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There were probably some disappointed kiddies shut out of the American Museum of Natural History's Hall of Ocean Life—the room with the giant fiberglass blue whale hanging from the ceiling—one recent Sunday afternoon, but the panel on climate change was a ticketed affair. Those fortunate enough to attend witnessed an Antarctica-themed discussion between New York Times science blogger Andrew C. Revkin, scientist and Weather Channel personality Heidi Cullen, and Paul D. Miller, a/k/a DJ Spooky that Subliminal Kid. Straddling the thresholds between musician, theorist, and conceptual artist much like John Cage (someone Miller admires greatly) or Yoko Ono (someone he worked with recently), the turntable/laptop technician and multimedia maverick is no stranger to big issues. With Rebirth of a Nation, his DJ-does-film mashup of D.W. Griffith's Birth of a Nation, he tackled racism; of late, he's finding new ways of thinking about climate change, most recently by traveling to Antarctica and composing an audio/visual symphony about it.
Scoring the film Scott of the Antarctic in 1949, Ralph Vaughan Williams was the first to musically render the continent's frozen grandeur with his Sinfonia Antarctica. Commissioned by the Brooklyn Academy of Music for the Next Wave Festival, Terra Nova: Sinfonia Antarctica, a traditionally scored symphony augmented by copious sampling and Miller's own film footage, is the culmination of several years' work, drawing on history and contemporary science to better understand what's happening now. "Climate change affects everyone, and it was something that I felt needed to be explored," he says. "The field recordings, photographs, and film are all aspects of a project that looks at contemporary art and data as one and the same thing." For Miller, the connection between ice, music, and humanity is as blindingly apparent as the sun glaring off the continent's vast reflective expanses: He points out how ice-core sampling reveals layers of the planet's history, likening them to the grooves in a record.
As for his field research, because he didn't have time to wait for science grants and already enjoyed support from BAM executive producer Joseph Melillo and the project's other sponsors, Miller hopped the Academic Ioffe out of Ushuaia, using the Russian ship as his home base for four weeks of Antarctic exploration: "I went solo and did everything—camera, edits, composition. I worked with some of the people on the boat to get different camera angles, but, yeah, in general, it had to be a solo project."
During eight-hour hikes, along with learning that penguins stink like their own shit, Miller's ideas about Antarctica took shape as he recorded the polar sounds that cue the symphony's moods. "I made all of the components of the symphony modular, kind of like Lego blocks of sound, and you can mix and sample the elements in any way," he explains. At BAM this week, he'll be backed by International Contemporary Ensemble members Jen Curtis and Erik Carlson on violin, Kivie Cahn-Lipman on cello, and Jacob Greenberg on piano as he handles the visuals and "deejays the ensemble," sampling them live "and layering it with material from ambient, discrete sounds," like his field recordings of calving glaciers, slushing water, and katabatic wind that roars with a sinister backbeat.
Miller admits that his carbon footprint is "reflected in my frequent-flier miles." But in his defense, "I'm an uprooted artist of the floating world. Old borders mean nothing in the era of our information economy, and I want to make compositions that reflect that." While these performances won't be science lessons or even environmental sermons, they will aim to connect the audience with that vast expanse of ice, as a reminder of the marvelous and sobering truth that no matter what we do to the natural world, it will outlast us all.
DJ Spooky performs 'Terra Nova: Sinfonia Antarctica' December 2 through 5 at BAM's Howard Gilman Opera House