesh said in ‘78, “Right now I’m just playing the bass. I’m kind of bored with trying to write for the Grateful Dead, because I tend to write some pretty dense shit, and it’s almost antithetical to rock & roll skill. It’s hard to get them to play it. That period around Live/Dead, when the music was a little more complex, that was the peak for me.”
He explained, “If you write a rock & roll song, you have to depend on the people in your band to play it… That’s one of the reasons I don’t write for the Grateful Dead: I can’t get what I want, and I don’t want to lean on these guys because I know it’ll be counterproductive. Most people will say everybody contributes something, but it’s never quite what you imagined when you wrote the song.”
Weir and Garcia had very similar comments about the band taking their songs away from their conception. For instance, Garcia in ’89: “If you have very specific ideas [about a song arrangement], it’s not going to work in the Grateful Dead because people will play stuff you don’t expect them to play, and do things where you don’t understand why they’re doing them. It’s one of those things where you have to take a long view and say, well, it worked [before]. So once you spend enough time at it, you start to trust what the rest of the band is going to do with your music. Somewhere along the line you have to surrender some part of yourself or you’re going to be too concerned about exactly how things should go.”
But being a songwriter was the least of Lesh’s roles in the Dead. He was the oldest in the band, the bossy type, and someone whose musical knowledge Garcia looked up to. (Garcia gushed in ’67, “His mind is so incredibly musical… He’s incredible, really musically articulate. He knows more about music than almost anybody I know.”) So Lesh had a large influence over the direction of the band in the early days, and many of the classical and modernist techniques he’d picked up at college would manifest themselves in the Dead’s music.
Lesh seems to have taken it as his duty to teach the rest of the band about areas in music they’d overlooked. Bill Kreutzmann remembered, “Phil lived near me in Palo Alto and he turned me onto all sorts of stuff – not just jazz, but Charles Ives and people like that. It really turned my head around. Then when we lived together in San Francisco, he turned me on to Coltrane.” Similarly, Weir: “Back when we were the Warlocks he turned me on to Coltrane and a bunch of classical music that had completely escaped me. That expanded my conception of what popular music could entail. I just couldn’t see where the bounds of popular music should be so constricting as to deny the possibility of, for example, odd time signatures or harmonic modes.”
Mickey Hart said, “Phil Lesh was the band’s intellectual… He knew about the atonal experimentation of western art music from Schoenberg and Webern on, and he was applying these orchestral techniques to the traditional rock & roll bass line… He could see the musical possibilities in anything.”
In a ’99 interview, Lesh said of the classical influence: “The bass is very important in classical music in a melodic sense as well as harmonic underpinning and voice-leading, those kinds of technical matters… [But] there’s only so far that you can take those kinds of techniques in rock music. I just felt that the way I was playing was pretty much sufficient. We tried to use some related techniques in our segues and sequences and medleys we put together, and I’d always try to use key symbolism and little motifs to use as cues in the jams to take them in different directions.”
Lesh recalled, “When we got started, none of us ever really thought of it as a rock band… I had experience in avant-garde music and classical music and jazz, and it just seemed logical to apply some of those structural techniques. The kind of overlap, simultaneity, that’s characteristic of so much classical 20th-century music seemed ready to hand, and infinitely applicable to the potential we had.”
Lesh’s favorite Ives piece long remained the Fourth Symphony. In ‘95 when Dennis McNally asked him, “What five non-Dead pieces of music would you recommend to us to check out?”, Lesh replied: “Coltrane's Africa Brass & Ascension; Ives' 4th Symphony; anything by Youssou N'Dour; and Stockhausen's Kontakte.”
Ives recordings didn’t start becoming commonly available in the US until the mid-‘60s, when musical horizons were expanding – in fact, some of Ives’ main works weren’t even premiered until the ‘60s, let alone recorded. And the Fourth Symphony was one of those. Lesh later wrote, “Ives’ Fourth had only been premiered in 1965, more than 40 years after its completion – and the recording had only been out for a year [in ‘66].”
The recording of the Fourth, by the American Symphony Orchestra with Leopold Stokowski, had been released in 1965 shortly after its premiere. Lesh mentions that he had heard the second movement on the radio during an acid trip, sometime in the next year. As he described in his book: “Slithering out of the speakers, the hallucinatory second movement, Commedia, one of Ives’ most radical works. The piece is made from simultaneously sounding layers of different musics – hymn tunes, marches, popular songs of Ives’ day – all woven together within a fantastical flux of sound.”
It must have been a revelation, and I would guess he immediately sought out the record.
David Gans reported in the ‘90s that he’d found an abandoned stash of four reels of early Dead music, including the 7/16-17/66 shows and “a copy of Charles Ives’ Fourth Symphony, taped from an LP.”
Jan Swafford describes the second movement: “In the vertiginous climax of the movement he stacks up a roaring brass-band march, Yankee Doodle, Turkey in the Straw, bits of The Irish Washerwoman, snatches of ragtime, atonal fistfuls of piano, and… assigns everyone else wildcat tunes in sundry rhythms and keys, all of it adding up to a pandemonium… In the concert hall, those masses of sound tumbling and crashing in air are sui generis and jaw-dropping. The whole movement feels rather like being transported into the moil of Manhattan in a particularly riotous rush hour.”
Another review of the second movement calls it a “riotous multiphony”: “Well-known American tunes vie with hints of Broadway and Gershwin, patriotic tunes, band marches, hymns, Edwardian parlor music, all emerging briefly out of the cacophonous clash of blaring horns, banging piano chords in the lower register, the ominous build-up of strings, and the indecipherable sounds of families of instruments playing at different tempos and in different pitches. The effect is that of a multiplicity of bands…”
Here’s another description of the Fourth, from conductor Michael Tilson Thomas:
Living in San Francisco, Lesh was also exposed to “simultaneously sounding layers of different musics.” In his book he writes, “On any brisk spring evening we could wander through the residential areas listening to the wonderful variety of music drifting down to the street from open apartment windows; in the course of a single block, one might hear Bob Dylan, Miles Davis, Joan Baez, the Beatles, John Coltrane, and on one memorable occasion, Bach’s monumental Mass in B Minor, all blending in a most delightful polyphony of musics.”
He said in an interview, “All sorts of people from different generations were living here, and when you walked past their houses, the wind would blow every variety of music through the air. It was a kind of musical stream of consciousness, like the sound of the inside of your mind when you’re not thinking or focusing on anything in particular – all this flux of feeling and thought. It reminded me of Charles Ives, because that’s where I was coming from.”
He could also simply stay home and turn on the radio: “We would hang in the kitchen or the office at 710, snacking and goofing while KMPX, the original free-form radio station, streamed from the stereo. We looted an awful lot of ideas from the music we heard; sometimes we could recognize the artists, sometimes not, but there was always something provocative being played.” He sighed in one interview, “I remember sitting for hours listening, just sitting in my living room listening to the radio, because there was one great thing after another.”
In late April 1967, Lesh and Garcia joined Tom Donahue in his new freeform KMPX-FM show to play some tunes they liked – mostly soul, blues, and R&B songs, a couple jazz pieces from Charles Mingus and Charles Lloyd, and one selection from Charles Ives. Lesh brought the Leopold Stokowski record of the Fourth Symphony, and played the second movement for listeners – the same piece that had so amazed him when he’d heard it on the radio a year earlier. He warned before playing it: “If you expect it to sound like a symphony, you’ll be disappointed.”
http://www.archive.org/details/gd67-04-xx.prefm.vernon.9261.sbeok.shnf (track 22)
After the music, there was an interesting discussion -
DJ: Somebody just called to make a comment…he was saying it was like the Beatles’ new record.
Lesh: What he thought was, that it sounded like the Beatles’ new record, and I was saying that I thought…whether or not the Beatles had heard this stuff from Ives or any of the people who did it before or not, I kind of think they thought of it for themselves. It’s possible for you to discover stuff that other people have done.
Garcia: Like a lot of people discover [things] at the same time…
Lesh: Those things are in the air, and the Beatles have taken the lead in bringing it to popular music, and I for one am glad.
Garcia: Right, and they do it in their own way, it’s pure Beatles. It’s still the Beatles –
Lesh: - and still tasty.
DJ: And constantly changing, and never hung up on one particular thing.
(Nobody mentions the name of the Beatles’ new record – but it was most likely an advance copy of A Day in the Life.)
Twenty years later, Lesh appeared on David Gans’ radio show on 5/12/86 and played the entire Fourth Symphony. The show doesn’t seem to be online, but Gans remembers it as “the memorable show in which Phil Lesh dumbfounded unsuspecting listeners by playing all 35 minutes of Charles Ives' Fourth Symphony.”
As if to illustrate the descent of FM radio since the sixties, one witness tells how Lesh “decided to play a lengthy and somewhat esoteric piece by Charles Ives, which was a perfect fit for the show itself but, we soon found out, not what the local rock 'n' roll station had in mind. At some juncture during the Ives piece, the station manager happened to tune in and hear something that definitely did not Fit The Format and got very excited. Not in a good way. Phones rang. Shouting ensued. Not on the air though…”
But Lesh had his most memorable encounter with the Fourth Symphony back in December 1967, when the Dead visited New York. He describes his excitement on finding out that Stokowski and the American Symphony Orchestra were also in town, performing the Fourth at Carnegie Hall. “I must have stood rooted to the spot for several minutes, absorbing the magnitude of this news… Here was a chance to hear the entire symphony twice…and we didn’t have any gigs or sessions scheduled!… I get to the studio as fast as I can; I can’t wait to give the guys this news. We hustle tickets for both nights and turn up at Carnegie on the first night. I’d managed to persuade the entire band (including Pigpen) to come.”
The performance was all he’d hoped for:
“The sense of space is palpable; the music reaches out to embrace us; withdraws into the distance; then, like a steam locomotive, comes suddenly roaring back. Invisible bands march across the soundstage in two different directions at different speeds; a solo viola mutters an occult hymn-tune as the rest of the orchestra sprays fireworks in all directions; the chorus intones wordless transcendental benedictions as the music fades away into silence. We were all blown completely away… Mickey was so amazed at the cross-rhythmic marching bands, he had to hear it again, so he and I went back for the second night. The fact that that particular passage required three conductors made it even more fascinating. Right then and there, Mick and I began trying to figure a way to do something similar with our music.”
Lesh found one way when figuring out how to mix the Anthem album in the next few months: he envisioned “the sound of a thousand-petal lotus, unfolding in constant renewal.” They would not only merge live tapes with studio recordings, they would play back several live shows at the same time. One scholar points out that Lesh’s response to the Ives symphony “involving multiple bands playing different tunes across each other…drove his attempts to mix together multiple recordings of live performances of the same piece of music.”
Lesh writes, “We had to find identical thematic statements and play several back simultaneously, in order to bifurcate the material into many layers of the same music, all derived from different performances… The sounds of all the different performances we were using were so different from one another that…we decided to celebrate those differences by editing them cinematically, sometimes jump-cutting simultaneously between sound-worlds, or…cross-fading from one to the other as delicately as we could.”
Lesh makes a direct connection between the Anthem mix and the Ivesian sound-world: in his view, Anthem was “an attempt to convey the experience of consciousness itself, in a manner that fully articulates its simultaneous, layered, dimension-hopping nature.” This is very similar to how Lesh saw Ives’ depiction of “the simultaneity of experience,” the way different overlapping thoughts run through the mind without focus. Lesh has also said, “The sound of Ives’ music is the sound of inner consciousness, with all its side conversations going on.” To Lesh, Ives represented “a fantastical flux of sound,” reminding him of a “musical stream of consciousness, like the sound of the inside of your mind…all this flux of feeling and thought.”
Anthem, in a way, tried to achieve the same effect. Lesh’s goal was to disorient the listener, merging multiple performances that “start together at the same point in the music but…begin to diverge from one another ever so slowly,” so that “we can see all the possibilities at once…as if the music had broken through into a higher dimension of awareness.”
Commentary on Ives is full of references to this stream-of-consciousness aspect of his music as various musical quotes are woven together, and listening is like overhearing someone’s thoughts: “dense and crammed with overlapping fragments of ideas thrown together in a seemingly chaotic stream of consciousness.” “Quotations from Beethoven, hymns, ragtime, circus band marches and the like jostle in a kind of Joycean stream of consciousness.” JP Burkholder calls Ives’ music a crazy-quilt, “a musical stream of consciousness with quotations of familiar American tunes and a kaleidoscopic whirl of sound.”
Ives’ idea, apparently, was to convey the mental impressions of a place, with the music representing passing thoughts, memories, overheard sounds or events, historical associations, local bands playing in the area… But the spatial aspect of Ives’ music was just as important to Lesh.
Lesh had more control over Anthem of the Sun than any other Dead album. The mixing of Anthem was partly derived from Lesh’s tape experiments as a sound mixer back in college, when he would mix electronic tape music, dividing tape channels between speakers that were set up in different places.
He recalled, “There was a performance at Mills, five [tape] channels. We had only four [speakers] in the room, so we put one in the hall… That fifth speaker was supposed to be out there, somewhere. This is an Ivesian technique.” He said of one Stockhausen composition: “That was a total mindfuck, hearing this music just flow around you, or start from the center and divide.”
Ives had done something similar in his ‘Unanswered Question,’ where he placed instruments offstage, so they would be heard at a distance. In a symphony, the chorus and percussion might be placed throughout the theater for spatial separation; or the musicians would be split into groups around the stage in a ‘multichannel’ effect (each group, of course, playing a different piece at the same time). Ives longed to go even farther out - his final unfinished Universe Symphony was conceived “to be presented outdoors, with multiple orchestras located in valleys, on hillsides and mountains.”
Lesh would famously do a similar thing in the later Wall of Sound days – he had “a quadraphonic pickup with which I could send the notes from each string to a separate set of speakers.” Putting each bass string on a different speaker stack, his bass notes would fly around the speakers, to the delight of audiences…
Some may have noticed the bizarre name given to part of the Other One medley on the Anthem album: “Quadlibet for Tender Feet.” This may seem like some piece of whimsy – “The names of the songs on the first part of side one were all just made up for publishing purposes,” Weir said; “TC made up most of those names.”
But actually, “Quodlibet” is a term from classical music: one definition is “a piece of music combining several different melodies, usually popular tunes, in counterpoint.” In a quodlibet, well-known tunes are quoted and combined in a medley, either one after another or simultaneously.
While the reference is common enough, it’s striking that this technique was one of Charles Ives’ favorite forms – he frequently used overlapping familiar melodies in his works (popular & classical), “layering several distinct melodies and quotations on top of each other,” expanding on the idea of quodlibets to create more modernist sound collages.
It’s said that “the first fully developed collages occur in a few works by Charles Ives… [Ives would use] different tempi for different sections of the orchestra at the same time, a technique which creates the illusion that two distinct pieces of music are being performed simultaneously.”
JP Burkholder wrote that “Ives alters [the borrowed tunes] rhythmically and melodically… Ives wants them not to combine gracefully but to conflict with one another…so he lets them clash through casual dissonance, or places them in different keys, or displaces them metrically…”
One piece that illustrates this is Ives’ famous ‘Central Park in the Dark’ – meant to be a musical representation of a walk through Central Park, hearing different musics playing, most of it is quiet and nocturnal. But around the six-minute point here, a series of clangorous tunes burst in, mingling and clashing riotously, building the tension until they suddenly stop dead, and the quietness returns. This was one of Ives’ favorite techniques, used in numerous pieces.
Ives scholars observe that “this range of extremes is frequent in Ives’ music – crushing blare and dissonance contrasted with lyrical quiet.” Richard Trythall points out:
“Ives loved putting the accent on the unexpected. [His work is] full of surprising, unexpected turns of thought, of that zig-zag thought pattern… Ives loved to shuffle the continuity of his thought so as to catch his audience ‘off-base’…to surprise them, disorient them, and ultimately to astonish them… Ives also had a fine appreciation for that extremely thin line between order and disorder…and a particular appreciation for the thrill of losing control. He enjoyed allowing his music to approach and occasionally descend into total chaos… Ives imagines in extremes, frequently using the high dramatic relief which can be created by placing musical opposites side by side - extremes of soft and loud, slow and fast, consonant and dissonant….”
Of course the Dead weren’t quite like this. But they also liked extreme dynamic contrasts in their music – there might be chaotic meltdowns followed by a return to melody (as in the Viola Lee jam climax, or any number of instances where the band assaults the audience with screeching feedback and then relieves them with a pretty tune; for instance just in fall ’73, on 10/25, 12/2, 12/8, 12/18-19/73, among many other times). Or there might be the reverse, a drop to barely audible quietness followed by a sudden burst of rock & roll (as in the end of the Playing jam coming back to the verse in ’72-74, or the Dark Star>St Stephen transition in ’69-70).
The Dead also embraced the use of dissonance in their music: not only in their pursuit of noise as a musical statement, or in the way they clashed different styles together, but also in the band sense, the way the various bandmembers’ different musical voices and tastes sometimes struggled with each other in the music. This was something that got more extreme over time, as the band’s sound became less unified and more textures were folded in. Garcia said, “When you’re working in a band, you have to try to let everybody have his own voice the way he best sees it. There are always going to be things that create friction… [They’re] going to make decisions musically that I’m not going to agree with fully, but I’ll go along with them anyway.”
Garcia sometimes compared his own band with the Dead, admitting that while the JGB played very harmonious, consonant music, the Dead embraced more discord.
In ’76 he said: “The Grateful Dead is not anybody’s idea of how a band or music should be. It’s a combination of really divergent viewpoints. Everyone in the band is quite different from everyone else. And what happens musically is quite different from what any one person would do… The Grateful Dead is not always consonant – sometimes it’s dissonant; sometimes it’s real ugly-sounding.” And in ’93: “[The Garcia Band] is total resonance; it’s consonance… The Grateful Dead has more dissonance in it. It has more variables and more wild cards and more oddness; and it has more tension too. To Grateful Dead fans, my band might be a little too agreeable…”
The Dead also thought of themselves from early on as something different from a regular rock band, where a steady bass & drum rhythm support a lead guitar line. Garcia talked extensively in his ’67 interview with Ralph Gleason about how the band was trying to get away from that idea. Mickey Hart later observed, “The band as a whole moves as an organic unit…and that’s what’s so thrilling about the Grateful Dead. You can have all these guys playing polyphonic parts, but we’re playing as one… We rely heavily on rhythms…it’s very rhythmically articulate, and everyone in this band is good at rhythm.”
Scholar Brent Wood writes that the music’s magic texture “resulted from the band’s emphasis on true polyphony, a texture heard only rarely in contemporary popular music. Seldom do rhythm guitar, keyboard or drum parts vary at the same time as the bass and lead guitar…still more infrequently are all six parts being improvised. While listeners with well-developed ears will be able to hear three parts simultaneously, few will fully appreciate four-part polyphony in an arranged piece of music, let alone six-part polyphony in an improvised piece.”
As David Crosby described it, “These guys have evolved a thing where each guy is playing a running line all the time… That’s electronic Dixieland… You’ve got Jerry and Phil and Bobby playing these three weaving lines, and it’s this incredibly fluid music. What happens in the best of it is that you submerge your ego and you understand that several people can achieve a telepathic or near-telepathic union playing music and speak with one voice.”
Lesh praised the band’s collective improvisation in, for instance, the 9/3/67 Midnight Hour: “This version sounds just like electric chamber music [in its] intricacy and sensitivity…the music is so jaw-droppingly intricate and flexible that no single mind could think it all up in such detail.”
Lesh has always liked what might be called “dense” music with multiple parts that are hard to separate. For instance, he talked about listening to Miles Davis open for the Dead in April ’70 with hard-edged Bitches Brew music; “in some ways similar to what we were trying to do in our free jamming, but ever so much more dense with ideas.” He remembered “everybody in our band was onstage [listening], trying to keep up with the music. It was some dense stuff.”
Lesh said in an interview that he wanted in his own bands, instead of a single lead player fronting the others, “ideally what’s created is a web of lines and relationships. That’s the best way to perceive it. That’s what Charlie Mingus said about his music. He said, ‘Focus in front of the music and listen to the whole thing, don’t try to pick out any one strand because you’ll miss the totality.’”
Lesh had the same advice on how to listen to the dense music of Charles Ives. According to Michael Getz: “In referring to Ives on his radio show ‘Eyes of Chaos,’ Lesh once remarked that one must adjust the way one listens to this kind of music by letting it pass through and simply feeling its power, [instead of focusing] on particular sounds.”
If you look at Ives’ works, you find an extraordinary number of borrowed tunes quoted. In just the second movement of the Fourth Symphony, for instance, over two dozen tunes are used, woven into each other! While Ives sometimes quoted earlier classical pieces like Beethoven, he often favored traditional American songs – from marching bands, fiddle tunes, minstrel shows, churches, college rallies, and so on. One scholar says that Ives used “quotations from hymn tunes and popular songs, the town band at holiday parades, the fiddlers at Saturday night dances, patriotic songs and sentimental parlor ballads, the melodies of Stephen Foster, the medleys heard at country fairs…”
While the Dead didn’t borrow tunes in quite the same way, their approach did have some similarities. They also frequently quoted familiar pop tunes in their jams in the early years – although a much smaller number of tunes, and not necessarily in a way the audience would readily recognize, as the Dead tended to use either just the chords or a fragment of melody.
In the early ‘70s, the chords of Feelin’ Groovy or Tighten Up were often used as climactic points in various jams. Less often, they might quote the melody lines of the Youngbloods song Darkness Darkness, or their own songs St Stephen or China Cat, in unexpected places. The old blues tune Nobody’s Fault But Mine resurfaced as an instrumental, first in New Speedway before finding a home in Truckin’. And most obscurely, the Dead borrowed just a few chords from others to construct their major Spanish and Mind Left Body jams.
Though few if any listeners would have been able to connect most of these instrumentals to familiar songs, the Dead had a knack for doing these kinds of themes that sounded familiar even the first time they were heard. Their habit was often to place these after passages of either chaotic formlessness or building tension, so that these happy melodic pieces would be a kind of release for the audience – and there’s no doubt about the ecstatic reaction some of these jams got.
Though the Dead didn’t do thematic jams nearly as much in later years, they would still sometimes playfully quote a wide variety of familiar pieces….for instance, at random, the Close Encounters bit on 1/22/78 (also teased on 4/8/78), Stayin’ Alive on 4/21/78, Stir It Up at length on 3/21/91 & 4/5/91, Dear Prudence (possibly) on 12/30/91 & 6/8/92, Shenandoah on 3/21/92 & 6/20/92, Tubular Bells on 9/13/93, and Handsome Cabin Boy in several spaces (9/22/87, 9/12/90 & 3/17/93). [I’m not sure if anyone’s yet done a full listing of these later instrumentals.]
Perhaps the classic instance of the Dead using a traditional song as a “moveable quote” was the Bahamian gospel tune We Bid You Goodnight. Aside from their singing it at the end of many shows, the Dead started playing it instrumentally in Alligator in early ’68, moved it to the Not Fade Away jams in ‘70, and finally fixed it as the finale to Goin’ Down the Road, linking back to the NFA reprise. It’s notable that in these different places, Garcia would adjust the phrasing and rhythm of the melody to fit the musical setting, so that it slowed down over time. (Indeed, the elegaic Goodnight melody in the NFA suite has a slight parallel to Ives’ use of wordless religious tunes in his works to evoke memories of the past.) Garcia would also quote Donovan’s hit There Is A Mountain in many Alligators, but these references were so brief, I’m sure few caught them…
From the beginning the Dead prided themselves on their variety. Garcia said in ‘67, “We’ve stolen freely from everywhere! Remorselessly and freely! Our ideas come from everywhere, and we have no bones about mixing our idioms or throwing stuff back and forth from one place to another. So you might hear some very straight traditional classical-style counterpoint popping up in the middle of some rowdy thing.”
Even earlier in in ‘66, Garcia pointed out, “Our ideas about writing songs are not particularly affected by rock & roll. None of us was really playing that much rock & roll before we got together as a band. We have material that comes from all different areas, and somehow we can make the stuff work. We’re going in as many different directions as we can go.”
Weir also observed, “We do blues tunes, we do country tunes, we do stuff that harkens back to old folk music. I listen to Charles Ives, and every now and again you hear some of that in there, or strains of Stephen Foster. We play American music and we try to keep all those colors on the palette.”
As Garcia said, “There are so many different styles of music you can incorporate using the same instruments, there’s no reason they should be mutually incompatible.”
Lesh was also happy to find the Dead juxtaposing many different kinds of music. “During spring and summer ’69 our music moved into a more balanced space… It was altogether revelatory to make a music so fluid that the band could slide from the swampiest blues feeling (with a quick detour through the free-fall zone) into a straight-ahead rock tune, a 17th-century border ballad, or some hybrid-groove Hunter/Garcia opus, all within 16 bars… Now we had three main areas of attraction that we could dance around and between as we chose: mossy-tooth blues and flag-waving R&B…mythical-legendary alternate-America…and visionary-poetic…all woven together by flat-out free jamming, which could contain elements of all three simultaneously.”
One instance of a song which contained multiple elements simultaneously was Viola Lee Blues, perhaps the Dead’s first attempt at genre-breaking. Here we have an old jugband blues, set to the groove of a recent R&B hit, with a long Coltraneish freakout in the middle, using accelerating Indian tempos, climaxing in a noisy crescendo and abrupt return to theme which (while it’s a typical Ivesian technique) was most likely borrowed from the Butterfield Band’s East/West.
I don’t think the Dead ever tried to fuse so much into one song again; nor did they need to, as they were such a melting-pot stylistically that any number of blends might occur as they jammed different styles together. A smoky blues might soon transform into a jazz jam (as in the early versions of The Same Thing, e.g. 3/18/67), an avant freakout might suddenly shift into a country ballad (as in a Dark Star>El Paso, e.g. 8/27/72), or a rhythmic rock number might turn the corner into a violin-like duet (as in some Other Ones, e.g. 3/20/77).
In one respect the Dead were unlike Ives. He often had his musicians playing two (or more) pieces at the same time, sometimes in different keys and tempos, in disorienting fashion. Conductor Jose Serebrier said, “One of the great difficulties for any orchestra…was to get the players to forget everything they’ve learned in the conservatory about ensemble, about how to play together. Because Ives requires just the opposite in many cases – he requires the musicians to not listen to each other, but to play individual parts.”
But it’s hard to find examples where the Dead members are intentionally playing two different things at once for long. It mainly just happens when they’re disagreeing, as when one player wants to start a song and the others don’t want to – the most famous example is in 4/26/72, when the band tries starting Not Fade Away, but Garcia refuses to abandon Goin’ Down the Road, so they play the two back-and-forth until Garcia wins. Other instances of this are so brief, they’re really just minor points of indecision.
In general, the Dead listened carefully to each other, and did their best to support each other and stay on the same page. If one player abruptly heads in a new direction, the others will soon follow him. At times they will play strange counterpoints – for instance in some late-’73 space, Lesh might be booming out some feedback drones while Garcia plucks a wistful melody; or the band might be deep in a chaotic freakout while Godchaux keeps jabbing a rhythmic riff on piano to lead the way out. Lesh was the most willing to step out in a different atonal direction than the others, sometimes going wild on bass while the others were attempting a more ‘normal’ jam.
Caution was a recurring motif in the Dead’s early years. Lesh would sometimes interject the bass riff into a jam to get things rolling and stir up some craziness, so we have the textures of Caution blended into another jam – the last examples came on 9/18/74, 10/19/74, 10/27/79, 5/12/80, and 5/6/81. Earlier on, it was common for him to play it in the speeding-up section of Viola Lee, so we have hybrid Viola/Caution jams going on. And Jim Powell observed of 6/14/68: “There are numerous Caution teases in Lovelight, and the shift from one to the other is almost imperceptible. After 9:00 into Lovelight much of the time Caution and Lovelight are happening simultaneously (shades of Charles Ives!).”
While Ives liked to juxtapose two different pieces of music simultaneously, the Dead tended to do it sequentially. 1968 was the year they started doing set-long medleys with jammed-out songs offering a variety of styles and shadings, but 1969 was when they got into extreme juxtapositions of clashing styles. In ’69 you might hear a St Stephen>It’s A Sin, a Cryptical>Slewfoot, or even an Eleven>Green Grass of Home – the band might slow the pace down with Friend of Mine, or speed it up with Top of the World. The Dead were particularly fond of dropping High Time in random places (coming out of Cryptical, China Cat, Mama Tried, even Dark Star), where it always sounded kind of strange.
What you did not get often in ’69 was one song interrupting another, unless they were having some kind of trouble or breakdown onstage. (St Stephen at Woodstock is the best example, as the alarmed Dead abandon it for a simpler Mama Tried; but there are a couple Elevens that are also dropped for some country tune – see 6/27 or 8/30.) In April ’69, Garcia experimented briefly with the unusual Stephen>It’s A Sin>Stephen twist. But Dark Star in particular would sometimes melt into some other song mid-jam: it turns into Cosmic Charlie on 5/30 and High Time on 8/16, and into the Other One on 6/22 and 7/12.
11/8/69 was a signpost to the future as the Dead played the Other One inside Dark Star, so we get a Dark Star>Other One>Dark Star (among the other twists & turns of that evening). That was an unusual set though, not to be repeated. But in summer 1970 they seem to have rediscovered the idea of nestling a song inside a longer jam:
6-24-70 Dark Star>Attics>Dark Star>Sugar Magnolia>Dark Star
7-10-70 Other One>Attics>Other One
7-12-70 Other One>Me & My Uncle>Other One
For some reason, medleys like these were then dropped for another year, to return in mid-1971. On August 6, 15, and 23, the Dead played the Other One>Me & My Uncle>Other One medley. They liked the effect of a country song coming out of nowhere in the middle of some raging jam, and after Keith joined they tried it repeatedly that fall (in both Dark Star and the Other One). By Europe ’72 Dark Star tended to be continuous and unbroken (save for 4/24/72), but you might hear El Paso or Bobby McGee popping up inside the Other One.
Some later examples of divided Other Ones:
5/26/72 Other One>Morning Dew>Other One
8/12/72 Other One>Black Peter>Other One
9/28/72 Other One>Bobby McGee>Other One
7/16, 10/19, & 10/24/72 Other One>He’s Gone>Other One
In many of these late-’72 cases, unlike in ’71 where we got a full jam before and after the interpolated song, the second Other One tends to be just a brief reprise of the verse to “finish” the song.
Dark Star was handled differently. In fall ‘71 Dark Star started becoming open-ended, as they would leave out the last verse and just drift into the next song, and by ’72 a proper conclusion to Dark Star had become rare. (I think 7/26/72 is the last version with both verses.) In Europe ’72 Dark Star usually went into Sugar Magnolia; later that year it most often closed with Morning Dew or some gentle ballad. There were a few oddball exceptions (Jack Straw on 9/10, China Cat on 9/24, Cumberland on 9/27, Half-Step on 10/23 and 11/19). The famed Dark Star>El Paso medley was actually only played three times (8/21/72, 8/27/72, and 8/1/73).
10/18/72 was a groundbreaking show in which we see their first Playing medley (Playing>drums>Dark Star>Morning Dew>Playing). Nothing like that was repeated in ’72, or indeed for a full year afterwards. For early ’73 saw a return to the more straightforward medley approach, in which one song followed another rather predictably, as in the standard He’s Gone>Truckin’>Other One>Eyes. This may have been due to the new song Eyes of the World becoming the standard destination-point for a jam; and the Eyes>China Doll combination had a particular fascination from which the Dead rarely escaped.
Aside from the Other One>Bobby McGee>Other One on 6/26, we didn’t get more “interrupted” jams until the fall tour, when the Dead suddenly started pulling out a variety of extended medleys, like magicians with a new trick. Some good examples are the 11/14/73 Other One medley, the 11/21/73 Playing medley, or the famed Playing palindrome shows on 11/10 & 11/17/73, where they weave in and out of a main “theme” to tie a long suite together – like mini-symphonies, as it were.
The Other One was mostly set in its ways already, but Playing in particular was opened up by this new approach, as they could now switch to a number of songs mid-jam, from Half-Step to Uncle John. By ’74 these sandwich-type medleys became less common, and Uncle John & Wharf Rat to some extent became the isolated ‘default’ Playing segues, but it was a pointer as to how the Dead would approach their sets in the future.
The connection to Ives may seem distant by now, but it was implicit at least in Phil Lesh’s mind. On 4/27/92, Lesh appeared on David Gans’ radio show to talk about Ives and the idea of songs melting into each other. Unfortunately I haven’t heard the show as it doesn’t seem to be online, but Lesh played this Other One>Me & My Uncle>Other One from fall ’71 to illustrate the Ives influence:
This was one of the classic performances back when most people’s tapes came from Gans’ shows. Lesh is very prominent on this tape, but everyone’s pretty amazing – the Other One is rather herky-jerky, the band sometimes speeding ahead, sometimes pausing for breath, sometimes messing up. Out of a little “chaos” section with Lesh scraping his strings comes Me & My Uncle – and it leads into a space, which in turn gives way to a ripping happy jam.
It wasn’t just the segue possibilities that opened up over time, it was also the stylistic diversity within jams. By the time Keith joined in ’71, we can hear a wider range of jam styles stuffed into the Dark Stars and Other Ones, the band sounding eager to get them all in. In many ways the jams became denser over the next couple years, almost like abstract puzzles, as more new themes were introduced and the Dead honed their busy, restless style. Increasingly through ’72-74, rather than following the thread of a single musical idea, a jam might wander through several contrasting sections, the Dead skipping from theme to theme. You might hear a drifting wah-wah space mutating into a discordant Tiger meltdown, which could slide into an offbeat funk jam or perhaps a pretty melodic theme before returning to another song. In a way, Lesh had achieved his Ivesian stream-of-consciousness music, crammed with overlapping ideas and fragments, in the Dead’s jams.
Years later in ‘78/79, the Dead started developing a separate Space section in the second sets where they could explore formless music without rules. It was kind of a continuation of the old feedback segments or the Phil & Ned sets; or as Garcia called it, “the thing of taking chances and going all to pieces, and then coming back and reassembling.” Sonically it harked back to the Acid Tests where structures were abandoned, chaos reigned, the Thunder Machine roared, and pranksters babbled into microphones. McNally calls Space “the direct musical heir to the Acid Tests, with roots in Ornette Coleman and Charles Ives.” As Garcia described it in ’85, “We’ve been doing some interesting things in the last couple of years in our most freeform stuff that’s not really attached to any particular song. It’s just freeform music, it’s not rhythmic, it’s not really attached to any musical norms, it’s the completely weird shit.”
Interestingly, the same way that Ives would organize his music around historical or geographical themes – say, the local associations of “Three Places in New England,” or the “Holidays Symphony” with different movements based on different holidays – the Dead would similarly organize Space around a central but unspoken idea. Garcia again: “We’ve been picking themes for that, and thinking of it as being like a painting or movie. ‘Reagan in China’ was one of our themes. One time we had the ‘Qaddafi death squad’ as our theme. Sometimes the theme is terribly detailed, and sometimes it’s just a broad subject…[so that] part of the music at times has some…other level of organization that pulls it together, makes it really interesting.” (Actually, there were a couple times in April ’82 when the theme was spoken, the famous “Earthquake” and “Raven” spaces that Lesh narrated.)
Weir also said in ’85, “When Garcia and I go out and play [Space] together…it goes completely different places every night. That stuff’s actually more mobile, in terms of the harmonic directions it takes, than any of the stuff we used to do… I think it’s starting to open up to where the space jams are getting looser and looser… For a while there a couple of years back we would discuss current events or something before we went out, and every now and again we’ll still do it: come up with a motif for the jam. It’s almost never anything really serious… Usually we’re just amusing ourselves back there during the drum solo, coming up with joke motifs for the jam: ‘okay, you’re the stewardess aboard this hijacked airliner,’ or something like that.”
Garcia said, “What it does is provide us an invisible infrastructure which everybody can interpret freely. It’s a neat thing because anyone can interpret it however they want and it still provides a kind of centerpiece for us all to look at… It’s provided for us more interesting shapes for that non-formed…shapeless music. Before we started using that idea, that music would tend to get dispersed so far that you couldn’t relate to it at all; and sometimes it would make an effort to turn into something familiar real fast, so that it would hover between these two poles and turn into something…not quite as promising as it could be.”
For the Dead, Space really took off once they started using MIDI instruments in the late ‘80s and they turned into a kind of ‘surreal orchestra’ with everyone imitating different sounds. (The Dead liked this so much they made a whole album from it, Infrared Roses in ‘91.) Though it’s hard for many listeners to take, the Dead were very excited by the new possibilities of MIDI. Lesh exclaimed at the time, “It just cracks me up. I love it! Some of the things those guys come up with! I don’t think even know what it’s going to sound like when it comes out sometimes… Going through these tapes, I just heard a ten-minute segment of Space that was just really amazing! [Most likely 3/30/90.] It started out with a drone and big harmonic structures over this drone, and then I guess it was Jerry who started to play this demented horn thing that sounded like Mahler’s Third deconstructed – there’s this trombone passage in Mahler’s Third, and it was like he was parodying it. It was silly, very funny. I don’t even know if he knows the piece, actually. Then at the end of it there was a great E cadence and some well-developed craziness.”
And in a spring ’94 interview, Lesh said, “On this tour there was some really amazing space music. Three nights in a row we did some great stuff in Atlanta… There’s always a thread through all space jams, and that’s Jerry’s ‘I Love New York’ bassoon kind of tone. That’s what I call it!” Even Kreutzmann said, “Those guys are doing stuff with their new MIDI setups that’s been blowing my mind! I’ve really been enjoying it… [I’d like to] maybe get back out there and play some free music with Jerry, like we did in the early seventies… I’m hearing such neat stuff in what he’s doing and I’d like to add to it; I hear drum parts on it. You’re not locked to tracks or stops or left or right turns. It’s free and open; you don’t know what’s going to happen. It’s got a three-dimensionality that I love because it can go in any direction.”
On top of the MIDI sounds, any number of strange guests or samples might appear during Space: voices, revving motorcycles, slot machines, train whistles, frying bacon, the Rite of Spring, even chanting monks. It’s also been noted that “the Dead’s ventures into the swirl were also inspired by the tape music experiments of Steve Reich, musique concrete, the compositions of Stockhausen, Bartok, and…turn-of-the-century maverick composer Charles Ives.” As Steve Silberman writes, “MIDI allowed the Dead to…add voices from any culture, any instrument, even non-musical textures, to create a spontaneous landscape of sounds… This was a time when Space could incorporate traditional instruments from the rainforest, Chinese and Balinese metallophones, talking drums and kalimbas, hiphop-esque tape-loops, and even entire orchestras playing chords from the Rite of Spring… The bandmembers welcomed any sound they could hear or imagine into the music.”
For Lesh, these episodes must have been something like a return to the Anthem days and his avant-garde sound explorations in college. He’s spoken of experimental tape performances where all the sounds heard outside in the ‘real world’ afterwards sounded like continuations of the music. He theorized: “I think the whole Space section, which essentially evolved from our feedback experiments, is a response to electronic music and concrete music, found objects music, tape music, that sort of thing. Some of the discontinuity that we get going, the heterophony of everybody playing something different, probably comes from those worlds to a degree.” (Space can even resemble Garcia’s description of the Anthem album: “We were making a collage…that’s more like electronic music or concrete music where you are actually assembling bits and pieces toward an enhanced non-realistic representation.”)
There were many long Spaces from those last years where the band was more adventurous and more committed, and definitely weirder, than anywhere else in the sets. Sonically, with their dense orchestral sound, they perhaps came closer here than anywhere to the Ives soundworld.
To illustrate, I’ll point out a Space that was actually played after Garcia died. On 6/16/96, the San Francisco Symphony had an event called the American Festival honoring various west-coast “maverick composers” such as John Cage, Lou Harrison & Steve Reich. At the end of the event, Lesh, Weir, Mickey Hart, and Vince Welnick played a short “Space for Henry Cowell,” with conductor Michael Tilson Thomas on MIDI piano. It’s a far-out space, very much in the Dead vein but also a close approach to an Ivesian soundscape:
http://www.archive.org/details/1996-06-16.sfo.aud-fm.vernon.19785.sbeok.flacf [filed as a “Phil & Friends” show]
This performance was a tribute to Henry Cowell, an early 20th-century modernist composer (and friend of Ives’). Remember that Lesh had been introduced to Ives through reading Cowell, who in his own right had a strong, direct influence on later avant-garde music. (For instance, Cowell had played experimental concerts with John Cage at Mills College, where Lesh and Tom Constanten went. The “prepared piano” music that TC plays on the Anthem album was derived from John Cage, who in turn was inspired by Cowell’s string-piano techniques.)
The tape was first aired on David Gans’ radio show on 4/28/97, when Lesh appeared to chat and play a few music selections he’d been involved in. The show doesn’t seem to be online, but here is a transcript:
Lesh talks about the show: “There were several piano pieces performed that were written by Henry Cowell, who was, in a way, the sort of patriarch of this whole West Coast experimental scene. He was writing outrageous tone-cluster music at age 17 in the early part of this century, in the teens and twenties. At the end of it, Mickey, Bob, Vince, myself, and Michael Tilson Thomas collaborated on a group improvisation, which was based on themes that Henry Cowell had composed, and that had been heard earlier in the program as part of the regular performance. That was a great deal of fun to do, especially to watch Michael really cut loose...” [Lesh goes on to praise Thomas.]
Lesh also played a piece from Stravinsky’s Firebird (with himself conducting the Berkeley Symphony), and part of a Bruce Hornsby show which he and Weir joined in. As a sidenote, it’s worth mentioning that Bruce Hornsby was also an Ives fan, down to quoting Ives pieces in his own songs, though I don’t know how much his playing with the Dead reflects this:
With Garcia gone, Lesh was on his own, and for a few years he mostly stayed off the stage – as he later said, “It was really hard to make the decision to tour at all, for me, because after Jerry’s death I didn’t really want to do it. I didn’t think I wanted to play music with anybody but him. He was the reason I joined the band in the first place.”
So Lesh returned to one of his first loves, composing. In one interview he described a new piece in which he applied the Ivesian collage technique to Grateful Dead material: “For a couple years I’ve been working on an orchestral piece that involves 29 Grateful Dead songs, all orchestrated together. I’m deconstructing them, taking the raw material—a melodic line here, a chord pattern or rhythmic riff there—and weaving them together like a tapestry. In some sections one song is accompanied by another; at one point I have Dark Star, Playing in the Band, Saint of Circumstance, and the Terrapin Station fanfare all going simultaneously.”
He also talks about it in the radio show with Gans: “I was trained in classical music, and I studied composition for many years before joining the band. One of the things that I’m doing now is composing a song symphony that’s based on the Grateful Dead song themes – the melodies of the songs, chord progressions, rhythmic riffs. I’m going to weave them all together in a seven-movement, 45-minute composition, which I’m working on now. Hopefully I’ll have it done by this time next year. And there have been some record companies that are interested in it, and so hopefully I’ll be able to find an orchestra to play it – and maybe I can conduct it myself… There might be a part where there’ll be two conductors necessary… In a way, it’s my way of finding closure with the Grateful Dead music…”
A couple years later, though, he went on the road again with Phil & Friends, and in an ’03 interview he declared that the ‘Grateful Dead symphony’ was not to be:
“I decided not to do the symphonic version of Grateful Dead [music] for many reasons. I was looking for closure – this was right after Jerry died and I was looking for closure with that music so I could go on and do something else. Turns out, the music won’t let me have closure. It wants me to keep playing [it] – it wants to be reinterpreted… It’s only alive when we’re playing it, digging into it and expanding it and playing it in new ways… I just realized there wasn’t going to be any closure, I was gonna keep playing this music. I was going to keep reinterpreting it, and there was no way in hell I was going to freeze it, to petrify it in amber.”
It is time to close; and there are some other Dead connections with Ives that I won’t really get into. For instance, their use of specifically American themes to color their music, as a kind of nostalgic look at “the old America.” (As Weir said, “We espouse the American musical tradition… We’ve built our own little aesthetic around American traditional music, or our own generalized ideal” of it – and it seems Ives saw himself in a similar way. Ives even wrote a cowboy song…)
Also, their use of indeterminate or ‘aleatoric’ music (to use the scholarly term), where parts of the performance are left up to chance and the performer’s interpretation. The Dead of course based their entire approach on this; but in the modern classical field, Ives was an early innovator. (Ives has even sometimes been compared to Charles Mingus in his approach.)
Here are some thoughts on Ives from one music scholar:
“Another innovation unique to Ives was the amount of interpretive discretion he left to the performer, particularly in [the] keyboard works which are heavily based on his…improvisational technique. As an inveterate keyboard improviser, Ives…evidently learned a good deal from his own improvisations…[and] characteristically attempted to maintain the irregularity of thought and variety of gesture which free improvisation can produce… [Ives] leaves the performer a wide margin of choice in shaping this material… Ives intends that his keyboard music…be performed in a spontaneous manner, with that sense of abandon, of ‘letting oneself go’…which characterizes improvisation.”
I’ll end with one final quote from an Ives listener, reflecting on what the music means to him:
“Rather than presenting a unified, rational view of the world, rather than simplifying our experience, Ives’ music usually portrays the world as fragmentary, disjointed, and most of all, incomplete… His music reveals the underlying, complex, chaotic and fragmentary reality that’s all around us. We typically ignore this dissonant reality by sticking to well-worn paths, whether they are well-worn musical conventions or well-worn ways of thinking… Ives takes child-like delight in the ever-shifting sound fragments and colors that his musical kaleidoscope provides… Now while Ives was attuned to the fragmentary, mutable nature of reality, he was also preoccupied with the idea of unity, oneness, and transcendence… There is a sense of continual struggle, striving to make sense of things, to see what’s just around the corner – even if it can only be seen with a sidelong glance after a long, tough slog… His music is always looking, always striving; it rarely arrives… Ives’ music is not tidy. It can’t be contained by normal musical forms because these structures do not accurately represent the way that Ives perceives the world… Ives’ music acknowledges that our perceptions of the world – and the understanding that we construct from those perceptions – are in a constant state of flux. It is a never-ending process.”
Shaugn O’Donnell’s essay “American Chaos: Charles Ives & the Grateful Dead” in the “Grateful Dead In Concert” book
Richard Kostelanetz article on Ives in “Dead Reckonings” book
http://www.popular-musicology-online.com/issues/04/wood-01.html - “The Musical Imagination of Lesh” by Brent Wood (a rather technical essay on Lesh’s style)