PRINT March 2018



Jake Meginsky and Neil Young, Milford Graves Full Mantis, 2018, HD video, color, sound, 91 minutes.

IN MID-OCTOBER, the seventy-six-year-old percussionist, herbalist, scientist, and martial artist Milford Graves stood before an admiring audience at the Artist’s Institute on New York’s Upper East Side. “Well, I must say this is a new adventure for me,” he began with a buoyant smile. “It’s like I’m starting all over again.” Pointing to a sculpture across the room—a dunun-carrying skeleton swathed in a tangle of wires connected to laptops, circuit boards, and anatomical models—Graves remarked, “I’m entering a whole new era, because I’m on to my next sculpture piece now, and then another one, you know what I mean?”

Graves is best known as a pioneering free-jazz drummer who, in the 1960s, developed an astonishingly rapid and complex polyrhythmic style heard on records with Albert Ayler, Sonny Sharrock, Paul Bley, and many others. A half-century later, he’s found himself courted by visual artists, curators, and galleries. Graves played a sorcerous incarnation of Norman Mailer in Matthew Barney’s bombastic opera-film River of Fundament (2014), and he’s the subject of the new documentary feature film Milford Graves Full Mantis (2018). His multimedia practice will be a focal point of the Queens Museum’s biennial in the fall, and early next year it will be celebrated in a comprehensive retrospective organized by Anthony Elms, Mark Christman, and the Philadelphia arts organization Ars Nova.

Collage depicting Milford Graves in his dojo, Queens, New York, 1993.

To some extent, this new interest in Graves is part of a wave of art-world engagement with avant-garde jazz, evident in exhibitions such as “The Freedom Principle: Experiments in Art and Music, 1965 to Now,” at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago in 2015; Matana Roberts’s and Cecil Taylor’s recent residencies at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York (in 2015 and 2016, respectively); and Kamasi Washington’s project for the 2017 Whitney Biennial. But Graves’s practice links up with other cultural currents as well. The Artist’s Institute’s focus on his work during its fall 2017 season placed it in the context of neo-materialist philosophy and aesthetics. Rejecting firm distinctions among conscious, animate, and inanimate matter, these theories conceive the universe as a vast collection of self-organizing matter-energy flows operating at various scales. This idea resonates with Graves’s insistence that, fundamentally, music is not entertainment but research into the universal animating force of vibration. The emphasis on vibration connects the throbbing drumhead to the pulsating speaker cone, the quivering eardrum, neuronal bursts, the beating heart, and the oscillations of light, sound, and the other electromagnetic waves that engulf us. Music, then, extends far beyond auditory pleasure, engaging the concerns of cosmology, physics, chemistry, biology, and medicine. In pursuit of this grand idea, Graves has thrown himself into a massive multidisciplinary project that straddles the arts and sciences, traditional healing practices and the frontiers of cardiology and stem-cell research.

Butoh dancer Min Tinaka and Milford Graves, Hakushu, Japan, 1998.

Graves grew up in a housing project in South Jamaica, Queens, and has lived in the neighborhood his entire life. Whereas most free-jazz players came to the music through bebop, Graves arrived via Latin music, to which he was introduced by a popular radio show during the mambo boom of the ’50s. He was obsessed with drums from an early age, learning the conga from a cousin and timbales from the father of a Cuban friend. At the age of nineteen, he formed a Latin quintet that played at clubs throughout New York and Long Island, occasionally opening for luminaries such as Cal Tjader. A jam session in Boston in 1963 put him onstage with free-jazz saxophonist Giuseppi Logan, and the two hit it off. Logan introduced him to saxophonist John Tchicai and trombonist Roswell Rudd, who, astounded by Graves’s intensity and rhythmic cohesion, asked him to join the nascent New York Art Quartet.

Music, for Graves, extends far beyond auditory pleasure, engaging the concerns of cosmology, physics, chemistry, biology, and medicine.

Despite the enormous differences between Afro-Cuban music and free jazz, Graves considered them to be aligned in their refusal to relegate percussion to a merely supportive, time-keeping role. Both musics foreground drums and expect them to make tonal, timbral, and textural contributions to the overall sound. Within a few short years, critics were heralding Graves as the best of the “new thing” drummers. In 1964, he performed in the “October Revolution in Jazz,” a landmark free-jazz festival, and the following year he released Percussion Ensemble, his first record as a leader and the first in a series of solo and group percussion albums featuring Graves and fellow drummers. While touring with Ayler and gigging with Taylor and Sun Ra, he spent his days studying to become a medical technician, eventually running the lab for a Manhattan veterinarian. When the vet moved his practice to Boston, Graves accepted his friend Bill Dixon’s invitation to join the Black Music Division at Bennington College in Vermont, where he taught for the next thirty-nine years.

Milford Graves, Beyond Polymath (detail), 2017, mixed media. Installation view, Artist’s Institute.

IN THE MID-’70S, Graves picked up an LP of heartbeat recordings in the medical section of Barnes & Noble and was astonished by the similarities between cardiac arrhythmias and Afro-Cuban drumming patterns. Beyond the simple da-DUM of the heartbeat, he heard polyrhythmic pulsations, variable duration between beats, and a whole spectrum of frequencies. All this strengthened his conviction that true rhythm isn’t metronomic and that the tone of the beat is as important as its duration. He built subwoofers to amplify the cadences and used them not only to study these sounds but also to alter the bodily rhythms of his students. A Guggenheim Fellowship grant in 2000 enabled him to buy an electronic stethoscope, a computer, and a software program called LabView designed to allow engineers to visualize and measure low-frequency vibrations. Since then, Graves has assembled a vast library of heartbeat recordings, which he uses for both therapeutic and creative purposes. At the Artist’s Institute in the fall, Graves (along with bassist William Parker and guitarist Shahzad Ismaily) improvised to the amplified heartbeats of artist Nina Canell and transposed them up a few octaves to generate protean electronic melodies. Last year, Graves and an Italian molecular biologist coauthored a scientific paper on sound’s capacity to affect the vibrational signatures of stem cells.

Five stills from Jake Meginsky and Neil Young’s Milford Graves Full Mantis, 2018, HD video, color, sound, 91 minutes.

Graves’s fledgling visual art combines his wild aesthetic and philosophical sensibility with the clinical practicality of scientific demonstration. His collages are painterly hodgepodges of plants and bodily organs but also functional guides to herbal healing. The wires and tubes that link the disparate elements in Beyond Polymath, 2017, a sculpture commissioned by the Artist’s Institute, exemplify the continuity of vibration across the inanimate, biological, and technological domains. The fleshy, pumping hearts and crisp, pulsing graphics displayed on the four monitors bring this wild assemblage to life and suggest hidden, inaudible rhythms in the plastic, silicone, metallic, and wooden elements that compose it. Much of this visual art is drawn from or inspired by the visual potentials of LabView, Graves’s imaginative deployment of which recalls the creative detournement of the turntable by hip-hop DJs and discarded consumer electronics by house and techno producers.

These and other facets of this marvelously inventive artist surface in Milford Graves Full Mantis, which premiered at the International Film Festival Rotterdam in January. Directed by two experimental musicians, Jake Meginsky and Neil Young, the work is an elegant and patient portrait of Graves, filmed on location in his South Jamaica home and supplemented with archival footage, photographs, and audio recordings. Meginsky and Young move deftly among three spaces that define the basic spheres of Graves’s activity: his basement studio, packed with masks, books, musical instruments, and computer equipment; a backyard garden bursting with medicinal herbs and edible plants; and the garage where Graves teaches “yara,” a martial art he invented in the ’70s. The film’s editing style matches the alternation between tension and relaxation central to Graves’s account of the human nervous system, cutting between scorching performance footage and meditative passages in which camera and sound recorder dwell on the audiovisual delights of Graves’s fantastical world.

In a beautiful sequence that disjoins sound and image, close-up shots track the movement of light across drumheads, woofers, and flower petals as Graves explains his rhythmic philosophy and its cosmic significance. “The objective of music is to train you to understand motion, oscillations,” he muses. “The cosmos, everything we know, plants . . . everything is moving in all these different kinds of directions. . . . We’ve got so much cosmic energy going through us! And the drumming is supposed to be very related to the intake of this cosmic energy.” As Graves speaks, wavering drones and spongy electronic bass figures make these abstract principles palpable. The score here is by Meginsky, a longtime student of Graves’s who, over the past few years, has released extraordinarily mysterious and compelling electronic music of his own—compositions that, it turns out, spring from recordings of his heartbeat made in Graves’s studio. On recent releases, Meginsky juggles off-kilter patterns of undulating bass, prickly sine pulses, and shards of white noise to build rhythmic worlds of dizzying density, depth, and textural variety. These records provide a bridge between Graves’s sonic practice and contemporary electronica, particularly the syncopated, percussion-based sounds of footwork producers such as RP Boo and Jlin. In Meginsky’s music and in footwork, melody and harmony emerge from subharmonic frequencies and polyrhythms, confirming the central thesis of Graves’s art-science: that music, very literally, comes from the heart.

Christoph Cox is professor of philosophy at Hampshire College and the author of the forthcoming book Sonic Flux: Sound, Art, and Metaphysics (University of Chicago Press).