During Phish’s Summer Tour, more than the music was creating a buzz among fans on Social Media. Michael Hamad’s ‘Phish Maps’, now called ‘Setlist Schematics’, represent a crossover between the music of Phish and the art of Phish fans in a unique way that has not been seen before. Using musical notation, shorthand, paper, pen and Phish, Michael has crafted some of Phish’s biggest jams, as well as some lesser known ones, into pieces of art that bring music theory to the eyes of Phish fans, digging deeper into a jam to discover what is going on in the music from an orchestration point of view.
Michael and I chatted on the phone this past Friday about his background, how these maps/schematics started, and the artistic nature of the drawings that have given him a wide audience, as well as requests for custom-made representations of certain jams throughout Phish’s history. You can follow Michael on Twitter and his work as it is updated on Tumblr. Drop him an email at SetlistSchematics (at) gmail (dot) com if you are interested in getting one of these one-of-a-kind creations custom-made.
Pete Mason: What got you into doing these Phish song maps?
Michael Hamad: I was listening to the streams all summer whenever I could get a good stream, and I’m in the habit of taking notes for myself as I listen to music. During the Tahoe Tweezer, the one that blew everybody’s mind, I wrote down what I heard, because I got a sense that something interesting was going to happen. At the end I didn’t even realize that a half hour had gone by. I took an iPhone picture of what I drew and I tweeted it, and people started sharing it all over. I called it a “road map,” because I felt like it could help people navigate through the madness.
The response was just silly, and it occurred to me that people might be interested in visual interpretations of what I heard. I did more and more as the summer went on. With each one, I refined my approach, so I think they got better and better. I discovered different types of shorthand and notation that captured more of what I heard. I kept sharing them online, and eventually, it turned into what it is now, which I’m not sure what it is.
PM: These maps seem pretty intricate for casual fan to complete. What is your musical background?
MH: I have a Ph.D in musicology and a master’s degree in music theory. I wrote an analytical dissertation on the songs of Franz Liszt. It took me six years. I was on a path to be a music professor, but I kind of veered away from the academic world. Life does that to you. I’m now a music journalist and editor in Connecticut, and I also play in bands and stuff.
What’s funny about this whole situation is that, long before I started studying music in any formal sense, Phish was the music that turned me on to more complex musical forms and improvisation. It led me to jazz and classical music. To come back to Phish after all these years with an advanced set of analytic tools is sort of a trip.
PM: What’s your method for doing these maps? Describe the setting when you get into starting one.
MH: I try to get everything in place — pens, paper, lighting, white-out, etc. — before I start, so that I don’t have to step away for any reason. Then I try to empty my mind and forget everything else. If I can prepare in that way, then the maps turn out better. It’s pretty much a one-time shot through the piece. I rarely listen to a jam or show twice. Each map represents me listening to a piece of music once and writing down what I’m hearing.
PM: How has the response been to your Phish Maps/Setlist Schematics?
MH: I can’t really believe the response. It’s been great. I’m happy with the idea that music theory and analysis would appeal to people on some level, even to people who don’t understand it. But I’m not surprised either, because this audience is among the most analytical audience for music out there. A lot of people in the Phish community listen on a deep level, so to introduce concepts of music theory into that discourse is gratifying. But I recognize that this isn’t for everybody. Some people react negatively, and that’s cool with me. This is just the way I process music. I’m not trying to suggest that this is the only valid interpretation, or means by which to interpret, Phish’s music. I could probably do a better job of explaining the symbols, for sure, so I’m happy to answer questions if people want to e-mail me out of the blue.
PM: In terms of art, how do feel that what you take from each song and put to paper becomes art?
MH: For me, the maps are functional. When I was in grad school, I used to make charts like this for myself, to help keep track of what I was hearing, to compare pieces to one another, and so on. It’s a form of shorthand. I can look at a map and trigger a memory of what I heard based on what I wrote down at the time, and I have complete faith in my hearing, that my initial impressions hold up over time. I’ve worked really hard to develop my listening skills, ever since I was a teenager, and that gives me confidence to believe what I wrote down.
That said, there are people who are attracted to the purely visual nature of the maps, and that’s cool. I can’t really define what qualifies as “art” and what does not, but people seem to dig how they look. What would really make me happy is to find out that people have tried listening along with the maps. That would be really great. But I’m also pleased with the way they look on the page. It’s hard work, and when a map is done, sometimes I’ll unfocus my eyes and stare at one for awhile, without thinking about what it represents. I’ve always been attracted to this sort of chaotic arrangement of information that still makes sense somehow.
PM: So you are selling these Maps/Schematics? How has that process worked so far?
MH: People have been writing in and requesting certain songs and shows. There’s a huge gap in my Phish listening, so when I hear something, it’s educational for me. Someone asked me to map the “Mr. Completely” sandwich from Utah in 2003. It’s like 45 minutes long, and I never heard it before. There are so many of these abstract jams that I’m discovering every day, for the first time, based on people’s suggestions. I stopped listening to the band in 1993 or so.
PM: How come?
MH: When I went to graduate school, I got heavily into classical music. It was a different time for Phish and Phish fans, you have to keep in mind. I saw them in Syracuse in 1994 after not having seen them in a year or so, and I remember thinking they had gone too far outside, that they were going too far out. That was my impression in 1994. So, I moved away from it and started I listening to other stuff.
PM: What brought you back to the music?
MH: Hampton in 2009 hit me with a big nostalgic streak. A lot of people were hurt by the breakup/hiatus, but I was relatively unaffected by it. So in 2009, I started finding my way back to Phish and found there was a lot of great music there. So the music from 1994 to today is new to me, and it’s a pleasure. It’s surprising — or maybe not, actually — how innovative they were in the ’90s. I’m looking forward to hearing Niagara Falls 1995 because it just sounds like a ridiculously good show.