Unlike most of us, Mickey Hart spent the better part of 30 years touring the world with an iconoclastic band that influenced everything from ‘60s counterculture to the modern live music industry. Much like most of us, Mickey Hart often finds himself blown away by the incomprehensible mysteries of the universe. It would be quite the stretch to say that Hart has never merged these two facets of his character—the man has been taking Deadheads to “Space” for decades, after all—but they haven’t been integrated as smoothly as they will be when his latest creation heads to the American Museum of Natural History in New York City.
That new creation is a unique, multi-sensory experience called Musica Universalis, and Hart is bringing it to the world-renowned museum’s Hayden Planetarium on April 13th and 14th. Even labeling it as his creation is something of a misnomer, as all of the music was developed using data from the stars, planets, and other cosmic phenomena that comprise our universe. It’s also a team effort that finds the Dead & Company percussionist collaborating with Carter Emmart, the planetarium’s Director of Astrovisualization, and Dr. Adam Gazzaley, a Professor of Neurology, Physiology, and Psychology at the University of California San Francisco.
“Carl Sagan said, ‘the carbon in your cheesecake, it came from a star that exploded billions of years ago’,” Hart explains. “So this is the story behind that. This is not religion, it’s science.”
“I’m a Grateful Dead fan. I moved out to California to work at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Mountain View from 1991 to 1993, back when Jerry Garcia was still alive,” says Emmart, who developed the visual components of Music Universalis with Hart. “My favorite part of the shows was when Mickey was leading ‘Drums’ and ‘Space’, and I have a special memory of seeing him with The Beam, the monochord instrument he’s used to great aplomb going back to the soundscapes he did for Apocalypse Now. To hear him repurpose The Beam’s napalm strike for the Big Bang of the universe, I thought that was just brilliant.”
That sound—the instant that birthed the universe—is one of the only moments of total artistic license to be found in Musica Universalis. Everything else, from the drumbeats to the animated supernovae, is an audio-visual representation of data meticulously gathered by some of the world’s leading scientists. With Hart at the helm (and performing live in the center of the planetarium), the show offers a blend of creativity and scientific rigor that is sure to be as entertaining as it is informative.
Live For Live Music’s Sam D’Arcangelo caught up with Hart last week to talk about what’s in store at Musica Universalis, his fascination with the sounds of the cosmos, Dead & Company’s studio ambitions, and his recent meeting with the Parkland shooting survivors who are now at the forefront of a nationwide movement.
Mickey Hart: Where are you located?
Sam D’Arcangelo: I am down in New Orleans, Louisiana.
MH: That sounds nice. Great city. You know, I visited your jail one night down there. It was very hospitable, actually.
SD: Yeah? Better than the hotel?
MH: I go back every time I’m in town. Me and Bob do. Me and Bob go back, we all go back. Yeah, we go around the block a couple of times and have a laugh. That’s not true. I’m making that up. So what can I do for you? Where are we? We’re somewhere in space, aren’t we?
Sam: We are somewhere in space, always. A different place every second.
Mickey: That is correct.
SD: Let’s talk Musica Universalis. In many ways, you’ve been exploring the human mind for over 50 years. Do you view your work with neurologists like Dr. Gazzaley as being a continuation, maybe a natural progression, of your musical work with the Grateful Dead and other projects?
MH: Oh, it’s all an extension of everything. But Gazzaley is a scientist. We’re seat-of-the-pants, the Grateful Dead. Our music is not that kind of science, but figuring out what Grateful Dead music does and what music does to the mind, that’s universal. It’s very interesting finding out what part of the brain does what—rhythm, amplitude, and their medical values in diagnostics for dementia. All of that stuff is science.
[Video: PBS NewsHour]
MH: So Adam Gazzaley is my collaborator, and we do science on the mind. We work on rhythm and the brain in the laboratory that I share with him at the University of California San Francisco. He’ll be there at the Hayden explaining the human brain—my brain, actually. You’ll get to see my brain, and you’ll be able to fly through my brain. Well, an MRI of my brain. I won’t let you in my brain. That’s off limits, it’s just for me. But this is called “glass brain.” He took an MRI image of my brain, and this allows you to travel through it. It’s quite interesting. I take those brain waves, which are electrical, and I turn them into sound and I play them. So not only do you see the brain, but you hear the brain—my brain, my rhythms. That’s one part of it.
It really starts 13.8 billion years ago. That’s when the story starts. The story is a journey from the beginning of space and time—the moment of creation—to the brain. It travels through the Big Bang, the cosmic events, the planets being formed, and it works its way to Earth and to the mind. Then we bring you home 35 minutes later, hopefully safe, and happy that you’ve been able to explore the rhythms of the universe. It’s the story of man and the universe: how we got here, what we’re made of, and why. Because we were created by that radiation and those cosmic events. We pick that radiation up on radio telescopes. We take that data and we sonify it. We change its form from light into sound. So when we show you the moon, or the sun, or the Aurora Borealis on the screen, you’ll get to hear it as well. We play with that data to make something that’s really entertaining as well as of scientific import.
SD: I feel like we’re only just beginning to scratch the surface in our understanding of the universe and the human brain. This may sound overly simplistic since the universe is, technically, everything, but what is it about these subjects that really piques your interest?
MH: That’s a good point. It’s the great mystery, and if you’re not interested in the great mystery, you’re dead. You have to probe it. It’s always been about space. When you’re a kid, you look up there and wonder, but science is so far away. Even when you’re a kid, you don’t know anything about science. And it’s the sound of the universe.
Around 500 BC, there was a scientist, mathematician, and philosopher named Pythagoras. He pondered the universe and sound. He gave numerical equations and numbers to all the revolving orbs to try to understand the big things—how everything rotates over and over without bumping into each other, where we come from, how it got here. You know, the big mysteries. He discovered the octave. He figured out the whole universe on one string. Cut the string in half, found the octave. Cut it in half, there’s the fifth, the seventh, the third.
Then I created a monochord—an instrument, we call it The Beam—that is the instrument Pythagoras used originally. He called it the music of the spheres. So the whole universe is an instrument that is vibrating—us being a small, insignificant part. And yet, we are part of it. Once I learned there was sound connected to all of that light, that piqued my interest.
We gather light from radio telescopes—Mark Ballora, a scientist out of Penn State, gathers it and gives it to me—and I make music out of that data. The moon, you’ll hear it. The sun, you’ll hear it. And you’ll hear them as music, not as noise. There’s a lot of noise in space, but we’ll be hearing it as music. Hence the name, Music Universalis. We’re part of that universe, we’re vibrating right down to the atom. You could consider it a musical instrument played by the forces of nature. And what are these forces? There’s string theory, quantum theory, claiming multiple dimensions and multi-verses. Most of this is theory, but some of it is starting to become fact, and that interests me.
Once I found out it was sound, that clinched it. Then I met George Smoot, who won the Nobel in 2006. He’s an astrophysicist who did work on Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation, which is the furthest we’re able to see. It’s 400,000 years this side of the Big Bang. The Big Bang was 13.8 billion years ago, but we can’t see the singularity. We can’t go back that far, but we can go back to 400,000 years after that. We know what the known universe is now, and there is a sound to the Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation. So we can hear the beginning of time and space, the moment of creation of the universe. If that doesn’t challenge you, I don’t know what will.
SD: You mentioned The Beam, and I read that you would be utilizing it at the Hayden. Can you tell us a little bit about this instrument?
MH: It’s called the monochord, and it’s composed of multiple strings all tuned to the same note. It’s a drone instrument, but I’ve augmented it and it does a lot of things now. It’s the cosmic low end of the universe, which is a drone. I perform mainly on The Beam, and I also have RAMU—all of my instruments—with me. I’ll be in the center of the Hayden playing into this amazing sound system. I’ll have my fingers on the controls and you know what that means: it will be loud and low.
SD: What’s the most interesting thing that you and Dr. Gazzaley have discovered about the relationship between rhythm and the human brain?
MH: We’re now able to see what part of the brain lights up when we do different rhythms with different amplitudes and so forth. We can measure low-end frequency response in the brain and correlate it with what part of the brain it stimulates, which helps find diagnostics for dementia, Alzheimer’s, and Parkinson’s. It helps find these neural pathways that have been broken. Rhythm and sound somehow connect those neural pathways and allow synapses to trigger in the brain, so you become conscious again in some shape or form. So now we’re trying to figure out the code. What does the brain look like before, during, and after an auditory driving experience? That’s what we’re on the trail of. That’s the scientific part of this, aside from sonifying the universe and telling the story of where we came from.
[Video: Mickey Hart]
There’s a lot of astrophysicists who claim, and rightfully so, that we’re made of star stuff. We’re made of things that happened in the universe billions of years ago. All of the matter that we are—the air, the food, everything we see—is made up of elements that were created billions of years ago and that continue to resonate. Once I realized that I could hear the universe, it kind of explained a lot. Musica Universalis is entertaining for people. Maybe it lights the light in people and inspires them to investigate further and enjoy the wonders of the universe. It’s so vast. It’s beyond comprehension. The Big Bang, 13.8 billion years ago, that’s the start of the story. Musica Universalis takes you through all the epic cosmic events and then after 35 minutes you wind up in the brain. It’s a story about our connection to the universe and why we make music.
Music is vibrations, which are an essential part of life, but are also an essential part of the universe. We’re just a miniature of what’s happening in the cosmos. Music, you’ll notice, is a part of every culture. Music is culturally specific and defining. Only humans are capable of creating these complex sounds. We become human because we learn to make music. That’s another part of this that is very interesting. Hence, the universe is one giant instrument played by the forces of nature. And that’s what Musica Universalis is all about. It’s the greatest story ever told. Or it’s right up there!
SD: Might be the only story ever told, if you really get down to it. Let’s switch gears to your latest solo record, RAMU, and earlier you mentioned the instrument that is the album’s namesake. Can you explain some of the musical technology and techniques that were used in the creation of this album?
MH: RAMU is my data, my sound droid. It’s my data workstation. It’s a real-time instrument that can access data quickly and make it do whatever I want it to do. It’s years in the making, and it’s very hard to explain it, physically, unless I can show you. It’s my pet sounds, though. That’s the best way to put it. All my years of collecting sounds, they’re all in RAMU. So I can take any kind of sound, whether its frogs or the sun, and put them together and they can live with another sound. So I’m kind of birthing new sounds. It’s a new vocabulary, a new language, and it’s an instrument. You have to learn to play it, it’s not just a bunch of knobs and faders. [Laughs] It’s a very complex series of digital technology all tied together that allows me to access everything in real time. It uses a lot of computer power and it dances. It’s not static.
SD: This is what you used to create the album of the same name?
MH: Yeah! RAMU is basically the record. It’s a big part of the record. I didn’t use any bassists. Well, Oteil [Burbridge] plays on a couple of tracks, but it’s mostly The Beam playing all of the low-end stuff. And it was a huge challenge finding something that could take the place of the bass in popular Western music. The Beam is basically a drone instrument so you have to modify it big time. That was the challenge, to take the Pythagorean monochord and make popular music with it.
Mickey Hart – RAMU
SD: I wanted to ask you about some of the forward-thinking younger artists that you collaborated with on that album. You had Avey Tare from Animal Collective and Tarriona “Tank” Ball from Tank & The Bangas that really caught my eye. How did you get connected with these artists and what it like working with them?
MH: My daughter Reya, she lives in New Orleans, and she’s an authority on New Orleans and America-based music. She’s connected to the younger musicians who are up-and-coming, and Avey and Tank were just terrific to work with. They were energetic and they added amazing vocals to it. So yeah, I thought it was brilliant. They were the vocal component and they were both brilliant.
SD: Do you have any plans to tour on this album? Perhaps with a solo band?
MH: Not really. I’m off to the next thing. That’s that, and it’s a good that. I put a lot into that. But now I’m doing other things like Musica Universalis.
SD: Speaking of touring acts, you’ve been on the road with Dead & Company for the past few years. Do you guys have any plans to record new music of your own?
MH: No. Not really. We’ve talked about it, but we’re a performance band. We like performance. The Grateful Dead was the same way. It’s hard in the studio. We never made great records, really great records. There were a couple that were magnificent in their moment, as period pieces, but the magic always happened live. It was a chore in the studio. There are great studio musicians, and I appreciate that very much, but we’re not that. And it’s ok.
So I don’t know, we might wind up in the studio, but it’s so much fun playing live. I’d be hard-pressed to go into the studio, to be honest with you. I’m in a studio almost every day myself, but a band is different. It’s a different chemistry when everyone gets together in the studio as a band as opposed to individuals, where you can determine your own thing totally. When you’re in a band, there’s a lot of opinions, and that’s what gets in the way sometimes. If it works, it’s amazing. But if it doesn’t, it’s a very difficult experience.
Dead & Company – Drums – Boulder, CO – 7/3/2016
[Video: Dead & Company]
SD: Finally, this past weekend was pretty important for a lot of young people with the March for Life protest across the country. It seems like there might even be a political awakening of sorts taking place. Did you get the sense that something big was coming when you were down in Florida?
Mickey Hart: I met with them when I was down in Florida. I met with Emma [Gonzalez] and all of those folks. I was really impressed by their energy. They were, of course, just in the beginning of the media onslaught. I told them I couldn’t imagine what it must be like for them to have seen their friends shot in front of them. It was a horror they couldn’t explain, kind of like they were in shock. A certain kind of shock where they were totally conscious, but something had happened that will change their lives forever.
I told them there’s millions of people, they have to go in the streets, and they have to keep this thing going. And Bob [Weir] told them, “you have to vote.” And they were too young to vote. So we told them, “You will be old enough to vote soon, and when you are, now you know what to vote for.” And they went out and they made a big, big noise. Emma’s thing, I couldn’t believe it—I was stunned. That she could stand there for over six minutes in silence like that, it was the most powerful thing I’ve ever seen. I was just stunned. I wrote her to tell her that, to tell her how much respect I had for what she had done. She’s a real warrior. All of those kids are warriors.