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Published: 2013/09/11

Mickey Hart at 70: Transforming Spirit Into Sound (From The Archives, 1999)

Mickey Hart turns 70 years old today. In his honor we’re going to share a few of our conversations with him from over the years, starting with this interview from 1999.

Mickey Hart is most readily recognized for his long-standing work with the Grateful Dead. However his musical efforts have not been exclusively defined by that group, as he has spanned the globe studying, performing and recording music. Over the past decade he has also published two books relating to his passion as a percussionist: Drumming at the Edge of Magic and Planet Drum. In addition, earlier this year Congress bestowed a great honor upon Mickey in appointing him to the Board of Trustees of the American Folklife Center of the Library of Congress. Most recently he has written and compiled a third book (with Fredric Liberman), a collection of writings entitled Spirit into Sound: The Magic of Music which presents a number of quotations relating to music interspersed with Mickey’s own commentary. The following conversation discussed the content of that book as well as Mickey’s work with the Folklife Center.

DB: That is quite a prestigious, important gig, serving on the board of the American Folklife Center. How much time have you spent working at the Library of Congress?

MH: Quite a bit. The library is the greatest repository of information we have in the world. It has the largest sound collection in the world and that’s my interest. So preserving and giving access to these great sonic masterpieces has been a priority for me and I’m spending quite a bit of time in Washington because there is music dating from March 15, 1890, the first field recording ever made, up to the present. Everything that’s even been published is in the library. It’s a huge repository of music. I think of it as the Oz of libraries

DB: Are you focusing on any one sound or genre?

MH: Not really, I’m concentrating on the whole collection,. trying to get it digitized and preserved. It’s fascinating work, great fun and the enormity of it is awesome, mindboggling really.

DB: Is the mission of the Center to preserve the sounds of this country or of the world?

MH: It’s the American Folklife Center but we have music from all over the world. It’s the world’s music we’re talking about because that’s our greatest treasure. In the Center we have much that it is indigenous to this country: blues, Appalachian music, native American music but it also runs the gamut from Innuit music, Siberian music, Gypsy music, to you-name-it and it’s there in the archives. What’s happening is these great collections are starting to deteriorate so we’re losing their voices and we’re not able to digitize. It’s a race against time.

DB: Is there anything the public can do?

MH: Not yet. But check out my web site, you’ll be able to chart my progress and there will be a place that people can contribute and participate to help with the digitization. A fund will be established next year where people can donate to the effort.

DB: Let’s talk about the book. When did you have that moment of epiphany which led you to realize that all these quotes could be published?

MH: I have been collecting them over the years, however my first two books were about percussion and these never really played into that. I just used them as personal inspiration. In my research, when I see a great quote I collect it. I put it away, sock it away in the Anaconda. When it got to be about five or six hundred quotes I decided I should share these with the world. I think the moment, if there was a moment, took place when I showed some of these quotes to Sammy Hagar and he just came unglued. I began faxing quotes to some of my musical friends in the morning. Well I faxed Sammy a few quotes and he just called me up and said “Oh my god these are wonderful, I just keep reading them over and over” So that was what gave me the idea that other people might be interested in them. Funny, but that is what triggered it.

DB: I’d like to read few to you and hear your thoughts. Here’s one from Iggy Pop- “The best way to kill your music is to sit down every day and work at it. You got to sneak up on it and catch it when it’s not looking.”

MH: That’s really what you have to do. Music is feeling. Once you start thinking about it then you overdevelop it. It should come from the heart, the soul, and the subconscious. It’s a jam thing. Music is all about the moment, and if you think about it then you’re already in the next moment. Good quote, good quote. Good quotes are hard to find, by the way.

DB: I’m curious about this- in the book you’ve also added some commentary as well. In one place you write that “the performer must listen to the quiet voice beneath the surface to connect to the music. The performer must listen to the hall, the audience, the instrument, and the other performers.” I’m interested in how one listens to an audience.

MH: There are three ways of listening, with the ears, with the eyes and the heart. You can make visual contact and make sure that the audience is in rhythm with the music and that gives you a synch, a connection. What you do in music is look for connections, both to the audience and to yourself, deep inside. Then there’s the aural connection- how the audience sounds. Are they festive, are they joyous, are they somber? Then there’s the one from the heart, the spiritual connection, the compassion and love you feel that’s being exchanged between the audience and the performer. These three things are the cornerstones and the building blocks of great performances both for the audience and the performer. The audience has the same connection the performer does, they’re just looking at it from different sides of the stage.

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