Mixed media collage by Milford Graves 1994 © courtesy Ars Nova Workshop
Jazz drummer, martial artist, radical botanist, educator and ground-breaking, self-taught cardiologist Milford Graves dedicated his life to these origins of rhythm and pulse.
“My research originates from a belief that music is a universal language, and a curiosity to define the primary building blocks of that language,” Graves explained in the notes to his recent ICA Philadelphia exhibition A Mind-Body Deal, echoing the idea that rhythmic sounding is thought to have predated verbal communication. “You can look at any culture’s approach to music and find commonalities… Exploring these universals led me to what I believe is the common denominator: the human heartbeat.”
From Yoruba rituals to Afro-Brazilian candomblé, these commonalities have been key to the creation not only of spiritual meaning but of physical well-being and even altered states of consciousness. In music therapy, drumming has been used to treat anxiety, ADHD and autism, while collective percussion exercises have been proven to increase synchronisation and cooperation between groups. On the communal dance floor, 100-120bpm are tempos at which our bodies find comfort in movement. It is also the recommended range for performing CPR, where humming The Bee Gee’s aptly titled ‘Stayin’ Alive’ is a suggested time keeper. Anyone who has listened closely to the sound of their own heart will recognise the power and vulnerability inherent in that elemental thud.