The next Artist Interview Project installment features Holly Bowling. The first part of this post includes a student’s reflective summary. It is followed by the full interview text.
Learn more about the Artist Interview Project course assignment in Dr. Jenkins’ introduction to the series. You can follow the Philosophy School of Phish on Facebook, Twitter (@phishedu), and the course’s public website.
In preparation for my interview with musician Holly Bowling (see fig. 1) I constructed a series of questions reflecting a mixture of our course’s themes. In this reflective analysis I will highlight a few of my favorite responses from Bowling, and evaluate each for their unique philosophical relevance to the course.
But first, some background about Bowling. Holly Bowling is a pianist and avid Phish fan. In 2013 she was at one of their shows in Lake Tahoe—a concert now famous for its performance of Tweezer (see fig. 2). The music they played that night had her “absolutely captivated.” What particularly stood out to Bowling was a thirty six minute improvisation of the song “Tweezer,” now known as the “Tahoe Tweezer.” After leaving the show she couldn’t get the performance out of her head. She “listened to it maybe three more times that night, four more times the next day on the drive home to San Francisco… and the obsession only grew from there.” Eventually her “obsession” led her to transcribe the entire performance into a solo piano composition, which has since sparked interest and admiration from many in the Phish community. Her piano composition of the Tahoe Tweezer has been released on her album, Distillation of A Dream, and shared widely across the Internet.
I was curious to know exactly what Bowling experienced that night which made such a huge impression on her. And, I wanted to know how her experience reflected some of the philosophical concepts covered in our course, in particular Nietzsche’s Dionysian state. I asked her if she could describe in greater detail what being “absolutely captivated” by the music was like for her. She said, “I’d say it’s being completely absorbed in the moment, forgetting everything else, and letting the music carry you someplace. That’s really why I go see Phish, and the feeling I get when their improvisation is really on.” Her wording here, like “being completely absorbed,” “forgetting everything else,” and “letting the music carry you someplace,” indicates a Dionysian state. For instance, in The Birth of Tragedy Nietzsche states:
The ecstasy of the Dionysian state, with its obliteration of the customary manacles and boundaries of existence, contains, of course, for as long as it lasts a lethargic element, in which everything personally experienced in the past is immersed. Because of this gulf of oblivion, the world of everyday reality and the world of Dionysian reality separate from each other (Nietzsche, sect. 7).
Another philosophic concept I saw evidence of in Bowling’s responses was Kant’s definition of the judgement of beauty in relation to the improvisational style of Phish. In section four of the Critique of Judgement Kant states:
To deem something good I must always know what sort of a thing the object is intended to be, i.e., I must have a concept of it. That is not necessary to enable me to see beauty in a thing. Flowers, free patterns, lines aimlessly intertwining—technically termed foliage—have no signification, depend upon no definite concept, and yet please. Delight in the beautiful must depend upon the reflection on an object precursory to some (not definitely determined) concept.
Important in Kant’s quotation is the idea that beauty is perceived prior to a concept about the thing being perceived as beautiful. Indeed the beauty of an object is perhaps even more striking if no concept has ever laid claim to it in one’s consciousness previously. Since improvisational music has the potential to defy the expectations of a listener through spontaneous creations, the perception of beauty upon first hearing it may enhance the ability to perceive beauty itself. “That’s the beautiful thing about improvisation,” states Bowling, “it’s there, it’s gone, the music is created in an instant, and never played the same way again.” Improvisational music thus defies our expectations of what is to come, and so slows the pace in which we can conceptualize our moment to moment experience, leaving only raw beauty to be perceived unfiltered by concepts.
Lastly, I wanted to know Bowling’s views on the nature of art; what it is, and what it’s not, for an artist. Her answers were surprisingly similar to Tolstoy’s definition of art. Bowling said, “Good art makes you feel something. Bad art doesn’t make you feel anything. Good art doesn’t necessarily make you feel good. It could be disturbing or scary or sad or joyful. Art is about connection and good art is art that makes one.” Now, compare this statement to Tolstoy when, in What is Art, he writes, “In order to correctly define art, it is necessary, first of all, to cease to consider it as a means to pleasure and to consider it as one of the conditions of human life.” Here both Bowling and Tolstoy reject a definition of art where it’s merely a source of pleasure; in fact it may even evoke states of sadness, fear, or distress. Instead Bowling proposes that, “art is about connection.” This is similar to Tolstoy’s view:
Speech, transmitting the thoughts and experiences of men, serves as a means of union among them, and art acts in a similar manner. The peculiarity of this latter means of intercourse, distinguishing it form intercourse by means of words, consists in this, that whereas by words a man transmits his thoughts to another, by means of art he transmits his feelings (Tolstoy, Ch. 5).
Both Bowling and Tolstoy are saying that the purpose of art is communion. Art communicates. It transmits feelings and makes connections through its transmissions. This is not at all unlike the connection felt by Bowling when she heard the Tahoe Tweezer for the first time.
Note: The following transcript was cut, pasted, and edited from Facebook Messenger. Student’s name has been removed for privacy.
Student: Hi Holly! Hope you’ve had a good morning! You ready to get started?
Holly: Hey hey! Ready when you are!
Student: Great! Let’s start with something easy! What made you want to transcribe the Tahoe Tweezer, in specific, into a piano composition?
Holly: Well, it didn’t really happen as something I intended to do, at first.
I went to the show in Tahoe and was absolutely captivated by the Tweezer jam that night. I think everyone there was. It was incredible. I listened to it maybe 3 more times that night, 4 more times the next day on the drive home to San Francisco… and the obsession only grew from there.
I listened to it a ton and would find myself walking around singing little bits and pieces of it that were stuck in my head. Then I started playing those little bits and pieces on the piano… and then that turned into wanting to put the pieces together. So I decided to transcribe the whole thing. I was just writing out the melody line at first but once I finished that and sat down to play it, I realized I really wanted to do it justice and needed to work it into a full piano arrangement that took all of the parts into account. So it was a gradual process that grew out of a love of the music.
Since then I’ve done other jams that I really love as well. But that one was the first one that was so spectacular it made me want to spend hours upon hours with pencil to paper J
Student: To make this easy (I never want to interrupt you) how about a code when there is a space in the conversion? How about we type PHISH when we are done?
Holly: PHISH 🙂
Student: Great! Can you describe the experience of being “captivated” in greater detail? Any unique feelings, thoughts, or physical sensations?
Holly: I’d say it’s being completely absorbed in the moment, forgetting everything else, and letting the music carry you someplace. That’s really why I go see Phish, and the feeling I get when their improvisation is really on.
But then, listening to the jam later, when I’m not present at a live performance, it’s that same feeling, but also I think a more analytical type of appreciation as well. As I listen back again and again and become more familiar with the music, I notice things I didn’t notice the first time around, and those things can be captivating too.
Student: Great answer! Leads into my next question!
Do you think anything about the “jam” experience itself is lost in a solo transcription of the song? Is there anything gained?
Holly: Well of course – they’re really different. Great question. I mean the Tahoe Tweezer is an amazing piece of music no matter what, but the fact that it was improvised rather than composed makes it even more incredible. And obviously when I transcribe a jam, there’s no improvisation at all, so that element is lost. There’s no unspoken communication happening between band members, no tossing musical ideas back and forth and playing off each other… no question of “where is this going to lead” because it’s just me playing, and I’m playing something that’s already been created, and we all know where it ends. But… I’m not trying to do what Phish does. I’m basically exploring and studying what they do, by picking apart their songwriting and their incredible improvisation. That part of the process is really interesting for me. There’s so much to learn. And then I’m putting it into another form, where I hope it gives people another angle to appreciate and understand Phish’s music from.
So I guess that’s something that’s gained. In the same way that I understand a jam or composition differently when I’ve studied it and listened to it a hundred times, picked it apart and transcribed it and arranged it for piano, and my appreciation and understanding of the music deepens through that process, I think (I hope!) that there’s something gained for the listener when they hear a jam in a new instrumentation or arrangement.
But with that said, it’s not like I set out on a mission to start transcribing and arranging phish songs and jams in order to give people a new way to appreciate the music. I was just doing it for myself, because every song and jam is a game, or a puzzle waiting to be unlocked, and I wanted to play.
I just really, really, really like their music.
Student: I certainly gained something from hearing it in a new form!
Holly: Okay I guess there’s something else
Student: Oh okay, go ahead 🙂
Holly: And this goes for just the jam transcriptions. Phish never repeats a jam. You get to hear it live once, if you’re lucky. That’s the beautiful thing about improvisation – it’s there, it’s gone, the music is created in an instant and never played the same way again. And that disappears in my arrangements. BUT… I think it’s really cool to have a live setting where people get to hear a jam they love recreated once more. Obviously it’s very different from being at a Phish show. But if a little bit of that energy from a really beautiful jam is captured and lives on and gets out there again in a room full of people who love that moment of music… I think that’s a good thing 🙂
So that goes in the “something gained” column I suppose.
BTW were you a Phish fan going into this project? Or was this your first time hearing the music, for this class?
Student: I’ve never been to a show, but I’ve listened to their albums on and off for years.
I really like them but I have always been more of a casual observer/listener.
What I have been most impressed with in this class, and learning about the Phish experience, is the level of community that is involved. I knew it was big, but hadn’t fully understood how, big and welcoming it was.
Holly: Yes!!! So glad you’ve gotten a glimpse of that! It’s amazing. It’s the most positive, welcoming, creative scene I’ve ever been a part of. People look out for each other in a way I don’t think you see very often these days. It’s so cool.
Student: Can you tell me a little about the relationship your music has to the Phish community? How it is influenced by it? Or how you envision it giving back to it?
Holly: Well, it definitely got spread around thanks to the Phish community – people are very passionate about everything Phish related and are pretty active online, and I’m not sure it would have gotten the reach it has without that. One thing that has been really cool is meeting all kinds of people I didn’t know before who are really into Phish for the same reasons I am. The Phish community has people from so many different backgrounds and fields that there’s a lot of angles of interesting musical discussions to be had. As far as giving back to the community – I’m doing my initial release of my album through PledgeMusic and a percentage of the album sales through that are going to the Mockingbird Foundation, which is a nonprofit founded by Phish fans that funds music education programs for kids. They’re really awesome and are tied in with a lot of phan events and projects. [Note: Interview was conducted before release of album, Distillation of a Dream.]
Student: That’s rad!
Holly: They’re really an amazing organization. Pretty cool that they’re fan founded and have done SO many awesome projects. Check ’em out. Very good people over there at Mockingbird!
Student: I don’t want to take too much more of your time. But I wanted to ask a somewhat abstract question.
Student: What roles do you think silence and chaos play in music at large, and in your own music?
Holly: Oh man.
That’s quite the question.
Student: Too much? 🙂
Holly: I could talk about that for a long time, but to try to sum it up –
I think a lot of what makes music work is the balance between order and chaos, and the movement between these two. It’s the tension and release. Setting up patterns of predictability, and then breaking them. Creating dissonance and then resolving it. You really need both. All chaos with no order and there’s nothing to grab onto. All order with no chaos and it’s boring and static. Same goes for silence. The notes you don’t play are as important as the ones you do and sometimes space with no sound in it at all – in one musician’s part, or in the music as a whole – can be a really powerful thing. You need both – sound, and the absence of it.
Actually if you want to talk about silence in music in the context of this project, look at the rests in the Tahoe Tweezer at the peak of the song. They’re so powerful. They’re just as integral to the signature section of the jam as the notes are. And, the rests created a space for the crowd to join the band and participate in the jam.
The jam would not be nearly as cool without the silence. You gotta play the rests! That silence is filled with intent focus from the entire crowd and the band both. Everyone is locked in. Those have gotta be some of my favorite moments of the band not playing. Epic rests!!!
Student: Speaking of that moment, did you make the unicorn animation during the “woo”s in your YouTube video?
Holly: Haha. That was my husband’s doing.
Student: Loved it!
Holly: I don’t know where he got it from but it certainly belongs at that moment in the video.
Student: Last question if you are still game? It has already gone over an hour.
Holly: If it’s quick! I do have to run… I have another interview scheduled in a few.
Student: Do you think that there is such a thing as good art versus bad art? Do you think art needs to be pleasing?
Holly: Good art makes you feel something. Bad art doesn’t make you feel anything. Good art doesn’t necessarily make you feel good. It could be disturbing or scary or sad or joyful. Art is about connection and good art is art that makes one.
Student: Great (and quick) answer!
Student: Thanks so much for your time! It’s been really fun!
Holly: Pleasure to meet you! Good luck with your class and hope you make it to a Phish show sometime!
Student: BTW I really enjoyed your version of the Tweezer!
Holly: Awesome!!! So glad to hear it. If you get deeper into Phish, check out the other jam transcriptions I did, and compare them next to the originals. Fun project! Good way to get acquainted with the band 🙂
Have a good one!
Student: Thank you! Bye!