I think sometimes in an effort to amuse ourselves, it is very easy to lose sight of what truly inspires us to come to the circus in the first place. Even as I undertake to write about today’s subject, I am treading the border of deadly earnestness and the urge to ridicule. It’s so easy to ridicule, especially when you get to work with the kind of material I like to use. Let’s start with Mickey Hart, who could be laughed at for all the wires he hooked up to his head, and for all the drums he likes to bang on, or for his enthusiasm for music and rhythm and life. I don’t know why it is that passion is somehow fodder for ridicule, but it is. I know that for me, I am afraid of my passion, so I undermine it. I think I do that because I’m afraid to risk all that exuberance on something truly meaningful to me for fear that someone spits on it. Or worse, laughs at it. So sometimes I live a quiet life, and I invent false passions just to test the waters. And I make fun of other people to protect myself from potential attacks. So when I trot out Mickey Hart, you can be sure that I have thrown caution to the wind, and I am going to unleash.
Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart wires his brain to see the music in his head
Let’s forget for a moment that Mickey has an actual alter ego for the stage named Drumbohead, and he wears a red nose and gets near children. Let’s bypass the fact that he would insist that he learn to play ashiko, bendir, bhodran, djembe and dhol drums (my favorite) in their native habitats with only the masters. Let’s give him some latitude when he’s wiring his brain to an Imax theater so senior citizens can watch his thoughts. He’s an artist. They’re supposed to be eccentric. Let’s just allow a man to have passions without denigration, however amusing it might be.
Mickey Hart impressed me when he donned a t-shirt that said, ‘God Is Sound,’ which makes even more sense if you are a drummer, because they are really loud and make the ground shake. It is likely the first known musical instrument was the human voice, and the music created from it was linked to man’s effort to imitate the sounds of his environment—to literally sing along with life. After the voice, the clapping of hands was introduced to affirm rhythm. Music is born of the human urges to assimilate and pay homage to the whole of creation, to find its rhythm and play with it. The cultural, anthropological and spiritual significance of music is worth your awe. Drums are the oldest instruments around, dating back to about 165,000 years ago, while the flute didn’t come for over another 120,000 years. The drum, after it evolved from beating on logs with sticks and bones, became a crafted instrument where a membrane was stretched over a surface, and these were animals and round structures, suggesting both the primal and the intellectual evolution of man. The beating of drums was an expression of dominance, a means of communication, a tribal function and a shamanistic endeavor. We have killed food. We will go to war. We are dancing in our tribal village, for the mating rites of spring are upon us. A child is born. An elder has gone to the great beyond. We need magic for the harvest and hunt. Beat the drum.
It is this knowledge, more born in your blood and heart than in your mind, that Mickey Hart carries with him. The beating of a drum is a sacred and simple thing. The notion that we can tune into the pulse of life, and listen to creation, is often lost in the hook of bubble gum pop, but it does still circulates through our culture nonetheless. Mickey has decided to listen to the sounds that are around us, and the heaviest of these rhythms is the One, the sound of creation, the Big Bang. In the digital age, sound and waveforms are reduced to binary data—ones and zeros, compiled in a certain way to produce audio output. We are able to listen to the sounds of anything that can be interpreted as a data set, and Mickey Hart has taken the data from the light and electromagnetic waves in the universe that scientists know to be the echo of the Big Bang, when all of our known world was essentially puked into space from an infinite void. This sort of thing sparks in me the urge to find meaning in life, to find order and structure in enormous chaos and entropy, and to reconcile philosophically with It. When you sonify something, the resulting waveform will either be noise, or it will possess some form of musicality. The human ear is adept at finding patterns and order in sound. So, does the Big Bang have an order or pattern or melody? The Big Bang has always, thanks to people like Mickey who put odd truisms on t-shirts, called to mind the act of creation from Genesis. It was a story I made my mom tell me over and over as a child, because as I discover with my own child, we are naturally curious about the origins of our world, and we are equally baffled by its design. The idea that God spoke from the void, that he created light from darkness, that he divided the firmament, and then added earth and a dude with one missing rib—these are certainly tales that offer some attempt to explain creation and the design of creation in a way that addresses our natural inclinations to be curious about the phenomenon of our world. As I developed a taste for world religions and comparative literature, I was always struck by the similarity of these stories and beliefs. If we follow the Christian trip, the Septuagint offers the logos, or word of God as the beginning of everything. The word was made flesh and here we are, digging our internet and fighting for ideological dominance. There was once nothing but darkness and silence—and this Being spoke, or sang, or chanted Om, or busted out with some cosmic dervish dance, or beat on a cosmic hollow log with an equally cosmic stick—and all that lies before you was made real. The Big Bang is as close as scientists can come to this idea, or at least we can all be in the same neighborhood. So when Mickey Hart wants to listen to what that moment sounds like, and maybe beat his drum to that rhythm, that first beat, he isn’t someone I would make fun of for it.
The album I believe he used the sonification of creation as inspiration for was called Mysterium Tremendum, which is Latin for the tremendous mystery of life. This is the Great Mystery, the thing that inspires so much awe that we are both terrified to go close to it, and yet drawn to it like a moth to a flame. I am compelled to amplify that another reference to the mysterium is used by Carl Jung, whose seminal work about the interplay of opposites and the concept of psychic wholeness was called Mysterium Coniunctionis. His main thrust pertained to the art and science of alchemy, where for him the transformation of base metals into gold was a metaphor for the transformation of the soul to a fully actuated and individuated being. The soul struggles for oneness and identity in a world of dualism, and Jung was interested in the coniunctio, or the union of dualism and opposites. Much like the creation of opposing forces like light and darkness, heaven and earth, the psyche is best adapted when the opposing forces within us are both appreciated, incorporated. The shadow benefits from light, or bringing that which is unconscious to the light of consciousness. The logos as the sound of creation is what brought forth life, as much as it brought forth duality from a silent void. Creation brings forth the interplay of spirit and matter, and the dilemma that such a situation imposes on the soul of man is the basic foundation of the human condition. If you look at it right, that is what Hart is listening for, and he knows it. The more smutty aspect of the logos is now in common use as the identity of major corporations, but the idea is the same. Like man, corporations have a need to be associated with symbols of totality. The quest for identity is an ever pervasive phenomenon. The coniunctio, for Jung, was the marriage of opposites that form a whole. You know, like those t-shirts with the yin and yang symbol. Jung also re-coined from Heraclitus the term enantiodromia, which is the principle that an abundance of one force will tend to produce its opposite. Rich becomes poor. The sacred becomes profane. The symbol of such a concept is embodied by the ourobouros, the serpent that eats its tail. Of further interest is that Mickey Hart claimed that in the Drums sequence at any Grateful Dead concert, the entire purpose of the exercise (apart from creating space to go to the bathroom or roll a fatty) was to have the drumming encircle the arena like the ourobouros. But of course, if you are a self-respecting Deadhead, you know all this already. Coincidentally, Grateful Dead lyricist John Perry Barlow gave a Ted Talk about enantiodromia in Hamburg. The implications are vast for all sorts of things like monotheism and how we view our world, and for Barlow, how the internet is causing an enantiodromia in the way people are imbued with the right to have knowledge. The abundance of ignorance is bringing about the opportunity to disseminate knowledge, and Barlow is a digital civil rights advocate, to ensure that information is free. For me, the point is all about how life itself, the Mysterium Tremendum, begins with massive creation, but brings with it a separation from the void, creates simultaneously an innate yearning for the divine and insatiable hunger for, and aversion to the awe of all creation—the urge for oneness in a dualistic and separate-from world. But I digress. This is what happens when you stare into the mysterium. But as Barlow evangelizes, we all have a right to know.
The question as to why I would attempt to connect all of these thoughts speaks more about my passions, perhaps, than the legitimacy of my assertions. I don’t want to convey that these ideas are connected without any real foundation. They do speak to my personal trip, and my personal passions, but I do think the relevance is valid and not unreasonable. The coinciding of these ideas, and these characters, is all part of the rhythm born from that first downbeat. In alchemical terms, Jung spoke of the Opus Magnum, or the Great Work of the initiate to create the lapis lazuli, or Philosopher’s Stone (the true gold), a symbol of oneness, and a return to godhead if you will. The efforts of all the aforementioned people have actual practical application. Jung’s Analytic psychology, Barlow’s digital frontier and Hart’s experiments with rhythm all have practical, pedestrian utility. They are not just ethereal abstractions. Hart has taken the concept of sonification and the healing power of music, and put it to work against real afflictions like alzheimer’s, heart disease and other illnesses. When the mind and body is sick with ailments like depression, anxiety, disease, malaise and malignancy, it is a bad rhythm that has taken up a drum inside our souls, beating away. Hart has sonified these things and has heard the cacophony of their music, and has ideas that it might be possible to bring good rhythm to bear on the problem for healing. This is his current opus.
I digress more. We are in peril. If there is any validity to the idea of the enantiodromia, the abundance of forces are heading toward their opposite. Humanity plunges toward inhumanity. Life itself will be fine, but humanity is unconsciously hell bent on its own destruction. It is for us each to perform our own personal opus, and to do so with the intention that these works bring forth light. The sound of creation is singing, and I want to listen and dance and teach my child to hear it, too. These sounds, the ones that you can hear if you listen, can help us get back into the rhythm. Might it be possible to heal if we listen for the secret, search for the sound?