DJ Spooky On Ice: An Interview About Remixing a Melting Antarctica

It's easy to get mixed up when talking to Paul D. Miller. You want to call him DJ Spooky, or Spooky, and you almost want to say That Subliminal Kid -- a nickname he stole from a character in a Burroughs novel.

This nominal confusion isn't the result of some Diddy-esque identity crisis. There's just no pinning down a nerdy DJ who's built his dizzying career on remixing every musical genre against a backdrop of archival film, leftist politics, Afro-modernity, Dadaism, science fiction, neo-Marxist philosophy and old school hip-hop. His list of collaborators and citations is a mess of old Lower East Side and outer borough diasporas; the resume is packed with biennials, academic texts and thought-dense mixtapes, including his newest release, The Secret Song, which features Thurston Moore, Rob Swift and composer Graham Reynolds.

After messing with DW Griffith's seminal 1912 Hollywood blockbuster (and white-supremist ode) The Birth of a Nation, Miller flipped the script on himself in 2007 and packed his recording gear for a trip to Antarctica. The resulting multimedia performance piece, Terra Nova: Sinfonia Antarctica, will premiere tonight as part of the Brooklyn Academy of Music's Next Wave Festival, with back up from the International Contemporary Ensemble, or ICE. (Get it?) I had some questions for the very un-icy sound artist, philosopher, turntablist, author -- whatever you want to call him. To begin, a little Russian ice-breaker:

Alex Pasternack: You were just in St. Petersburg? Must feel like Antarctica there.
Paul D. Miller / DJ Spooky: Actually, St. Petersburg is pretty warm these days. You'd expect it to be cold, but alas... global warming is serious, and real. People were wearing short sleeve shirts! In late November!

Like most people, your work is set on terra firma, at least physically, geographically. What in the world inspired you to want to go to the end of the world?
It was the kind of place that you'd think about as the most remote on Earth, and I wanted to hit the reset button on some issues about creativity, what is going on with music (everyone is using the same same software!). I guess I wanted to say position it as a scenario that would open up a dialog between the environment and sound. Sound art is kool!

Definitely. One of my favorite parts in Herzog's Antarctica documentary was when they listened to the ice. Those sounds were gorgeous and haunting. Spooky even! Did that film influence you?
His film didn't influence me, but I am really glad that it bought attention to the McMurdo Base. There's only about 2000 people on Antarctica, they need some love!

You betcha. Were there any other influences or references points for you?
Lots and lots of influences and reference points. There's a great phrase I have on my mental "stickies" board that Goethe said ages ago: architecture is nothing but frozen music. I like to think of my Antarctic project as dethawing that process and getting people to think about the way remixing can make music liquid architecture. John Cage is another influence - his piece from 1948 "In A Landscape" is a stunningly beautiful meditation on the same kind of ideas I was looking at, and John Luther Adams, who is one of my favorite composers - he did a piece called "A Sonic Geography of the Artic" - there's alot more, but yeah, there's only so much space... Duke Ellington's "geography" piece "Harlem Tone Poem" is a big inspiration.

Would you say this Terra Nova is a departure at all from your previous work?
It's all about the mix. So nah, it's no departure from my work, just an evolution.

Read more about how Spooky managed to record on Antarctic glaciers and what hip hop has to do with the environment -- and watch a trailer for Terra Nova -- at Motherboard