If Paul D. Miller was an insect, he'd have extraordinarily long antennae. Miller, who makes music under the name DJ Spooky That Subliminal Kid, is a walking encyclopedia of music, known for a catholicity of taste that makes room for everyone from John Cage to Kool Keith. And his expansive curiosity extends beyond the cultural, to the environmental and political; his newest creation is Terra Nova: Sinfonia Antarctica, a multimedia production that uses film and music to examine global warming.
To make the piece, Miller traveled to Antarctica and constructed a portable studio to collect field recordings, capturing the acoustic qualities of Antarctic ice forms, and used them in the creation of music that reflects a changing and even vanishing environment. Terra Nova: Sinfonia Antarctica will be performed by DJ Spooky and the International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE) at BAM on December 2nd, 4th, and 5th.
I'm a big fan of Koyaanisqatsi. Was that an inspiration for this? Yeah, Godfrey Reggio is an old friend of mine, and Phillip Glass is an associate as well. I am a sponge. In terms of DJ culture, it's a process of osmosis. Whatever you think of DJing, it's about sampling, it's about referencing historic materials, and above all it's about collage. So for me, the idea is applied to music technique, to contemporary electronic music, and classical music, and I just see what rises out of the collision. There are also earlier environmental films like Scott of the Antarctic. There's another really amazing film, the first film made in Antarctica, called 90 Degrees South; it's a big influence. There are also different kinds of classical music composers I check in with, like Handel's "Water Music," also Gustav Mahler's "Song of the Earth"; those are all really big influences.
When did you get the idea to go to Antarctica and do this? A couple of years ago. What ended up happening to me is that in the last two elections before Obama's election... I couldn't believe there was this kind of bizarre paradoxical relationship to global warming. The Bush administration was in denial about the Kyoto accords and climate change. That on top of the whole debacle with the election recounts and electoral fraud and stuff like that made me realize that we need to think about climate change of what I like to call "the politics of perception." There's a very famous book by R.D. Laing, and I'm a big fan of his idea of trying to re-frame and cut and slice and dice new kinds of information into the discourse.
When I say discourse, what I mean is that our landscape is so hyper-fragmented and polarized and bizarrely paradoxical, that you can play games with numbers to make numbers say anything. And I felt like the idea of going to Antarctica was to kind of take a personal testimony, and see with my own two eyes what's going on. So I ended up setting up a recording studio in the main ice fields, and I ended up seeing 40 mile chunks of ice breaking off the ice shelf. And stuff like that is very moving but also really tragic, if you think about consumerism and what's driving a lot of the issues right now.
I get the impression of the ice fields as a quiet place, so when you go there and set up a portable studio, what are you recording? There are a couple things at hand: one, natural sounds put in the filter of digital media are no longer natural, they're audio files. What I wanted to do was just kind of explore that kind of paradoxically, and artificial vs. natural. What ended up happening is these ice fields are not quiet places, they're huge echo chambers on one level or another. Every footstep you make on the ice crunching, or snow crunching, or the gritty gravel and rocks and so on, you are a kind of an amplifying machine walking around; the landscape is huge, and you think of the scale of these kinds of places, there are only about 2000 some odd people there.
So a very tiny portion of humanity will ever go to Antarctica, let alone experience it, and I was trying to figure out some ways to convey that sense of distance and space. The funny thing was Werner Herzog was shooting there at the same time; he was on the other side of the continent when he was shooting his film. But scale is important for this because I think most art music is about the city, and looking at global urban culture through the prism of documents, files, records, multimedia clips, and so on. So going to Antarctica was kind of hitting a reset button along with that. When you were talking about what I was recording, you can make beats out of the sound of waves and water, you can make rhythms out of the sound of wind, but Antarctica represents an extreme in all of those. The wind wasn't just normal wind, it was so strong you could actually stand up and it would hold you.
Can you talk about what an audience member is going to experience here, because there are a lot of different elements to the performance. First and foremost it's about music and it's about multimedia. Those are the two elements that I think really need to be factored in when you're looking at how a multimedia symphony can function right now. You were talking about Koyaanisqatsi earlier. That's one of the predecessors, but also Wagner's idea of Gesamtkunstwerk, which I'm a big fan of, this idea of pulling leitmotifs and text and trying to update it with 21st century technology. It's been an eye opener for me. So we ended up working with stuff like fog, simulated water sounds, projections, as if you're floating through water, stuff like that.
The audience can experience both a symphony and an experience. When you normally see music, you go to a concert, you sit down, you stand up, whatever. What I'm trying to do is figure out ways of immersion, and getting people to feel the information aesthetics; that's kind of my nickname for this whole project. So the music is based on geometry, based on certain kinds of layered minimalism, because that's what ice is about. If you look at the geometric or molecular structure of ice, there are even different kinds of ice. Physics defines ice as a state when water has been put into a certain temperature range, but the molecules rearrange themselves at certain temperatures and so on. So this piece to me, the metaphor, the dominant motif is about the sound of ice.
There are musicians playing along with you? Yeah, I have a string ensemble called the International Contemporary Ensemble, which amusingly enough means ICE. Especially with hip hop, it's all about word play. So in black culture a lot of people are into ice-- Ice Cube, Ice-T, Vanilla Ice and so on. And the sociology that people give for that is a culture of cool; what it means to me at least is an ironic bizarre consumerism about bling bling, diamonds and gold. When you go back to the person who coined the term "bling bling," Lil Jon, I always chuckle a little at the fact that he wanted his face and teeth to be like ice, so that you will be stunned by the glare of of ice. I always chuckle over these kinds of metaphors.
What are the visual elements to this? The visual material is film that I shot when I was in Antarctica and archival material. I ended up working with a group of people from Sony who gave me software and other bits and pieces and I shot the whole film in High Definition. Then we edited it to kind of concert cinematic style.
When you were recording the audio were all the sounds natural, or were any sounds staged or created by a human element? Well I guess I was the human element, because I was recording and carrying the stuff around. I'd say the editing process is even more disruptive of what you would consider nature, because you're taking slices of nature and trying to make it into some kind of composition. It's layers, it's natural sounds that have been condensed and pulled into this editing process and pulled into a form of music. I'm a huge fan of John Cage. In fact, one of his pieces is called "In a Landscape," from 1948, and it was a very big influence on this project. He just closed his eyes, sat around and tried to imagine the sound of that, and made a very beautiful music piece. I like metaphors like that.
Did you capture any animal sounds, because I saw the Herzog film you mentioned, and some of the sounds he recorded, I think it was the seals or porpoises underwater, were really surreal. That's seals yeah. They make this really bizarre cracking, screeching, almost electronic sounds. Yes, I got stuff like that, different kinds of penguins, there's lots of different species. Above all, to me, the main thing was the landscape.
Would you want to go back to Antarctica? Yeah, within the next couple years, definitely. I was hoping to go this year, but there's only a certain amount of time.
Do you feel like it really drove home for you, in a deeper way, what's happening with climate change? Yes. I think what it does is it pulls it into a personal perspective. As human beings we need a story, we need narrative, we need structure. It was something that allowed me to understand this from a perspective that felt like, that helped me really feel like...how should I put it, like not being so abstract about it? When it comes to global warming, you can show data, you can show charts, but until people really feel like the world has changed in their personal head space, it's very difficult for people to get the abstraction.
I'm really looking forward to this. Thanks. One thing I would definitely want people to think about is sonic landscapes, what that means in the 21st century. We have all these wireless networks, all the satellite feeds going, we have fiber optic cables holding everything together. But at the end of the day it's about people, and it's about our place on this planet, and I think music is one of the best tools humanity has every had to try to understand these things.