DJ Spooky & Me

In the spring of 2002, the cover story of Signal to Noise Magazine was DJ SPOOKY MEETS MATTHEW SHIPP. Matthew Shipp is a terrific musician, one of the outstanding piano improvisors and an acquaintance. My interest in him took me right to the article. The article illuminated the incredible intelligence of both musicians in the text of the conversation between them. The article also and, significantly, brought DJ Spooky to my attention.

A couple of months ago, Thirsty Ear Records sent me a review copy of OPTOMETRY by DJ Spooky. I had literally forgotten about the article I had read in StoN, which I found out later was the seminal factor in the creation of OPTOMETRY. But I looked at the musicians listed on the OPTOMETRY CD cover featured on the recording (Shipp, Parker, Brown and McPhee) and this quickly invited me into the music. Writing about the recording was not difficult; DJ Spooky renders his "mix" totally accessible. He is the orchestrator. He is bringing his art to an understandable realm- that of music and the permutations of the way in which its components can be heard. He has the givens and he makes them his art.

When I found out subsequently that he was going to be performing at MASSMoCA in North Adams, Ma., I bought tickets immediately. I wanted to know how Paul Miller, the artist, the musician, the writer, the aka DJ Spooky, presented himself to an audience in a multi-media performance work.

The date of the performance, February 28, the last day of Black History month, approached. The idea struck me--it was totally innocent, self-motivated, completely out of my own curiosity: gee, why don’t I see if I can meet DJ Spooky and he can autograph my copy of OPTOMETRY, since I am going to his performance and I had reviewed OPTOMETRY and was sitting here with a pre-pre review copy of the sequel to OPTOMETRY, DUBTOMETRY. So I contacted Thirsty Ear, and to my surprise was launched on an interview track. The arrangements for this meeting had to be made through Paul, and the people at MASSMoCA, whom I fortunately know. Arranging interviews electronically, by email, gets a little harried but the meeting finally was set. I was going to interview Paul Miller for an hour, one on one. Me....I could not believe it. I just wanted his autograph and to express my appreciation for how he does his art. Gosh.

Resultantly, the homework imperative seized me. The day before our meeting I immersed myself in all that I could of Paul Miller, aka DJ Spooky. OPTOMETRY was audible for hours; I kept hitting the play button on the CD player. The recording’s impact was becoming stronger and stronger. I was reading Paul’s writings, which reflect exceptional erudition, literacy, and interdisciplinary viewpoints; his writings deliver a sense of streaming information bits. Out of the immersion came 7 questions. I wrote them down and was ready to go. I was not nervous. My understanding of Paul’s intentions was, I think, clear. Given my own background in conceptual art, lo, these many years ago, but still, my background and given also, my brief, but intense, history of writing about creative improvised music permitted me to comprehend Paul’s drive. All I had to do was clarify it on a personal basis.

(All words and terms in quotations are specifically attributable to Paul.)

Paul Miller is an extremely unassuming person. We sat at a table in a corner of the MASSMoCA cafe---the perfect, quiet, not "hectic" setting. Paul and I had warmed the atmosphere through preliminary conversation ---about the fact that we both were born in Washington, D.C. and about where we had each attended school. Simple small talk. He ordered something to eat. It was served to him. Then, as he began eating, there was a silence. And I said: Would you like to begin? Paul said: Yeah, sure....

I brought out my makeshift tablet of blank, unlined, stapled-together paper and laid it on the table, folded the first page back and opened my pen. I started to ask my first question in a bumbling manner whence he interrupted by saying: No tape recorder? And I said: No, I am going to take notes. He said: I like that is refreshing.

Then Paul and I dove in. My first question concerned how he viewed the expressionistic nature of his work, that is to say, the resolution of the dualism of art and music, of formalism and chance as applied to both. He only had to answer this question and the other six I had prepared fit in like they were meant to be asked. I never had to refer to my list.

Paul believes in Total Media, that there is no division between art and music or any other aspect of cultural output. "Everything is equal." Through his work, he wants to create an "architecture" that has a structure through visual media but with the integration of music becomes a "perceptual architecture of the environment". He wants to create the "Architecture of Flow", a time-space configuration brought to light and consciousness. He referenced and correlated his own work to Wagner’s orientation to his operas as "gesamkunstwerk" or total art where opera becomes sculpture.

When Paul speaks of everything being equal, he is not necessarily talking about any material aspect that would be a product of his work; he is talking about a dematerialization of a product, which idea Paul associates through his interest in Marcel Duchamp, art-historically known as the Dadaist in the early years of the 20th century, precursor & father of the conceptual art movement. Duchamp wanted to bring art back to life by making life his art. Paul’s desires have the same thrust. Paul is putting all he does into a context that actualizes his work, creates a dynamic of real time interaction of the work with the percipient. Paul believes that his life is his work. Approaching either becomes a matter of stance.

From the musical posture, Paul’ s interest is in all music , but, at this time, especially in "free jazz" due to its very nature----uncomposed, seemingly without limits, a haven of "freeform memory". Paul thinks of music as "a conduit from one moment to another" and in this way, whatever emanates from that flow is bound to be new and unheard of; in other words, music is " the soundtrack to culture". Music inspires fragmentation and recombination of parts into a whole in a "relentless forwardness". Music is "untranslatable"; it evokes a metaphor for and mythology of culture. He believes that the history of culture, history, in general, is to be "interrogated" and brought back into the present through how he re-shapes it, "remixes" it. This pursuit is actually not a new one for the artist as the culture-maker. Yet, for Paul, the concern is rooted in exposing how the "stories" of history have been told to us. History is "not cast in stone" and changes in accordance with these stories. Paul observes that the American culture cultivates almost a necessity for forgetting the past, it "becomes a blur". One of his most cogent and powerful ideas is that as a people, we have "centrifugal amnesia"; that is, we choose how & what to remember about ourselves and believe that this process of choice is one of discovery---the rest of our past is entropically thrown out from the constantly repeated motion of a spiraling whirl, like a spinning record. We basically "remember the past as a series of blanks..."

Paul regards history as a source, a "memory palace", a "land of loops" from which can be withdrawn "samples" out of which he can fashion a "mix". The loops are transparent; everything that is extracted from the loops, i.e. the samples, can be seen as potentially indicative of the intuitive artful choices that can be made for superimposition, layer upon layer or spread out as wings from the visual/aural center. One of his most ardent objectives through his art is to reveal the status of African American culture within the entire American fragmentary culture. He sees that African American culture essentially becomes the "only fragment", wherein it is responsible for bringing to the attention of America its shortcomings in order to reveal how America cannot see what it is doing to actually harm its entire culture. Which brings me to the performance, work-in-progress, at MASSMoCA: Rebirth of A Nation.

REBIRTH OF A NATION is based on D.W.. Griffith’s 1915 silent film, BIRTH OF A NATION, which, itself, is based on Thomas Dixon’s novel, THE CLANSMEN. The story is one of horror: first of all, in espousing the unconscionable existence of slavery, its being upheld and lauded in practice; and secondly, in demonstrating that once freed, the slaves would be forced to remain in a state of slavery and their freedom would be superseded by fabrications of societal strata where the white race would dominate. Paul’s desire in remaking this film by taking it apart, fragmenting it, putting it back together with elements deemed foreign to its origin, is to reroute its message and re-impregnate people’s minds with new views, new thoughts, new means to carry on through humanity: in essence, to implement change through cultural means.

The setting of the performance was straight-forward. On the stage at the left were a turntable and computer and electronic set-up, the station from which DJ Spooky would orchestrate; on the right, were microphones and a chair, the stations for African-American violinist, Daniel Bernard Roumain and a sultry, beautiful white woman, born in San Francisco and raised in Paris, soprano, Sasha Lazard. Above the stage were suspended three screens of the same size, one centralized, the other two flanking at slight angles, inward toward the audience, from the edges of the central screen. On these screens, Paul’s imagery danced. The tone was monotonous: black & white and sepia. The images were culled from the film, and in addition were included sections of videotapes of dancers dancing, photographs of electronic schematics and examples of computer graphics; the images were rolled, pushed vertically and horizontally as on a television screen, repeated on different screens, frozen, giff-ed and pixellated, layered and layered, sometimes within grid fluctuations, split only once or twice to render complete bilateral symmetry of the visuals, paused and faded. Color was introduced a mere three times: to emphasize the terror that is the redness of conflagration taking place in the film, to address the horror of the film, The Birth of a Nation, itself, in a color photo of the poster for it and, finally, to put eyes, ears, and minds to rest at the conclusion of the movement of the imagery --- the surfaces of the right and left screens were held at flat but brilliant blue.

Paul constantly adjusted the pace, timbre and intensity of the sound and the imagery. The flow of the music paralleled the flow of the imagery. The songs were mournful, languid and symptomatic of the subject matter.... SOMETIMES I FEEL LIKE A MOTHERLESS CHILD, THE BATTLE HYMN OF THE REPUBLIC. When phrasing abstractly, Roumain reverberated the electrified violin in rapid bowing, energetic staccatos and far-ranging ostinatos. Lazard’s vocalizing feminized the seriousness of the theme of the performance in a way that made it elegant in its longing and expression of pain. Paul interjected pulse, turntable scratches, rap swatches. The music coagulated with the imagery. The music was not translatable; neither was the imagery.

On the screens, there were often frames of words which narrated the motion picture, taken out of sequence to provide a startling impact in the remix of the film. At one point, in one frame on center screen were the words: get a view of the play, the bodyguard leaves his post. These words, metaphorically so, spoke of the entire purpose of the performance as Paul , himself, had described before the performance began: that he wanted us to see this piece as though we are "outside of the box."

And so, Paul Miller did do that...gave the audience the opportunity to see outside of the box. And so, somewhere poignantly in the flow, a single rose twirled in the center screen in a frame...isolated, lifted out of the rest of the film, broaching the concept of sweetness, grace and hope of peace and blessings.

At the reception for Paul following the performance, members of what was once the audience, milled around, sat down at tables, ordered drinks at the bar, talked with a low hum over the anticlimactic dance music played by a turntablist in the background. Miller finally appeared in the corner of the room and immediately attracted several young people to greet him. They were pumped; they talked to him, asked questions, requested autographs. My friend and I walked over to Paul to say goodbye. I leaned into the small crowd and extended my hand to him in thanks for an extremely wonderful day. Paul shook my hand and said: Did you catch the collage.....I said: I got it all, Paul--- I took 50 pages of notes. Then I introduced my friend to Paul. As they shook hands, my friend thanked Paul to which his response was: Hey, Thanks for comin’ out.

I never did ask Paul why he calls himself DJ Spooky. It is more interesting not to know.

Photo by Presscott McDonald (

Additional Info

  • Artist / Group Name: DJ Spooky
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