Making Music from Data

DJ Spooky talks to SOMA BASU about his India visit for his new composition ‘The Heart of a River’

December 24, 2015 04:50 pm | Updated 04:50 pm IST - MADURAI:

NEW AGE MUSICIAN: DJ Spooky. Photo: Special Arrangement

NEW AGE MUSICIAN: DJ Spooky. Photo: Special Arrangement

I was advised to ‘google’ him before the interview. I confess I was taken in by the magnitude of his work and turned up more confused because Paul D Miller aka DJ Spooky is humongous chalta-phirta industry.

The New Yorker is a composer, author, teacher, electronics DJ, multi-media artist, editor, software designer, activist and much more. Packed with wide ranging information, he is brainy and funny at the same time. His rapid fire monologues can end up giving anyone a complex. He is a totally revved up digital age man with an obsession for arts and science, music and data, mathematics and technology and what not.

When he tells you that science is the poetry of reality and arts is an explosion of data and how it is important to blend genres and be a multi-disciplinarian and a multi-tasker, you know he is grabbing you to think about difficult topics.

And then he demonstrates how he has simplified his work with the help of the latest models of i-pad, a tablet and two smart phones. “This is my entire office, I carry wherever I go,” smiles DJ Spooky, one of National Geographic's 2014 Emerging Explorers, who has been to countless countries and is known to be the only electronic DJ who has performed in every Continent.

What brings him to India? “Climate change”, he says without a blink. Ironically enough, he landed just after floods in Chennai ravaged the city.

During his nine hour layoff as he took a walk, he says he could see and sense the signposts everywhere that lead only to environmental catastrophes. “We tend to collectively blink over record level pollution and garbage generation, heat, drought and flooding but can no longer afford to put a band aid on this monumental problem,” he warns.

Information technology and digital media drive DJ Spooky and with his multimedia performances in the last two decades he has been engaging people on topics ranging from environment and sustainability, the future in technology, overcoming inertia to take up issues.

He believes music and art are vehicles for provoking thought and reshaping today’s information-driven world. “We only need to fathom the explosion of data and hyper-accelerated changes,” he suggests.

For instance, Miller did a project for the Metropolitan Museum, NY, in 2007 when he took a studio to the ice fields of the Antarctica for creating an acoustic portrait of a changing environment. He composed music based on the algorithms of Antarctica's weather and temperature patterns. “People think data is of no relevance to daily life. But I think, data is at the heart of everything in life at every moment. We should be able to see and hear data in new ways,” he says.

DJ Spooky’s Antarctica project was altered as museum exhibits and a book as well titled “The Book of Ice”. But most interesting was his “Terra Nova: Sinfornia Antarctica”, a multimedia portrait of the rapidly transforming Continent. With a score composed by him and performed by a piano quartet, he acted as DJ layering data-driven electronic sounds and actual field recordings of ice from his journeys to the frozen Continent while an enormous video screen projected his photographs from the expedition accompanied by historical and scientific visual material.

“I showed to people how arts, science and culture can interact to counter the momentum of climate change and reframe the debate on anthropogenic actions,” he explains.

DJ Spooky is in India now to work on similar compositions about water, cities and climate change and has decided to call his album ‘The Heart of a River’.

Rivers are networks, he says, and they amplify network effects because where we have rivers, civilisations evolve beyond the unpredictable. He has the world’s two oldest cities, Madurai and Varanasi, among others in mind and with the help of collected data wants to build a musical portrait that will reflect how the Ganges, the Vaigai and the other rivers interact with their cities.

According to him, an album is not just a compilation of musical compositions but documents the evolving role of the artist and composer in a data-driven society. “It is a manifesto about the place and the history, the information overload, the digitalisation of sound and noise and music’s relationship to philosophy and economics of a place.”

In Madurai, DJ Spooky has recorded plenty of ceremonial and natural music with folk, traditional and contemporary artistes. Using satellite images, he has mapped the city’s lifeline -- river Vaigai – and using the calculations of Sinuosity (the mathematical formula for oscillations to generate sounds) he will convert the data into musical compositions. It is all very conceptual, he says, and with computers changing so creatively, software is nothing but patterns and so are the rivers.

“It is a way of pushing the boundaries and bringing new innovative sounds to the world of music.”

The Influence

DJ Spooky is much influenced by the Uncanny, the 19th Century Italian futurist art movement ; the Afrofuturism as an osmotic strategy machine that defies categorisation and the Tropicalismo movement out of Brazil.

Blind Tom Bethune, one of America’s premier pianists after the Civil War who simulated the sound of cyclones, storms, and even large battles and the way machines churned out automatic death; the 9 Century Persian mathematician and astronomer Al-Khw Rizm who developed the algorithmic way of looking at the city; Indian mathematician Aryabhata, Rabindranath Tagore and Albert Einstein inspire DJ Spooky. ---

The All-in-One Cast

Paul D. Miller aka DJ Spooky is the executive editor of ORIGIN Magazine which reports on yoga, art, music, conscious lifestyle, humanitarianism and sustainability.

His free open source MIXER iPad app has seen more than 15 million downloads in the last year. The app gives users the tools to mix tracks from their own digital music libraries.

He's produced and composed work for Yoko Ono, Thurston Moore, Meredith Monk, Stewart Copeland, Steve Reich and scores of artists and award-winning films and also done a score to a film narrated by Sean Parker, the co-founder of Facebook.

DJ Spooky has published a best selling anthology of essays “Sound Unbound” on electronic music and digital media by musicians, novelists, lawyers and filmmakers. His deep interest in reggae and dub has resulted in a series of compilations, remixes and collections of material from the vaults of the legendaries. Some of DJ Spooky’s best releases include Optometry (2002), Dubtometry (2003) and Rebirth of a Nation (2004).

In 2009, he visited the Republic of Nauru in the Micronesian South Pacific to do research and gather material for The Nauru Elegies: A Portrait in Sound and Hypsographic Architecture, in collaboration with artist/architect Annie Kwon. On another distant archipelago, Vanuatu in the Pacific Islands, he is establishing a sustainable arts center.

He is always on the stage for his globe-trotting series of live events; playing at festivals performing solo, with chamber groups, and with orchestras; and giving talks at prominent universities and conferences.

(Source: Internet)

River Rhythms

Felicia Young, an environmentalist artist from New York who founded the NGO Earth Celebrations to restore river systems through art and cultural pageant, bumped into DJ Spooky few months ago. He was apparently following her work for a “Confluence” project connecting Madurai and Manhattan and Vaigai and Hudson Rivers and the ceremonial actions on the two rivers. Felicia had initiated the Vaigai River Restoration Pageant and Project (VRRPP) in Madurai last year along with DHAN Foundation and Asia Initiatives.

Their meeting had no agenda but sketchy ideas that made them realise how they were looking at the same things from two different perspectives. The idea to collaborate struck and gave birth to River Rhythms under which DJ Spooky works on rivers of India and in the process Vaigai too gets highlighted.

It is like value-addition to our efforts in VRRPP, says Felicia, who also brought Prof.Geeta Mehta into the project which has now resulted in her establishing the ongoing collaboration with Columbia University and the students of Thiagarajar College of Engineering, Madurai, to jointly work on urban planning designs.

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