Themselves, John Hollenbeck, Uri Caine, The Arditti Quartet & DJ Spooky
DJ Spooky's Terra Nova: Sinfonia Antarctica
Brooklyn Academy Of Music
December 2, 2009
Commissioned as part of BAM's long-running Next Wave season, DJ Spooky's Terra Nova: Sinfonia Antarctica sets out to address the effect of global warming (and territorial politics) on that southernmost continent. It's a multi-media piece that's as grandiose as its weighty title implies. Spooky, who was born as Paul D. Miller, and whose sub-title has long been That Subliminal Kid, has steadily become removed from club culture, to the point where he's now involved in a full-scale theatrical production such as this.
Spooky has written the music for the conveniently-named ICE (International Contemporary Ensemble), who are amongst New York's major new music interpreters. Their manifestation for this work is a three-piece string section (two violins, cello) with piano. Bob McGrath is the visual director, demanding high production values throughout a show that's not much longer than an hour in length.
Spooky began the performance by dragging a set of dangling chimes across a chunk of ice. Let's make it clear right from the start: this work would have benefited from more ice. As a huge gauze-like screen descended, Spooky moved center-stage to his turntable table, and the high density image-cascade began, projected frontally, as well as on two askew-angled screens behind the performers, and also flickering around the walls of the theater. On a technical level, the piece proceeded to impress with its sheer large-scale slickness and visual ambition. This was state-of-the-art image transmission on a godlike scale.
Spooky's music falls into the minimalist category, though it's not really influenced by any of that mode's greats (Glass, Reich, Riley, etc.). It's less concerned with repetition, and more conventionally melodic. ICE proffer a spirited reading, full of lusty bowing and rugged fingering. Spooky's own DJ contribution is barely discernible. He's busy twiddling faders and knobs, but his equalisations aren't exactly radical. He's using a theremin, but again, the resulting sonics weren't too clear. Obviously, as the composer, he wasn't obliged to contribute anything onstage. Spooky could have just taken his seat amongst the audience. But the fact that he was up there with his turntables made the viewer feel like demanding greater audio rupturing, or a least some mild interference. There was talk of Spooky representing the 'sound of the continent,' but this wasn't particularly apparent in the music.
This was the key issue. Nothing was unpleasant. But conversely, nothing rose higher. The whole mass was blandly one-dimensional. Our lust for chaos, transgression or unpredictability became apparent. As the imagery grew increasingly scientific and hyperactive, the consumer began to feel that this was akin to watching a PowerPoint presentation in a hotel conference roomon a gargantuan scale. The earlier pictures of close-up ice might have pointed the way for a more subtle, impressionistic experience of sub-zero, but instead there was an increasingly obvious scrolling of text, making the message take on the bludgeoning character of advertising. The opposite of subliminal. On a more positive note, when the piece concluded, it seemed surprisingly short, so at least the audience bombardment was entertaining, avoiding the possible side-effect of dreary tedium.