The world in a word: remix. At least, that's if you ask DJ Spooky, the Subliminal Kid (aka Paul Miller), a musician, writer and multimedia artist who's made a life's work out of exploring the illimitable possibilities that remixing creates.
"A remix looks at the original as basically a starting point," Miller writes via e-mail while vacationing in Sri Lanka. "Most people think of the original as the end point — they want to preserve it. My style is about change. Continuous change."
It's a philosophy that has resulted in a prolific body of work for Spooky; he's recorded immense volumes of music working with everything from avant-garde jazz to classic reggae with stylistically varied artists including Chuck D of Public Enemy, Dave Lombardo of Slayer, Yoko Ono and Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore. It's led him into the world of academia, where as a professor at the European Graduate School he lectures on contemporary compositional strategy.
As a writer, he's theorized about the art of the remix in two books — a collection of his essays (Rhythm Science) published in 2004 and Sound Unbound, an anthology of essays about sound art, digital media and contemporary composition came out this year. The collection covers a range of topics from a diverse set of contributors: science-fiction novelist Jonathan Lethem discusses plagiarism, filmmaker Naeem Mohaiemen explores Islam in hip hop and Google lawyer Daphne Keller considers copyright law's relationship to creativity. "I wanted to put together an anthology that gleefully ignored all the rules about the way we put together mixes," Miller says. "Why not mix these people and see what happens?" Miller himself joins in with an essay about, what else, the role of sampling in civilization.
Perhaps Miller's most ambitious and well-known remix is his large-scale multi-media project DJ Spooky's Rebirth of a Nation, a recasting of D.W. Griffith's controversial and influential 1915 silent film, The Birth of a Nation. The original film was a mythic retelling of Reconstruction-era America where the white man was constantly under siege by newly freed African-Americans. While clearly racist propaganda — the Ku Klux Klan used it as a recruitment film until the 1960s — the film was widely influential due to Griffith's cutting-edge cinematic techniques.
In Rebirth of a Nation, Miller manipulates The Birth of a Nation — which he refers to as "a DNA of American Cinema" — in order to offer an opposing narrative to Griffith's fictional history. He replaces the original soundtrack with eerie and menacing ambient tones, while splicing and dicing the film so that its racist content is brought into sharp focus. Miller edits the film and mixes the score live, so that every staging results in an original composition.
Since its 2004 debut, Miller has toured the world with Rebirth, performing it at renowned venues such as the Herod Atticus Theater at the base of the Acropolis in Greece and the London IMAX — Europe's largest movie screen. The ground-breaker will be released on DVD in November.
Miller's next large-scale work took him, literally, to the ends of the Earth. In Terra Nova: The Antarctica Suite, he documents environmental change in the Arctic by making music out of ice. While it may seem like a strange avenue to travel, to Miller there's no limit to how, or what, an artist-as-remixer can create: "Anything can be anything ... For one strategy or another, there's always a lot of different ways you can do anything. I like that. Why do it only one way?"Rebirth of a Nation shows at 8 p.m., Thursday, Aug. 14, at the Detroit Film Theatre, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit; 313-833-7900;