The next Artist Interview Project installment features Mike Hamad, the artist behind Setlist Schematics. The full text of his interview with a student is below.
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.
Find more information about Mike Hamad’s Phish Maps on the Setlist Schematics Tumblr. You can also read and watch a video about his work in this New York Times article. Follow Setlist Schematics on Facebook and Twitter (@phishmaps).
Do you think the meaning of your schematics lies more in the process of creating them, or rather the finished piece? Or would you say both are equally important?
I think the idea itself – listening to music, taking in bits of information, organizing that information on paper – is more important than the finished pieces. I’m thrilled that people like them, of course, that they want prints for their walls, etc. And I did originally intend the schematics to be used as instructional materials, to follow along with and teach about Phish jams, how they work, and so on, so I do think they’re important individually, to a particular group of people. But in the grand scheme of things, I’m hoping the practice itself is a more lasting contribution to how people listen to music.
Since you’ve started creating these maps, have you noticed a change in the way you hear or listen to music?
Most definitely. I’m way more in touch with what I hear, how to describe and visualize it, how music works through space, how to describe tone colors, grooves, motivic ideas, on and on. I’ve always been proud of my ears, and I’ve worked REALLY hard to improve them. More than anything, creating maps has made me appreciate the idea that listening to music is a creative, interpretive act.
Do you decide what songs you draw, or does a song more so choose you? Is there a spark or inspiration that lures you into mapping a song, or is it something you can do with any piece of music? What about a piece of music you wouldn’t necessarily say you enjoy or find pleasing?
I’ve gone through several stages. At first, it was all about mapping music while it was happening – live, on the spot, in the moment. Between live shows, I was taking requests from people on Twitter. 99% of all the maps were pieces of music I’d never heard before; I was mapping the very first time I’d ever heard them. I went through a period where I was being commissioned to map certain Phish jams from paying customers – songs/jams that were important to someone’s boyfriend, a show where a couple first met, etc. I stopped doing that when it began to take up too much time and energy. From there, it became more about what I was interested in personally: specific time periods and tours, different bands, famous jazz recordings. I’d like to think there’s some part of the process that can be adapted for any type of music, but I haven’t tested that theory much. I’d say I don’t enjoy mapping music that I don’t find particularly exciting – part of the reason, actually, why I stopped taking requests/commissions.
After you have a completed a map, do you think it becomes its own experience independent of the song? Would you say the viewer needs to listen to the song and follow the map simultaneously to fully experience the schematic?
Yup, definitely. Each schematic represents as much about the conditions of the drawing/drawer – the width/color of the pen, the density of information, how I’m feeling that day, how distracted I am – as the music itself. Finished schematics, I think, represent just one particular experience of listening to the song; If I did each one again, they’d look entirely different from the previous versions. I’d love to think that viewers are following along while listening, because that’s what I originally intended to happen. I know that some people do. Others can’t begin to understand what the symbols mean (and I’ve so far done a pretty poor job of explaining); they like the visual nature, and maybe also that the markings mean SOMETHING.
Judging by your educational background, you clearly have a deep technical knowledge and understanding of music. I also read you are a musical and vocal artist yourself. Are your schematics created by means more calculated and intellectual, or are they a free-flow of creative impulses?
It’s funny: at first, I thought of this practice as a purely calculated/intellectual exercise. Coming from the world of academia, I’m conditioned to believe everything one writes or argues has to be absolutely scientifically sound, reproducible, peer-reviewed, and so on. But over time, I began to relax and settle into the notion that this is an expressive, creative pursuit, that I could take liberties and be experimental and psychedelic, that, in fact, the music REQUIRES that kind of approach. So, it’s a balance; nothing is superfluous, really, but I’m also not bound by what I think some fictional council of music theorists is going to question me on. Some part of me thinks THAT approach – honoring the expressive, interpretive, creative, etc. – is my actual contribution (if I’ve made one at all) to the field of music theory.
What would you consider your role to be in the Phish community? What do you want it to be?
I think my role is to be a musicologist – that is, to talk/write about the music in terms that are grounded in the language of music analysis, but also to make it accessible to people who don’t have strong music theory backgrounds – not to dumb it down, per se, but to educate/inform/entertain. I like to think I’ve taught a lot of fans about concepts like modulation (changing keys), modes, tonal centers, and so on, and that some of them are factoring in those principles as they listen to Phish’s music.
Where do your maps lead? Is there only one way to map a performance?
Hopefully the maps serve as visual reference pieces to the jams themselves, ways of keeping track over time what happened and when, how a group of pieces relate to each other in terms of what happened musically. Overall, I think they have the capacity to point to stylistic trends in how the band improvised in, say, the summer of 2013, or back in 1995 – on and on. Right now I’m working on mapping a select group of performances of the song Dark Star by the Grateful Dead, using the same density and parameters, so that at the end, you’d be able to see how the music itself transformed.
Keeping in mind certain inarguable parameters (what key a piece of music is in, what chords are used, etc.) I’d like to think there are many, MANY ways of mapping a performance. It’s all up to the designer – that’s how I think of this, really. Designing, like drawing a logo or plans for a house or something.