On the back of an Antarctic visit DJ Spooky played the Melbourne International Arts Festival recently, but after catching both his ‘multimedia performance’ and separately disappointing DJ set, honestly, what a lot of hot air.
Terra Nova Sinfonia
The poles of the planet have an almost mythic quality about them, which has only intensified in recent decades as our collective focus shifted to climate change. Ripe territory then, for a commissioned artist to explore. Given the privilege of his access to Antarctica, understandably expectations at MIAF were very high for DJ Spooky’s ‘Terra Nova Sinfonia’. This was to be “a film about the sound of ice and to exploring the way sound and the planet interact” , “The idea was to apply DJ technique to the environment itself… looking at the world, looking at the ice itself as a kind of text.” Unsurprisingly, the opening night audience was filled with Melbourne’s creative community – DJs, film makers, sound recordists, graphic designers, classically trained musicians, visual artists etc etc.
Antarctica is introduced on mirrored-screens by way of stylised maps, an avalanche of United Nations logos, and DJ Spooky graphics. Stage left, pianist, celloist and violinist, working their way through short repetitive sets of notes. Stage right, decks and effects, a laptop and 1x DJ Spooky. And in the audience? An expectation of interplay between all of the above, given the billing as a multimedia performance. We would be disappointed.
Music For Melting Ice Caps
Though the publicity heavily emphasised the piece was “conceived, composed and performed by Paul D Miller, aka DJ Spooky That Subliminal Kid”, the bulk of performance involves the trio of AlterEgo relentlessly and admirably ploughing through a minimal and repetitive composition. Closing my eyes, all I can think of is how much it reminds me of Philip Glass, and how little it seems to conjure up any antarctic atmosphere. 15-20 minutes into the piece, I start wondering what Spooky is actually doing on stage. He seems perpetually to be cueing up tracks, adjusting his headphones, adjusting knobs, but nothing can be heard as a result of this, only the ongoing violin, piano and cello riffs, all generously soaked in reverb or delay. There are a few nice musical moments, a few nice transitions, but it’s only close to the end that I can actually hear some sounds other than the instruments, short loops dropped into the mix by Spooky, that replicate the fast repetitive instrument playing. I suppose they are ‘the sounds of ice’, albeit cropped and toned with some cookie cutter template to suit the composition. Where were the sounds of creaking icebergs? Of ice and water? Of wind and vast landscape? So much for sounds of the ice continent. Or engaging with the musicians on stage. Or for interplay with the video.
Spooky is no BBC documentary cinematographer, but his handicam footage ends up being the visual highlight of the show. Which is a worry, given it’s shakiness and the ad hoc manner in which it seems to have been edited. Still, while watching this at the beginning of the show, there is still hope for better times ahead. Instead we are jolted into a series of horribly animated scientific graphs, repeated randomly, and providing little of any substance. They are not contextualised, most have badly jagged edges, and in the end are just a rush of escalating numbers, added presumably to give a scientific feel to this part of the show. At it’s worst low this pseudo-science visualisation stoops to a poorly chosen fractal animation, to reinforce that we were going to zoom into the ice itself. The flaw here, apart from it’s cliched use and the terrible colour palate cycling through, is that fractals look the same at all levels, and you should be able to continuously zoom into them. Instead we’re given a few seconds of a fractal zoom, before cutting to another level of a zoom, and .. my eyes they sting, make it stop… Everyone outside commented about how gratingly ugly the fractals were, one person walked out when they came on. What else? A section of vintage soviet snow machine exploration that went for too long and seemed to bear as little relationship to the sounds as the rest of the composition. And text that scrolled too fast, randomly juxtaposed against iceberg shots, to fill up time rather than contribute to any sense of choreography.
Music + Pixel Interplay?
It wasn’t “a multimedia installation” or a “multimedia extravaganza”, but simply a live soundtrack. With Spooky’s skills, and today’s DVDJ capacities, let alone the powerful manipulation capacities of a laptop, the lack of video dynamism was very disappointing. Particularly as we cannot hear much of what Spooky seems to be doing up there anyway. It seemed Alter Ego would’ve likely sounded the same whether the screen or Spooky was there or not. Only at a few rare moments came the vaguest of hints that any kind of choreography between cinematography and music existed. Why could we never hear any of this continent as we watched it?
Couldn’t help think what someone like The Light Surgeons would’ve produced as a result of such a trip, or Francisco Lopez, VJ Solu, Gustav Deutsch, DJ Rupture or any of a good dozen of the Melbourne audience. Paul D. Miller – you can do much, much better than this.