Mysterium Tremendum

" The mysterious is the source of all true art and science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead: his eyes are closed." ~Albert Einstein


"Once in a while you get shown the light, in the strangest of places, if you look at it right" ~Robert Hunter

On April 10, 2012, the Mickey Hart Band unleashed a potent dose of whoopass with the album Myserium Tremendum. Part of its power lay in a collection of new lyrics by Robert Hunter, whose mastery of his craft was soon to be officialized with a LIfetime Achievement Award from the Americana Music Association. Many tracks had been germinating in Mickey’s nursery for some years, and were well ripened and ready for consumption. This was the first infusion of new material from the Dead world in some time, and many consider this album among the best post-Grateful Dead albums by any band member. 

Having explored the mythic power of percussion throughout the world for some three decades, Mickey’s focus had extended to the larger cosmos since 2009. During the Dead’s tour that year, MIckey’s sound bed mix during the Drums segments included various sounds of the universe. The mysterium in this album was embodied in part by a collection of sounds that were created in different ways from a sampler box of cosmological phenomena. Taking a leaf from Pythagoras, Mickey took it upon himself to try navigating the Music of the Spheres.

The band consisted of old friends and new: some dated back to Planet Drum, others had been toddlers at that time. Their frequent tours in 2012-13 energized audiences throughout the US. (While they were at it, they also made a few stops in Canada and at the sacred sites of Jerusalem.) Their spark that part of the energy that culminated in Fare Thee Well in 2015, and was extended further with Dead & Company. 

Here's what Mickey had to say at the time:

Just before the DEAD Tour of 2009 I began dreaming another dream. It would set in motion a series of events that were the catalyst for Mysterium Tremendum. I had been looking deeper into the mystery of space and time and felt myself being pulled upward,toward the sky. I began playing with the cosmic sounds gathered by some friendly scientists looking for the songs of the universe. They are light waves generated from the planets, the stars, from the epic events that formed our world,the entire universe. What does the universe sound like? — this became a thought that would not go away. I had explored the sounds of the whole earth, sounds created by man-made instruments, and also the ecology of sound wherever it was to be found. For my entire life, the muse had been working its magic in my dreams. If there was a beginning to all of this "being human," there had to be a seed sound, a sound at the very beginning of creation, 13.8 billion years ago. The Hindus tell us that there is a seed sound at the heart of creation-the Nada, which a passage in the Tibetan Book of the Dead describes as "reverberating like a thousand distant thunders." Mysterium Tremendum refers to that awesome primeval explosion and its reverberations, still ongoing, are the source of cosmic rhythms-finding its own groove, gradually bringing about order.

My friend Stanley Krippner, of the Saybrook Institute, put it like this: "Mysterium Tremendum has several phases. First of all, why is there something instead of nothing? Wouldn't it be simpler for there just to be nothing? No, that's not the nature of things. There always has to be something. Nature abhors a vacuum, the physicists say. Second, after billions of years, at least on our planet, there was life. Why couldn't we just go along without life? Why did life have to go into the picture? The next mysterium tremendum is consciousness – life becoming aware of itself. Why did life become aware of itself? Why couldn't we all be zombies and do our thing without thinking about it or reflecting on it? I see three big mysteries and I don't think we have the final answer for them yet."

Ask yourself the big questions. What is life? Why is life?

I believe the answer is in the rhythm in things. The way things move,sound and look together. We are constantly moving from chaos to order and back and forth. We pulse, we spin, we expand, and we contract.

In rhythm,

Listen to the sounds of the Universe. Vol 1.
Click the picture to learn & discover.
Listen to the sounds of the Universe. Vol 2.
Click the picture to learn & discover.                                      

About the Space Sounds

The songs on this album intertwine various datasets to create a multidimensional cosmic tapestry. 
"Slow Joe Rain" and "This One Hour" both combine sounds derived from spectra of cosmic microwave background radiation, galaxies, solar winds, and vibrational nodes of our sun.

Slow Joe Rain
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This One Hour
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The same cosmic microwave background radiation, along with a pulsar, both appear in "Cut the Deck", while spectra of two different galaxies lie behind "Starlight Starbright" and "Supersonic Vision."

Cut the Deck
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Starlight Starbright
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Supersonic Vision
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Pulsars and galaxies populate "Through Endless Skies", along with the source of all light, the Big Bang.

Through Endless Skies
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Sunquakes and solar winds become "Heartbeat of the Sun" and "Let There Be Light". 
In "Djinn Djinn", they are joined by theorized space-time ripples caused by black holes.

Heartbeat of the Sun
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Let There Be Light
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Djinn Djinn
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The orbital paths of our solar system also orbit within "Who Stole the Show" (Jupiter) and "Time Never Ends" (Mars, Neptune, and Pluto).

Who Stole the Show?
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Time Never Ends
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"Ticket to Nowhere" is based on black hole related fluctuations (the end of everything as we know it) and our sun's harmonic nodes (the beginning of everything as we know it here on Earth).

Ticket to Nowhere
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Learn More About Sonification

(Do we want to leave this on this page or move it to its own page and just link to it?)

"Sonification" refers to illustrating information with sound. It's the same principal as visualization, wherein information is mapped to symbols that have informative characteristics such as height, color, or shape. Sonification maps information to symbols that are akin to musical notes, and have informative characteristics such as pitch, stereophonic position, brightness, or tremolo rate. Visualization has been with us for some time in books and print, and we're so used to it that some graphs are critical to the way we understand our world. (How many people start their day by glancing at charts of yesterday's stock prices?) Sonification is newer and less established, but its importance is inevitable. After all, while we tend to be visually oriented, the ears play a critical role in our experience of the world. They tell us a great deal about sudden changes, and can pick up certain patterns that, when visualized, can be difficult for the eyes to detect.

Today's scientists increasingly rely on multi media to communicate advanced concepts to non-scientist audiences. We are accustomed to getting our eyes dazzled when we watch science programs. Why isn't sonification as essential a presentation and study tool as visualization?

Perhaps part of the familiarity problem is that no one has used it yet on a rock and roll album – until now. The universe, like music, consists of vibrations. Why shouldn't science get people tapping their feet, as well as bedazzle their eyes? That's what the musicians on this album are asking. Having spent the past few decades fusing the sensibilities of psychedelic rock with world drumming traditions, Mickey Hart now broadens his focus to "cosmic and universal rhythms as opposed to global rhythms."

So how does a dataset, a dry series of numbers, get transformed into music? One approach is literal: a digital audio file is also a series of numbers, so a data file can simply be saved as an audio file. The result tends to be rumbly, colored noise. It's evocative, but often indistinct. Reading through the data at the rate of CD audio blurs its features together, since the rhythms and changes go by faster than the ear can perceive them.

Another approach is symbolic, like the graphs seen daily in newspapers, except that instead of numbers becoming dots, lines or bars, they become a series of musical notes. The melody and arrangement reflect the ups and downs of the data effectively, since the dataset can be read through at any speed that serves the music well. A symbolic sonification uses a data file as a control (or modulation) source. A designer combines principles of music and auditory perception to create synthesized sound model. Its "gears" turn as the data values are successively read; as the sound evolves, its changes reflect the data's contours, often more informatively than does the literal approach.

Scientists don't confine themselves to looking at light and electromagnetic waves in their raw form. They typically put it through some type of prism, so that they can view the spectrum. Symbolic sonifications are a type of auditory prism.

Another approach is not so much data based, but is more of a diagram. For the orbits of our solar system, we revisit Pythagoras. In the sixth century BC, he derived our major scale from the Music of the Spheres, ratios that he believed to be the relative distances between the earth and the seven bodies orbiting it — the moon, the sun, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn. Here, we use more recent measurements of the distances between the sun and the nine planets, and from these distances we derive ratios that yield nine different pitch classes.

All three approaches are used throughout the album. The sonifications are all filtered through Mickey's musical mind melds into the textures he creates. Like cosmic radiation, which is all around us, the sonifications form an ever-present undertow beneath the more apparent layers of activity.

If you want to dig deeper, the documents below are descriptions that were created along with the sonifications so that there would be a record of how the datasets had been rendered as sound.

(In this table you said you also had the sounds. I can add in another column next to each and put Listen Here if that's what you want.)



Here are a couple of short articles that also describe them:

Mark Ballora, "Sonification, Science and Popular Music: In search of the 'wow'".
Organised Sound 19(1): 30–40. Copyright Cambridge University Press, 2014. doi:10.1017/S1355771813000381

Toni Feder, "Shhh. Listen to the Data," Physics Today, May 2012.


(Do you want to talk about Mark in on this page or on his own sonification page?)

Mark Ballora
Associate Professor – Music Technology
The Pennsylvania State University
School of Music/School of Theatre