Making music that comes from the heart is a phrase often used by earnest pop bands before they get dropped from their label, but it can also be taken literally. On his new EP, Mitral Transmission, black metal drummer Greg Fox recorded his own heartbeat, converting the raw data into a MIDI music score. Renowned avant garde jazz drummer Milton Graves, who is Greg’s musical mentor, originally developed the machine for diagnosing problems with the heart but has now found another use in making music from the recordings.
The album is entirely different from Greg’s black metal output, the MIDI rhythms of his heartbeat coming across like a steel pan Jamie XX remix. I called him up to talk about the process and other ways of making natural music.
YNTHT: Where did the idea for using your heartbeat in Mitral Transmission come from?
Greg: I’ve been studying with Milford Graves and a large part of the work he’s been doing uses the heartbeat as a natural rhythm.
How did it work?
Milford made a high quality recording of my heartbeat by hooking me up to some bio-sensing machinery and then running it through software that he’s developed. What it does is analyse the recording of the heartbeat and then it translates it into a MIDI score. It also raises up the frequency of the melodies and rhythms in the electrical impulses of the recording, sounds that you wouldn’t be able to find ordinarily because they’re at such a low frequency you wouldn’t notice them. Once all the data had been processed, I basically had a very rich MIDI score with which to compose, most of which is on Mitral Transmission.
How best would you describe Milford Graves and his influence on the album?
I had experience writing music but that was mostly as a drummer, I wouldn’t have been able to make this album if it wasn’t for him. Having worked with Milford allowed me to unlock what’s inside me. When I was working on the album, I would visit his house and play him what I had written. When I got a positive response then I felt good enough for it to be released. He’s my mentor, for sure.
What does he think of the album?
The last time I played it for him, I think that he was happy that his ideas were being used after we worked together. I admire him because he’s spent his life maximising his potential and sharing that with people.
How would you describe the album?
I’m not big on describing my music, it resonates with me. I didn’t make it to say anything directly.
But compared to the other music you’ve been making with your band, Liturgy, do you think this is more of a personal record?
It’s more of a personal record yeah. I still like experimenting with all the other styles of music that I make.
Are you going to make any more music using the technique?
Definitively, Mitral Transmission is only four tracks, I have a whole album’s worth of material ready to release. There’s such a range of possibilities available. I’ve been looking into scoring elements of my heartbeat on the record for people to play live as an ensemble.
Sounds cool, have you explored any other experimental ways of making music?
Yeah, there’s the galvanic way of using skin as a generative tool for composition and for live shows.
How does that work?
Galvanic is the change in electricity in the skin, it’s being developed by the art collective Data Garden who’ve released my solo record. They’ve just started a Kickstarter campaign for a device called the MIDI Sprout, which I’ve been using, it’s intended for use with plants but also works with human contact.
What does it do?
Basically, it translates galvanic responses that the body gives off into MIDI. It uses those sticky medical things attached to your body, and brass pins which help to create a circuit. So by measuring the change in the electricity of the skin it translates that into music. It’s another way of using the body to generate music and then manipulate it to a new degree. I mean, have you ever listened to the sounds of the human body? They’re amazing.
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