Music

DJ Spooky with Kronos Quartet: Rebirth of a Nation

Did you ever get the urge to "remix" a movie? One that just really stuck in your craw like nothing else? DJ Spooky lives out an artistic wet dream on Rebirth of a Nation.


DJ Spooky with Kronos Quartet

Rebirth of a Nation

Label: Cantaloupe
Release Date: 2015-08-28
Label website
Artist website
Amazon
iTunes

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?

9

So far J. J. Abrams and Rian Johnson resemble children at play, remaking the films they fell in love with. As an audience, however, we desire a fuller experience.

As recently as the lackluster episodes I-III of the Star Wars saga, the embossed gold logo followed by scrolling prologue text was cause for excitement. In the approach to the release of any of the then new prequel installments, the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare, followed by the Lucas Film logo, teased one's impulsive excitement at a glimpse into the next installment's narrative. Then sat in the movie theatre on the anticipated day of release, the sight and sound of the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare signalled the end of fevered anticipation. Whatever happened to those times? For some of us, is it a product of youth in which age now denies us the ability to lose ourselves within such adolescent pleasure? There's no answer to this question -- only the realisation that this sensation is missing and it has been since the summer of 2005. Star Wars is now a movie to tick off your to-watch list, no longer a spark in the dreary reality of the everyday. The magic has disappeared… Star Wars is spiritually dead.

Keep reading... Show less
6

This has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it.

It hardly needs to be said that the last 12 months haven't been everyone's favorite, but it does deserve to be noted that 2017 has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it. Other longtime dreamers either reappeared or kept up their recent hot streaks, and a number of relative newcomers established their place in what has become one of the more robust rock subgenre subcultures out there.

Keep reading... Show less
Theatre

​'The Ferryman': Ephemeral Ideas, Eternal Tragedies

The current cast of The Ferryman in London's West End. Photo by Johan Persson. (Courtesy of The Corner Shop)

Staggeringly multi-layered, dangerously fast-paced and rich in characterizations, dialogue and context, Jez Butterworth's new hit about a family during the time of Ireland's the Troubles leaves the audience breathless, sweaty and tearful, in a nightmarish, dry-heaving haze.

"Vanishing. It's a powerful word, that"

Northern Ireland, Rural Derry, 1981, nighttime. The local ringleader of the Irish Republican Army gun-toting comrades ambushes a priest and tells him that the body of one Seamus Carney has been recovered. It is said that the man had spent a full ten years rotting in a bog. The IRA gunslinger, Muldoon, orders the priest to arrange for the Carney family not to utter a word of what had happened to the wretched man.

Keep reading... Show less
10

Aaron Sorkin's real-life twister about Molly Bloom, an Olympic skier turned high-stakes poker wrangler, is scorchingly fun but never takes its heroine as seriously as the men.

Chances are, we will never see a heartwarming Aaron Sorkin movie about somebody with a learning disability or severe handicap they had to overcome. This is for the best. The most caffeinated major American screenwriter, Sorkin only seems to find his voice when inhabiting a frantically energetic persona whose thoughts outrun their ability to verbalize and emote them. The start of his latest movie, Molly's Game, is so resolutely Sorkin-esque that it's almost a self-parody. Only this time, like most of his better work, it's based on a true story.

Keep reading... Show less
7

There's something characteristically English about the Royal Society, whereby strangers gather under the aegis of some shared interest to read, study, and form friendships and in which they are implicitly agreed to exist insulated and apart from political differences.

There is an amusing detail in The Curious World of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn that is emblematic of the kind of intellectual passions that animated the educated elite of late 17th-century England. We learn that Henry Oldenburg, the first secretary of the Royal Society, had for many years carried on a bitter dispute with Robert Hooke, one of the great polymaths of the era whose name still appears to students of physics and biology. Was the root of their quarrel a personality clash, was it over money or property, over love, ego, values? Something simple and recognizable? The precise source of their conflict was none of the above exactly but is nevertheless revealing of a specific early modern English context: They were in dispute, Margaret Willes writes, "over the development of the balance-spring regulator watch mechanism."

Keep reading... Show less
8
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image