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Published: 2011/09/30
by Randy Ray

Across the Universe with Mickey Hart

Photo by Kelsey Winterkorn

Let us be grateful to people who make us happy; they are the charming gardeners who make our souls blossom. – Marcel Proust

Mickey Hart’s music has been an integral part of the soundtrack of our lives for a very long time—from the Grateful Dead and beyond to his numerous projects like the Diga Rhythm Band, Planet Drum, and the Rhythm Devils. The man has not stopped creating music, and he is ready to not only take his act on the road yet again, but explore a universe or two, in the process. Hart’s current band recently played several tour dates, and they are also in the studio creating a new album, which is planned for a 2012 release. Hart is leading his band back to the sounds of the Big Bang, creating music from an ethereal place that brings together all of the elements of time and space into a sonic form.

The legendary percussionist is also set to release the Mickey Hart Collection on Smithsonian Folkways via digital and on-demand formats on October 11. The formidable collection culls 25 albums from ‘The World’ series, which was previously released under Hart’s supervision from musicians around the world, as well as his own solo albums. Whereas, the taper of live shows had a great role in exposing the Dead’s music to legions of followers, Hart was also doing his own field recordings, traveling throughout the planet, always seeking that new sonic jewel. Much of that adventurous spirit is captured on these essential albums in this timeless collection. sat down for a long and exploratory discussion about the nature of Hart’s art, his music, and views on the universe—whether they are rooted in science, or nestled within the realm of speculation based on current theoretical observations. His search for new music, rooted in a deep knowledge of what makes things tick and spin and magical, creates an infectious desire to listen to what he has to say, and join in the music, too.

PART I – Intrepid Travelers

The power of music is still young, its energy is only partly realized. – Mickey Hart, Spirit into Sound: The Magic of Music, Hart and Fredric Lieberman

RR: Let’s begin with the current configuration of the Mickey Hart Band.

MH: Over the top band. The band is electric. It’s got all the elements that I really love in the band. It listens to itself, it’s an organism that is growing constantly on the stage, and it’s becoming something that’s really vital. It’s magic and energetic and it’s new.

It’s also playing with the sounds of the cosmos. It was built for that. It’s got great new songs with lyrics from Robert Hunter. We’ve been working on this for a couple of years now, so this is not just a little work in progress; we’ve really been working at this. The people in the band have been chosen very carefully, and they are intrepid travelers. (laughter) They are very enthused. It’s the best band I’ve had in all the years.

RR: The studio work will appear on a new album that comes out in 2012. You are sampling light waves going back to the Big Bang?

MH: That’s correct. I’ve been sampling the history of the sonic universe, and sonifying them. It’s called sonification. We read these light waves, to gather them through radio telescopes, and you change them from light into sound into our spectrum of hearing, and you sound design them. You make everything nice, and get a nice little gumbo going, and then make it part of the music, so we’re dancing with the beginning of space and time, the moment of creation, the sound of that, and all the other epic events that come from the beginning of the universe—and, also, from the sun, the moon, the Earth itself, tectonic plates, and earthquakes.

Matter of fact, right now, I’m working on a wave form on this latest earthquake that just hit in Virginia, so this sonification is really becoming very important to me because it’s not just the world’s music, the music of the globe that I’m interested in, I’m interested in universal music, the music of the universe—it’s all part of the same thing; our music is just a miniature of what’s happening out there in space. So, there is a direct relation to the galaxies, the planets, to pulsars, to supernova stars, black holes, and all of the events that have occurred since the beginning of time 13.7 billion years ago. It’s a continuum, and we’re just pieces of that continuum. Much of the work I’m doing now is not sub lunar.

RR: Recently, I was listening to various tracks from all the multiple combinations of groups you have played in over the years, including a three-CD compilation that was released in the 1990s, ironically, called The Big Bang, which also featured other outstanding drummers and percussionists. But what immediately struck me about what you just said is that I feel that the thread of that sonic philosophy dating back to the Big Bang has extended out through your entire career as a musician, which emphasizes what you said earlier that this is nothing new for you.

MH: No, the only thing new about it is the instruments now that can measure the wave form. In 2006, something very important happened. George Smoot, the Nobel laureate, discovered the Big Bang, the remnants of the Big Bang. That’s how he won his Nobel. Here we have an actual time and date. When I was writing my book, we thought it was varying between 20 and 10 billion years—it was an enormous guess as far as when the Big Bang occurred and where it occurred. Now we know it occurred everywhere, and it occurred exactly 13.7 billion years ago. George measured what is called the cosmic background radiation, CBR, and that pinpointed the origin of the Bang. Actually, his readings came from 400,000 years this side of the Big Bang, so it is like the after effect of the Bang, and with that, we could calculate exactly when it did happen. He found the fluctuation in the radiation.

As I was researching my book, and I was starting to go back, half of it was me trying to investigate the origin of percussion, and going back, back, back to the Neolithic and the Paleolithic, and I found evidence, whether it be actual membranes of cylinder drums or percussion-related instruments that went back, but there was nothing before 19,000 B.C., and I realized that something must have happened before that that allowed this to happen. What could that have been? Once you start thinking about that—it had to be the beginning of space and time and the first vibrations of the universe. And what would that be? The Big Bang. There was no evidence of the Big Bang, and there were no instruments that could read that far back in time, but there were a lot of theories, so until George Smoot pinpointed, specifically, and pinned the tail on the donkey, we didn’t know exactly where it was and what it was and when it was. That’s what made everything possible, and then, I started to investigate the cosmic sounds and it took me back, back, back until I was able to translate these early universe wave forms.

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