Paul D. Miller, known to the world as DJ Spooky That Subliminal Kid or just DJ Spooky, is taking a rather novel idea and applying to an unfortunate cultural touchstone, one that stretches all the way back to the start of modern cinema. Rebirth of a Nation is Spooky applying his DJ skills to D.W. Griffith’s notorious film The Birth of a Nation by manipulating how the story unfolds. If a song can be remixed, then why not a movie? And why not a movie that, debatably speaking, could use a fresh reinterpretation? Not only did DJ Spooky get a chance to screw around with the infamous film itself, he also composed a score to go along with the remix. Commissioned back in 2004 by the Lincoln Center Festival, the Spoleto Festival USA, Weiner Festwochen, and the Festival d’automne a Paris, DJ Spooky and the Kronos Quartet are now releasing a recorded version of Rebirth of a Nation. It’s a work that is as striking as its backstory promises. It haunts the corners of your mind the way the original film did. And with any luck, it will strike a chord for racial harmony as loudly as the original film’s unnecessary clatter of discordance.
Until the eminent release of this album, I had never watched The Birth of a Nation. I had the opportunity to — I was living in a house where a VHS copy was sitting on the bottom shelf of a room with a TV and a VCR yet I did not watch it. In the back of my mind I must have thought that watching it would suddenly place me in the camp of insensitive clods whose ethnocentricity knew no bounds. I finally decided to watch it recently and even the film’s reputation of merely being “controversial” didn’t prepare me for the flabbergasting, borderline-hilarious, and unabashedly offensive retelling of post-Civil War Southern reconstruction. If you haven’t had the “privilege” to see this historical film, I’ll just tell you that it’s all backwards. Anyone who managed to stay awake for the majority of a cursory course in American history can tell you that Southern reconstruction is grossly misappropriated here. A white actor in black face chasing a terrified Southern white women off a cliff — it all seems like a bizarre joke.
Yet to director D.W. Griffith, author Thomas Dixon, Jr., and President Woodrow Wilson, this was the stuff of serious academia. Dixon wrote a novel portraying the southern white men as victims in desperate need of the Klu Klux Klan to protect them from unruly black mobs. Griffith subscribed to this notion and Wilson, hosting a White House screening, perpetuated it. The film’s release stirred an outcry, cementing its popularity with the public. Relations between whites and blacks in America took another significant step backwards. You might even be able to make the case that, had The Birth of a Nation never been made, race relations in our society would have improved sooner and quicker overall. We may never know for sure. I recently read that Martin Luther’s widespread distribution of The Ninety-Five Theses led to a perpetual state of war across Europe, meaning that we can play the “What if?” game all day and yet we may never arrive at anything conclusive. We do know that The Birth of a Nation was a lightning rod for a time and place in history that was already in the throes of volatile aftershocks. Footage of D.W. Girrifth sharing a smoke in a friend’s parlor finds him factually defending the film, even reaching into the bible to bolster his case: “As Pontius Pilate said, ‘Truth? What is truth?'” Well, it isn’t The Birth of a Nation.
The original film is three hours long, but DJ Spooky sliced and diced it to fit his 79-minute score. Just from gleaning over the song titles you see that a shade is drawn over the remix, building it from the ground up as a dark work: “North Isn’t South”, “A Nation Divided”, “The Broken Compass”, “Dixie as Anti-Utopia”. The 90-second introduction throws all the electronic music cards on the table, the mood futuristic yet ambiguous. Less than a minute into the album’s second track and you know that this isn’t going to be a cheerful work. The nature of the music itself is evenly split between the string quartet and the laptop with the occasional harmonica marking a change in the wind. It’s no surprise that the Kronos Quartet are up to the challenge of playing this morose music along to dismally-programmed trip-hop beats. David Harrington has certainly sawed along to stranger things for the past 30-odd years.
DJ Spooky relies on the usual techniques of soundtrack work such as repetition and the revisitation of themes, but he doesn’t use them as just a couple of crutches. The themes are sticky and haunting and the repetition amplifies the tension. “North Isn’t South” is a good case-in-point. While a synthesizer cycles through a minor key ostinato in a variety of keys, the Kronos ensemble sustains their overhead notes indefinitely. With or without visuals, it’s a stunning piece of music. Nailing the score to any particular genre is as tricky as classifying DJ Spooky’s entire career. While “Gettysburg Requiem” borrows from modern classical, “The Most Dangerous Woman in America” sounds like it could be handed over to Massive Attack without anyone batting an eye. The strings and harmonica give off very faint signals of old-timey forms with enough production overcast to obfuscate any recognizable origins.
On paper, Rebirth of a Nation‘s score has a wide-reaching approach that borders on overreaching. In practice, it’s a wholly linear path with a beginning, middle, end, and a hell of a lot of conflict — which reminds me of a movie I just saw. Whatever you want to call this kind of music, whatever genre you feel that it fits most appropriately, time will remember it as a quietly dazzling companion piece to a bold reimagining of historical cinema. It will outlive this year’s year-end lists and the following year’s. Now can we all just get along?