Ghost in the machine
Conceptual artist/sound pioneer DJ Spooky comes to the Brick Works
DJ Spooky is not only a leading turntablist, he’s also a cutting-edge artist and art theorist.
DESIGN & EDITING INFOWhether raised before or after the advent of rap, most people still think of DJs as individuals who spin dance music. While the young may be familiar with turntablists battling one another for bragging rights over who can fade, cut or juggle records better, most audiences have yet to acknowledge DJing as an artistic form of audio collage to be experienced like a post-modern art exhibit.
Paul D. Miller, a.k.a. DJ Spooky, is the man who helped pioneer the so-called “Illbient” genre of electronic music, a style that creates an open audio environment full of prerecorded samples (for example: the clack of subway tracks or a flock of birds rising) combined with random rhythmic patterns, spare bass beats, and whatever else the artist hears inside his head and can compose by means of digital manipulation. While it may, at times, move people to dance; it is usually more of a virtual architecture of the imagination represented by the unique audio world of the DJ and what he brings to the table.
“To me, electronic music is the folk music of the 21st century,” Miller once told the Boston Phoenix newspaper. “Instead of having everyone know a blues riff on guitar … you have a scene about mixing and mix tapes. … Everyone knows certain beats. Technology is making the process democratic. … [With the Illbient genre] it’s not a withdrawal from the urban landscape [as with ambient music], it’s an immersion in it.”
Miller, a Washington, D.C., native who studied philosophy and French at Bowdoin College, in Maine, moved to New York in the early ‘90s and became involved with multi-media “happenings” at clubs like the Knitting Factory and various artists’ hangouts in the Williamsburg area of Brooklyn. He became known for doing something different by breaking down barriers within the electronic world. He was also carving out his own niche as a new breed of conceptual DJ concerned with recapturing the imagination at a time when so many young people appear to be stale in that department, thanks to the proliferation of media, from television and movies to computers, in their lives.
Although Miller praises the advent of the Walkman, designed by Sony’s Akio Morita and Masaru Ibuka in Japan, he is different from young listeners who might immerse or isolate themselves within what the critic Allan Bloom terms “nonstop commercially prepackaged masturbational fantasy … with room only for the intense, changing, crude and immediate.” Miller has not turned his back on traditional culture, but rather admires those who embrace the future while holding respectfully to the past.
When not molding sound, he also likes to theorize quite a bit. His eclectic writings, which read like a mix of science fiction and experimental philosophy, have appeared in publications as diverse as the Village Voice, Artforum, Paper magazine and The Source, while his work as an artist has been featured in the Whitney Biennial, the Venice Biennial for Architecture, the Andy Warhol Museum, in Pittsburgh, and other diverse venues.
But he is still best known as DJ Spooky, working with artists ranging from composer Iannis Xenakis and rapper Kool Keith to rocker Thurston Moore (Sonic Youth) and artist/composer Yoko Ono.
As he told the Harvard Advocate in an entire issue dedicated to exploring contemporary African-American intellectual culture and its relationship to electronic music, Miller believes that human and machine evolution are becoming utterly combined and the best way to see it is as a symbiotic relationship.
“U.S. African Americans were the first ‘generation X.’ We had everything taken away, and the old forms of culture had to be reconstructed. That’s where you get the first idea of found objects, and the whole post-modern situation, to me at least, is a reflection of when you feel your identity being dispossessed/dispersed. … [Now] there is so much information about who you are or what you should be that you’re not left with the option of trying to create your own ‘mix’ of yourself. … The only way we can deal with it all is to filter, and that’s what DJs do. The music is our way of condensing and reflecting a world made of bits and bytes back to some sort of individual meaning.”
Those who come out for his show at the Brick Works are sure to get a taste of Spooky’s vision of his world, namely the hectic mass of population, noise, pollution and media saturation that is New York City.
“At this point I can’t think of a sound I haven’t heard or that I couldn’t make. … For me the strangest sounds I hear in my life come from inside, not outside."