There is a side of electronic music, specifically of the type DJ
Spooky ("That Subliminal Kid") traffics in, that someday could lead
to groundbreaking new, multimedia work. If Jackson Pollock were
only around, he'd love this stuff. Pollock's greatest challenge
was in responding with paint to what he saw and felt. The electronic
artist today is entirely capable of diminishing the distance between
emotion or idea, which we feel, and art, what we put down on paper
or on polycarbonate disc. Summoning an entire symphony takes a push
of a button. Understanding this only makes hearing artists like
Spooky so heartbreaking. With all that equipment--and, we could
suppose, big ideas about politics and peace--you'd think Spooky
could articulate one honest idea. You keep waiting, but all you
typically get is noise of both varieties, too-verbal and not-verbal-enough.
Though he sometimes uses rappers in his songs, DJ Spooky (a.k.a.
Paul Miller) is a silent sermonizer who doesn't rely on language
for his lectures. He uses car horns, the clatter of subways pulling
into stations, hip-hop beats, video game explosions, talking heads,
the effluvium of everyday life (the hip-hop beats come from the
throbbing Hyundai going down the avenue). Allegedly inside or on
top of his sonic constructs are comments on community, waste culture,
co-dependency and basically the rest of what's fucked up or peculiar
about our digital age. Thing is, you can't necessarily tell all
this from the boom-siss beats, computer bleeps or synth asides.
You might have to just read the liner notes--which may or may not
include footnotes to Derrida or be 23 pages long.
This is why a museum is such a good place for Spooky. It is, as
of late, where the
populist aspirations of middlebrow culture are made to seem like rights
of divinity, and where time once spent pondering ideas is now spent
gazing over motorcycle parts or clothing fabric. Spooky has been exhibiting
his audio collages in museums since around the time he first started
gaining some cred as a club DJ, about five years ago--and when museums
started opening up en masse to the possibilities of shows of spectacle.
His most recent sonic work is part of "BitStreams," a look into the
importance of digital technology in American art, at the Whitney
Museum in New York City.
DJ Spooky: keeping it real
allusions to Derrida.
At the Whitney, the elevator opens to the fourth floor, where "BitStreams"
is located, to a huge wall of blue tubes of light, stacked next
to each other like a long row of telephone poles or huge outdoor
bug zappers. Behind the wall are assorted headphones. The set connected
to DJ Spooky's song, "ftp:>snd>,"
is, like all the other "songs" along the wall (including pieces
by John Herndon of Tortoise and Iranian singer Sussan Deyhim), identified
by a yellow tag. On it reads the artist's mission statement (excerpted
here): "In his conceptual sound work, DJ Spooky attempts to critique
the social aspects of electronic culture. Describing his compositional
method as 'cybernetic improvisation,' DJ Spooky surveys city streets,
collecting sounds with a portable MiniDisc recorder. He then uses
his laptop and various software programs to create urban sound collages."
Consider yourself well read.
"ftp:>snd>" is sort of an "illbient" (meaning Spooky's knack for
blending "ambient" with good vibes) brain massage. Made up of assorted,
chopped and looped bits of traffic noise, "ftp:>snd>" is also a
reminder of just how tedious listening to someone play with toys
can be. "ftp:>snd>" could be considered an example of musique concr¸te,
a 50-year-old development that makes use of everyday sounds to construct
tone poems. And like most musique concréte, "ftp:>snd>" is
not really about anything--though it is possibly a point of departure
for one to contemplate the act of listening to musique concréte
itself; the idea's significant contribution to art is making one
face technological innovation head on. Is "ftp:>snd>" enjoyable,
enlightening? Hardly. But as motivation to hear new, heretofore
unimaginable sounds, it is sufficient.
Someday, some electronic artist who wants to grapple with ideas
about e-culture will dazzle us with an electronic song that uses
technology as its basis, not necessarily as its only subject. DJ
Spooky isn't the one. For him technology is the be-all, end-all
of putting noise to tape in the first place. At the beginning of
"Grapheme: Ghetto of the Mind" off Subliminal
Minded: The E.P., Spooky takes an organic drum solo and
chops it into bits, leaving some notes bleeding in the air or stuttering
without pause. The effect is similar to what proponents of glitchwerks
pull off with broken CDs:
DE-DE. That's the sound. There's no drama. There's no dichotomy
between aggressive sounds and soft sounds; it's all white on white
The typical Spooky song brings the listener close to something
resembling art but then shuts the door in his face. At the beginning
of "The Revolution Will Be Streamed," off File
Under Futurism, an album of Spooky's remixes of tracks by
the Freight Elevator Quartet, synth gurgles and assorted bass tones
coalesce into a wonderful atmosphere for the big beats to step into.
The song appears to move in a logical direction, but then Spooky's
fingers apparently begin to twitch. Sensible melodies get stomped
on, groovy rhythms get deconstructed into crumbs and the entire
infrastructure of what was fast becoming a likeable song buckles
under so much pomo tinkering.
This isn't to say Spooky isn't musical. He can be. Most of his
tuneful songs, what with their extemporaneous raps and flowy, tangible
beats, reach out to the hip-hop fan. Spooky's critically acclaimed
Warfare is a blend of hip-hop and drum 'n' bass, and is
relatively accessible. But with every outing Spooky seems to fight
the conformist label. He has developed a persona for himself as
an outsider who breaks the boundaries of melody and harmony--and
who believes he can concoct or coerce melody out of any stack of
layered percussive effects à la John Cage. Having intellectualized
his way--self-consciously or not--to cult status, through various
writings and criticisms (he has contributed to ArtByte and
The Village Voice), Spooky is a flashpoint artist for any
discussion on adventurous (read: noisy) music making.
Yet Spooky can't be anything other than self-indulgent. What other
reason would he have for coming close to making music without actually
doing so other than for his own amusement or curiosity? The name
for this phenomenon is called "chickening out"; writing without
using verbs; crafting songs without music. While great for college
dissertations (or articles like this), this type of avoidance, in
music, amounts to a nose-thumb at people with ears and a desire
to listen to new stuff. But that's the culture of dissonance: full
of folk always shying away from facing a complexity or obstacle
(like writing a solid pop tune) yet never growing short of enough
adjectives to lament said obstacle's large weight and girth. Who
else would Spooky be "writing" songs like "ftp:>snd>" for if not
himself? We can't listen to them. They hurt. Then it must be for
the aliens. Who knows. Who cares.
Anthony Mariani is a freelance music journalist whose
work has appeared recently in The Village Voice, Vibe and