The musician Paul D. Miller, better known as DJ Spooky, is premiering a new hybrid work called the “Heart of a Forest” based on his residency at the H.J. Andrews experimental forest in the western Cascade Mountains. His residency was created through a collaboration between organizations: The Spring Creek Project for Ideas, Nature, and The Written Word at Oregon State University, and Oregon Community Foundation’s Creative Heights Program, and the USDA Forest Service Pacific Northwest Research Station. The experimental forest is an ecological laboratory; data is gathered continuously and gives Oregon scientists metrics on rainfall, species migration, deforestation and rates of forest regrowth.
Miller set out to create music that reflected the life of the forest, and to re-ignite a dialogue between art and science. Drawing inspiration from Vivaldi’s work, the Four Seasons, he created “acoustic portraits” of the forest in spring, summer, fall, and winter. Electronic music allowed for a true dialogue with scientific method: shifts in tempo, pitch and duration are shaped by the real data for how forests create root networks.
The score was debuted and recorded with the Oregon State University Wind Ensemble earlier this year. Now Miller is in the process of refining the composition and finalizing the album version. We caught up with him on his Oregon tour for a short conversation about “Heart of a Forest.”
You seem to be in Oregon frequently. What draws you here as an artist?
I have always loved working outside of NYC. New York is super intense and there’s so many distractions. Oregon is about as opposite as you can imagine from downtown Manhattan. And I love the contrast.
Tell me about your seasonal residencies at the H.J. Andrews Experimental Forest. First of all what is an experimental forest?
The Residency at HJ Andrews Experimental Forest is all about creating dialog. The experimental forest is a mix of trees that were set in a context after recovering after logging. It’s all about how forests transform after humans have withdrawn. It’s amazing how much damage people can do in such a short amount of time. Going to the forest for all four seasons was amazing: you realize how much you miss when you are in a mega city like NYC. The experimental forest reached into my heart and showed me how to balance between different world views. The “quiet” I experienced made me realize that we are all in a media trance. Getting out of that just gave me a different perspective – and that’s what went into the compositions.
OSU’s program seems pretty unique, engaging science, art and biology. What do you think of the program and what can an artist bring to the realm of forest science?
It’s so important to work with scientists and bring awareness of the myriad issues facing us as climate change becomes a foundation of 21st century life. OSU is focused on bridging the differences between media and art with science. Love it!
You’ve worked with members of Slayer, Public Enemy, and the Kronos Quartet, and produced albums which traverse categories from hip-hop to illbient to jazz and classical. What is your relationship to genre?
I think most “genres” are just categories where people feel safe doing the traditional formula of whatever they feel they need to lock into. That’s boring to me. Working with people like Yoko Ono, or Ryuichi Sakamoto and seeing how eclectic they are plus going all over the world for the last couple of decades has shown me that everything is relative.
Is Heart of a Forest specifically about Oregon?
It’s about forests and that is something Oregon has a tremendous amount of. One thing balances the other – on one hand I wanted to do something about the specific HJ Andrews scenario. On the other deforestation is a massive issue facing everyone. And I wanted to show how the local and the global intersect. That’s what’s more important than anything else now.
Finding the key of a place and conveying it through music seems like an approach a classical musician might take. Something like what Beethoven might have done while composing Moonlight Sonata. It’s a distinctly visual approach. How does visualization and experience shape the music you create?
We shot the footage with drones and got some amazing material. The inspiration for the whole project comes out of what Vivaldi did with Four Seasons – make portraits of the seasons with sound. Trying to match everything with drone footage just shows all the layers of a project. I love the way the footage turned out.
Your residency at the Met yielded an album about Antarctica, “Of Water and Ice,” and now “Heart of a Forest” brings us another ecological composition. Is this a series about the environment?
Yes. I will have multiple projects reflecting water, ice, climate change and big data. Forests are the lungs of the planet. I wanted to explore how a portrait in sound would unfold using these tools combined with traditional materials. The album coming out of the Residency will make use of local wood and digital media. If you think about it all instruments are made from wood- think of a symphony of the forests as looking at the prime materials of Western music but updated.
I think of remixing as deconstruction—your work “Birth of a Nation” tears apart and reassembles the DW Griffith film in order to analyze it. Meanwhile Of Water and Ice and Heart of a Forest seem to be giving voice to silence. Is there a different approach between your deconstructive work and this work?
All of my projects look at potential- how something can be different from what it was. My motto is “let’s give the past a future.” Everything is made from fragments. I just try to be honest when facing materials that have such a powerful foundation. “Rebirth of a Nation” – “Of Water and Ice” – these are projects that reflect different aspects of the environment- one mental, the other physical. I also have done projects about quantum physics too! I’m not doing normal Dj’ing that much now, but I have an album coming up next year that I made in Jamaica. That’s a party album!
How can we get “Heart of a Forest” in album form?
I am going to release an open source version of the album and another version that will have limited edition materials. Maybe the album will be made from wood! Stay tuned!
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