Yesterday we featured UC Santa Cruz’s new Grateful Dead Archive Online. There you’ll find a wealth of materials about the band from their inception in 1965 until their disbandment in 1995. But over the past 17 years, the surviving members of the Dead have pursued all sorts of fascinating projects, musical and otherwise. Mickey Hart, the group’s drummer between 1967 and 1971 and again between 1974 to the end, has put out a particularly unusual new album that takes its basic materials from the heavens. As both a musician and musicologist, Hart has established a precedent for such sonic experiments. Crafting his 1989 album Music to Be Born By, he recorded his yet-unborn son’s heartbeat within the womb — the most natural of all percussion, you might say — and recorded tracks on top of it. For his latest record, Mysterium Tremendum, he listened not to the core of a human being but as far in the other direction from humanity as possible, collecting and composing with “cosmic sounds” made in outer space.
To make music like this, you need some unusual collaborators. Hart went to NASA, Penn State, and the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, working with scientists like George Smoot, winner of the 2006 Nobel Prize in Physics with John C. Mather. They helped convert light, radio waves, and other electromatic radiation into sound waves that Hart and his band could put to musical use. After getting a sample of the resulting extraterrestrial grooves in the videos above, you might consider listening to this recent interview with Hart on KQED’s Forum. Why go to all the trouble of sampling the billons-of-years-old sounds of the infinite universe? Because the Big Bang, Hart thinks, marked the very first beat. “Four words: it’s the rhythm, stupid,” he explains. “That’s what I always say to anyone, and myself as well. It all goes back to that. We are rhythm machines, embedded in a universe of rhythm.” Spoken like a true drummer.