Getting to Know Don Hart: How the Symphony Orchestra World and the Phish World Collided into a Beautiful Collaboration Between Friends | JamBandsOnline.com

Getting to Know Don Hart: How the Symphony Orchestra World and the Phish World Collided into a Beautiful Collaboration Between Friends

By Lori Sky Twohy

The newest Phish album Sigma Oasis being released during our quarantine time sure was a great gift to Phish fans and the sound of this album is unlike anything Phish has ever released as far as studio recordings go. One of the reasons is the beautiful string arrangements on a few of the songs by the one and only .

You might have seen his name on the albums credits, or heard Trey bring him up on Phish radio the day he and Page took to the airwaves to talk about the new album, but his history working with Trey goes back way farther than Sigma Oasis.  He is the guy who takes Phish songs and turns them into compositions ever since 2004 when The played Music & Arts Festival. 

Don is an award-winning musician with expertise in arranging, composing, and producing music for live events, recordings, and print. His extensive list of clients, including Trey are Martina McBride, Collective Soul, Lyle Lovett, Widespread Panic, Amy Grant, Brandi Carlile, The Mavericks, Wynonna, Randy Travis, Suzy Bogguss, Sam Bush, Andy Williams, and numerous others. His arrangements and compositions have been played by orchestras across the United States including the New York Philharmonic, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the Philadelphia Orchestra, and the National Symphony Orchestra (some of these with Trey of course).

Don received a Grammy nomination in 2006 for his arrangement of “Scary Things” from the award-winning children’s album “Kid Pan Alley .” He also wrote the string arrangements on Randy Travis’ 2005 Grammy-winning album Worship and Praise. He provided the string arrangement on Martina McBride’s iconic single, “In My Daughter’s Eyes” preformed at the 2003 CMA Awards. He has also received advertising’s Clio and Gospel Music’s Dove awards.

Photo by John Williams

I met Don in 2014 after Trey had introduced him to the audience at the Hollywood Bowl symphony show. It turned out, Don and I were already Facebook friends and he knew of my photography of Phish and JBO. After getting to know him as a friend over the years, I knew I wanted to interview him about his work with Trey, but the time didn’t seem right until now. 

With all his current projects in his hometown of Nashville on hold due to Covid-19, he was more than happy to spend some time with us. 

Lori from JBO: Let’s start from the beginning? How did you end up working with Trey? I read it had something to do with one of his times at Bonnaroo and my personal favorite Phish song, “Guyute”? 

Don: I was doing a lot of work for the Nashville Chamber Orchestra at the time. This was in 2004 and I got the call to do “Guyute”. TAB was going to be playing at Bonnaroo and Trey wanted to bring in an orchestra and he wanted “Guyute” rescored. They had just released a symphonic version on his solo album, Seis De Mayo, but that orchestra would have been too large to fit on the stage. For it to work logistically, Trey asked me to pare the Seis De Mayo score down to chamber orchestra and I worked with him to get all that ready. I sent him computer mockups—mine weren’t very good at the time and still aren’t all that great. In spite of that he seemed to like what I was doing and it all worked out. One of his big motivations in doing that show was that he wanted to conduct the orchestra, which he in fact did. I don’t think he ended up enjoying it as much as thought he would (laughs) and he hasn’t done it since. But, it was an amazing experience—the biggest crowd of people I think I had ever seen as far as something I’ve been involved with.

JBO: Was it Classic TAB playing that night with just the original four or was it the full TAB with the horns?

Don: Full TAB with horns. Five horns in the section, I think. Also Cyro Baptista on percussion. The first set was Trey with the chamber orchestra; about forty pieces, and then TAB came out and did the second set. But yeah, it was so much fun. And I should also point out that at the time, the only thing I knew about Trey was he was in Phish, and the only thing I knew about Phish was the unique way they spelled their name–I hadn’t been involved with their music at all. I’m still playing catch-up with their repertoire, but it’s getting better. 

JBO: I’m sure that made the experience less intimidating and made for a more comfortable working relationship. But then again, everyone I know who’s met Trey, including myself, says he is very down to earth and comfortable to be around.

Don: Oh, very much so. You know, ‘on-stage Trey’ or ‘interview Trey’ are always what I’ve seen and experienced first hand—it’s just how he is. And he’s always great to work with. 

JBO: How did it come about that you eventually kept working together to create these amazing Trey Symphony tours that we are so blessed to get every couple of years? 

Don: So, Trey liked what I did with “Guyute” and it seemed like he was trying to figure out some other things we could work on. I did a couple of string quartet arrangements for him when he did the Tibet House benefit at Carnegie Hall in 2005, one of them being “Bar 17,” which became the title tune for the album of the same name. We did a couple of other string sessions for that album and in 2006 I conducted the strings for a Webster Hall TAB show [in New York] that was a Bar 17 release party and premiered the string arrangement I wrote for “Divided Sky”. Then a year or so later, after Trey’s personal hiatus, we started working on Time Turns Elastic and putting together an orchestra show. 

JBO: Love it! 

Don: Work on Bar 17 was disrupted at one point when Trey changed producers. The new producer took things in a different direction, cut new tracks, and only one song I had put strings on was used on the new album, which became Shine. The song with my string arrangement was “Come as Melody”. Toward the end, you can hear part of what I wrote to the original track superimposed onto the new track. Later, after he had finished working on Shine, I discovered Trey never heard the strings from our second session, so I had the engineer make rough mixes of those songs and sent them to him.

JBO: Wow! So he wasn’t there? He was in New York and the session was in Nashville?

Don: Yes—not sure why, but it was just me and the [first] producer. I think everything I sent, except “Come As Melody”, made it on Bar 17 or its bonus CD. On one of those songs in particular, “Shadow”, Trey said he made a discovery; he heard how I was answering his guitar lines with the strings and he redid the guitar so he was answering the strings with the guitar. It was bizarre, but he told me that arrangement helped him realize how interacting with an orchestra could actually work. I think that’s what confirmed the idea that we could pull off an orchestra show. 

JBO: I can see now how that would appeal to him especially with all the changes he was going through at the time while Phish was broken up. It seems like he was going back to his composing roots. He mentions in his recently released documentary, Between me and my Mind, that he always thought he’d be a classical composer and not in a rock band. It’s really innovative if you think about it. Who would have thought you could combine a symphony orchestra with rock guitar? 

Don: Yeah, and a lot of the success of that is the fact that, in his music, there are a lot of individual lines that you can grab with the orchestra.  Sometimes it’s really challenging to figure out how to make his music symphonic, but often there’s abundant material already there and it’s just a matter of assigning it to the right instruments.

Photo by Andrea Hallgren

JBO: What I like about Trey starting to do symphony with you is that it got a huge portion of the Phish community to see a symphony orchestra for maybe the first time. For me personally, “Guyute” is my favorite Phish song and it seems to be the most classically composed, which is probably why Trey started with that in the first place. It seems that a lot of Phish fans either love or dislike that song, and some who say they don’t like it, say it is because it is never really jammed out at Phish shows. I like long Phish jams just like the rest, but I love “Guyute” so much, it doesn’t really matter to me if there is a jam in it. It’s perfect all on it’s own, but I digress.

Don: What some may not know is that Trey worked on that score with Troy Peters, conductor of the Vermont Youth Symphony Orchestra at the time, and I worked directly with their score, paring it down to the smaller group needed at Bonnaroo. During the process there were times I changed things in the original, going with approaches that I had developed over my career and that I thought might make an improvement—fortunately he seemed to like everything I’d done. That reminds me—I only listened to the Seis de Mayo orchestra cut when working on that arrangement and never listened to a Phish version. Anything I write these days I almost always listen to a Phish performance. On “You Enjoy Myself” I had two different live versions and the album cut to refer to while doing the arrangement. Both live versions were around 20 minutes long and the orchestra version is about 14 minutes, I think—I had a few decisions to make. The thing I remember about writing that arrangement is worrying the whole time about the vocal jam: how does an orchestra recreate a vocal jam?

Photo by Andrea Hallgren

JBO: Wow! Well I bet. He sure challenged you there, didn’t he? 

Don: Well, you know everything has its challenge with him. First Tube, for example. He told me that the main phrase would be too typical if it had the rhythmic resolution that you think is coming, the way it’s usually heard in pop music. But he did the unexpected, extending the phrase by two beats and told me if he hadn’t made it unusual, it wouldn’t be worth doing. He is right, of course, but it’s a challenge for me to get on his wavelength. There are a lot of moments in his music that, to make them work for orchestra, have to be done with musicality and flow, with peaks and valleys so it’s interesting. For example, in his jams with the orchestra. I know I’ll be earning my keep when he says, “oh, it’s really simple—it’s just four chords”.

JBO: He makes it sound so easy, right?

Don: Yeah! It’s very simple in that respect, but to give the arrangement shape and make it fun and interesting for the musicians and the audience, I know some hard work is coming when he says something like that. 

JBO: This is so cool! I feel like I’m learning the secret family music recipe. 

Don: Yeah, it’s so much fun for me to have these challenges and make it all work for everybody. 

JBO: So speaking of Phish songs, I know that over the years, you guys have tackled a lot of them. How did the choices all evolve over time? 

Don: The first symphonic score for Trey was Time Turns Elastic, which we premiered with Orchestra Nashville (known as the Nashville Chamber Orchestra up until that concert). That was in 2008. The next spring we got set up to go to Baltimore and added First Tube and maybe one or two others. We’ve added something new each show or tour ever since.

JBO: You said you have an Orchestra Nashville/Divided Sky story?

Don:  Yeah. As I mentioned, we did “The Divided Sky” with strings at the TAB Webster Hall show in 2006 and we knew, as an arrangement, it would translate to orchestra. It was written for a string quintet, but often a quintet arrangement can be performed by string orchestra since the parts are set up the same: violin 1 and 2, viola, cello, and bass. The quintet has singles of each instrument, the orchestra multiples of each, and we knew we could program it along with the premiere of Time Turns Elastic in Nashville [Sept. ’08]. As you may remember, besides the Newport Jazz Festival the previous month, this was the first appearance Trey had made in a couple years. It was one of his first times getting back in front of people after his time off and most everyone there hadn’t seen him for at least two years. I’m pretty sure “The Divided Sky” was the first song Trey played that night and when it started, the crowd was so loud that the orchestra couldn’t hear themselves. 

JBO: Ha! Oh no?

Don: So you know, everyone on stage is playing and the crowd is cheering and finally the crowd realizes they can’t hear the music either! So they finally quieted down and resumed listening. It was kind of scary but still wonderful—at least in hindsight. They were so exuberant about hearing that music again—it was a great moment. 

JBO: It kind of makes you think; how often does an orchestra get to experience that rock star kind of a raging audience? I’m guessing that in spite of them not being able to hear, that they probably enjoyed it just a little. I’m sure Trey loved it too.

Don: Yeah, and another similar experience to that was when he came out on stage at Carnegie Hall with the New York Philharmonic in 2009. I think there was a standing ovation when the orchestra tuned, or something crazy like that. He wasn’t even on stage yet. You could see the orchestra looking around trying to figure out what they had done.

JBO: Ha! They probably mostly don’t know much about the Phish scene I bet? 

Don: Yeah! It was pretty funny. What’s very interesting to me is how in these symphony show audiences, for the most part, there’s a great combination of the normal orchestra clientele and Phish fans. 

JBO: Yeah, I noticed that at the Hollywood Bowl in 2014. It was so classy, but yet causal at the same time. Some people dressed in their finest digs, but others in tie-dyes and Birkenstocks and everything in between. It was wonderfully wild.

Don: And that actually translates over to the music, like with all the rituals that usually go on at a Phish show such as the clap during “Stash,” and the pause with cheering in “The Divided Sky”. In some places, audiences wouldn’t do it and in other places they would. Sometimes Phish fans decided they better act like orchestra patrons, and other times they don’t.

JBO: Yes! That was evident to me at the most recent Nashville Trey Symphony show in 2018 when toward the end, there were Phish fans dancing in the isles who just couldn’t sit and contain themselves anymore. 

Don: Yeah, I can tell you Trey definitely enjoys it when those things happen. 

JBO: Yeah I could see that in his facial expressions at the time. He loved it.

JBO: So now, you are also a Phish fan going to shows when they play Nashville and Bonnaroo. I love running into you and your family at shows and I have always wondered when you see Phish if you are just relaxing and enjoying the moment or are you more in your head analyzing what is being played and thinking orchestra ideas for future Trey symphony gigs? 

Don: A little bit of both. I’m always sort of on the prowl for something that will work great with an orchestra.

JBO: Right? So like you might hear a song you hadn’t heard before and then make a mental note to bring it to Trey’s attention later? 

Don: Exactly! In fact, this wasn’t from a Phish show, but after we were at Carnegie Hall I started listening to more Phish and “What’s the Use?” came up on Spotify. It sucked me in and I asked Trey about it and he said sure. Turns out it was one of the hardest arrangements I ever wrote for Trey.

JBO: Interesting. 

Don: Yeah, there was a fine line I was trying to ride—not underselling the song but also not doing too much so it was corny, or that it became a caricature of the song. It felt to me like it could go south on me if I did the wrong thing, so it was definitely a challenge. I may have been second-guessing myself too much, but I was pretty pleased with how it turned out. I love the song. 

Photo by Alan Nelson

JBO: I heard it and I think it’s great. Has there been any that you brought to him that he wasn’t interested in trying?

Don: No—he has always been open to my suggestions. Ironically, after we did “What’s the Use?” he told me he was surprised that I would pick that song, but liked the idea. But he’s usually the one who suggests the new song to work on.

JBO: How about the other way around then? Any songs that he brought to you and you were not into it?

Don: No. I usually just jump in with both feet and do the things that he wants.

JBO: Because it’s a challenge?

Don: Of course. A lot of what I do is a reaction. When I start an arrangement I try to get to the point where I have what I call a foothold on it. I’ve never climbed, but I imagine it being like climbing a mountain: once you get established in one spot, you can figure out how to get to the next. Arranging and orchestrating are much the same. If I have something worked out, like an introduction for example, I can react to it and figure out where to go from there.

JBO: That sounds just like what Phish does with each other during a show. That very much sounds like a jam band improvisational comparison.

Don: Yeah, would have to agree. Seems to me that any creative process is essentially based on improvisation. Whether happening on stage or while writing it down, the creative spark happens in the moment. There are a lot of things that come into play but that’s how I see it boiling down. 

The Lizards in Nashville, 2017

JBO: Fascinating! So let’s talk about your work on the new Phish album Sigma Oasis. What all can you tell us about your work on that? What songs did you work on? The process? And did you notice that it was the number one album on iTunes after it was released? Phish had their first number one album during a pandemic of all things. How cool is that?

Don: Right? That is so cool and well deserved. I think the album sounds great. I’ve listened a couple of times, more to certain things, and the more I listen, the more there is to get out of it. I worked on three of the songs. The way it started was that Trey got in touch with me before Christmas and sent two of the tracks. He asked me what I was thinking and if I heard strings. My basic response when anyone asks me if I hear strings is to say yes—if you want a string arrangement on something, I can hear it. The first two he sent me were “Life Beyond a Dream” and “Shade”. The thing that was great about those songs is that I was already familiar with them, having previously heard live versions, and I liked them and knew it was going to be fun to write the string arrangements. 

JBO: I honestly feel that having the strings is part of what made this album so great.

Don:  Thanks. For me, the response was great. My Twitter sort of blew up (at least for me!), so that was cool. People seem to be enjoying my work on the album, which is a really nice thing. One very nice compliment I received noted how strings are tricky and can easily become “maudlin parody.” I thanked him said in agreement that I tiptoe through emotions for a living.

JBO: I love that Don and I totally agree. But could you explain that more? 

Don: Well, there is an emotional element in music that is very important to the artist and  when doing an arrangement, I have to support that emotion and treat it very carefully. One thing I was saying to Trey was, ya know, it’s almost more work trying to figure out where not to write than where and what to write. (He said he was so happy to hear me say that!) It’s important because it’s a rock band, not an orchestra. I try to save the moments to go after and make them really mean something. You know? I pay a lot of attention to the lyric. You can enhance what’s being said by matching the emotions in the arrangement with the emotions in the lyric.

JBO: Absolutely! So they recorded their parts first and then sent the songs over to you to add to them or were you a part of the process from the beginning?

Don: Yes, they recorded their tracks first and Trey sent me the first two songs in December. After some discussion he gave me the go ahead, but a day later, on Christmas Eve, his manager called and said to hold off writing. He said Trey was still trying to figure out whether he wanted to put strings on the record and they would get back to me in a couple days. After Christmas I didn’t hear anything for a long time and thought they decided not to do it. Then on February 6th I heard they wanted to go ahead with not just the two songs, but also a third, “Leaves”. So with the go-ahead I booked 6 players for a session on February 24th. Vance Powell started mixing before we left the studio and the three arrangements are all on the new album. 

Photo by Alan Nelson

JBO: I’d love to see those songs done with a symphony orchestra. 

Don: Yeah, me too! In time I think it will happen.

JBO: Well, considering today is the day the 2020 symphony tour was officially postponed until 2021, it looks like it will be better late then never. Is there any final observation you’d like to express about your partnership/friendship with Trey that you think our readers might like to know? 

Don: First, Trey is wonderful to work with. He never lacks for an idea but is always open to my thoughts on what we’re doing. And he cares deeply about the music and how audiences will experience it. I believe that the songs he is writing right now and all that he’s currently posting on Instagram are evidence of that. Even when discussing the set list for an upcoming orchestra show, it will be one “greatest thing” today and the next “greatest thing” tomorrow—it’s so funny! It’s like he’s trying to read the minds of the audience in advance so they can have the best time possible. And I must say he’s pretty good at it.

JBO: And I hope he knows that we feel that from him as well and that’s why seeing him play is so addicting. But maybe addicting is a negative word. What else can you say about someone you like who just inspires you in such a positive way with his music?

Don: He embraces everybody. 

JBO: I know he can’t personally get to know all of his fans, but when you are lucky enough to run into him walking down the street in New York or outside a venue or back stage, he spends some real time with you. Even if there’s many fans around, he will take time to talk to each person individually that approaches him and treat you like you are the only person in the room. He gives you his utmost attention.

Don: Oh yeah, he absolutely does and I’ve seen that a lot when working with him.

JBO: Well as we wind down, I just want to let you know (and the readers) that you are a really cool and down to earth guy too. I have wanted to interview you about working with Trey for a while, since we met years ago, but now with the success of the new Phish album, I’m so happy we were finally able to make this happen. I hope you and your family stay safe and I hope you and our readers enjoy this as much as I have. Thanks so much Don! We can’t wait for 2021 Trey Symphony tour!

Photo by Alan Nelson

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One Response to Getting to Know Don Hart: How the Symphony Orchestra World and the Phish World Collided into a Beautiful Collaboration Between Friends

  1. hartmus on May 14, 2020 at 5:23 PM

    Thanks, Lori—that was so much fun! I truly loved seeing that video of Trey conducting at Bonnaroo—brought back so many memories! I think it was part of the documentary they made that weekend and I never have seen it. Jumped out at me that two of the string players in the video also played on Sigma Oasis. – DH

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