Still from Rebirth of a Nation. Courtesy of MoMA and the artist
DJ Spooky (né Paul D. Miller) is perfectly suited to the Twenty-First Century. An omnivorous, plugged-in culture vulture, he's a DJ, composer, filmmaker, writer, and who knows what else. He devours and regurgitates culture, popping up in all quadrants of the creative map and not an ounce shy about self-promoting; he's a busy bee who's happiest at the buzzing center of all this modern noise.
Maybe it's testament to the contemporary condition, then, that for his latest project Miller uprooted himself from this wired world and sailed to a place where you've got to put your ear to the ground to hear anything. "Terra Nova: Sinfonia Antarctica," a work in progress that will have its New York premiere in December at the BAM Next Wave Festival, is an acoustic interpretation of the frozen continent, where Miller spent four weeks with his recording equipment in the summer of 2008.
Photo by Oriana Elicabe
"It was insanely cold but eerily, at the same time, the sun didn't set. It was this weird permanent afternoon," Miller says. "The Thing, Watchmen—everyone has this idea of permanent snow and darkness. But when you go there, it's stunningly beautiful-huge fields of ice, crystalline sky. That doesn't put you in a bad mood." That much is evident from the sample recordings on Miller's website. In the staccato conversation between strings and piano, there are few grim or brooding notes. Crisp and clean and stripped of atmospherics, it's the inevitable, somewhat cheery sound of popping ice.
"If you look at ice under a microscope, it's pure geometry, and geometry implies repetition," Miller says. And if "architecture is frozen music," he adds, quoting Goethe, then frozen music is all about structure and repetition. Here's the obligatory comparison to Philip Glass: "Sinfonia Antarctica" has more lyricism, more forward motion, and less anxiety—a comment, perhaps, on how fast Antarctica is changing, but also an appeal for a wider audience. "I wanted it to be a beautiful, elegant piece, without being too geeked out," Miller says.
A 70-minute performance backed by visual projections, "Sinfonia Antarctica" is the first of three works Miller has planned that take on environmental and economic themes. For the next one, inspired by the tiny South Pacific island and off-shore banking haven Nauru, he's figuring out how to write music that sounds like "the hum of everyone's credit cards." His third multimedia piece will come out of the Gobi, or Namibia, or some other "extreme, desert-type spot."
For the moment, though, Miller in New York, presenting "Rebirth of a Nation," his self-scored remix of D.W. Griffith's infamously pro-KKK 1915 film, at MoMA. Appropriately, this protracted comment on American racism is the original result of the "DJ as director" format that Miller is now experimenting with around the globe, where a DJ uses a place or pre-existing
footage (as was more the case with "Rebirth of a Nation") as inspiration for music, and then showcases the music as part of a presentation with aa film component. Although he made it before the age of Obama, Miller says there's been enough resistance to the election of a black president to keep it relevant: "I don't know if you've been reading Newt Gingrich's Twitter—Republicans went crazy."
"Rebirth of a Nation" plays at MoMA tonight, June 22, through June 28.