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The Human Heart And Its Rhythmic Magnificence


Rhythm is all around us and this week we're taking a look at its many different forms, from rhythms in music and poetry to those inside our bodies. NPR's Neda Ulaby has a story about art that is based on the most primal rhythm of all - the beating of the human heart.

NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: John Cage was going through something of a spiritual crisis. It was the late 1940s and the composer, who had been studying Zen Buddhism, decided to visit a anechoic chamber at Harvard University. In an interview with public radio station KPFK back in 1963, Cage remembered what it was like to sit in a room designed to be completely silent.


JOHN CAGE: And in that room I heard two sounds where as I expected to hear nothing. I expected, quote, "silence," unquote.

KAY LARSON: In the quiet, what he hears is the sound of his heart.

ULABY: That's Kay Larson, one of Cage's biographers.

LARSON: He hears his heart pushing the blood through his arteries, and the rush and the swoosh of this process.

ULABY: It was a revelation.

LARSON: He, in a way, enters the universe of himself. And at the center, he hears this heart that's his heart. He has this overwhelming experience.


CAGE: So then I realized that even if I remained silent, I was, under certain circumstances, musical.

ULABY: This epiphany led to the creation of a piece called "Four Minutes And 33 Seconds." It remains one of the most influential and derided examples of contemporary art. All that happens is this - somebody comes out on a stage, sits at the piano and is perfectly silent for four minutes 33 seconds. Everyone, says Larson, the pianist and the audience, has to listen.

LARSON: Cage is essentially saying all of you can have the experience I had in the anechoic chamber.

ULABY: Cage's work helped inspire the happenings of the 1960s - minimalist composers such as Philip Glass and Steve Reich and a Japanese visual artist named Sasaki.

SASAKI: Each person had a kind of artistic element inside.


ULABY: You can hear Sasaki working in this tape from his exhibition at the 2011 Venice Bienalle. He paints human heartbeats. He hooks people up to a monitor and sprays his canvas with looping red geometric patterns shaped by what he hears. Sasaki's interpreted more than 1,500 individual human heartbeats. The repeated rhythm, he says, is like minimalist music.

SASAKI: It brings mental awakening and opening to us. It is like meditation. When I draw and listen to the heartbeat, I must be spiritually dancing.

ULABY: Meanwhile in Washington, D.C., a dancer is twirling through a rehearsal space. She's wearing a light green leotard and an apparatus strapped to her chest that amplifies the sound of her heart. This is part of a performance orchestrated by sound artist Christopher Janney.

CHRISTOPHER JANNEY: Essentially, I'm using a wireless telemetry monitor, it's the kind like when you're in the hospital and you're lying in your bed.

ULABY: Janney worked with a choreographer to put this piece together. One of its earliest performances was with Mikhail Barishnikov. It's something of a tribute to Janney's father who died of a heart attack in 1979. This performance will feature not only a solo dancer moving to the sound of her own heart but singers basically jamming to it.


JANNEY: The heart is a bad drummer - it speeds up, it slows down - so you can't put a music track to it. You have to play live to it.

ULABY: The dancer, says Janney, controls the music by moving faster, bending over, slowing down or taking deep breaths.

JANNEY: It is basically just this sonic manifestation of the human soul.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing) What is a heart without me?

ULABY: But singing to the sonic manifestation of the human soul is a slippery sonic challenge, says Lorie Kay Sly who's one of the singers.

LORIE KAY SLY: You're feeling the rhythm of the heartbeat that you hear and also the rhythm that your heartbeat is producing.

STAN STRICKLAND: It's challenging because the heart beat is not consistent.

ULABY: That's another singer, Stan Strickland.

STRICKLAND: So you have to stay on your toes, be prepared to get faster or slower.

SLY: I call it an arrhythmic adventure, the fluctuation of it all.

ULABY: And that's when another one of the singers, Ryan Edwards, says something about the challenges of singing to a human heartbeat that John Cage would have loved.

RYAN EDWARDS: Deep listening - I mean, it really is every moment, you know, you can't really assume the rhythm. We're in communication with the human being whose rhythm is so subtle and so changing. And it's that deep listening that makes it possible to one another but to this heartbeat.

ULABY: As for the owner of the heartbeat, Emily Coates, how does dancing to it feel?

EMILY COATES: Existential.

ULABY: And does she listen to the music any differently?

COATES: I am the music.

ULABY: Like every one of us moving to our own muffled music through every minute of our lives, she is the drummer, she is the drum. Neda Ulaby, NPR News.


WERTHEIMER: It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Neda Ulaby reports on arts, entertainment, and cultural trends for NPR's Arts Desk.
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