DJ Spooky brings the beat of the avant-garde back to Big Sur.
Thursday, August 14, 2008
Paul Miller’s lectures– like his “Remix Culture” talk at Chapel Hill, N.C., viewable on YouTube– leap over a dizzy range of terrain, from the films of Méliès to black inventor Garrett A. Morgan to Grandmaster Flash to minimalism. The man better known as DJ Spooky That Subliminal Kid fixates on the fusion of the digital and cultural, and embraces “remix” and “rip-mix-burn” phenomena.
“The new software [Pro Tools, shareware, Sonar] has really democratized the creative process,” he says via e-mail. As he writes, he’s sitting backstage between sets at a show he’s doing with Ozomatli and O.A.R. in Philadelphia. “A lot of musicians from the old mentality are really into the idea of something staying ‘the same’– the new mentality is to say that anything, and everything, will always change. And that’s OK.”
His latest project, Terra Nova: The Antarctica Suite, encapsulates his progressive, experimental approach to technology and creativity. He traveled to Antarctica earlier this year, set up a mobile studio, recorded the sounds of the glacial ice– which he calls “a document of time”– and created an art film with political undercurrents and a score out of the “samples of the environment.”
Miller’s Aug. 15 appearance at the Henry Miller Library, however, harkens back to Big Sur’s storied past.
“The evening will be a kind of ‘literary mashup,’ ” Miller says. “Collage, multimedia and contemporary composition are the core elements, but there’s a lot of connections between how the avant-garde poetry of the ‘Beats’ of one era mirrors the new poetry of the [hip-hop] ‘beats’ of our rhythm era.”
Miller’s performance will include Henry Miller recordings “tuned to the acoustics of the surrounding redwoods” from a CD that comes with his latest book, Sound Unbound; the CD also includes recordings of James Joyce, Aphex Twin, Allen Ginsberg and others.
“I’ll come back to [Ginsberg’s] poetry a lot during the evening and re-score some of his key video presentations.”
A native of Washington, D.C., Miller studied French literature and philosophy (“both totally useless,” he once said) at Bowdoin College in Maine, moved to New York and promptly began assembling a music and art collective called Soundlab. The group fused hip-hop with ambient electronic music into a new genre called “illbient” that flared brightly in the mid-’90s underground scene.
He released an unceasing flow of music in the form of EPs, LPs, singles, compilations and mix-tapes, including the score for the 1998 Sundance Grand Jury Prize-winning film Slam, starring Saul Williams, and an influential 2002 album called Optometry.
More a team player than an auteur, Miller has collaborated with playwright Robert Wilson, composer Steve Reich, Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore, rapper Kool Keith, Yoko Ono, Chuck D of Public Enemy, Columbia University’s Dean of Architecture Bernard Tschumi and legions of others.
His work has been published in Village Voice, The Source, Artforum and Raygun; he’s also written a collection of essays called Rhythm Science. Even his DJ moniker, “That Subliminal Kid,” reflects a literary reference: It’s borrowed from the William Burroughs’ novel Nova Express, a literary “cut-up” book that takes samples from other works like The Wasteland.
His multimedia art earned him inclusion into the vaunted Whitney Biennial and Venice Bienniels for Architecture and Art, and a 2004 solo show at New York’s Paula Cooper Gallery. And last year, he “remixed” D.W. Griffith’s film Birth of a Nation into a mixed-media performance collage that dissects its racist propaganda; the Sydney Morning Herald called it “beautiful, hopeful and disturbing.”
Miller is now on tour to promote Sound Unbound, a book he edited of music essays by cultural luminaries like Moby, French composer Pierre Boulez, Brian Eno, Chuck D, media activist Naeem Mohaiementhat, science fiction writer Bruce Sterling and about 40 others.
From various different angles, the contributors weigh in on, says Miller– “sound art, digital media, music and new compositional strategy.” Specifically, the book spans Jamaican sound systems, Vivaldi’s influence on Bach, mathematical bell paterns; Islam’s influence on hip-hop; video opera; interviews, memoir, essays.
What it all adds up to, in part, is best put by Lev Manovich of UC San Diego’s Visual Arts Department, who calls Miller “one of the best cultural radars in the world today.”
Still backstage in Philadelphia, Miller says he has great admiration for the Big Sur library’s namesake author. Asked what Henry Miller means to him, he responds: “Audio flow– his style of writing and the kind of sensuous quality that he used to describe a lot of themes in his books are inspirations for me.”
Then he brings Henry Miller into the present, in a sense recontextualizing him: “Imagine [Henry Miller] in a club now! I think he’d really enjoy how ‘mix’ culture has set the tone for how people think about modern sensibilities.”
Another cutting-edge musician and contemporary, Philip Glass, will follow Miller’s appearance the next weekend.
“Philip is an old associate,” says Miller. “I think he’s an amazing figure in contemporary music. Our styles are totally different, though. But he’s a nice guy. I look to him as a firm supporter of progressive culture in the U.S.”
As much traveling as Paul Miller does, he’s never been to the Monterey Peninsula before. “But,” he says, “I hear it’s dope!”
The same can be said of the man also known as DJ Spooky.
DJ Spooky performs 8pm Friday, Aug. 15, at the Henry Miller Library, Highway 1, 5 miles south of Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park, Big Sur. $25. 667-2574, www.henrymiller.org.