DJ Spooky Shatters Musical Boundaries

DJ Spooky performs a unique combination of intellectualism and performance art (Courtesy).

DJ Spooky performs a unique combination of intellectualism and performance art (Courtesy).

By Leah Lavigne

In honor of the endless technological innovations that shape the way the College community communicates, learns and engages, the 2014 Clifford Symposium centered on the theme of “Transforming the Academy in the Digital Age.” On Sept. 18 and 19, distinguished visiting scholars and faculty members of the College held discussions and gave lectures on the cultural, economic and social shifts caused by rapidly advancing technologies, focusing on the effects those shifts have on the academic community.

The Clifford Symposium’s culminating event on Friday, Sept. 19, “Of Water and Ice,” was a dynamic presentation and performance by New York City producer and intellectual Paul D. Miller, also known by his stage name, DJ Spooky, That Subliminal Kid.

Born in Washington, D.C., Paul D. Miller studied philosophy and French literature at Bowdoin College in Maine. Soon after, he began recording singles and LP’s under the stage name ‘DJ Spooky, That Subliminal Kid,” derived from the ‘spooky’ sounds of the hip-hop, techno and ambient music styles he samples, as well as the character The Subliminal Kid in William S. Burroughs’ 1964 novel “Nova Express”.

The performance explored DJ Spooky’s multidisciplinary study of Antarctica through stills from his 2011 text “The Book of Ice,” audio and visual samples of the uninhabited continent’s climate and algorithmically generated musical patterns based on climate data collected and processed in a temporary studio on his trip.

DJ Spooky is at once performer and intellectual, meticulous and improvisational. His focused attention is not just on creation, but the process of how artistic form is conceived through cultural influences and samples of previous works. Professor of Film and Media Culture Jason Mittell explained that this rare and unique combination of talents and interests proved to be a perfect fit for this year’s theme of “Transforming the Academy in the Digital Era.”

“It was really challenging to come up with an artist who would both speak to how digital technologies are transforming their artwork and have an intellectual foundation of that,” he said. “There aren’t many of those, so when my colleague [Assistant Professor of Film and Media Culture] Louisa Stein said that she’d just seen this artist who showed video and audio work and talked about the concepts of remix and digital manipulation and all the various social and cultural issues and creative possibilities of that, I said, ‘Wait a minute, he would be the perfect person!’”

DJ Spooky and his management team pitched a variety of performance options for the Symposium, including a DJ dance party rave or a lecture featuring the academic side of his persona, but the winning pitch, incorporating a variety of mediums from his study of Antarctica, provided a combination of both of these with an added environmental twist.

“For me, what was so appealing about this was, first, that it’s touching on an academic area of research that is obviously very important socially, but also very prominent here at Middlebury, talking about climate change and environmental studies, but also that he’s doing it not from a scholarly perspective, but from an artistic perspective,” Mittell said.

DJ Spooky began running through photos of his trip to Antarctica on his iPad. DJ Spooky’s ‘lectures’ in between songs would be better described as dynamic conversations in which the artist shared the sources of his inspiration and information while providing engaging, efficient examples of the intellectual thought processes of his work.

Using his iPad as the facilitator of the multimedia presentations within the performance, DJ Spooky showed first-hand how digital technologies have truly transformed access to content and tools never available before, making it possible for anyone with technological access to add to this new era of open creative expression.

The performance stimulated the senses through sets of juxtapositions. DJ Spooky engaged in discussion about his music, connecting each work to its intellectual basis before spinning each dynamic, throbbing track of music that will never be created in quite the same way again. This completely digital, revolutionary use of iPad technology and apps stood in stark contrast to the violin player standing on the other end of the stage using a 9th century instrument to both augment and combat the musical motifs of each piece.

DJ Spooky’s motivations for delving into a project steeped in discussion about climate change are connected to his goals as an artist.

“I grew up in a family that was very intensive about information, and my idea was that art and ideas are never separate from social justice or change, so climate issues for me are a part of that,” he said. “One of the things that really blew my mind was just how people are on autopilot about climate change and consumerism, so I feel that arts can help people reimagine and reframe what’s going on. I’m an avant-garde oriented artist, I’m not mainstream and I have no desire to be mainstream, but I do think that you can make room for new styles and new voices and new approaches, which are needed more than ever.”

By setting up a studio in Antarctica, DJ Spooky wanted to explore a way for electronic music to respond to climate issues and examine humankind’s ever-changing relationship with the vanishing arctic poles. By using the urban landscape as a sound tool, DJ Spooky remixed sounds generated from the most remote place on the planet to resemble styles that typically come out of the city like hip-hop and electronica. The first tune he performed, ‘Antarctic Rhythms,’ began with Jason Bergman, a Barnett, VT violinist who performs with the Vermont Philharmonic Orchestra.

All of the musical selections sampled at the performance came from the free DJ Spooky app, which the artist constantly referred to and worked with as his only performance tool. Designed in collaboration with Musicsoft Arts, the app allows users to sample tracks from their devices’ music collection or SoundCloud and use sound mixing features on the app to sample from other works and create original pieces. Downloaded over 25 million times, the app’s popularity is a testament to the prevalence of remix culture and the desire for more innovative technological creative outlets and tools.

Every musical sound and remix of the night came directly from DJ Spooky’s deft use of the app, which was entirely visible to the audience through a large screen projector. During each song, audience members absorbed audial information and the live visual of the violinist playing each of DJ Spooky’s coordinating compositions, the projection of the app in use in the middle of the stage and DJ Spooky at his iPad playing as an improvisational, reactionary force to the preordained violin compositions.

Though violin and iPad are not traditionally paired together, as soon as each performance began, it was remarkable how well the two instruments worked together. The audience, too, made up in equal numbers of both academics and students, buzzed with an electronic excitement at the end of the first song.

Citing one of his favorite filmmakers, Georges Méliès, DJ Spooky pointed to sampling and remixing in the short 1900 film One Man Band, in which Méliès transposes an image of himself seven times in the same shot, each version of himself with a different instrument. This time consuming process had to be spliced and crafted by hand, and is one of the earliest examples of a sampling and remix, a concept that pervades current discourse on artistic innovation.

DJ Spooky explained that every song is fundamentally comprised of loops and layers drawn from sound selections, motifs and elements, emphasizing that music is not something that should be played the same way time and time again, but instead should be revisited and reinvented.

DJ Spooky worked with quantum physicist Brian Greene on “The Book of Ice” to map the sounds of ice as data points that could be mathematically entered into software to generate algorithms of how ice actually forms. Calling this middle ground between poetics and science a form of ‘geek hip-hop,’ DJ Spooky compared patterns present in snowflakes as very similar to patterns that form in genres of music. Within “The Book of Ice,” QR codes unlock hidden data about climate change and the mathematical ice data that went into each piece of music.

In the four other songs he performed throughout the night, the distinct musical sounds and motifs made more and more sense as DJ Spooky explained a new kind of literacy based in the ability to record and recognize patterns in any form of life. While viewing a snowflake at high resolution, the motif matching the snowflake’s data patterns rang true throughout Wilson Hall, and only seconds later, the violin joined in the pattern in a slightly transposed way.

“[DJ Spooky] embodies this hybrid between the analog strings and the digital iPad, and the fact that digital is not just a gimmick but rather the form of the music where the sound generation is tied to the content of the piece,” Mittell said. “This is a perfect summation of what digital technologies can do to transform artwork and cross the boundaries that I think very often feel rigid between creative practice and scholarly research.

Nobody owns the ice, and one of DJ Spooky’s messages during the performance was that open systems allow anyone to remix. He enthusiastically encouraged those in the audience to download his app, listen to and remix any of his music and embrace the digital age’s open flow of information. The artist’s work can be explored at www.djspooky.com and www.djspooky.com/antarctica.

Both students and academics attending the performance seemed impressed by the innovations of DJ Spooky’s imagination. His abilities as a DJ alone recommend him to the collegiate setting, but his added intellectualism made him a perfect candidate to fit into all aspects of campus endeavors.

“I think this is a wonderful approach to the topic, and I’m really optimistic that after all the various ways of thinking and disseminating ideas and exploring new possibilities that the lectures and workshops generated over the two days, the artwork of DJ Spooky will make you say ‘Wow, this is what you can do with all this,’” Mittell said.

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