+ Rhythm Science Lecture
+ ReBirth of A Nation
+ Noontime Chat: Hip-Hop Strategies
“When the Sugar Hill Gang rapped, ‘I don’t mean to brag, I don’t mean to boast, but I like hot butter on a breakfast toast,’ that made Americans really happy. We can all relate to enjoying buttered toast, but they’d found a way to make something unfamiliar and new out of the experience. Becoming unalienated is as simple and as difficult as that.”
–DJ Spooky (in conversation with Hermenaut Joshua Glenn)
Paul D. Miller is a fabulous, rhizomatic thinker and one of the highlights of this year’s festival. Easy going and smart as a whip, he’s got an accessible (yet rigorous) way of “connecting the dots” on issues of art, sound, music, pop culture, technology and power—and their intermingling complexity in consumer culture. Oh and he’s got a wicked sense of humor.
Remixing from a number of traditions, Miller cuts between cultural historians like McLuhan, Andreas Huyssens, Richard Hofstadter, an avant-garde viz art perspective (from early modernists like Gertrude Stein and Tzara to a playful Fluxus mindset), and the glorious kissing cousins of modernism: jazz and futurism. Called a media philosopher, mixologist, illbient prophet, conceptual artist, Miller is a self-proclaimed musical futurist—-to which I say yeah! let’s hear it for dizzying speed, noise and thrum, shiny chrome, and the beautiful mayhem of simultaneity. Like another turntablist-turned-conceptualist, Christian Marclay, Miller navigates with a broad cultural compass.
Throughout his Friday talk, he touched on ideas of the “social sculpture” (illustrating the process of working without proximity across geographical borders with Slayer’s Lombardo, Vernon Reid, and Public Enemy’s Chuck D, one of the most “branded voices” in music), appropriation and found sounds (careening between ideas of the “phono-text” and a Duchampian use of everyday objects). gift economy (handing out CDs of various re/mixes to the audience), patterns of culture and the power of the invisible, and a wonderful allegorical notion of the DJ as sculptor of memory.
What was so refreshing was the use of visual art metaphors and parallels (Luigi Russolo, Beuys, Matthew Barney, and the idea of cut-up, assemblage, sequence, fragmentation and code, at one point aptly using Looney Tunes composer Raymond Scott as the perfect example of the DJ’s approach to visual-aural collage) to “unpack” the process of the DJ. Emphasizing word/play and the theater of the rhyme to underscore, incite, and subvert sonic strata -–Miller layed down a great road map for “interrogating history” and manipulating the moving image (in this case DW Griffith’s Birth of a Nation), treating the film as LP. As an example, Miller threw down on a piece called “50 Years of Jazz Drum Solos,” in which rapid-fire multiple images of jazz players from the 30s, 40s, and 50s were intercut and juxtaposed with a surging soundtrack of Jamaican dub, drum breaks –translating just how exotic and jarring the vivid, rhythmic savagery of the music must have seemed at one time. With its simultaneity and pulsing whiplash cutting it was futurism manifest. Suffice to say I couldn’t wait for the Griffith remix.
Unfortunately for me in experiencing that evening’s ReBirth of a Nation, the in-theory didn’t carry over to the in-practice. Similar to language and the spoken word, the image (and more so, the moving image) is a value- and meaning-laden medium—and is hard to redirect it in anyway but a linear one. While no one will deny the vicious racism and ludicrous revisionism of Griffith’s film, I didn’t find much in the remix to change my fundamental feelings that it is a banal piece of slope-headed propaganda. If anything it could have been shorter, more dizzying and aggressively cut—-at 40 minutes, we’d still have been left with the horror of Griffith’s film and the immediacy of Miller’s “interrogation of history.” The effect of this shown (unbeknownst) in a club situation might have a far more subliminal, burrowing impact. Inspired idea, uninspired result.
As a conceptualist and DJ, his best “pan-humanism exercises” are still his sound pieces. Anyone doubting the poetry, power and architecture of his remixeriffic work should dig into the absolute sublimity of Morton Feldman’s Triadic Memories mixed with the drum break from Nu’s Machine Chop and a piece by David Toop, the Tristan Tzara/Vedic mash-up or Luciano Berio mixed with Bill Laswell’s Dislocation and the tender thump of Debussy’s Cahier d’Esquisses–from the CD in his Rhythm Science book.
The next day’s noon at PNCA, Miller took part in a Noontime Chat with Daniel Bernard Roumain that, while it was hijacked by Roumain’s simpering self-involvement and insecurities, showed Miller at his “border-crossing, genre-blurring” best. The conversation never got anywhere near its topic (the art and science of collaboration), but it did introduce a fascinating discussion of “skin-trade voyeurism” and the imperialistic idea of American pop culture conditioning the rest of the world (illustrated by a video from a b-boy clad Japanese hip-hop group called Nitro Microphone Underground), among other issues. Miller is at his most astute drawing connections between this sort of mass cult/mid cult dodge-and-parry, riffing off of visual art stratagems and an accessible, broken down post-cold war/post-colonial pop dialectic. It can be very delicious to hear his “critique of sound as a global language”—-realizing that in lieu of any stated cultural policy, the US has foregone such altruistic global commodities as democracy, jazz, and baseball in favor of hegemonic product placement and brand franchises.
Miller has an uncanny ability to channel surf—generating “border-crossing memory discourses” that shore up the distances between Buck Owens, Bootsy Collins, and George Brecht—what Mr. Huyssen coins (at least a .25 phrase) as a “postmodernism of resistances”. . . where turntable and (great idea, Matthew Stadler!) “systems of coherence” balance on the fulcrum between tradition and innovation, stewardship, agency and renewal, low and high, action and reaction. The beauty is he gets it—offering a curved space of hybridization and interdependence.
The orbit of Miller’s Wu-Tang-meets-Wittgenstein weltanschauung is sort of a pop version of what phonographical thinkers like Evan Eisenberg (who wrote the exceptional Recording Angel), Noise, Water, Meat‘s Doug Kahn, or Brit writer-composer David Toop (Ocean of Sound, Rap Attack, Exotica) have been doing for art/culture discussion around ideas of sound, appropriation, technology, and the social production of art—but bringing it back down to earth in a tactile, mash-up cross-referential immediacy that’s palpable for those weaned in the “era of multiplex consciousness.” We should be so lucky.