Practice Journal: Intros and Counterpoint – originally posted 3/6/11

Practice Journal: Intros and Counterpoint (3/6/11)

I write today from Humboldt, California, near the beginning of another tour with the Mike Gordon band. On this tour we are adding some music with particularly challenging keyboard parts to our repertoire, including Mikeʼs tunes ʻGot Awayʼ (from his newest release, Moss) and ʻMoundʼ (from the Phish album Rift ). The midsection of ʻGot Awayʼ requires my left hand to cover some horn parts, composed by Mike and expertly orchestrated by saxophonist Brian McCarthy (who also performed it on the record along with Dave Grippo on baritone sax, Ray Vega on trumpet and Andrew Moroz on trombone), while my right hand plays a solo which Mike composed and performed himself on the record (through a process, he tells me, involving many ProTools punch- ins and edits). The right hand solo is 16th-note-based line over a medium funk groove which for me recalls the lines Frank Zappa wrote for mallet percussionist Ed Mann on tunes like ʻMovinʻ to Montanaʻ (a piece which I performed some years ago in a concert of Ed Palermoʼs big-band arrangements of Zappa tunes). I experimented with using a split keyboard sound to play the horn parts on ʻGot Awayʼ in my left hand with a sampled horn sound, but on Mikeʼs recommendation Iʼve gone with incorporating the horn parts and the single line solo into a two handed piano part. Digital technology gets closer and closer to emulating sounds like drums and piano, but it still doesnʼt come close to the sound of a real horn section.

The ʻMoundʻ midsection is a tour-de-force in the kind of contrapuntal rock ensemble writing which bands like Yes and King Crimson pioneered and which became a cornerstone of Phishʼs style. I began learning this section by transferring the piano part in Mikeʼs handwritten full score into Sibelius, and I continue learning it by taking every chance I can to run it on my own and with the band (either the whole band, or whichever members I can convince to ʻtry it one more timeʼ!) I find the complexity of the interweaving parts in this section to be a great exercise in both concentrating on oneʼs own part (to count out rhythmic details – I often count out loud in this piece) and listening to othersʼ parts (both to check on whether we are together AND to know where to jump to when weʼre not). In addition to being a great exercise, the midsection is also melodic in its own polytonal way, not unlike some Hindemith Iʼve played (one fugue from the Ludus Tonalis, and the piano part to one of the violin sonatas). My practice process for ʻMoundʼ has included studying differences between Mikeʼs score and Page McConnellʼs performance on the recording (at a couple points where Mike wrote some right hand chords as upbeats, Page plays them as downbeats, and the change is a very helpful contrast to the relentlessly over-the-barline rhythms of the left hand), practicing my part with only one of the other parts, and playing along with the Phish recording, to fit the complexities into the overall groove of the tune. Recently, Mike mentioned that the bass is a lead part in much of the midsection. This woke me up to the fact that I have been exhibiting a typical human tendency to play difficult passages loudly, regardless of whether they are meant as foreground parts or not. Now that Iʼm becoming more familiar with the challenges of my own part, I face a new challenge: executing the finger acrobatics of my part as an accompaniment.

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