Finding Healing Music in the Heart
November 9, 2004 By COREY KILGANNON
Around the South Jamaica housing projects in Queens, young men with pit bulls guard street corners and rap music blares from car stereos. But one house, on 110th Avenue, seems to openly defy its gritty surroundings.
Its owner, Milford Graves, has covered it with an ornate mosaic of stones, reflective metal and hunks of discarded marble, arranged in cheery patterns. The yard is a lush garden, dense with citrus trees, herbs and exotic plants.
Mr. Graves, 63, a jazz drummer who made his mark in the 1960's with avant-garde musicians like Albert Ayler, Paul Bley and Sonny Sharrock, performs only occasionally now. He spends about half his week teaching music healing and jazz improvisation classes at Bennington College in Vermont, where he has been a professor for 31 years. He spends much of the rest of his week in his basement researching the relationship between music and the human heart.
After descending the psychedelic-painted stairway into his laboratory, visitors are faced with a collection of drums from around the world, surrounding a network of computers. Wooden African idols spiked with nails rub up against medical anatomical models. Amid a vast inventory of herbs, roots and plant extracts sits an old wooden recliner equipped with four electronic stethoscopes connected to computers displaying intricate electrocardiogram readouts.
In 1967, Mr. Graves was honored in a Down Beat magazine critics poll as the year's bright new talent. He had offers of lucrative gigs from artists like Miles Davis and the South African singer Miriam Makeba.
But after years of hard living as a jazzman, Mr. Graves began studying holistic healing, and then teaching it. He became fascinated with the effect of music on physiological functions.
"People with ailments would attend my performances and tell me they felt better afterward," he said.
Curious about the heartbeat as a primary source of rhythm, he bought an electronic stethoscope and began recording his and other musicians' heartbeats.
"I wanted to see what kind of music my heart was making," he said.
In his basement, he converted the heartbeats to a higher register and dissected them. Behind the basic binary thum-THUMP beat, he heard other rhythms - more spontaneous and complex patterns in less-regular time intervals - akin to a drummer using his four limbs independently.
"A lot of it was like free jazz," Mr. Graves said one day last week in his basement. "There were rhythms I had only heard in Cuban and Nigerian music." He demonstrated by thumping a steady bum-BUM rhythm on a conga with his right hand, while delivering with his left a series of unconnected rhythms on an hourglass-shaped talking drum.
Mr. Graves created computer programs to analyze the heart's rhythms and pitches, which are caused by muscle and valve movement. The pitches correspond to actual notes on the Western musical scale. Raised several octaves, the cardiac sounds became rather melodic.
"When I hooked up to the four chambers of the heart, it sounded like four-part harmony," Mr. Graves said.
He began composing with the sounds - both by transcribing heartbeat melodies and by using recorded fragments. He also realized he could help detect heart problems, maybe even cure them.
"A healthy heart has strong, supple walls, so the sound usually has a nice flow," he said. "You hear it and say, 'Ah, now that's hip.' But an unhealthy heart has stiff and brittle muscles. There's less compliance, and sounds can come out up to three octaves higher than normal.
"You can pinpoint things by the melody. You can hear something and say, 'Ah, sounds like a problem in the right atrium.' "
In 2000, Mr. Graves received a grant from the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, which he said gave him money to buy essential equipment.
Dr. Baruch Krauss, who teaches pediatrics at Harvard Medical School and is an emergency physician at Boston Children's Hospital, said the medical establishment has only recently begun to appreciate the rhythmic and tonal complexities of the heartbeat and speak about it in terms of syncopation and polyrhythms.
"This is what a Renaissance man looks like today," said Dr. Krauss, who studied acupuncture with Mr. Graves and follows his research. "To see this guy tinkering with stuff in a basement in Queens, you wonder how it could be legitimate. But Milford is right on the cutting edge of this stuff. He brings to it what doctors can't, because he approaches it as a musician."
"The heartbeat is a form of musical rhythm, and if you have a musical ear, you can hear heart problems a lot easier," he said. "Many heart rhythm disturbances are stress-related, and you have cells misfiring. It is possible to redirect or retrain them with musical therapy. They do respond to suggestion. That's the area where his biofeedback could correct those type of problems."
Mr. Graves said he brings unusual strengths to his medical work.
"To hear if a melody sounds right or not, you've got to look at it as an artist, not a doctor," he said. "If you're trying to listen to a musical sound with no musical ability, you're not feeling it, man."
Mr. Graves claims he can help a flawed heartbeat through biofeedback. He creates what he calls a "corrected heartbeat" using an algorhythmic formula, or by old-fashioned composing, and then feeds it back to the patient, whose heart is then trained to adopt the healthy beat. The patient can listen to a recording of the corrected heartbeat, or it can be imparted directly through a speaker that vibrates a needle stuck into acupuncture points.
"If they don't want that," he added, "I can give them a CD."
Last week, Dennis Thomas, 49, visited Mr. Graves in his basement complaining of severe chest congestion. Mr. Thomas said his doctor had diagnosed bronchial asthma and given him medication that had not been effective.
Mr. Graves said the problem might be related to Mr. Thomas's heart and recorded his heartbeat. With the help of a computer program, Mr. Graves tinkered with the rhythm and amplitude and then attempted to stimulate Mr. Thomas's heart by playing the "corrected" beat both through a speaker and through a wire stuck into an acupuncture point in his wrist.
"I gave him a double shot," Mr. Graves explained. After 10 minutes of treatment, Mr. Thomas's heart rate had risen about 10 beats per minute, according to a monitor.
Mr. Thomas, a city bus driver from Jamaica who used to study martial arts with Mr. Graves, said that he felt improvement afterward.
"I started breathing easier and felt more relaxed," he said. In addition to his medical work, Mr. Graves analyzes the heartbeats of his music students, hoping to help them play deeper and more personal music. The idea, he said, is to find their most prevalent rhythms and pitches and incorporate them into their playing.
The composer and saxophonist John Zorn called Mr. Graves "basically a 20th-century shaman."
"He's taken traditional drum technique so far that there's no further place to go, so he's going to the source, his heart," Mr. Zorn said.
"This culture is not equipped to appreciate someone like Milford," he said. "In Korea, he'd be a national treasure. Here, he's just some weird guy who lives in Queens."