Tag: human body

New York City Heartbeats

Shortly after moving to New York City, I went to the Village Vanguard to hear Milford Graves, Wadada Leo Smith, John Zorn, and Bill Laswell play a set of improvised music. The stories I had heard about the electricity of Graves’s drumming, and my own experience hearing Smith’s hauntingly beautiful sound at the Banff workshop, fueled my anticipation. This was going to be the first time Milford Graves and Wadada Leo Smith would perform together, and I didn’t know what to expect. John Zorn and Bill Laswell were artists that I had only listened to on recordings during my previous life in Colorado. They were abstract names and sounds that I was finally going to encounter in flesh and blood. It was one of those “this is why I moved to New York” evenings.

Milford Graves’s drum set playing captured my imagination that night. Every limb seemed to be operating within its own pulse. He was singularly maintaining frequency layers between low toms, bass drum, and cymbals while sustaining momentum and interactive ideas across simultaneously varied tempos. The result was an ambient density, a current of sound that his fellow band members could wade, traverse, and ride. I connected this experience with my limited knowledge that Graves’s work draws from natural science as a source of musical inspiration. It struck me that I was listening to a highly intentional and designed improvisation that was related to the polyrhythmic operations of our own biology. In the same manner that cycles of heartbeats interact with the cadence of our breath and the pointillism of our eyelids, Milford’s sound was functioning as a single body comprised of independent motions.

Shortly after that performance I got a call from saxophonist/composer Peyton Pleninger. “Milford Graves is having a meeting at his house and he said I could bring you,” said Peyton. I was elated and curious. What would a conversation with an artist of Milford’s stature entail? After three subway transfers and a bus ride, I arrived at Graves’s street. My excitement began to mount. Milford Graves’s house is the home of a creator. His creative mind finds expression in everything he encounters, including his living space. After passing the front gate I was greeted by a lush vegetable garden and tall bamboo trees. Consistent with his drum set playing, the design appeared intentional yet improvised: a living sculpture of green leaves, thorny flowers, and stone walkways. Mrs. Graves, whose warm smile welcomed me and assured me that I, too, belonged here, greeted me at the door and pointed me downstairs. Down in the basement I found myself in a creative laboratory. Maps of human energy systems were hanging next to jars of preserved sheep’s brain. There were books ranging from African philosophy to electrocardiogram analysis and pathways of cords running from a twin computer station to technology that I had never seen before. Staggered throughout the room were hand drums of every shape and variety.

I introduced myself to the other people sitting in the basement. I quickly discovered that this was not just a meeting of musicians but of a wide swath of creative people. There were martial artists, a biologist, an author, and an array of instrumentalists. As Mr. Graves descended the staircase, he was greeted by the gathering with, “How are you, professor?” Graves once taught at Bennington College and, among us, he retained his title. I was glad for a way to address him that acknowledged the well of experience that he might share with us. “I am interested in bringing people together from various backgrounds so that we can learn about how our ideas connect,” he said after taking a seat.[1] Then he ignited a discussion on West African dance and its relationship to cardio processes. This was as much a musical hangout as it was an exploration of the fundamentals of creativity. As I attended more meetings, Professor Graves and the other attendees showed me how to mine seemingly incongruent disciplines for universal properties. Even now, the time I spend with Graves continues to unfold numerous realizations about creativity and life. Among them is the role of biology within universal music.

respiratory sinus arrhythmia

An ECG showing respiratory sinus arrhythmia. Photo by James Heilman

The Original Source

At the core of Graves’s work is the heartbeat: the heartbeat as a source of life, a source of creative activity, and a source of music. On the surface, the heart’s cyclic thumping provides a model for ostinato and groove. Yet if we dig deeper, we discover a world comprised of tremendous variability, arrhythmia, and adaptation. Malcolm Thaler describes the natural irregularity in heartbeat pulse that occurs while breathing when he writes:

Often, the EKG will reveal a rhythm that appears in all respects to be normal sinus rhythm except that it is slightly irregular. This is called sinus arrhythmia. This is a normal phenomenon, reflecting the variation in heart rate that accompanies inspiration and expiration. The effect may be so small as to be virtually undetectable or (rarely) large enough to mimic more serious causes of an irregular heartbeat. Inspiration accelerates the heart rate, and expiration slows it down.[2]

The study of arrhythmia can inform the way we think about musical time. Biology does not function precisely, instead operating as a series of “calls and responses” between interrelated systems. Within our bodies what matters is the relationship between actions rather than their mechanical precision. The heart creates sonic events within a threshold of time that is informed by the cadence of our breath and the tempo of our blood. If we adopt this concept in music, it allows us to explore a dimension of temporal “ebb and flow,” as well as prioritize “the sounds of the moment” over abstract rules. The shape of the rhythm[3] becomes more important than the numbers surrounding it. A musician’s sound in relation to the ensemble’s sound becomes more important than where the notes land on a metronome. I believe this allowance of natural arrhythmia in our performance practice is a step towards creating music that resonates with the unconscious polyrhythms of the listener’s body.

Milford Graves highlights the distinct nature of each cardio pulse through his sonifications. A few weeks after recording the sound of my heartbeat, Graves generated a video of my heart’s electrical information, called the EKG. It was a continuum of peaks and valleys that reminded me of seismographs recording earthquake movement. Then he hit play. The graph started moving and along with it was an angular melody: pitches were sounding in tandem with the progression of the graph. They were not tuned to any formal system, instead sounding anywhere within human aural range. As my heart’s electricity spiked, frequencies sounded higher and, as they retreated, the notes descended. The pitches cascaded, increasing and decreasing in density yet never settling into a specific pulse. With each heartbeat the electricity built up and fired. The recoil was another cardio pulse. I had never experienced the relationship between electricity and sound in such detail. It was as if, in every moment, there is lighting and thunder inside of us.

Milford Graves details the heartbeat as one source among a panoply of biological sources for musical inspiration. In his essay “Music Extensions of Infinite Dimensions,” he compares the twisting motion of the heart to the earth’s Chandler Wobble, describes the atomic process of the human ear, and outlines the importance of breath in energizing creative thought. Among these ideas Graves places heartbeat studies among four “correlative ways and methods for composing and performing biological music”:

  1. Music composition based on the stages of human embryo development
  2. Rhythmolgy based on Heart Rate Variability (HRV)
  3. Space-time parameters based on human Circulation Time (CT): CT is the time for the blood to pass through a given circuit of the vascular system, e.g., the pulmonary, cerebral, or system circulation, from one arm to another, from arm to tongue, or from arm to lung.
  4. Cardiogenetics relative to harmonic-melodic dissonance and clusterization.[4]

The human body offers a reservoir of largely unexplored creative material. Music that imitates, sonifies, and draws inspiration from such a fundamental aspect of life has the potential to be both visceral and imaginative. Yet Graves’s explorations delve deeper still. His interest seems to lie more in the spiritual, mystical, and healing properties of biological vibration itself rather than compositions that use the repetitive “thump-thump” of a beating heart. Graves outlines this idea in his “Statement of Clarification” when he writes:

The primary purpose of this essay is to focus on an integrative process of how to interweave the hidden wisdom of imaginative thinking (mysticism, magic, alchemy, and the spiritual of music) with scientific methodology. This revelationary endeavor requires a certain degree of Polymathic qualities to properly understand how seemingly disparate ways of thinking are all integral members of the grand unified energy concept of cosmogenic transmutations.[5]

In the footnotes Graves defines revelationary as “a person who adopts change in his thinking and actions as a result of something unknown being revealed” and polymathic as “someone who is very knowledgeable. A secondary meaning of polymath is Renaissance Man.” Graves’s coupling of the spiritual and scientific worlds opens the floodgates of meta-creativity. The idea of unique disciplines and their identities are washed away. What is left in the wake are the pillars and foundations of biology, vibration, and creative process—building blocks that can be used to reshape thought, art, and endeavor towards a limitless horizon. Graves’s emphasis on biology is derived in part from the understanding that bodies are a fundamental aspect of every creative endeavor. From this standpoint, anyone participating in or organizing a project is making biological choices with regards to the work.

The members of a performance ensemble are the biological component of a piece of music.

The members of a performance ensemble are the biological component of a piece of music. Changing members of a band or orchestra while maintaining the same repertoire can have a dramatic effect on a composition’s sound. There is nothing new about this idea. A staple of music education is studying interpretations of the same piece by a variety of artists. An almost universal practice is composing music for specific people and creating ensembles of specific people. These decisions are so integral to music making that we take it for granted that we are essentially composing the biology that will integrate with a work.

When we design music with an understanding of biology, we further remove ourselves from static practices and embrace another fundamental aspect of creativity. In addition to precision and consistency we must also recognize the importance of adaptation, arrhythmia, and temporal thresholds within art. The critical nature of biology in music reveals another possibility: music making itself may function as an unconscious form of biological sonification. When we create layers of rhythm and pitch within a composition, are we unintentionally imitating the frequencies and relationships within our bodies? Is our perception of rhythm simply an extension of human bodies acting in tandem?[6] In many ways, the relationship between music and biology is an argument against French philosopher René Descartes’s separation of mind and body. Descartes famously argued that thinking alone is enough to prove existence.[7] This devaluation of the body is so embedded in the consciousness of Western culture that we regularly prioritize the cerebral qualities of the composer over the physical actions of the musician. Descartes’s abstraction bolsters the idea that music can exist objectively outside of biology and sound. In reality, our bodies participate in every step of music making—including the creative process itself.

Milford Graves playing Tabla with Shahzad Ismaily

Milford Graves playing Tabla with Shahzad Ismaily at Graves’s 75th birthday celebration

Connecting Every Dot

During my first year of living in New York City, I had the privilege of spending more time with Milford Graves. In addition to his Sunday gatherings and my heartbeat recording, I was fortunate enough to take a lesson from him and attend his 75th birthday celebration. His unbridled curiosity and diverse interests, combined with hard work and exploration, make him an example of meta-creativity. Professor Graves finds connections between seemingly divergent activities. In the basement of his house, he once demonstrated the digital and analog forms of sound within martial arts movements, explained the importance of cooking and flavor within storytelling, and related the opening and closing of the heart to the arm motions within a West African dance. I began to realize that the lines between creativity and learning are blurred and may be non-existent. The shared method of experimentation, feedback, and adaptation seemed to unite the two processes. Danah Zohar describes this liberated exploration as a quantum operation in her essay “Creativity and the Quantum Self.”

I believe that in the testing nature of our imaginations we are behaving exactly like quantum systems throwing out their feelers toward the future. Our capacity for creativity, I think, is linked to similar processes in the brain, and to their quantum underpinnings. The fact that we can form new concepts, new ideas, new artistic creations, new linguistic structures is all I believe founded on the essential creativity of quantum systems. It is founded on their ability to “image” different futures and on their ability to form new emergent wholes as a result of their explorations.[8]

The quantum system is a method of experiential learning. “Throwing out feelers toward the future” engages the process of experimentation, exploration, failure, and adaptation that fuels the imagination. Creativity seems to erupt from the mind’s ability to connect these inputs, establishing new mental indexes. The practice of connecting ideas becomes a learning process and an experience in and of itself, further eroding any divide between education and creativity. Albert Rothenberg, clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, describes a similar process of connecting imagined ideas, shapes, and experiences as homospatial thinking when he writes:

The homospatial process responsible for many types of creative results involves mental representations that defy or go beyond actual physical space. This process consists of actively conceiving two or more discrete entities occupying the same space or spatial location, a conception leading to the articulation of new integrations.  In conscious mental space, creators may superimpose or interpose shapes, patterns, written words, dimensions, distances, and other concrete entities.[9]

Milford Graves’s work advances both quantum and homospatial processes through his ability to pinpoint and connect the fundamental aspects of distinct activities. Graves outlines the confluence between creative thinking, imagination, biology, and temporal events in his essay “Music Extensions of Infinite Dimensions.”

All biological receptors must be fully open to receive, transport, and transmute cosmic vital energies to everything that is required to initiate the imaginary process for greater creative development. Equipolarization between creative imagination and conventional thought is the transmorphic matrix for solving problematic negative energies.[10]

In the footnotes Graves defines the transmorphic matrix as an “exchanging of scalar, real and complex events.” In this statement, biology acts as an energy conduit for creative thinking that includes both homospatial and quantum methods. This “imaginary process” forms an equal relationship to “conventional thought” through complex action in the real world. Graves’s connections between energy, creative thought, and action create a feedback loop that affects the person and larger cosmos. Yet at the core of this odyssey is human biology’s ability to “transmute cosmic vital energies,” bringing into question whether art is actually a biological transfer rather than a physical creation.

Art is not the sound of an instrument, paint on canvas, or movement on stage. Rather, art is the way our perception of an experience contributes to our learning process.

The creative process of “connecting every dot” allows for a definition of art that reaches beyond physical materials and vibrating air molecules. By this definition, art is not the sound of an instrument, paint on canvas, or movement on stage. Rather, art is the way our perception of an experience contributes to our learning process. In his book A Million Years of Music, Gary Tomlinson defines culture as “activities [and] behaviors learned in a lifetime and passed on to the next generation.”[11] Tomlinson’s definition employs audiences and artists as learners and teachers within the creative process. Culture emerges when biological forces interact and contribute to each other, allowing the artistic experience to become a medium for transformation. The physical creation that is taking place is not the sound or sculpture but the change in biology that occurs when our brain maps the sound into pitch or the light into shape.[12] Art is an input that contributes to our life’s feedback loop through its effect on our neurons and our relationship with the natural polyrhythms of our bodies.

cultural experience

This touches upon a larger point about creativity. If learning is the art experience, then the divide between education and performance that is prevalent in American society evaporates. When these hierarchies are gone, we realize that any input has the potential to be art though its effect on, and relationship to, our biology. The classroom transforms into a performance venue and the stage becomes a lecture hall. The experience of enjoyment, mental expansion, and flow state that we often associate with art may simply be indicators that we are engaged with a positive method of learning. Every learning experience harbors the potential to be an artistic one if we are willing to listen.

From the sympathetic vibrations of neurons to the bodies that inhabit an ensemble, biology is at the core of creative work. Our bodies seem to absorb experiences, react to the input, and sonify organic shapes through music. This art making becomes a platform for the transmission of ideas and behaviors from which culture blossoms. If our bodies play a role in every sound we make, how could the study of biology inform future creations? How do these ideas connect to our list of universals that encompass environment, noise, choice, communities, and genre elimination? During one of Milford Graves’s collective sessions, I briefly explained my inquiry into universal music and asked how it related to the gathering’s discussion of biology as a fundamental aspect of creativity. Instrumentalist and biochemist Shahzad Ismaily gave me a profoundly simple response: “Fundamentals are the universal. They are the same.”


1. This is how I remember Graves’s starting the discussion on that day.

2. Thaler, Malcom S. The Only EKG Book You’ll Ever Need. 8th edition. Wolters Kluwer, 2015. pp. 110

3. The idea of thinking of rhythms as shapes was introduced to me by guitarist/composer Miles Okazaki.

4. Graves, Milford. “Music Extensions of Infinite Dimensions.” Arcana V: music, magic and mysticism. Edited by John Zorn. Hips Road, 2010. pp.184-185

5. Graves, Milford. “Music Extensions of Infinite Dimensions.” pp. 174

6. Tomlinson, Gary. A Million Years of Music. Zone Books, 2015. pp. 289-290

7. Descartes, René. Discourse on Method and Related Writings. Translated by Desmond M. Clarke. Penguin Books, 2003. Pp 69-71

8. Zohar, Danah. “Creativity and the Quantum Self” Creativity, edited by John Brockman. Simon & Schuster 1993. pp. 210

9. Rothenburg, Albert. “The Homospatial Process in Creativity. Psychologytoday.com posted July, 2nd 2015. Paragraph 3. Date accessed: September, 23 2016. www.psychologytoday.com/blog/creative-explorations/201507/the-homospatial-process-in-creativity

10. Graves, Milford. “Music Extensions of Infinite Dimensions.” pp. 177

11. Tomlinson, Gary. A Million Years of Music. pp. 46

12. Levitin, Daniel J. This is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession. Plume, 2007. pp. 87-93


Teresa Louis, Matt Moore, Jayanthi Bunyan, and Meera Dugal for reading and reviewing these essays. Molly Sheridan, Frank Oteri, and NewMusicBox for giving me this opportunity and your ongoing support of the new music community. Milford Graves for supporting my creative development with his ideas, sound, and time. Brooklyn Public Libraries for providing a quiet and air conditioned space in which I could work.