Essays On The Grateful Dead

Essays On The Grateful Dead-56
The subtle rhythmic variations of the bass against a steady drumbeat (or vice versa) become powerful in the context of extended and anticipated repetition, as the tension between different cycles creates a “rhythmic harmony” between implied patterns.Phil Lesh’s bass parts represent the very antithesis of this standard.

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Elsewhere I have demonstrated that the bassist’s idiosyncratic approach to performing popular dance music was integral to both the band’s anarchist ethos and its continually-evolving polyphonic textures and improvised arrangements (“The Eccentric Revolutions of Phil Lesh,” 2010).

Here I will attempt to clarify the paradoxical way in which Lesh’s avoidance of repetition enabled unusual and powerful rhythmic dynamics in the band’s performances, show how his interest in “polymusic” led the group’s forays into experimental soundscapes and compositions, and explain how his desire for difference within standard popular music forms helped give the Grateful Dead’s original compositions in the folk, bluegrass, country, blues and rock genres their unique flavour.[2] As a student, Lesh once conducted a Luciano Berio piece entitled “Differences.” Later, his bass work with the Grateful Dead would exemplify the modernist impulse to “make it new” taken to its unavoidable limit, resulting in post-modernist, de-centered, continuously varying musical structures based on difference that nonetheless managed to act as a kind of center for an ever-growing peripatetic following.

As Garcia once remarked, Lesh “plays the bass as though he invented the instrument and nobody ever played it before him” (Jackson 2000: 261).

In his autobiography Searching for the Sound (2005), Lesh acknowledges his primary influences to be European art music, experimental American orchestral composers such as Charles Ives, and the harmonic, melodic and timbral experimentation of improvised jazz.

Lesh’s playing, in a general sense, relies on long, non-repeating phrases composed of series of brief melodic figures which swing around the main harmonic downbeats, forming obtuse counter melodies to the implied central melody.

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At times the bass melody gives the impression that it knows in advance the harmonic changes to come and is playing through them irreverently while offering comment on the guitarists’ more conventional interpretations of the same progression.And although unable to generate the same kinds of rhythmic dynamics as conventional bass parts, they nonetheless manage to create an unexpectedly high degree of rhythmic interest by producing continuous variation in the music’s rhythmic cycles from the smallest to the largest.The implied minimal divisions of the music’s pulse seem to shift continuously, and with them the optimal dancing subdivisions.Due to their oblique relationship to the perceived main melody and harmonic progression, and also to the delicacy and intricacy with which the melodic and harmonic variations are approached, Lesh’s counter-melodies sometimes sound like voices one might expect to hear as internal to a polyphonic texture rather than at its foundation.Busy and bubbly, seldom employing long rests or sustains longer than an eighth note, Lesh’s lines comprise many off-beat articulations, often making unusual choices of which off-beats to accent.“Dark Star,” a two-verse meditation based on a simple mixolydian riff and two-chord progression typical of Garcia’s style, became their most famous such piece, often stretching out for more than twenty minutes, at some points disposing of the original rhythmic, harmonic and melodic patterns altogether.[3] Several other compositions were subjected to this same treatment, in which bridges and codas could be extended, varied and distorted beyond recognition before morphing back into themselves – or into another song entirely.“(That’s It For) The Other One,” a 6/8 composition by rhythm guitarist Bob Weir but typically dominated by Lesh’s relentlessly varying, driving bass, was often used in this way, and usually began and concluded via segue to or from other pieces (including, in the early days, “Dark Star”).[4] “Becoming-other” in the Grateful Dead’s music is manifest not only in the transformations of one composition into another, but also in the ever-changing multiplicity of musical stylings within a single song, with the aim to “get inside” one another’s minds common to audience and musicians alike.James Tuedio’s discussion of the Grateful Dead’s music in terms of deterritorialized refrains, nomadic gestures, and becomings-other, ideas popularized by Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari’s conversation in A Thousand Plateaus (1987 [1980]), confirms the usefulness of these ways of conceiving its ever-changing properties (Tuedio 2010).Garcia’s interest in aleatory music, the embrace of chaos in the seeking of new kinds of musical order, is highlighted by Tuedio’s essay.Of all Garcia’s musical gestures, the invitation of intellectual trumpeter and would-be avant-garde composer Lesh to become the bassist in an ensemble performing electrified dance music from African-American and European-American folk traditions would prove to be of the greatest historical significance.The primary musical axis of bass and lead guitar melodies was an almost entirely improvised conversation begun anew at the first bar of each concert for the band’s entire thirty-year career.


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