Mickey Hart’s Journey from Pygmies to the Cosmos

Mickey Hart

To the casual music fan, Mickey Hart is one half of the Grateful Dead drumming tandem that’s rounded out by musical partner Bill Kreutzmann. To those in the know, Hart is a dedicated musicologist who has written books on the subject and once served for a dozen years as a trustee on the board of trustees for the American Folklife Center.

Simply put, he’s one complex cat. A second-to-none multi-tasker, Hart has produced a steady stream of ambitious solo projects that include music inspired by the heartbeat of his son in utero (Music To Be Born By), a throw-down with an international array of percussionists (Global Drum Project) and what’s been described as the soundtrack for a planet (Dafos). Now comes Mysterium Tremendum, a collection of songs written around sounds from captured light, radio waves and other electromagnetic radiation emitted by celestial bodies and converted into sound waves. It’s a concept called sonification that he’s come to find enthralling.


“I started to collect them by using radio telescopes from around the world,” Hart tells the Press from his studio in California. “I took those light waves and had my associate scientists change them into our limited spectrum of hearing. Now I have it in the audible noise that could be from a pulsar, supernova or galaxy—any epic event in the universe—and I sound design it. I make it into what I, you, or people on the whole Earth, would consider music.”

“I gave [it] to Robert Hunter with the theme ‘Man of the Universe,’” he continues. “Then I had songs and I went out and found musicians… Next thing you know, we made a record.”

The respected percussionist’s love of unorthodox sounds and rhythms goes as far back as when he was keeping time for the band previously known as The Warlocks.

“When Jerry [Garcia] and I would come to New York with the Grateful Dead, we’d grab a couple of hot dogs and soda pop and just sit for hours watching jackhammers and things being destroyed with big steel wrecking balls,” he adds. “That was the edge. That was noise.”

Hart’s unquenchable thirst for global music is what he’s more known for nowadays. This obsession got its start when, as a 4- or 5-year-old, his mother was given a batch of Duke Ellington and Count Basie 78s. Among these discs were Folkways and Unesco recordings of pygmy tribes and other indigenous people’s music.

“That’s all I was listening to when I was a kid—pygmies of the rain forest,” he says. “That music allowed the walls to fade away so I wasn’t in a tiny little basement anymore. I was out there in the forest with the pygmies. And that’s what music does—it creates a virtual world.”

In retrospect Hart recalls growing up in Lawrence as a place of “a bunch of newly rich people coming out there,” gangland rivalries with Far Rockaway, pumping gas and working as a pin-setter at Falcaro’s Bowling Alley, but his fondest memories are of Arthur Jones, his music director at Lawrence High School.

“He understood what was at the heart of music and he let me stay in that band room and cut my classes,” says Hart. “If he didn’t allow me those four years to slack off on my studies, that guy from Long Island wouldn’t be working one-on-one with the Library of Congress trying to preserve the greatest music repository in the world.”

Mickey Hart will be appearing at The Paramount in Huntington on Thursday, Aug. 16 Call 631-673-7300 or visit www.paramountny.com

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