Imagine capturing light and radio waves from outer space, sampling synapse firings from that inner space, your brain, and then translating it all into musical sounds.
For Mickey Hart, venturing into the sonic unknown — via a process called sonification — is just another day at the studio. And while the famous high priest of percussion sounds a bit obsessed in his enthusiasm for taking musical exploration "from the macro into the micro," he can also be refreshingly down-to-earth.
You are likely to hear all sorts of musical styles drawing from Hart's legacy with The Grateful Dead to sounds from around the planet and beyond when the master musician and his eight-piece band make a much-anticipated visit to Festival Place this weekend as part of the fourth annual Winter Roots Roundup (four drummers, guests from Ghana's African Showboyz, will make it a dozen onstage for parts of the show).
When I reached the rock drummer, global percussionist, bandleader, musicologist, self-proclaimed lifelong student, and creative visionary for an hour-long conversation from his California retreat recently, he was musing over memories of another coast. As a kid, Brooklyn-born Hart loved visiting Coney Island and other towns along the east coast. Those recollections inspired his new tune Jersey Shore, just released to benefit the victims of last October's Hurricane Sandy.
"I loved the magic of going to places like that. My grandparents used to take me there when I was young and it was such a wonderful, special place. But those people got slammed. After all the damage that's been done, they really need the help. Now they're sitting there in the middle of winter shivering. It's serious stuff. Tens of thousands of people have been affected, so this is a song about hope and survival."
(To help rebuild those communities, you can download the song Jersey Shore at mickeyhart.net/jersey. Make a donation and you'll get two hours of downloads, including a live concert with Hart's group recorded last August and tracks from the band's latest studio album Mysterium Tremendum.)
"Music is a great way of trying to help because it tells the story of who we are and what's inside us. So I tried to bring back the feeling of being by the shore, in the zone."
Hart has been looking for the zone most of his 69 years. He allows that once he started "beating on things" (only to graduate to his father's drum pads at age three), he was "probably an unsettling boy."
"I was always curious about how things moved and the rhythm of things. I loved noise and chaos, the music of nature. I loved fierce storms and I used to stand in the rain for hours letting the water play on me. Rhythm made me feel whole".
While both of his parents were drummers, they encouraged him to take up a more stable profession. But once he heard rock 'n' roll, there was no turning back. Hart laughs now to recall his first band in high school, a trio — trombone, accordion and drums.
He was 19 when his family moved to California in the early 1960s. During that tumultuous decade, the fertile vibes of the San Francisco Bay area would play a key role in realigning music culture and Hart got a wide-eyed view of the whole experience when he became the drummer for The Grateful Dead in 1967. He knew something important was happening from the beginning.
"You never saw people respond to music like that. I remember everybody was taking LSD and smoking pot, and music wasn't just entertainment anymore. It became a sacred ritual. People were trying to explore the micro, the inner music, dancing themselves into ecstatic states. It wasn't just a concert. People gave everything they had to the music and so did we."
The intoxicating spirit of Grateful Dead shows even gave rise to the Dead Heads, people who followed the band from city to city on tour. Hart chuckles to remember the craziness today. And it felt like he had become part of a much bigger musical family.
"I thought it would be wall-to-wall and it was. It was contagious. There was The (Jefferson) Airplane, Big Brother (and the Holding Company), John Fogerty, Carlos Santana and all the rest. We were all feeding off the energy of the other in a totally friendly way, helping each other to be the best that we could be. It was wild and woolly and felt great. It got civilized once a lot of people showed up to make it a business."
Hart's two stints with The Dead from 1967 to 1971, and from 1974 to the group's dissolution after Jerry Garcia's death in 1995 sometimes felt like a never-ending world tour. His interest in exotic percussion had started much earlier but when The Dead ended, he let his curiosity take the lead in exploring other musical cultures.
"Writing the books Drumming At The Edge Of Magic (1990) and Planet Drum (1991) was a real catalyst for me. I was trying to trace where the beats and the groove came from, asking 'what is this rhythm thing?' and 'how do we use it?' Because rhythmic vibration is at the basis of all life. It wasn't just about drums but that power that's innate in the vibratory world, heartbeats, pulses."
The subsequent recording Planet Drum — a collaboration between Hart, Zakir Hussain, Airto Moreira and Babatunde Olatunje— won the first Grammy Award for world music. Hart also played a key role in fostering the growth of 'world music' as a new marketing genre, though he hastens to correct that terminology today.
"When I was recording indigenous music around the world in the 1970s, you couldn't even give it away so there had to be a label to explain it. Now there is no such thing as 'world music' because that's so culturally and geographically specific. It's the world's music, and what has happened is that the world's music has fused."
His fascination for the art and spirituality of music culture eventually led him to look for answers in science, and to work with some of the top scientists in the field, including Oliver Sacks (author of The Music Never Stopped), Nobel-prize-winning astrophysicist George Smoot, and UCLA neurologist Adam Gazzaley, a partner in Hart's project of sonifying brain activity, now dubbed Rhythm Central.
You can hear the sonified sounds of outer space on Hart's latest album, Mysterium Tremendum. They are not always easy to pick out among the often dense layers of his band and adventurous upbeat grooves that take you all over the map. "We call it musica universalis and music of the whole earth. These are the echoes that helped to create us."
Seeing the band live promises to be exciting for the musicianship alone. The lineup includes Widespread Panic bassist Dave Schools, Grammy-winning percussionist and longtime bandmate Sikiru Adepoju, Tony-Award-winning vocalist Crystal Monee Hall, singer and multi-instrumentalist Joe Bagale, drummer Greg Schutte, guitarist Gawain Matthews, and keyboardist/sound engineer Jonah Sharp with Hart's bank of percussion and electronics.
Hart's friend, Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter, penned the words for most of the songs. While much of the album Mysterium Tremendum was recorded without overdubs, translating the music to live performance involved certain challenges.
"The issue was taking all of those complex systems that I use in the studio and making them roadworthy, so I could play them and have fun with the science every night. I had to imagine cool ways of manipulating this data, to have fun with it and not make it a science project."
Eventually he hopes to fully merge his sonic laboratory with the live shows.
"I'm already using brainwaves in my performance and I'll be getting into my DNA. I'm going to find out what I really sound like."
While many musicians have suggested that music is a healing force, Hart is using MRI machines on his own brain to find concrete evidence to prove that theory. "Now they call it music therapy, but once we crack the code it's going to become serious music medicine. I think this is the most exciting frontier in music in this century."
And the indefatigable drummer may be just the guy to map that frontier.
"I love to perform, to get out there and sweat and do the funky chicken, but I also want to know more. That's what art is all about, to explain the mysterious, the things we can't understand. It's an emotional thing, part of the spiritual dimension."
By - Roger Levesque