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The Power of Rhythm - Milford Graves and the Universal Heartbeat

While we may recognise it most in music, the power of rhythm is all around us. That life on earth is determined by the circadian rhythms to which we respond suggests a kind of entrained flow of which we are only partially aware. Beneath the surface, the natural world is pursuing its own variations, whether in the electrical vibrations of cell organisms, the repetitive fluctuations of the brain’s neural networks, or the gentle beating of the heart.

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Milford Graves triptych, practising his martial arts in the Full Mantis pose © courtesy Jake Meginsky ‘Milford Graves Full Mantis’ film

 

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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.


 

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Exhibition image from ‘Milford Graves: A Mind-Body Deal’ exhibition organized by Mark Christman, Artistic Director, Ars Nova Workshop, with Anthony Elms, Daniel and Brett Sundheim Chief Curator,

ICA Philadelphia © courtesy Ars Nova Workshop

 

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Exhibition image from ‘Milford Graves: A Mind-Body Deal’ at the

ICA Philadelphia © courtesy Ars Nova Workshop


 

For Graves, who passed away on 12th February 2021 aged 79, to impose ‘time’ on music was to miss the point - the rhythms are all inside for you to hear.
Among the collection of anatomical sculptures, heart monitoring equipment and books on African Fractals that fill Graves’ home in Jamaica, Queens, NYC, is a drum skin with the words “drum listens to the heart” written across it. It is a mantra that defined his life’s work.
A founding member of the New York Art Quintet, Graves helped shape the jazz avant garde sound on uproarious ‘60s records like Albert Ayler’s Love Cry and Sonny Sharrock’s Black Woman, as well as his own collaborations with Don Pullen and others. Watching Graves perform, flanked by gongs and whistle in mouth, is a physical experience in itself, his drum kit not an instrument to be played, but a being to be reckoned with. One of the first to take the drum skins off the back of his kit to let the vibrations spill out freely, Graves twisted and contorted rhythms with the agility of a gymnast. Sometimes he looked as though he was drumming in conversation with something unseen, until you realise the dialogue was with his own internal nervous system.
“The heart doesn’t have the same length between each contraction and relaxation of the heartbeat,” he explained, in a telling moment of Jake Meginsky’s 2018 documentary Milford Graves: Full Mantis. “The distance between ba-dum and the next ba-dum. If they are the same, that is extremely dangerous.” 
That year, Graves was diagnosed with amyloid cardiomyopathy, also known as “stiff heart syndrome”. He was given six months to live, his heart beating with unsettling regularity, a little too much like the metronome he has spent his life defying. He refused to let it simply mark the time he had left.

 

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Milford Graves performing © courtesy Jake Meginsky ‘Milford Graves Full Mantis’ film

 

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Exhibition image from ‘Milford Graves: A Mind-Body Deal’ at the

ICA Philadelphia © courtesy Ars Nova Workshop

 


Although primarily known as a musician, Graves consistently transcended any category that might have limited his creative and imaginative potential. In fact, it was while working as a veterinarian that he first came across a 12” record of stethoscope recordings designed to help identify heart murmurs and arrhythmias.  
So began Graves’ investigation into the rhythms of the heart. Using an electronic stethoscope connected to a reel-to-reel tape machine, he recorded the heartbeats of everyone who came to his house (he accumulated over 5,000 recordings). Using cardiograms, LabVIEW technology and an array of increasingly sophisticated equipment, he was able to generate waveforms from heart sounds, sub-dividing and expanding segments to reveal the variations and oscillations buried like coded messages deep within the standard ba-dum, ba-dum, ba-dum we recognise as our pulse. 
Writing algorithms to generate data visualisations and melodic sonifications, Graves gave shape to the variable vibrations of the human heart. In 2017, he co-patented a technology that uses heart sounds to regenerate stem cells. On a microscopic level, Graves had identified a single circular breath between the heartbeat, musical rhythm and vibrating cells that form the basis of life on earth.
It was with a sense of defiance then that Graves put his research to the ultimate test; his own body the subject of his mind’s work. “It turns out, I was studying the heart to prepare for treating myself”, he told the New York Times in August 2020. In practice, this saw Graves listen to and interpret his stiffening heartbeat on a drum skin, modifying the resulting rhythms to create biofeedback loops that tied his musical spirit to his own life-giving breath. That he outlived his medical prognosis six-fold was evidence enough to Graves that he was on the right track. Inspirational to the end, in an interview in late 2020, he proclaimed, “I feel like I’m at my highest creative point I have ever been.”

 

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Exhibition image from ‘Milford Graves: A Mind-Body Deal’ at the ICA Philadelphia © courtesy Ars Nova Workshop

In everything Milford Graves did, he went “right to the source". He learned the fundamentals of kung-fu by ordering a praying mantis from a gardening catalogue, setting it free in his backyard and studying its movements first hand. Combined with Yoruba dance and the Lindy Hop, it would form the basis of his own mixed martial art, Yara, which he taught for thirty years in a self-built dojo in the same garden where the mantis once roamed free. “Yara is a Yoruba word that means to be nimble or flexible,” Graves explained in his A Mind-Body Deal exhibition. “To me it was only natural, just to flow into this type of movement, since it was part of my culture and lifestyle.” His choice of words was no co-incidence - ‘rhythm’ is derived in part from ‘rhein’, or ‘to flow’. It all springs from the same source. As jazz pianist and collaborator Jason Moran wrote in his tribute to Graves, “I understood him as a supreme nurturer… Always in style, in motion, and in deep.
“We don’t know what nature has in store for us,” Graves told Moran in November 2020. As with Yara and the cascading polyrhythms that define his drumming style, Graves always sought to respond with intuition and improvisation. His work in music, medicine and creative life should remind us to listen to the rhythms that surround and connect us a little more clearly.

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Milford Graves Middleheim Double Gong © Archival footage in the film Milford Graves Full Mantis © courtesy Jake Meginsky

 

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Exhibition image from ‘Milford Graves: A Mind-Body Deal’ at the ICA Philadelphia © courtesy Ars Nova Workshop

 

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Milford Graves Full Mantis (film still), 2018 © courtesy of Jake Meginsky