25 Sep CTO Jonathan Cartu Reports – ICA shows drummer Milford Graves’ research on heartbeats
While it may seem unusual that the Institute of Contemporary Art at the University of Pennsylvania should give all of its gallery rooms to an exhibit about a musician, the life and mind of drummer Milford Graves more than fills them.
One of the rooms is crammed with sculptures made of plywood that look scientific, flickering computer screens, anatomical skeletons, and African drums. Another features Graves’ hand-painted drum kit and African-inspired garb he designed and wore for performances. Yet another is filled with video monitors running loops of footage showing Graves practicing Yara, a martial arts practice of his own invention.
Graves is known in the music world as a groundbreaking free jazz drummer. While Milford Graves: A Mind-Body Deal gives an overview of his musical career, it also presents the wide range of interests that inform his creative practice.
It all starts with the heart.
For decades Graves has been recording heartbeats for study and manipulation. The opening room of the exhibition is wired with speakers playing back computerized tones based on heart recordings.
You will not hear the familiar rhythm normally associated with the heart’s beating muscle: thump-THUMP, thump-THUMP. Rather it is the computer generated sonification of electrical impulses that make the heart beat, creating a crackling, constantly shifting sonic landscape.
“It’s the micro-rhythms, how the heart sets itself between the pulses,” said ICA curator Anthony Elms. “This is how the heart is behaving between the beats.”
Graves is known as The Professor. In the 1960s, at the same time he became known as a visionary jazz drummer with Albert Ayler and Sun Ra, he earned an associate medical degree and ran a veterinarian lab in Manhattan. Later he was hired by Bennington College in Vermont for its music faculty, a job he held for 38 years.
He would go on to win a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2000, with which he bought laboratory equipment so he could continue his heartbeat research in the basement of his home in Jamaica, Queens. In 2017, Graves earned a patent for a process he co-invented that can repair stem cells using heartbeat vibrations.
All the while he also pursued personal investigations into the healing powers of herbs and martial arts, and made those scientific looking sculptures. The ICA exhibit features material ranging from hand-painted album covers he self-released in the 1960s, to sculptures Graves had been tinkering with just last week.
“He would still be working on this if I hadn’t picked it up from his house a few days ago,” said co-curator Mark Christman, founder of the new music presenting nonprofit Ars Nova Workshop. He was pointing to an assemblage of clocks, African traditional art, anatomical models, copper tubing, and two computer monitors displaying LabVIEW, a software used in laboratories that graphically organizes research data.