My in-laws were in town for the holidays, and while we were watching some crummy cartoon Christmas movie, the fanfare from Richard Strauss’s Also sprach Zarathustra came on for a climactic scene. “That’s from Barbie!” my niece shouted.
Well, not exactly.
Who could blame a nine-year-old for not knowing that the opening scene of the biggest movie of the year was an homage to a dorky, psychedelic film from 1968?
That tune has lived another life in the annals of a dorky, psychedelic band from the 1980s. So intertwined the famously surging tone poem is with 2001: A Space Odyssey that fans (oh okay, phans) mostly shed Strauss’s Nietzschean reverence and label the cover simply “2001.”
I have seen Phish 125 times now and written extensively about my unabashed devotion to the Vermont jam band. Not an instrumental outfit, per se, someone even marginally familiar with the group probably knows that its lifeblood is its jams—and them jams don’t have no words.
That said, most Phish songs do contain famously-mocked lyrics—”boy, man, god, shit” anyone? So “2001” is a rare staple that is wordless.
As a bit of a gag, I’ve kicked off my wordless mix by including all 13 versions of the song that I could find on Spotify. They’re all live and evocative of Strauss’s original intentions. But they all differ, ranging in length from three to nearly 25 minutes.
My favorite versions, here, are probably from Halloween ‘96 (replete with guest percussionist Karl Perazzo’s cowbell), Vegas ‘96, and Fukuoka ‘00.
In defense of listening to 13 different versions of the same song, I’ll offer this anecdote: A few weeks ago, Phish announced a run at the Sphere in Las Vegas with a video featuring some trippyass wordless music. I couldn’t put my finger on what show it was from, so I posted on the fan board Phantasy Tour inquiring. Within a minute, a fellow fan responded that it was from the song “Twist,” recorded at that very same legendary show in Fukuoka, Japan. Make fun of us all you want; Phish fans are a dedicated lot.
After the 13-song stretch, you’ll find a Strauss version recorded by Herbert von Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic. Von Karajan is my favorite conductor of classical music, if only because when my dad was in the seminary, he purchased a box set of his recordings of Beethoven’s symphonies, which I have since inherited. I have included Beethoven’s Seventh, which is currently my favorite of the nine. (It often changes.) You may recognize the second movement from yet another film, The King’s Speech.
After that, it’s more Phish! I assembled as many purely instrumental songs of theirs as I could—I am trying to be strict about that with this playlist—hopefully showing the breadth and style of the quartet’s capabilities.
Then, it’s a smattering of electronic, classical, country, metal, experimental, hip-hop, and even blues. This is the Jackson Pollock part of the playlist, sounds scattered and thrown against a canvas. I point to a few highlights:
David Michael Moore: I hadn’t heard of this multi-faceted Mississippi artist till this year, when his album, Adagio Fishing, was re-released. Recorded in 1994, it wavers from jazz to country to ambient to just really fuckin’ weird. It’s awesome; check the whole thing out.
Staying in Mississippi, I’ve become quite fond of hill country blues—especially that of R.L. Burnside and Junior Kimbrough, the latter of whom makes the playlist. Those guys do a lot of singing, much of the time, so you’ll have to dig into their catalogs outside of the wordless world.
I love Anna von Hausswolff’s dedication to bringing the pipe organ into the pop world.
Next up, I thought it was important to include William Basinski’s The Disintegration Loops in full. Not only because it’s a gorgeous composition, but because much of the sound is derived from the tape loops decaying as time mounts. That means we better have it all. (Some of you may know that the disintegration of the Twin Towers is closely associated with the recordings.)
Jazz follows. I fronted the grouping with a bunch of heavy hitters like Oscar Peterson and Ornette Coleman before moving on to some more modern takes on the genre.
In 2012, I wrote an article for Stereogum about the best instrumental music of that year. (Sneak past the paywall here.) It was fun to relive the era, and I figured I might as well put together some tracks from artists I mention in the piece, from Karriem Riggins to Sir Richard Bishop to Daphni. I forgot how much I like Lindstrøm!
Finally, beginning with Maria BC and continuing to the end of the list, I picked out some tunes from 2023.
I used to write professionally about pop music for many years. Now? I am an old, tired dad. I don’t pretend to know a whole lot about the state of, say, electronic music as we enter 2024. But I enjoyed these tracks, including those from a couple of familiar folks like Aphex Twin and Four Tet.
And, then, it’s more Phish. Just kidding.
(If you've got your own favorite wordless music to share, check out our open and public collaborative playlist. And if you want to create one of these mixes and write a blog about it, send us a note! wordlesscollective[at]gmail[dot]com.)