NEW YORK — “We’re gonna go back to Beat One.” That’s how percussionist, ethnomusiclogist and now science educator Mikey Hart describes the Big Bang.
Hart, the 74 year-old core member of The Grateful Dead born Michael Steven Hartman, presented a one-of-a-kind happening at the American Museum of Natural History’s Hayden Planetarium last week, and I was there to experience it. My summation: far out.
Taking imagery from the Hayden’s fabled “space shows” designed by astrovisualizer (an actual term!) Carter Emmart, Hart, equipped with instruments with such springy names as the Pythagorean Beam and the RAMU (Random Access Musical Unit), jammed with the infinite as well as the quantum. It was a reminder that this great New York museum does so much more than you may recall from hazy class trips.
As Hart had previously done on his album “Mysterium Tremendum,” he took recorded electronicmagnetic waves going back billions of years and “sonified” them. So now I know that proto-Earth smashing into cosmic debris to create the Moon has quite a groove.
The show, called “Musica Universalis” began with large celestial events (including a prediction of the eventual dance our galaxy, the Milky Way, will do with Andromeda, our nearest partner) then shrank down inside an kinetic scan of Hart’s brain. Rockin’ out to the pulses in his own head is something he did for his album “Superorganism,” even wearing a metallic skullcap on tour.
“Musica Universalis” is a term that Pythagoras, he of mid-level math classes, coined to mean the music of the spheres.
“He was the first to conjure the world in musical terms,” Hart told me in an interview prior to the performances. “He saw everything in vibration. We’re all multi-dimensional rhythm machines vibrating at high frequencies.”
Listening to Mickey Hart speak is exactly what you want it to be. It can sometimes be a bit hard to follow, but the man quite probably is a genius. He says everything with the confidence of a man who has legions of adoring fans going back five decades. (Disclosure: I’m pretty much one of them.)
Below is my edited telephone conversation with Hart before the “Musica Universalis” show, touching on a galaxy of topics.
Explain what the heck you are doing again?
We’re going from the beginning of time and space, 1.3 billion years ago, into an MRI version of my brain. Everything that moves — color, light — has a sound. What I’ve done is I’ve taken these epic events and changed the light radiation into sound, and likewise with the brain, which is electrical information. Carl Sagan would say “we’re made of star stuff.” The carbon in your cheesecake came from a supernova star exploding billions of years ago. I take that noise and try to make it into what we would call music.
Your music has definitely become more high tech over the years. I’ve seen Dead and Company [current off-shoot of the Grateful Dead] and the “Drums > Space” section has evolved. “Deadtronica,” I think is the term.
It’s also the development of RAMU, which is my workspace sound drive where I store all of my data, all my pet sounds, for scientific reasons, from the universe and the brain from, you know, whatever I consider important in sonic data. It could be rain drops, it could be music from the Cosmos, it could be storm out at sea, an elephant. It could be any combination there. Oh, so playing RAMU now has been quite a scene. It’s — hold on a second.
[As if on cue, a loud buzzing emerges from the background. I hear Mickey shout “hey! hey! cut it out!”]
RAMU’s taking over! Artificial intelligence! I work for RAMU now!
Listen, “Drums > Space” has always been completely improvised. This is one of the things [fellow Grateful Dead drummer Bill Kreutzmann] and I, a thousand years ago, we looked at each other and we said, let’s make a space where anything can happen in real time. No plan, no motives. Sometimes I bring certain sounds to different nights, but basically it’s a black hole and we’re just playing with the Universe.
Composition is one thing. This is not necessarily about composition, it is not about music, really, so much as it is about space. Sound in space, drums in space, and different shapes, different colors. It’s very synesthetic in that way. I am a little synesthetic. I see colors, uh, sometimes I can taste it. Other times I can smell it.
You have written books about ethnomusicology and your “Planet Drum” project from the early 1990s is one of the most groundbreaking works of so-called World Music. Is that versus this futuristic work something of a left brain/right brain thing for you?
It’s the same thing. Music tells our story. It’s the Talking Book. All cultures store their feelings, hopes, dreams, fears in music. And that’s a great mystery as well.
I make music. That’s what I do. I’m a student of rhythm and the world’s music. And student of the Cosmos. And a student of everything, a perennial student.
Right now there is a bit of a pushback against “cultural appropriation,” as I’m sure you are aware.
Part of it is poppycock. That’s how music will never die. Look at the big picture here. Music is a language. People from different cultures talk. I feel very fortunate that someone would be influenced by music. Now, if you take it literally without permission, then that’s one thing. Then you might call that cultural appropriation, but being influenced by other music? That’s what music is for. To speak a universal language that is not verbal.
It all depends what you do with it. If you give them credit. I’ve always been very careful about that. All the field recordings I’ve made have been iron clad, get permission. Credit is easy and they love it. When you’re in an indigenous culture and your music is being performed or played somewhere else. It’s a great up-beat. I mean, wow. “Someone takes the time and care and they are interested in our music? Our sound?” That’s a beautiful thing.
I recorded in Bali many years ago for the Library of Congress. “The Endangered Music Project.” The original recordings were called “Music of the Gods” from before World War II. The [1940s] Fahnestock expedition went over there. They recorded gamelan music of Indonesia. Then came the war which ripped those gamelans apart, you know, the brass was, became fodder and the music disappeared. Many years later I went over there to record the music and I asked this professor, “What’s your greatest examples?” And he handed me the recording that I had curated from the Library of Congress.
So, if you stay in your own music, eventually it won’t serve a purpose. You see, music has to serve a community. If it doesn’t, it dies. If the community doesn’t have a music, that community dies, it becomes bankrupt.
Look at Dead music. Look at all those people that are enjoying that moment, and they give it back to us. That’s why we are, because of them. We wouldn’t be here unless there were Deadheads, because you just can’t play the empty space. That’s how music works.
You’ve got to be very careful when you label it cultural appropriation, you know. It’s such a grand term that you have to be very careful and understand the basic tenant of what music does. Music is in miniature, what’s happening out there in the Cosmos. That’s what music really is. We are just emulating being part of that. This is the music of the spheres, which is what Pythagoras called it.
Are you bullish on the future of what, for lack of a better term, we call “Jam Bands”?
There are jam bands everywhere. Go to Egypt. Check out the Bedouins or the Asian nomads in the desert and they’ll, they’ll be out there, there’ll be playing a kind of music like we do. Within the music, there’s a jam. They’re expressing themselves in the moment.
Some musics don’t do that, but most music has a bit of it in it, the exploration of space. Jazz. We play jazz. We play it in a rock n’ roll setting, like what you call jam bands. Now, a lot of these bands just play solos over grooves and don’t really improvise. So there are variations of what you call jam bands. Musicians on the edge. On the fringe.
Are there bands out there now that get your mark of approval?
I don’t want to name any of them, because a lot of them could be the best band in the world on any given night. This reminds me of something Jerry [Garcia] once said. We were at Winterland and it was the first time Cream came to town. You know, Ginger Baker, Eric Clapton and Jack Bruce. We had just finished mixing a record, walked into Winterland and Cream was in the middle of “Toad.” It was a totally electric event. I said, “I think this is the best band in the world!” And Jerry looked at me and says, “Sometimes every band could be the best band in the world.”
You must get it all the time. “You guys never sounded better than on such-and-such a date in ’72 or ’77,” etc.
So much of it is in your perception. What state of mind you’re in. What you bring to the music is a big part of that whole experience.
And it’s that way for me, too. I was just thinking about that this morning, because we’re about to go out on tour, and how I look forward to the adventure every night. Where will we go together? And how do I prepare myself physically and mentally for that? I’m in training now, working up to the tour.
Training?! You’ve been doing this for 50 years, what’s to train??
Oh no. It takes a lot. Performance is different than sitting there playing just by yourself. That’s personal music, that’s a different kind of music. But playing with a band in front of people takes a lot of focus, a lot of concentration, so it might look easy and we’re smiling. And we are! But let me tell you, it takes months for all of us, Bob [Weir], Bill, we all work. It’s an athletic event.
We just wrapped up Passover. Does Mickey Hart have a seder?
He doesn’t, he doesn’t do seder, but he knows that it exists. And he played in Israel! They love Grateful Dead music there. My band and I went to Renée Fleming’s school in Israel where Palestinian and Israeli kids play together. I went there to play and Branford Marsalis was there at the same time. So I recognize all the Jewish holidays and they can be celebrated by the people who are religious and believe in those things. But my religion is sound. That’s what I pray to. Different thoughts, different gods.
Thanks for taking the time to speak to me today. I’ve already got tickets to see Dead and Company at CitiField in New York, and I may even schlep down to Camden, New Jersey, too.
You can imagine what a schlep it is for us.
Well, they take you directly to the stage on a nice bus, we, we’ve gotta find parking!
[Laughing] Oy vey!