Beyond illbient

DJ Spooky goes global
By JON GARELICK  |  January 14, 2008

TRAVELING SOUNDS: Spooky’s world has expanded from the East Village to encompass the South Pole.

WFNX’s Jazz Brunch Top Five
1. Eliane Elias, Something for You [Blue Note]
2. Herbie Hancock, River: The Joni Letters [Verve]
3. Alfredo Naranjo, Y El Guajeo [Cacao Music]
4. Changuito, Telegrafia Sin Hilo [Cacao Music]
5. Harlem Experiment, The Harlem Experiment [Ropeadope]
When I get DJ Spooky on the phone a week ago Tuesday, he’s fresh home in New York City from Antarctica. He’s been working on Terra Nova: The Antarctica Suite, a film/multimedia performance he’ll be presenting at the Sundance Film Festival at the end of the month in its program of digital films. This is a part of his current interest in “applying DJ technique to film,” using the traditions of montage to extend his own ideas of collage and juxtaposition. “The way culture is working these days, I really feel like the city as we know it, the way music is made, has become the defining way of thinking about culture right now. I want to figure out some other way to get out of the city altogether. For this specific project — this is the most remote place I’ve ever been.”

It’s also indicative of this artist’s ever-expanding vision. Spooky (a/k/a Paul D. Miller) comes to the ICA next week in three guises — as lecturer talking about the ideas from his 2004 MIT Press book Rhythm Science (undoubtedly with multimedia aids), as headliner for a multi-DJ night, and as concert artist performing his “Subliminal Strings” with a chamber orchestra. Spooky emerged from the Brooklyn and Lower East Side alternative-DJ scene of the mid ’90s, playing parties and releasing CDs that featured his “illbient” æsthetic — a term he coined to describe a more urban take on Eno-esque ambiance. Here were the same slowly morphing soundscapes familiar from Eno’s work (or even from the extended drum ’n’ bass tracks of folks like BT), but with an urban edge: the sounds of clacking subway doppelgänger, snatches of hip-hop rhythms. At the same time, it was often a more chill æsthetic than the downtown dance-club or rock-club scene: no beat-heavy house music, and none of the social exclusivity that went with it, the guest lists and the velvet ropes. The illbient scene was about come-as-you-are and bring-what-you-want.

“The idea was to have no idea,” Spooky told me in 1996, “You never knew who was going to show up or who was going to do what. Our scene grew up in the East Village, mainly because it was word-of-mouth and it was idealistic. We tried to get rid of the barriers between stuff.” Illbient, unlike Eno, “wasn’t a withdrawal from the urban landscape,” but “an immersion in it.”

For Spooky, modern culture is DJ culture, and the mix is its operative metaphor: music is just information, divorced from context, individual sounds as signifiers. It’s the kind of decontextualization that can drive some listeners (okay: me) crazy, especially when a beloved performance by a great artist like Billie Holiday is remixed to oblivion — a document of lived time obliterated in modern beats and edits.

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Related: Subliminal cruelty, Mash-up your prejudices, Boston music news: April 27, 2007, More more >
  Topics: Jazz , Entertainment, Music, Chuck D,  More more >
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