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DJ Spooky's polar attraction

Inspired by a trip to Antarctica, this avant garde turntable master creates a multimedia travelogue

Jeanne Claire van Ryzin
Paul Miller, aka DJ Spooky, right, incorporates field recordings from his trip to Antarctica into the composition.

Consider this: Antarctica is the fifth-largest continent in the world and yet it has no government. It was the stuff of legend and speculation before Russian explorers confirmed its existence in 1820. And since then, only scientists and intrepid tourists have ever visited. Antarctica has no permanent residents and belongs to no country.

Antarctica is, then, something of the ultimate artistic blank slate — a land of the imagination ripe for creative riffing.

Paul Miller found intrigue and inspiration in Antarctica. The noted musician, author, dj and conceptual artist — who for the past decade has worked under the moniker DJ Spooky, that Subliminal Kid — brings 'Terra Nova: Sinfonia Antarctica' to the Hogg Auditorium on Friday night, his latest work and one that is based on his travels to Antarctica.

The ambitious multimedia performance is quintessential DJ Spooky — a 70-minute visual and acoustic portrait of the ever-mysterious yet rapidly changing continent.

'The sense of space and openness was what made Antarctica so stunning,' Miller says. 'That sense of being on Earth in a place that is not meant for human beings was one of the most profound experiences of my life. I wanted to figure out some ways to translate that into music.'

At the turntables, Miller will mix his field recordings from Antarctica along with recorded music and layer it on top of live music that he composed and which will be played by a quartet. (For the Austin gig, Miller has tapped Austin musicians Graham Reynolds on piano, violinists Alexis Ebbets and Joseph Shuffield and Hector Moreno on cello.) Projected on two screens is a collage of images: photos Miller took in Antarctica, historical images, scientific charts, travelers journals and geographical material.

'The "Terra Nova" project is about looking at the world as fragments,' says Miller, the inveterate traveler, answering questions via e-mail from somewhere on the road between Europe and Australia. 'That's what sampling is about. Everything is connected. Everything.'

The mercurial Miller has been connecting and mixing it up since he emerged on the scene in the mid-1990s.

Born and raised in Washington, D.C. (Miller's father was dean of the law school at Howard University), Miller attended tony Bowdoin College in Maine, where he majored in French literature and philosophy.

His first projects in the mid-1990s were mix CDs and recordings. As recording technology was becoming increasingly digital, experimenters like Miller began plumbing the possibilities of reconstituting digitally recorded sound. But unlike the more dance-oriented music many of peers were creating, Miller created a kind of hip-hop that was ambient and cerebral and had more in common artistically with the experiments of industrial music that blends avant garde electronics techniques.

Loaded with philosophical, literary and political references, Miller's compiled music nevertheless has never completely left pop culture. Among many others, Miller has remixed the music of bands like Sonic Youth and Metallica and hip-hop artists like Chuck D and Kool Keith. And he recently compiled a compilation CD, 'In Fine Style,' that he culled from the vaults of the classic reggae label Trojan Records.

Still, Miller most assuredly has always had one foot in the creative intelligentsia. His collection of essays 'Rhythm Science' (MIT Press, 2004) outline his ideas on how mushrooming technologies of digital manipulation have erased the distinction between artistic producers and artistic consumers. What's 'done' to the work of art after its initial creation, he argues, is as important as the original creation. Re-mixing is the DJ Spooky ethos and aesthetic. (Miller is working with software company Musicsoft Arts on an iPhone app, DJ Player, that will allow users to create their own mixes of Miller's music.)

Branching out from music, Miller began applying his DJ remixing techniques to film and other visual material.

Most notably, Miller, who is African American, remixed D.W. Griffith's infamously bigoted 1915 film 'Birth of a Nation.' In Miller's hands, Griffith's racially intolerant epic became 'Rebirth of a Nation,' a collage of the original film along with Miller's trenchant score performed by the Kronos Quartet. (Miller brought his critically acclaimed movie to Austin's Alamo Ritz last February.)

Miller's latest release, 'The Secret Song,' is kind of the ultimate DJ Spooky multimedia, multimixed effort combining a host of collaborators from African hip-hop legends Zimbabwe Legit to Austin's alt-classical ensemble Golden Hornet Project, who play on five tracks. And the featured single? It's 'Azadi (The New Complexity),' sung by Iran's Sussan Deyhim and referencing the elections in that country. Plus, on a bonus DVD, Miller musically and visually remixes the work of pioneering Soviet documentary filmmaker Dziga Vertov.

Like so much of his output 'The Secret Song' is intellectual and hip and topically relevant all at once.

(About Miller's Austin connection: Miller and Reynolds first connected a few years ago when Miller did a remix of a track from Reynolds' soundtrack to Richard Linklater's 'A Scanner Darkly.' In March, Golden Hornet Project performed some of Miller's classically oriented music, and that led to Reynolds and the ensemble working on 'The Secret Song.' Says Reynolds: 'Paul is interested in what happens when two independent voices come together. The synthesis of two voices is always a delicate balance. But the results can be terrific.')

For 'Terra Nova,' Miller started with a 1949 composition by British composer Ralph Vaughn Williams, a metaphorical musical portrait of the frozen continent called 'Sinfonia Antarctica.' Then Miller grabbed new sounds (even the resonant frequencies from ice) and collected images, building a digital audio and visual palette from which he could go beyond the metaphorical creation of an artist like Williams, and create a multi-layered thing that's rooted in direct contact.

'Walking around Antarctica with a mini studio and getting material from the sounds of the environment made me realize that the world is a record — we just need to know how to play it.'

jvanryzin@statesman.com; 445-3699