The Greatest Story Ever Told: Mickey Hart Talks ‘Musica Universalis,’ Dead & Company And More
Mickey Hart will premiere a new composition this Friday and Saturday nights as part of a unique pair of events at the American Museum Of Natural History in New York City. The Grateful Dead and Dead & Company drummer has been tapped to curate and perform Musica Universalis: The Greatest Story Ever Told in collaboration with the museum’s Director Of Astrovisualization Carter Emmart. Hart will take eventgoers on an aural journey that dates back to the Big Bang using sounds he has been collecting for the past few decades with the help of a team of scientists. Musica Universalis will explore the role of sound in our universe.
Attendees of the event will first take part in a walk-through of Our Senses: An Immersive Experience, an exhibit at the American Museum Of Natural History that examines the role our senses play in our perception of the world around us. Hart provided a soundscape for the exhibit that incorporates music from his 2017 RAMU album. Then, Mickey will perform live in the museum’s legendary Hayden Planetarium, a room that holds special meaning for the New York City native. Carter Emmart provided original space visualizations that will be displayed in the dome while Mickey provides a live soundtrack for a journey into deep space. Hart, Emmart, neuroscientist Adam Gazzaley and Our Senses curator Rob DeSalle will end the event with a Q&A. Look for the discussion to dive into a topic the drummer has spent plenty of time and resources studying, the sonic relationship between humans and the universe they inhabit.
Mickey Hart recently talked to JamBase about the event including a role played by a famed opera singer. Hart also discussed Dead & Company’s Playing In The Sand shows in Mexico, his appreciation for band mate Oteil Burbridge and meeting some of the survivors of the horrific mass shooting in Parkland, Florida and their families.
JamBase: How did you come together with the American Museum Of Natural History for the upcoming event?
Mickey Hart: They contacted me and that’s how it started. Obviously, they knew what I was up to and that’s how it began. But the real story began when I was a kid, actually. My grandmother used to take me to the museum including the Hayden Planetarium. Once the dome worked its magic on me, I never forgot that. Going back to the Hayden now is really a treat. A great honor, I might add as well that it informed some of my notions about time and space and what was out there. Certainly, as much as you can when you’re six or seven-years-old.
JB: How have you enjoyed working with Carter Emmart on this program?
MH: He’s been a great help. He’s quite a genius in visualizing the universe.
American Museum of Natural History Director of Astrovisualization Carter Emmart
JB: What can attendees of this event expect? It will start with a walk-through of the exhibit?
MH: It’s an exhibit on the senses, so there’s going to be five rooms: pheromone, hearing, sight, touch and so forth. You go through these rooms and you experience these different senses. Then you’ll be led into the Hayden, where I will perform live Musica Universalis in the center of the dome. So it’s a combination, a synesthetic kind of experience. You’ll hear it, you’ll see it, you’ll feel it and hopefully you’ll be able to taste it.
JB: What instruments will you be using for the performance? The Beam?
MH: Yes, the Pythagorean Monochord will be the center of attraction. Pythagoras, in about 500 BC, he conjured this instrument, this long-stringed monochord. With it, he figured out the whole universe. He took a string, sounded half of it, went to the octave and the half and the seventh and so forth. He gave a numerical equation to the revolving orbs, the planets and so forth. The temperate scale came out of all that and the heavenly clockwork. He called it “the music of the spheres.” He’s the father of the science of music. So that was how the ancients looked at it and of course modern science and all the people who have studied the universe kind of corroborated what he said in 500 BC. Perhaps it was mystic flight because no one could have really heard the sonorities of the universe which he claimed he did. Yet somehow he was right.
Anything that moves has two components: it has a light and a sound. Now, radio telescopes from around the world collect those data sets from radiation coming from these epic events. So I take those data sets and I give them to Mark Ballora, a computer scientist at Penn State. He takes that radiation and changes it into sound called sonification. Then he gives it to me, I put it in my computer and I make music with it. I change its form once again, because there’s a lot of collisions up there and noise and so forth. So I take the essence of all of that and try to make musical compositions where you can actually enjoy the sounds. That’s kind of the bottom line here.
Then, of course, there’s the beautiful images of the dome, Carter’s images. A lot of it comes from NASA and organizations that specialize in mapping the universe.
JB: Does this work come out of the experiments you have been doing with Adam Gazzaley exploring rhythm and the brain?
MH: Yes, it winds up in my mind, in an M.R.I. version of my brain where I play my brainwaves. Brainwaves are electrical, so I change the electric to sound and that’s another form of sonification. It travels through time and space from 13.8 billion years ago. Well…actually not 13.8 because we don’t see that far back. We see back to what they call “cosmic background radiation,” which is 400,000 years this side of the Big Bang.
It started a long long time ago when I was a kid, looking up at the sky and wondering, “What’s it all about? How did we get here? Why are we? Where are we? Who are we? What are we made of?” I started thinking about that and then there’s the rhythmic nature of the universe which of course is the basis of all of my rhythmic-centric world. So the universe is vibrating…everything in it vibrates and so do we! We are a multi-dimensional rhythmic machine – the human body. And we’re embedded in this universe of rhythm. So this story, which I call “the greatest story ever told” is how we interact with the universe. We’re made of matter that is formed in the universe, perhaps billions of years ago. Carl Sagan would say, “we’re made of star stuff. A planet, a star that might have supernova’d billions of years ago. That carbon that was created, it might be in your cheesecake.”
After Sagan, that really made me start to think. Being a rhythmist, it was just a natural progression to understand the universe as a rhythm instrument. That’s hence the term “Musica Universalis.” That was the connection between everything in my interests and finding out the great mysteries. Probing the great mysteries of the universe and us. Because everything inside of us – the heart beating, the lungs pumping, the blood, the brain – it’s a miraculous rhythm machine, the master clock. It’s all about rhythm, the whole universe is tied together rhythmically speaking. Being a drummer, a rhythmist, it kind of fell into my comfort zone. Then, when I met Professor George Smoot, he played me soundwaves from the beginning of time and space, the beginning of our journey, and that’s what this really is. It is a journey through time and space. In 30 minutes you’ll go 13.8 billion years and hopefully I’ll bring you home safely.
JB: Are there any other musicians you’ll be sampling during the live performance?
MH: I struck up a friendship with Renée Fleming, our great soprano opera singer. She dropped in on this project. She’s part of the soundtrack to Musica Universalis. Even though she can’t be there, I’ll play her voice through RAMU which is my workstation. She’s opening in Carousel on Broadway the same night, so it would be really hard for her to be at both places.
Renée delivered a beautiful performance…angelic. She’ll be part of the music. Renée and I will do this dance for two nights – I’m very excited for her participation. I never would have thought of working with Renee or an opera singer in general. Opera is not my favorite type of music.
JB: How did you come to meet her?
MH: She came to meet me! I think she was at Fare Thee Well and she certainly was at Dead & Company. [Renée] fell in love with The Beam and all of that Rhythm Devil craziness, which was very surprising. So we became friends. She came out for a performance out here in Northern California. We were wanting to do something for a couple years now and we couldn’t find a vehicle. I wanted to keep her in her comfort zone, well not exactly, but I didn’t want her to be uncomfortable. This was perfect – putting her in deep space. She just loved it! That’s how it happened, Renée in deep space.
JB: On a different topic, how have Dead & Company’s “Drums”/”Space” excursions evolved over the past few years?
MH: It’s been a constant evolution. [Back in the ‘70s] it was tape loops and now I have a digital workstation called RAMU which can be anything at any time. It’s a real-time instrument. It allows me to play sounds from all over the universe and my pet sounds are in this computer. Anything from frogs to elephants to the sun, the moon to anything that I put in there and any combination thereof. It’s a fascinating instrument that has been developed which Bill [Kreutzmann] and I use during “Drums” and “Space.”
We never really composed that. We made a promise to each other 40 years ago that “this is just unchartered space.” We don’t want to rehearse it and not even talk about it much. It’s that place that we can go “out there” and find out what is now. How are we feeling, what we are at that particular moment. It’s just wonderful. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t work so well but it’s a great exploration for Bill and I. We just love that section. It’s not about a console, it’s a soundscape that can anywhere and usually does. It’s fun.
JB: Did you enjoy Dead & Company’s trip to Mexico for Playing In The Sand?
MH: It was very liberating, actually, being outside of the United States. It kind of cut you loose a little bit from the circuit, kind of out of the box. Playing in the tropics is different than anything else. Geographically, it worked its way on us and we had a great time. There were kids dancing in the water on the beach, feet in the sand. Everybody was smiling, it was wonderful. I hope we do it again.
JB: What has your experience been performing with Oteil Burbridge?
MH: Wow, Oteil is a maestro. He’s a genius bass player and he’s a swell guy, just a wonderful person to hang with. You couldn’t ask for more in someone who plays bass…he’s superb. It doesn’t get any better than Oteil. I just love it. Bill and I have a blast. He gives us deep groove, some place to really put your anchor down. He really listens, so he’s one of those bass players that just doesn’t play his stuff. We have conversation every night. So we’re making eye contact, audio/visual contact and we really like each other. And that helps a lot, to be able to give and take especially in an improvisational moment. Plus, [Dead & Company keyboardist] Jeff Chimenti, he’s just the best.
JB: Jeff is so underrated…
MH: He’s not underrated in my book! I look forward to his solos each night. There’s nothing to complain about with this band. [Dead & Company guitarist] John [Mayer], he just soars. He’s just so facile. And again, he’s a sweetheart, a nice fellow, we get along as good as you can. We travel well. Nobody whines, everybody’s up and everybody wants to play play play and that’s the kind of band I want to be in.
JB: One final question, Mickey. I was moved by video I saw of your meeting with the survivors from the tragic shooting in Parkland and their families. Can you tell us about that experience?
MH: Like I said to them, I can’t imagine what it must be like. I told them that millions of people are with them. You gotta get out in the streets, it’s the only way to make change and they sure as hell did it…I’ll tell you that. [Parkland survivor] Emma [Gonzalez] and all those folks down there, it’s just powerful. I can’t imagine what was going through her mind when she made time stand still during that silence. I’m in touch with them and give them my support and so forth.
Sometimes events take you to another place. The event is a catalyst to something that’s deep within you that you didn’t even know was there. Something as serious as this turned those kids into heroic figures, they’re not kids anymore. When you go through something like that you grow up real fast. And you vote, [Dead & Company guitarist] Bobby [Weir] especially mentioned to them, “go out and vote that’s the only way to get these guys out of there.” It was really funny, they said “but we’re too young to vote!” Okay, we’ll when you’re old enough go out and vote. And they’ll be old enough next year or the year after. But the only way to do this is to vote them out. You’ve got to go to the polls, you’ve got to put your name down and put some skin in the game. That was the message to them.
It was just so wonderful meeting them. They were just so lovely. Even though they were in the middle of the media circus at the time, but they were above that because they knew their mission and they went after it and they coalesced around this event. They shed some light on a serious situation with all the guns running around and all the crazies pulling triggers and destroying civilization. The right to have a gun is one thing, but to give guns without background checks? While I can’t see a time when there won’t be guns, a lot can be done to rein in the horror of pulling a weapon on somebody. The Constitution says you can have guns to protect yourself, but it doesn’t say anything about what’s happening now with automatic and military-grade weapons that can be bought at local stores. That’s not the Constitution.
I have a lot of friends who have guns, but the radical rebuttal to their plea has been mind-boggling – attacking Emma and all of the spokespeople. That reptilian brain…what’s the guitar player/singer’s name?
JB: Ted Nugent?
MH: Yeah, he’s a reptile. I don’t know what to say about him. Calling them cowards and stuff? It’s things like that which just takes him right out of the picture, right out of the story. No one would ever listen to something like that.
It’s a serious situation. America is really different now in many ways. These kids are shedding some light on a story that has to be told. I feel for them because they are taking so much heat.
Mickey Hart will present Musica Universalis on Friday, April 13 and Saturday, April 14 at the American Museum Of Natural History in New York City. Tickets are available via the museum’s website. Dead & Company kicks off summer tour in Mansfield, Massachusetts on May 30.
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