Beyond illbient

By JON GARELICK  |  January 14, 2008

But Spooky, drawn as he is to what sounds good, doesn’t simply mix sounds for their own sake. A former double major (French literature and philosophy) at Bowdoin College, he deconstructs in order to build new narratives, and some of his best early illbient work unfolded like dreamscapes (his full handle is “DJ Spooky That Subliminal Kid”). Rhythm Science is part manifesto and part autobiography. Its accompanying CD is an anthology of mixes drawn from the Sub Rosa catalogue — spoken-word and music that include Luciano Berio, Seefeel, Bill Laswell, William S. Burroughs, Brion Gysin, and Patti Smith.

But as up-to-the-minute as Spooky is, his selections are obsessed with the past, especially with the early-20th-century avant-garde. Against the whoosh and scrape of DJ beats, amid pattering drum ’n’ bass or sputtering tablas, are recitations by James Joyce (“Anna Livia Plurabelle”), Gertrude Stein (her Picasso “portrait”), and dadaist Kurt Schwitters comically rolling his r’s in German, like a proto drum ’n’ bass vocal. These mysterious voices from the past emerge from the mixes like recovered memories, a collective cultural unconscious. When out of this dreamy mix, more than halfway through the disc, a scratchy piano recording of Debussy’s lyrical, evocative “D’un cahier d’esquisses” surfaces, unadorned by DJ tricks, the result is almost unbearably poignant — the unambiguous, unrecoverable past. The track ID indicates that it’s Debussy himself at the piano.

Spooky’s most celebrated recent investigation of history was Rebirth of a Nation, his 75-minute remix and “digital exorcism” of D.W. Griffith’s controversial three-hour 1915 Civil War epic The Birth of a Nation. Performing it live at Sanders Theatre in March 2005, Spooky digitally re-edited the film, mixing images from a Bill T. Jones dance performance as well as rejiggering the original montage. Fresh off the 2000 and 2004 elections, he was drawn to the idea of “competing stories, competing narratives” in a media-saturated world. “I’m trying to think of DJing as media literacy — how to read these bizarre signs of the urban landscape as it becomes more and more digital,” he told me shortly before the Sanders performance. (A DVD version of Rebirth is scheduled for release from Starz Media.)

In his ICA talk, Spooky expects to be drawing parallels between the early-20th-century world of signs and symbols and our own. “I’m going to be looking at how contemporary art relates to the early-avant-garde movement’s and Europe’s collisions with Asia and Africa.” Aside from influences like African art and Javanese gamelan music as part of the first wave of cultural globalization, Spooky also cites the lasting influence of the 1889 Paris World’s Fair and even more mundane inventions. “People don’t realize, for example, that the postcard was a big deal — and people started seeing a lot more of foreign lands, and different ways of creating and living. The postcards and the postage stamp were the first multimedia, because they were meant to be sent. They used networks of travel, postage and so on. And now we have the jpeg.”

As for music: “In the ’90s, one of the things I was really pushing was this idea of digital narrative and how music was a different kind of storytelling, especially digital and on-line. Now, with the advent of the iPod and Wikipedia and all these different ways of containing and storing and transmitting information, I think the artist is somebody who lives in a lot of different networks.”

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