He could be the most accomplished musician you’ve never heard. DJ Spooky, That Subliminal Kid, the writer, musician, and composer, who normally goes by the name Paul D. Miller has a resume and a discography that stretches back to the mid-’90s dawn of trip-hop turn-tabling. And with two books, innumerable tracks on other people’s musical portmanteaus, three film scores, and nine CDs-including two seminal works, Necropolis and Songs of a Dead Dreamer-he’s widely considered to be the man behind the founding texts of illbient music. (That’s “ill,” as in rap meets “ambient,” as in Eno.) His remix of reggae songs recorded on the Trojan label, titled Creation Rebel, reimagines, as he puts it, the recording studio as a musical instrument. And now, the trip-hop maestro heads to UCSB for a musical report on his recent jaunt to Antarctica.
“It’s all about hitting the reset button,” said Miller on the phone from New York last week. “I wanted to see how much we are conditioned by the urban setting, because when you think about it, hip-hop, techno are essentially urban narratives. So I decided to take it as far away as possible-Antarctica wasn’t really made for humans. I wanted to see how that world would sound.”
It’s an “acoustic portrait,” said Miller, who sees himself as much “telling a story of a blank space” as he is bringing an unknown environment alive. “When I was there, they were losing 140-mile-long pieces of ice-it was heavy duty,” he explained, also stressing the importance of Antarctica in the worldwide context of global warming. But Miller, an African-American citizen of world music, sees Antarctica as an interesting counter to colonialism. “It’s a country that belongs to nobody,” he writes in promotional material for Terra Nova: Sinfonia Antarctica, the multimedia piece he will perform this Tuesday at Campbell Hall.
For Sinfonia, Miller has composed a string quartet score and created a film of the icy blank spaces of Antarctica, adding to his already long list of accomplishments. Yet he insists that sound is what drives him forward. “The whole idea is to use the deejay technique, which is building a collage, a tapestry of the life that surrounds us,” he explained. “But mostly it’s the deejay as director, creating a nonlinear, nonnarrative narrative. The ice is the story.” He is a champion for the ear, he stresses. Too long, he thinks, the eye has been privileged. “Nobody thinks to talk about the sounds they experience in movies,” he said. “This will be an ear movie.”
If Miller seems like an intellectual’s emcee, there’s good reason. “There was nobody musical in my family,” he said. “My father was a dean of Howard University. We talked politics at home. I went to college to become a diplomat.” Attending snowy Bowdoin College in Maine gave him a lot of time to read. “And I was always listening to music. When I was a kid, I collected records, but I collected comic books, too-I collected everything.” The obsessions fit his eventual profession; a maker of life collages.
Meanwhile he’s working on a new CD and has just released a DVD of his first big multimedia project, Rebirth of a Nation (which debuted in 2004), a takedown of the racist D.W. Griffith film. It also seems like Miller’s busy about 21 hours a day. “It’s kind of like that,” he replied, suggesting this wasn’t the first time he’d been called an over-achiever.
And if that’s not enough, Miller says his iPod is currently full of Russian music. “I’m writing the score for an upcoming film set in Russia,” he explained, preferring not to mention its title. “You do these things well in advance, so I’m listening to Russian composers. Prokofiev and Shostakovich-they’re my guys right now,” he laughed.
DJ Spooky, That Subliminal Kid, will present Terra Nova: Sinfonia Antarctica at UCSB’s Campbell Hall this Tuesday, April 7, at 8 p.m. For ticket info, call 895-3535 or visit artsandlectures.sa.ucsb.edu.