Paul D. Miller is in a New York studio, a phone in one ear and sounds of a track he’s making for his next disc in the other. The music is a digital remix of “No Quarter” by Led Zeppelin, one of the most-sampled bands in hip-hop, he says.
Oh, yeah, the phone call. He’s on the line to talk about another project, a multimedia, performance-art piece called “Terra Nova: Sinfonia Antarctica.” Miller has been developing the work over the last year.
So it’s a typical multitasking moment for Miller, a precocious and productive artist, writer and musician who’s better known as DJ Spooky That Subliminal Kid.
And it’s the kind of moment Miller/Spooky hoped to escape from a winter ago, when he spent more than a month on the polar continent of Antarctica.
He shot film and photographs. He recorded the sound of the vast, icy expanse. He hiked in the cold for miles with no other soul around and no working cell phone in his pocket.
“The idea is you hit the reset button and get out of your comfort zone,” Miller says. “Some people go to India and an ashram. I wanted to go to the most remote place on the planet.”
The resulting work clocks in at a little more than an hour and continues to evolve as he performs and presents it around the country.
“It’s still a work in progress,” he says. “The whole idea is to do different versions and to slowly sift through everything, and by the time I distill it all to a finished version I have a whole different way of approaching it.
“That’s the beauty of DJ culture. There’s never really a finished version. There’s always a remix of the remix of the other remix.”
The impetus, he says, was to explore questions about culture, digital media, urban music, globalization, landscape, the environment and other pressing matters.
“There are probably more people on this city block than there are on the whole continent of Antarctica. In hip-hop and electronic music, most of the scene that I deal with is in the major urban cities of the planet - Rio, Singapore, New York, London, Tokyo, Berlin.
“I wanted to get out of the full aspect of the city and see what happens to the whole idea of urban music. Everybody talks about hip-hop as the music of the street, but if there’s no street, what do you?
“I enjoy the idea that it’s a paradox. You’re talking about urban music without the city at all.”
Those kinds of paradoxes and the idea of cultural flux are constant elements of the DJ Spooky style, which shows up in art galleries, concert stages and lecture halls around the world.
As a writer, artist and speaker, Miller projects a kind of stream-of-consciousness, intellectual hyperdrive as he discusses the digital universe, the history of hip-hop or the foundational role of “sampling” - employing DNA snippets of existing works - in the DJ/artist’s toolkit. His words tumble out as if from a perpetual motion machine, which can make for discourse that is both vibrant and impenetrable:
“Software is infinite,” he writes in his 2004 essay collection “Rhythm Science.” “Sonar is about the reflection of sound to ground us in an electronic environment. Think of bats flying in the night. Navigate the metaphor, cut and paste it into the here and now. Commedia del arte becomes digital, becomes total theater, becomes electronic. Feel the frequencies.”
His operational philosophy, updating the poet Ezra Pound’s modernist command to “make it new,” is embedded in a line from the same book: “Always try to create new worlds, new scenarios at almost every moment of thought.”
So in another project, recently released as a DVD, Miller as DJ Spooky does a visual remix of the classic - and classically racist - Hollywood epic “Birth of a Nation.” That epic silent film, made by D.W. Griffith in 1915, was a grand rhapsody on the rise of the Ku Klux Klan in the post-Civil War South.
In “Terra Nova,” Miller says, he drew some inspiration from avant-garde composers such as John Cage and Charles Ives. Both explored new kinds of musical landscapes.
In 1939 Cage made “Imaginary Landscape,” an assemblage of machine-made tones.
“The piece was meant to be a landscape made of radio frequency waves,” Miller said, “which for us now is the wireless network in our satellite-drenched, GPS world we all live in now.”
Ives’ “Central Park in the Dark” evokes a physical landscape, the green space within the heart of New York City.
And Miller brings to the project the personal experience and on-the-ice recordings he made, representing technological advancements unavailable to the British composer Ralph Vaughan Williams, who 60 years ago composed a “Sinfonia Antarctica.”
Because the visual, projected elements of “Terra Nova: Sinfonia Antarctica” will include data, Miller calls it a blending of music, art and science.
I suggest perhaps one could think of it as Al Gore (“An Inconvenient Truth”) with music.
Miller takes it further, evoking a classic environmental movie with a Philip Glass soundtrack: “Think of it like Al Gore meets ‘Koyaanisqatsi’ without the lecture.”
And, indeed, some of the sound samples of “Terra Nova,” including strings and keyboards, clearly reflect an aesthetic that hails from Glass’ kind of textured, yet minimalist, musical landscapes.
ON THE WEB
To hear excerpts from “Terra Nova,” see clips from “Rebirth of a Nation” or read a wide array of Paul D. Miller’s writings, go to his www.djspooky.com.