POLAR VORTEX: WHO WROTE THE BOOK OF ICE?

Paul D. Miller — aka DJ Spooky, That Subliminal Kid — joins Monmouth University faculty members on March 21, for a free performance of music, words and images inspired by his travels to the Antarctic continent. (courtesy sozo artists)

(Expanded from an article published in The Coaster newspaper, Asbury Park NJ, March 15, 2018)

“I think of Antarctica as a place of meditation and deep time,” says Paul D. Miller, the multimedia master who explores an array of creative frontiers under the name DJ Spooky, That Subliminal Kid. “Everyone who has been there is humbled by the scenario — it really is the most un-Earth like place on this planet.”

Even for a multi-platform artist who’s traveled the world — delivering his  work to audiences at universities, museums and concert halls in cities on several continents — it might seem just a step or two out of accepted bounds to take one’s act to the place that he calls “a kind of Utopia at the end of the world…the only place with no government.”

But then, accepted bounds (or any other creative protocols and pigeonholes) mean pretty close to nothing, to a  man who describes himself as “an ‘interdisciplinary’ artist…and that means all boundaries are blurred.”

In the space of some two decades in the public eye, the native of Washington, DC has compelled attention as a trip-hop/ “illbient” recording artist; a turntable DJ of expansively experimental vision; a software designer; a composer for ballet troupes, orchestras and filmmakers; an exhibited media artist at major galleries; an artist in residence at NYC’s Met museum; an author (of the MIT-published The Imaginary App); an educator, a magazine editor (ORIGIN), and a performer who’s mixed and matched with everyone from avant garde composer Iannis Xennakis and Yoko Ono, to members of Public Enemy, Sonic Youth, and Slayer.

Maybe the best way to sum up Spooky is to go with what National Geographic called him in 2014: an Emerging Explorer. By that point, the artist’s fascination with Antarctica — its continued existence just outside the borders of global politics, and its station on the  front lines of climate science — had  already resulted in Miller’s The Book of Ice, a “part fictional manifesto, part history, part science book” work that used text, art, photographs and icecutting-edge graphics to blueprint a new vision for humanity’s interface with the natural world.

A companion, open source DJ Spooky album, Of Water and Ice, was released in 2013 — and as far back as 2009, the artist was treating live audiences to performances of Terra Nova: Sinfonia Antarctica, a composition that uses weather-related algorithms, the sounds of shifting ice, and a live string ensemble to create a data-driven “meditation about landscape.”

It’s a work that’s remained in touring circulation for several years and variations; constantly in motion “because it’s a project based on science and art in a way that lets different modalities evolve. Data never stays the same. Neither should music.”

“I sample and remix the material in a way that sticks to how we look at sound and data,” Miller explains. “The book is music. Music is in the book, and they’re all connected by being founded on climate science.”

Which brings us to Monmouth University, where on the evening of Wednesday, March 21, the Pollak Theatre plays host to That Subliminal Kid in an exclusive multi-media performance piece entitled The Book of Ice. Presented as part of the ArtNow: Performance, Art and Technology series at Monmouth, the free, public-welcome event finds Miller bringing his “Arctic Rhythms”  tour to campus in a one-time, stand-alone collaboration with area musicians and faculty members.

These include MU’s Michael Gillette and Carolyn Groff on violins, as well as Kathleen Daly (viola) and Madeleine Casparie (cello) — while DJ Spooky himself plays his original electronic music; sampling and looping the assembled sounds to create unique variations, projecting images from (and graphics inspired by) his Antarctic travels, and leading a discussion on climate change and the future of the planet.

“Eerily enough, the North Pole is far more complex politically, and you can see how it’s melting is creating a new geo political global situation,” the veteran explorer observes.

“How does that translate into sound? Every era of music reflects the political and cultural climate. Mozart reflected the cosmopolitan milieu of the Austro-Hungarian Empire of the Habsburg Court. But he almost never worked with the political scene. Ditto later composers like Wagner who was a revolutionary, or John Cage who made our entire society revise the way it thinks about music.”

“We always need a mirror to hold up to society. For me, Antarctica is the best, most powerful mirror of our times.”

A “remixed” image of Lillian Gish, from DJ Spooky’s REBIRTH OF A NATION.

While it represents an inaugural visit to the West Long Branch campus for Miller, the March 21 event marks something of an encore for DJ Spooky here in 2018, since ArtNow hosted a February screening and discussion of Rebirth of a Nation, the artist’s “remix” of director D.W. Griffith’s landmark silent film The Birth of a Nation. Notorious now as a work that glorified the resurgent Ku Klux Klan (in addition to being a favorite of President Woodrow Wilson), the 1915 epic was given the DJ treatment by Miller, who composed a new soundtrack with The Kronos Quartet, augmenting the original film with color tints and graphic elements that comment on the film’s themes in the 21st century America of Presidents Obama and Trump.

“D.W. Griffith is a really fascinating but ultimately deeply flawed character, and so are his films,” says Miller, whose full length remix of the cinematically significant milestone can be seen .

“When you look at Soviet cinema and see his peers like Eisenstein doing Battleship Potemkin, or Dziga Vertov doing collage narrative, you’re really put in a good perspective to see how America’s visions of class and race played out in Birth of a Nation. It’s still with us today…look at the Trump Administration.”

The success of the Rebirth screening prompted ArtNow chair Corey Dzenko and her fellow committee members to extend the invitation to Miller  for a live performance scheduling — and upon agreeing to the March date, the artist submitted the music to the Monmouth musicians, with the aim of crafting an event that would align with the ArtNow program’s seasonal theme of “Place and Play.”

The “play” in this case is the ever-expanding methodology of DJ culture, and its almost infinite capacity for remixed “versions” — and the place in question is, of course, Antarctica; a place to which Miller plans a return in the near future, with the goal of collecting material for a second edition of The Book of Ice.

“Physically, we aren’t made for Antarctica, and it shows us how fragile we all are,” says Miller. “Our bodies couldn’t last there without the support of technology and a lot of equipment.”

“I guess I’d say that we are in the Anthropocene Era because of the way our actions have impacted the planet. We need to figure out that almost 99% or more of all species on this planet go extinct. Humanity really doesn’t make sense of how short our time frame is on the world stage,” the artist continues, in reference to the eons of natural history on display in the icy continent.

“When you go to Antarctica you see deep time. Millions of years is inscripted on the ice, and you are left with a wide variety of impressions that just brings things down to this: humanity is a fleeting moment of the great story that’s about 4.5 billion years long. And counting. We just need art to help us get how deep the story goes.”

Admission to the March 21, 6 pm performance of THE BOOK OF ICE at Monmouth University is free of charge. Call the Pollak Theatre box office at 732-571-3512 for more info.