Breaking the ice with DJ Spooky
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Dropping science is an important part of any DJ's job, but most aren’t actual professors. DJ Spooky (a.k.a. Paul Miller) has the academic cred to back it up, teaching summers at the European Graduate School in Saas-Fee, Switzerland. His world travels don't end there, either: While most musicians are content to tour Europe and Asia, DJ Spooky's work has taken him as far as Antarctica, where he recently spent time contemplating, composing, and collecting samples for his new multimedia symphony, "Terra Nova: Sinfonia Antarctica," which he brings to Hogg Memorial Auditorium on Nov. 20. That's not the only project Miller's been busying himself with, however; last month he completed his ninth album, The Secret Song, aided by guest appearances from Thurston Moore, The Coup, and Austin avant-garde composer Graham Reynolds on a number of tracks. The A.V. Club caught up with DJ Spooky to discuss the connection between George W. Bush and Phillip K. Dick, why the planet is like one giant recording, and how quickly you’ll die if you fall into Antarctic waters.
The A.V. Club: How did you end up working with Graham Reynolds?
DJ Spooky: He's an old friend of mine. I met Graham through a film-soundtrack project that we were both working on for Phillip K. Dick, one of my favorite science-fiction writers. I did music for some of the scenes in the film adaptation of A Scanner Darkly [which Reynolds scored], and we ended up staying in touch. When I was getting ready for my album, I kept thinking, "I need strings, I need strings," and we'd been talking about collaborating for a while. Austin's classical-music community rocks. I sent them the musical notation material for a couple of projects, and they were able to flip it back, like, immediately, with high-resolution strings and a really intuitive feel for the way that I had worked on the music. I cut that up, sliced and diced it, and they would come up with an interpretation and send it back to me. Nobody was in the same room at the same time.
AVC: There's a George W. Bush sample on "Measure By Measure" that you don't hear a lot—where he talks about capitalism in a way that's almost philosophical, especially for Bush. Where did you find that?
DS: Bush speaks with a bizarre cadence. It's kind of like an android from a Phillip K. Dick novel or something. So it's very easy to slice and dice him up. That sample's from where he's giving this weird speech at the Manhattan Economic Institute. Given how bizarre America's economy is, and how abstract the whole financial crisis is, I thought it'd be a good way to bring home that he's the person who was heavily responsible for the economic policy that set up the whole thing. All of these right-wing lunatics have a really selective amnesia. So I remixed him. The whole idea of the album has been solidly exploring economics.
AVC: That's a pretty different theme than "Terra Nova," the project you went to Antarctica to do, which is described as "without politics or preaching."
DS: The whole idea with that is to think of the world as layers of recordings.—and when I say recordings, I'm not talking about, like, records. In Antarctica, every 10 feet you get down into the ice, there's a couple hundred thousand years of history. The dust that's in the air is captured down there—everything from volcanoes to the actual composition of what was floating around. If you dig down, it's like a record, these eerily layered aspects of the planet. So you've got sampling, right? You're taking bits and pieces of things and giving it a new structure in a way that's unexpected, and completely creates a new form out of it. In Antarctica, I wanted to go down with the same idea. I was sampling for a record, but actually sampling the environment around me. Sampling is about playing with your environment, and playing with memories, and what's going to happen when you take it out to another context. For me, going to Antarctica was also kind of like hitting the reset button, so to speak. I think there's too much music, and I need to clear my mind.
AVC: If you’re looking for peace and quiet, it seems like Antarctica would definitely be the place.
DS: The loudest noises you hear there are wind and/or penguins—and very occasionally a volcano eruption. There are only 2,000 people on the whole continent. It's stunningly beautiful. It's one of those places where nature itself is kind of the poetry of what's going on—and when I say poetry, I mean that you've got to listen to the land. Close your eyes and just imagine the evolution over millions of years that nobody's been there. I was there in the middle of the Antarctic summer, and in the summer, if you fall in the water, you die in about two minutes. That's from hypothermic shock. In the winter, if you fall in the water, your muscles don't even know how to process that kind of cold, so everything just shuts down. It's one of those things where your body just goes into suspended animation very quickly, and you just die. Your lungs can't breathe. Nothing works. Your body just shuts down. We're not really built for the place.