SxSW 2018 Interview: MILFORD GRAVES FULL MANTIS director Jake Meginsky



“The marvelous, mosaic-covered house of drummer Milford Graves in South Jamaica, Queens (New York) is crammed with art: African masks, Egyptian statues and medical models. His beautiful garden is just as eclectic, full of flowers and plants from all different cultures. This ‘global garden’ reflects his inclusive philosophy. His ideas on rhythm and time signatures also relate everything to everything else, all based around the irregular beat of our heart.

In this evocative film, this spiritual drummer – who has played with greats including free jazz pioneer Albert Ayler – talks about his many sources of inspiration, all of which can be traced back to nature. Graves talks about our senses and his interest in the heartbeat, which he records and transforms into electronic music. He also talks about yara, the martial art he developed, based partly on African dance. Part of the film’s fascinating archive material is his performance in Japan, with Butoh dancer Tanaka Min, for an audience of highly enthusiastic autistic children.” — Director Jake Meginsky

Congratulations on your film playing in Austin at SxSW this year! Is your first time here and are you planning to attend your screenings?

Yes, first time and planning to attend!

So how did you get into this business? Talk to me a bit about how you got your start and what you have worked on in the past.

I am a musician, and a long time student of Milford Graves. This project grew out of that relationship. Milford Graves Full Mantis is my first film.

How did this project come together for you? Give me a rundown from the preparation, to shooting, to post-production to now!

The seeds of Milford Graves Full Mantis, were planted nearly 15 years ago.

In 2004, I ended my relationship, quit my job, and presented myself at Milford Graves’ door. I waited for almost an hour. When he arrived, I asked him if he would take me on as a student. It was an impulsive decision to show up like that — I was nervous I would be rejected on the spot, and I didn’t have another plan. He looked me up and down and said, “Come on in, and we will see what the story is.” Without another word, he directed me toward the purple drum kit in his studio. I grabbed a pair of sticks, took a seat and noticed the timbale in place of the snare drum. He sat down on an old, and slightly out of tune, upright piano, and we proceeded to play together, improvising for almost an hour. This marked the beginning of my time with Milford, my great mentor — known to his students and his fans all around the world as the Professor.

The year before, in 2003, I had attended his solo concert at the Fine Arts Center at the University of Massachusetts. I was already a huge fan. As a drummer who had interests in electronic music, free-jazz, folkloric music and the avant-garde, Milford Graves loomed large. Each river of the American underground seemed to lead to the ocean that was Graves. Milford was every heavy-weight drummer’s favorite drummer. I hunted down all the records I could find, each one presenting a percussive voice so intensely singular and dynamic, that it forced me to rethink my longstanding relationship with the instrument entirely. I practiced drums listening to Nothing : Milford Graves Percussion Ensemble ESP 1965 on my headphones. I imagined myself as the third drummer in the ensemble, attempting to create counterpoint to the dense clusters of rhythm coming from Graves and Sunny Morgan. There were other recordings I could not find — the stuff of myth, hand painted, self released records worth thousands of dollars — the music contained within, one could only dream about. I read every interview I could find. I’d read the books that Milford talked about in the interviews — Helmholtz’s “On the Sensations of Tone” and Khan’s “The Mysticism of Sound and Music”. However, there was no amount of reading or listening to records that could have prepared me for the experience of seeing him live that year. The hour-long solo performance proved to be cataclysmic. The room seemed to ignite into flames as Milford exploded onto the stage. Rhythms stacked on top of rhythms in a genre-defying blast of pure energy. I had never heard so many tones coming from the drum kit — a brilliant lattice of melodic patterns, weaving in and out of each other, extending from the high frequency metallic punctuations of the hi-hat, all the way down to the subharmonic rumble of the kick drums. As the concert progressed I could feel my heartbeat changing, responding to the music. When the lights turned on, I felt a marketed shift somewhere deep in my core. I entered the concert one way, and I came out different. It was then that I decided to throw my life in the air and find a way to study with the Milford.

The private lessons grew into an assistantship at Bennington College where I took a job as a technician, assisted Milford in his laboratory and taught the Intro to Percussion classes to freshman and sophomores. Graves was a generous and tireless teacher. Late into the evening, often past midnight, our private work expanded from the drum-kit into the practice of Yara, a martial art he invented based on a synthesis of Kung Fu, boxing, West African dance, and a direct study of nature (including the praying mantis!). We also worked on bioacoustics, graphical programming, electronic music, gardening, music healing and polyrhythmic musical concepts applied across disciplines. I was now practicing drums to digital tracks Milford would create for me — each containing a sine wave sonification of my own heartbeat or nervous system sound recorded in the laboratory. Within the first year, I asked if I could record class to both preserve and reflect upon the work we were doing. I knew I was in the presence of a living master, and I felt it was important to do my part and make a contribution to the history. I was learning, slowly, the central aspects to Milford’s kaleidoscopic philosophy. It is these recordings that form the foundational basis for MILFORD GRAVES FULL MANTIS.

I was soon filming Milford at his house, with borrowed equipment. I would invite various friends to come down and record video, while I asked questions and helped with gardening or with other projects around the house. Little by little, over the years, clips and sequences would emerge out of the footage. I didn’t know what they would become, but I knew these clips had a special vibration — one that I would later recognize as the central vibration of the feature film. I would put them aside and label them in the hard drive.

In 2007 Graves began to share never-before-seen material from his personal archive. One hot summer afternoon in his basement in Queens, we threaded Super 8 footage taken on a 1981 Japanese tour with the great butoh dancer Min Tanaka. As we watched the screen flicker, a younger Milford appeared in front of a Japanese forest, demonstrated Yara movements with focus and intensity, and then proceeded to disappear, absorbed by the quivering bamboo. In another reel from the same tour, Milford and Min Tanaka perform for a school for children with autism. The concert begins with the students sitting still. Over the course of 20 minutes, as Graves plays the kit and Tanaka dances, the students begin to get up and dance, one by one, until the entire school erupts in a display of energy and joy. In the final frames, a single child remains, dancing beautifully in front of the drums as Milford plays the ride cymbal in 12/8. The child’s eyes are locked in with Milford’s, and I could feel the energy transmission between the two. At that moment, I caught my first real glimpse of the cinema that would become Milford Graves Full Mantis.

Over the following decade, Graves continued to share selected personal archival material with me — photos from the early days of Yara in his backyard dojo, performance photos, family pictures, heart-beat recordings, old flyers and playbills. He told me to find the original footage for a concert from 1973, during an under-documented period when his group opened for Carmen McRae in Belgium “That is the real stuff Jake, we were really playing on that one”. I filmed Milford in his garden, at Bennington, in concert. During this time, I also performed with him, triggering his electronic heart sonifications and projecting video of the garden. I often slept in the dojo when I would stay with him, becoming more intimate and familiar with the collection of masks, objects, figures, and books from nearly every continent in the world. Over time, I discovered what Milford wanted to share most about his life, and especially about his creative process. I also began to understand what I felt most compelled to share and reflect back to him, regarding my experience as his student. I started to have an acute sense that the film was talking to me, and in turn, I was learning to listen to it and understand how to best help it become what it wanted to become.

In 2015 I asked my friend and fellow drummer, Neil Young, to join me in filming Milford’s solo concert with me at Brandeis University. I was extremely impressed by the footage Neil captured during the nearly three-hour shoot. Over the next two years, Neil jumped into the project wholeheartedly and became much more than a cameraman. He would accompany me to Milford’s house and take part in the lessons. We would spend extended hours focusing our cameras on the basement laboratory, on the garden, on the drums, and on the house itself. Milford’s bookings became more frequent during this period, and we shot hours of performance footage at various venues on the east coast including the documentation of his first-ever sculpture/sound installation commission for the Artist Institute Gallery in Manhattan. In 2016 I traveled to Stockholm for an electronic music residency. Instead of making music with the incredible collection of early modular synthesizers at the Elektronmusikstudion as I had intended, I spent the week editing footage, night and day, on my laptop. I almost never left the studio. The film was starting to talk loudly and forcefully, demanding action. It was there, in Sweden, that I carved out a basic structure for the first third of the film. When I returned to the States, my collaboration with Neil expanded into the editing room where we would set up our laptops side by side and cut scenes and clarify others, as if we were in a percussion duet. We both approached the material in an intuitive, rhythmic way in order to inject the film with the same sense of fluidity and intensity that are the hallmarks of Milford’s sound – each of us bringing our often distinct but complementary musical and visual sensibilities to the creative process.

Late in 2017, after a year of editing, we had a rough cut of the film in hand. I drove to South Jamaica, Queens, set up a projector and watched the film, sitting between the Professor and his wife Lois.  After the film finished, Milford proclaimed, “Man, that’s me up there on that screen–that’s what I’m about.”

I was Milford’s student long before this film was completed. I continue to be his student to this day.  In many ways, making Milford Graves Full Mantis was one profound lesson among many that I have received over the past 15 years, and I know there are many more teachings I have yet to receive.

What keeps you going while making a movie? What drives you? 

This may sound esoteric, but it is the truth. I felt that the film was talking to me – asking me to put it into order. Sometimes I could only hear it from a distance, other times it spoke loudly and made articulate demands. Oh and lots of coffee.

What was your biggest challenge with this project, and the moment that was the most rewarding to you?

The biggest challenge was finding a way for the film to both match, and create counterpoint with, the Milford’s truly singular and intense sense of musicality. The most rewarding moment in the process was showing a rough cut of the film to Graves, in his garage, and having him say, “that’s me up there on that screen, that’s what I do”

I’m about to get technical, but I would love to know about the the visual design of the movie; what camera did you film with, your relationship to the director of photography and how the movie was photographed.

Milford Graves Full Mantis uses footage of almost every type. 16mm, 8mm, DV, HDDV, VHS. Part of the work in the editing was to find a way to weave all of this together. For the contemporary footage, the cinematographer Neil Young, used a Canon XA-10 as did I. Neil entered the project in 2015, he and I have a very close working relationship, lots of complimentary skills and perspectives that fueled the creative process. He is credited as “co-director” of the film.

What are you looking forward to the most about showing your movie here in Austin?

Seeing how the film fits in a larger cinematic dialogue with other new movies.

After the film screens at SxSW, where is the film going to show next? Theatrical, online, more festivals?

The next festival after SXSW is CPH : DOX.

If you could show your movie in any theater outside of Austin, where would you screen it and why?

Pleasant St Theater in Northampton, MA. Because it is where I had my first experience having my mind blown by a film.

And final question: what is the greatest movie you have ever seen at a film festival?

I have only been to one film festival. The world premiere of the movie at International Film Festival Rotterdam. There I saw a film program put together by the curators at the National Smithsonian Museum of African American History. It combined archival, experimental, and narrative shorts from the Smithsonian archive. The way everything was put together made for a rare occasion where history and poetry were interwoven. The screening was called “The Color Line: African American Agency in Cultural Representation.” It was brilliant.


SXSW Screenings:
March 13, 6:15 PM – Alamo Drafthouse Ritz 1
March 15, 11:00 AM – Alamo Drafthouse Ritz 1
March 16, 7:00 PM – Alamo Lamar B

Website, Social Media & Screening Information:

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