Branding the Antarctic for Humanity's Sake
Branding the Antarctic for Humanity’s Sakeby Marc Nasdor
The Book of Ice
By Paul D. Miller
Illustrated. 128 pages. Mark Batty Publisher
The Book of Ice—the latest multi-genre book by the peripatetic DJ, composer, intermedia artist and manifesto meister Paul D. Miller (aka DJ Spooky That Subliminal Kid)—is all history-meets-music-meets-meteorology-meets-graphic art-meets-filmography-meets-activism-meets-Futurism-meets-branding-meets-string quartet. In other words, full-on Spooky.
Contrary to its title, The Book of Ice is not an encyclopedia of the Earth’s polar regions, but partially a document of Miller’s voyage to Antarctica, and the resulting multimedia performance work “Terra Nova: Sinfonia Antarctica.” More accurately, the book is a meditation on the idea of Antarctica: the only continent without government, inhospitable to humans, year-round penguin amusement park, but also a white canvas Rorschach image of climate change effects.
Let’s begin with its structure. The volume begins with a preface by theoretical physicist Brian Greene, a two-page intro to ice and where it sits in the cosmos; and a brief foreword—more of a blurb—by environmental scientist Ross A. Virginia. Fortunately, these are followed by a cacophonous five-page introduction by Miller, who sets the tone of the book by laying out the issues he would like to address, in this manner: the story of ice leads into a pithy quote from Eric Dolphy, allowing Miller to jump off a into hip-hop while opening a door to acoustics and the great 20th-century avant-garde composers who made best use of it. And that’s just the first few paragraphs. As the introduction proceeds, Miller begins to cull together disparate tangents and parallels: urban repetition leads to ideas about patterns (snowflakes!) and then the statement that “Terra Nova” is based loosely on Johannes Kepler’s 1661 essay “Strena Seu de Nive Sexangula. The dance of snow and the dance of patterned music. The text then proceeds to ping-pong between a condensed description of the history of Antarctic exploration and the various directions of modern musical exploration. Miller’s intro is packed tight, and he sees the rest of the book as his way of unpacking the topics he has just dumped in the reader’s lap.
The body of The Book of Ice is a mirror of the introduction, equally cacophonous (though clustered into sections), which is a bit ironic, as “Terra Nova: Sinfonia Antarctica,” his musical culmination of his explorations and studies, seems quite ordered and minimalist, like a Philip Glass piece. On the other hand, this is the beauty of the book, in the way that it lays bare the raw materials that become the performance.
Stepping in with an interesting chart on the cascading effects of climate change, Miller introduces “The Sonic Landscape” with a Q&A between himself and Princeton University professor Elena Glasberg that explores the physical and historical Antarctica and the composer’s efforts to capture both in auditory terms. In his typical style, Miller balances these topics and mixes in references to old journalistic and filmic documents and interpretations of the quest to understand/colonize/exploit the uncharted continent. Even this interview is conducted in pure Spooky-speak (I mean this as a compliment): the author puts the reader in the center of his thought processes. He informs us of the musical influences that have excited him: Cage, Varese, Scriabin, et al.
Except for a nicely detailed Antarctica timeline, the rest of The Book of Ice is comprised of several large image-oriented sections:
“Data Landscape” – beautiful grayscale interpretations of music as data. These images are visually arresting; to my eye, they are terrific examples of seeing music. The eye follows lines and circles and musical staffs in such a way as they appear to be set in motion.
“Posters and Stickers” – a series of bold blue-scale posters for “Terra Nova,” and for an imagined Manifesto for a People’s Republic of Antarctica. It is Branding is the best sense, and has been designed with a bow to Russian Constructivist commercial art.
“Economic Landscape” – A bar-coded and schematic interpretation of an imagined Antarctic economy.
“Emotional Landscape” – a series of vintage photographs of the landscapes and turn-of-the-century Antarctic expeditions.
Finally, The Book of Ice concludes with a second Q&A with author and turntablist Tobias C. Van Veen, on the subject of “Afrofuturism,” a linking of Afrocentrism and an idealized Futurism (stripped of its Fascist associations) that aggregates jazz, hip-hop, DJ culture, and aforementioned 20th-century experimental composers. He forcefully puts forward the notion of history as in a state of permanent remix. This is perhaps the most important point the book has to make. Overlaying those thoughts with the image of Antarctica couldn’t make things clearer.
While it is difficult to “hear” this book, readers can easily go online and see the entire performance of “Terra Nova” on YouTube, as well as interviews, and some of DJ Spooky’s previous projects. Watching and listening to “Terra Nova” will bring the whole picture together, and would be highly recommended.
There are a few built-in difficulties with The Book of Ice. As a stand-alone document, the reader may come away a little bit confused, as a boatload of ideas are tossed around in sections much too brief for the reader who is not well-versed in late-century avant-garde music and its principal players. I think there is some tension there; Miller desires to explain concepts to the reader with examples. In the absence of an accompanying CD compilation, I’m not sure he always succeeds. The reader can explore on their own, and should do so. But it is a beautiful book, the kind of volume that will be picked up multiple times and leafed through. As stated earlier, the graphics are stunning and inspiring.
It is occasionally annoying when Miller explicitly lumps himself together with the greatest composers of the century (please, leave it to others to make those conclusions). But behind this veneer, DJ Spooky is nothing if not possessed of an intense childlike curiosity, sucking in (sampling) any and all referents that will contribute to the finished project. Miller is a lucky man indeed: an artist who can embrace a polar continent and turn it into something much more interesting than seal hunts and eco-tourism.