Several species of archetypal moments characterize the careers of popular artists who enjoy critical acclaim. Moments of drama are often the most well-remembered—superlative achievements, apical performances, disparaging disappointments, sudden tragedies—yet other salient moments in the same careers beg a more nuanced reading. Characteristically, these instances are understated and peripheral, perhaps even barely-noticed, but nonetheless they are unique moments that provide vantage points from which the curvature of an artist’s entire trajectory can be observed. On September 12th, Ernest Joseph Anastasio III—Trey, colloquially—took the stage at Carnegie Hall, in his debut with the New York Philharmonic and a unique expression of retrospection and foreshadowing.
The origins of Anastasio’s celebrity are distinct from those of any other individual featured during a typical concert for orchestra or the venue. Since 1983, he has led the seminal rock and roll band Phish, establishing himself as one of the most virtuosic and original guitar players of his generation. The past year has marked an important turn for Anastasio, however, culminating in Phish’s March 2009 reunion and the composition and release of this evening’s featured piece, “Time Turns Elastic.”
Anastasio studied composition at Goddard College under composer/arranger Ernie Stires and forged a sensibility informed by a dialog between popular music and classical techniques. Phish, then, provided the vehicle for musical experiments from investing a rock song with fugal structure to developing songs around an episodic form—a classical mode of development by which a piece evolves linearly through related musical ideas, retaining the essential germ while introducing new permutations of the original theme. This highly articulated sense of design and use of complex harmony lends the music to symphonic rearrangement, and the transformations of Anastasio’s compositions felt perfectly fit-to-form.
The program drew from canonical Phish works in a performance that surveyed both Anastasio’s oeuvre and his current psychological landscape. Selections from the band’s early career—”You Enjoy Myself” and “The Divided Sky”—captured the ecstatic ambition of a younger artist and the hidden muscle bound within their intricate, reflexive structures. Anastasio also gave pause to a more austere expression of his songwriting talents, gilding gentle compositions including “The Inlaw Josie Wales” and “Brian and Robert” with dexterous orchestral touches and the drama of a nearly-silent moment in Carnegie Hall, when nothing was stirring but an acoustic guitar and his storyteller’s voice.
“Time Turns Elastic” itself was composed by Anastasio in collaboration with Orchestra Nashville conductor and arranger Don Hart, and was premiered with that orchestra in September 2008—a milestone which, from the current vantage, neatly marks the beginning of a new curvature whose direction is just now stabilizing for Anastasio. This piece itself is a vigorous and torqued plunge through an extended episodic form whose nested sections and musical digressions capture the titular aura with emotiveness and precision. The piece was written with the seemingly-awkward combination of symphony and electric guitar in mind, yet it is dramatically climactic and lacks the sense of restraint or forced conformity that occasionally describes the experience of hearing verbatim Phish guitar parts superimposed over orchestral arrangements. The work’s greatest strength lies in the elastic ambiguity of defining whether classical form is the glass through which rock ideas are being abstracted, or the inverse.
Triumphantly, the Carnegie performance positioned many disparate-seeming pieces of Trey Anastasio’s striking career in coherent relation to one another, forming a dramatic portrait of a strong artist pushing forward. It was a tremendous delight to see him once again standing self-assured at the helm to chart a course forward, the leader of one of today’s most significant musical groups and an original force in contemporary composition.