The locale was the bustling yet august Metropolitan Museum of Art. The protagonist was Paul D. Miller, better known as DJ Spooky. The event, titled A Civil War Symphony, fused images extracted from a nearby exhibition, Photography and the American Civil War, with music vacillating between dramatic complexity and lyric simplicity. The result, experienced on Friday night, was taut, provocative, gutsy and, most important, poignant.
Miller, responsible for both the audio and visual composition, is an original thinker whose talent apparently stretches in various successful directions. Born 1970, he took his stage name from William S. Burroughs’ Nova Express. According to annotations, he has achieved renown as an experimental hip-hop musician, with creations labelled “illbient” and/or “trip-hop”. He also functions as a “turntablist”, not to mention producer, philosopher and author. As a stranger in his paradise, I cannot pretend to know what all of this means. On the basis of the Civil War Symphony, however, it seems safe to say that Miller is a master with an eye for narrative novelty, an ear for melodic and harmonic momentum and a brain responsive to compulsions of social morality.
For this performance he dons earphones, twiddles a sprawling battery of dials, and punches computerised commands at a console onstage. His inspired accomplices include the tireless, ferocious fiddler Jennifer Kelso Curtis, the super-soulful vocalist Inyang Bassey, a clamorous anonymous drummer and the supportive Randolph String Quartet.
Miller’s soundscape punctuates evocative spiritual quotations with raucous or soothing electronic outbursts. Themes are stated, fragmented, distorted, reconstituted and mixed, always with precision and economy. Miller’s sightscape, realised in tandem with Jeff L. Rosenheim, curator of photographs, begins with artfully scrambled visions of the American flag and proceeds to illuminate tragic scenes of battle. D.W. Griffith and his racist film Birth of a Nation (1915) provide a bit of wry counterpoint.
“I want to show that music and art are always in dialogue,” Miller has stated. He shows it here with equal parts power and pain, theatricality and introspection. A revelation.