Paul Miller, a.k.a. DJ Spooky, is a musical journeyman. He has made music that touches on a wide variety of styles, from a wide variety of places, with a wide variety of collaborators. He’ll perform Ice Music, inspired by a trip to Antarctica, at the Nevada Museum of Art on July 21. The concert is presented in partnership with the Holland Project and will feature musicians from the Reno Philharmonic.
What can you tell me about Ice Music?
I took a studio to Antarctica to think about music composition and the way we can reframe some of the issues facing everyone—climate change is a reality—and basically it was about exploring some of the more remote parts of the planet as a way of generating material for both music and art. I’m a big fan of how music can touch so many parts of what it means to be human. It’s all about using music as a way to create more information about the way we live. I guess you could say for me music isn’t music—it’s information. That’s what the show Ice Music is all about. The studio for most artists is a place to go away from the world and create. For me, it’s the opposite—the world is the studio.
What appeals to you about Earth’s Polar Regions? What’s unique about those places?
The whole way we think about geography and landscape in an urban context is really about dividing up space—real estate, inches, meters, etc. The human scale. But when you go to places like Antarctica and the North Pole, you realize how fragile our entire existence is. It was a pretty intense experience to walk on huge ice fields, and not being sure if you could fall in or not. Putting one foot in front of the other and realizing how it could all simply collapse—that’s not something you do in the city. We’re used to “terra firma.” I kinda wanted to see how that would affect my way of creating music. People listen to music in so many ways—headphones, car stereo systems, etc.—but with the Ice Music project, I just wanted to listen to the sounds around me, and respond to the situation. There’s only about 2,000 people on the entire continent of Antarctica. There’s more people on my city block than an entire continent … and it’s a lot quieter than New York.
What are the challenges of representing, depicting or connecting to natural environments using electronic music?
I guess everything you can say about “the environment” is about intuition and emotion—we all want clean air, we all want clean water. But the reality is that there is so much that is left out of the way we describe it. You can talk about temperature. You can talk about the fact that half the state of Colorado is on fire because of climate change and human indifference. But at the end of the day, it’s all about patterns. Patterns that are being disrupted and distorted by the amount of pollution we’ve put in the environment. Stuff that has actually altered the fabric of real life in real ways. Electronic music is all about patterns. Beats, tempos, you name it. But so is the world we live in—wind, water, etc. So, I just wanted to see if I could expand my vocabulary.
This performance will be at an art museum. Do you often perform in gallery or museum settings? How is the atmosphere or energy different in that setting than a more traditional music venue?
I do concerts in a lot of different contexts. Museums, clubs—there really isn’t a difference for me. In fact, you could say that museums are changing because of the way people experience the art around them. That’s, as Martha Stewart would say, a “good thing.” Hip-hop is underrepresented in museums. I don’t want to be a cliché, but the way that this is all unfolding is about ending the museum as an isolated place in the culture, and making it more alive.
You’ll be performing with a Reno Philharmonic musicians. What can you tell me about that collaboration?One of my favorite composers is Wagner. He had a great term, “gesamkunstwerk,” which simply means “total artwork.” He was a composer and architect. I think that’s cool, and it’s a part of the way I think about process. It’s all about structure and patterns. Orchestras are pretty much a group of human beings playing in synchronization. I do most of that with my computer equipment. I’ll be sampling the material the ensemble is playing through my iPad software that I developed with Music Soft Arts. We’ve had over 12 million downloads of the software. The Reno Philharmonic is a live “turntable” for me. I’ll be working with them for riffs and elements, and adding beats and electronics that I wrote when I was in Antarctica.
There will also be a gallery exhibition based on your book, The Book of Ice, in the museum. What can you tell me about the book and exhibit?
The Book of Ice is a project that works from a simple idea and makes it evolve. I wanted to look at the idea of ice—it’s a beautiful material—and use it to generate graphic designs. I worked with a quantum physics scientist, Brian Greene, who is a big inspiration for me. His book The Elegant Universe is an incredible journey into the most complex parts of what makes this universe work. Brian wrote the introduction, and I took the project into my artwork. The graphics I designed are based on a fictional “People’s Republic of Antarctica.” It was really fun to go through the history of photography and flip it all into a graphic design project. That’s what you’ll see at the museum. I look at my peers like KAWS and Shep Fairey, or older artists like Malevich and Rodchenko, as comrades in arms, but I’m also inspired by the 1960s graphic designs of artists like Sun Mu—a North Korean graphic designer who did a lot of the official posters for Kim Jong-il etc—as precedents.
You seem to defy easy genre identification. Your music touches on a lot of different genres, including hip-hop and minimalism, noise rock and dub reggae. Where do you fit in? Do you try to balance contrasting genres, or is it all one unified continuum?
It’s all pretty much one unified field. For me, music is all about patterns. At the end of the day, let’s be honest with sound—it moves between all parameters. Hip-hop, techno, dubstep, etc.—it’s all patterns.
You’ve collaborated with a lot of very different musicians, from rappers, like Kool Keith and Public Enemy’s Chuck D., to rockers, like Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore and Slayer’s Dave Lombardo, to jazz musicians, like William Parker, to classical musicians, like Kronos Quartet. What appeals to you about collaboration?
It’s all about my record collection. I want as much as possible to create art, music and literature that reflects how “sampling” and collage can be tools to create better culture, better ways of exploring information. The people you mention above are really good examples of artists and creatives, and I’ve since worked with people like Amanda Palmer, Ryuichi Sakamoto and other artists who look at the way music can change the way we look at the world. It’s really important to get that front and center: We are all creators. I just want to see how music and art can create a stronger sense of what human beings can do.
That ability to draw from a variety of artists and musical styles and incorporate it into something new was once something unique and intrinsic to hip-hop. Is that something that’s still a vital part of hip-hop? Do you feel like you fit beneath the umbrella of hip-hop?
Ice T once said “hip hop is making something from nothing.” I couldn’t say it better—imagine how Buddhist that is! There’s a great Borges story called “On Exactitude in Science” that is one of my favorite Borges pieces. I think if I could have sat Borges down with Kool Keith in Antarctica, and bought in Freud and Jung, you couldn’t have said a better and more exact statement. That’s what my art is about too—just feel the collage.