Creating Melodic Landscapes in Antarctica

"Go to the most remote place that you can imagine, set up a studio and see what music comes out of it."
  • Transcript


Question:  What are the origins of "Terra Nova," your Antarctic symphony?
DJ Spooky:  What I wanted to try and figure out was, okay, in contemporary 21st century life the alienation between the self and the land around you or the self and even the urban landscape.  You name it.  Most people walk around with headphones on.  They’re barely encountering or dealing with their fellow person, or if they’re in a car they’re in this kind of cocoon, stuck in suburban rush hour traffic or something.  The landscape of their current experience is just really compartmentalized. And what I wanted to do with Antarctica was say let’s hit the reset button on that and see what happens to your creative process.  Let’s go to the most remote place that you can imagine, set up a studio and see what music comes out of it. So I took a studio down to several of the main ice fields, and the basic idea was to give myself four weeks in these ice fields to create a new work and see what happens. And, you know, it was really important to me to kind of think about the urban landscape on one hand versus this hyper-abstract ice landscape on the other. 
Antarctica, one of the things that was so remarkable about it was that the ice itself is a kind of pure geometry, so say, for example, if I was facing someone wearing I don’t know, a Joy Division t-shirt with the mountains on it or something like that... Seeing that as a computer abstraction versus actually going to these continents and seeing a 40 mile chunk of ice break off that is the size of mountains the sense of scale was just awe-inspiring.  I mean just…  I remember one time it took us several hours to walk out into a major glacier field off the Weddell Ice Sea Shelf, all right, so this is Antarctic summer, if you fall in the water you die in about two minutes, so you’re walking, the ice is creaking, the landscape is like subtly you know shifting and if anyone out there has ever been in an earthquake this is like kind of a slow motion earthquake, but the land is shifting and groaning and creaking and you know if you ever walked on ice and you’re like whoa, you could fall through.  It really you know puts you in that for lack of better word, very cautious mentality. So the physicality of that and the just the sheer lack of urban noise and machinery—just the wind, the water and your breath, you know that kind of thing—it was pure poetry and you know I treasure that.  It was just…  I can only wonder what astronauts must feel like or something like that when you’re really in the space of silence and you are feeling and breathing in a way that you’re really aware of your muscle and bone and the breath and the body and the movement and all of those things that just you take for granted in the urban landscape. 
I felt like on one hand the clarity of thought was amazing, but on the other we went during Antarctic summer, so the sun didn’t set the whole time we were there.  It was permanent afternoon. And when I say permanent afternoon, you know, I’m talking like crystal clear, crispy blue sky.  All the sudden you didn’t need to sleep as much because it just was difficult. And how that translated into my creative process I still am not quite sure, but it made my relationship to sleep a kind of abstract you know bizarre…  I can't put my finger on it, but I ended up dreaming very intense dreams because I only needed about four hours of sleep.  Meanwhile, we’d take you know four to eight hours hikes way out into these you know kind of glaciers and so on you know all day and you come back and you’d be tired and you still couldn’t sleep because the sun was up and it felt like you know it’s like two in the afternoon or something, even if it was midnight. So, yeah, quirky.  Sleep is crucial and I tend to find when the sun is shining I find it much more difficult to get that sense of sleep. 

Question: Is the  piece classical?

DJ Spooky:  What I’m going for with the string arrangements for my Antarctic symphony is a pun here.  On one hand you have a string quartet, which is not a symphony.  On the other hand is you have me sampling them and making it sound like there is many more people playing, so the whole notion of, kind of, sampling applied to classical music is very intriguing to me because composers throughout history have borrowed motifs and quotes from one another. So Bach, Beethoven, Duke Ellington, Thelonius Monk, these are all people who would sort of rearrange or take riffs from people. Same thing with rock, if you look at the Rolling Stones doing a cover of Otis Redding or you know if you look at literature James Joyce is pulling fragments of text from other people. So the Antarctic symphony has a geometric relationship to the landscape.  It’s saying that this landscape and the minimal kind of, you know I’m talking like seeing ice, is visually kind of eerily minimal. But there is a complexity and layering that goes on with this kind of thing, so the music is slightly repetitive and when I say repetitive it’s in the same tradition as people like Steve Reich or Erik Satie or even WC. So what I wanted to do is kind of invoke that and then dive into that kind of repetition as a DJ thing because DJing you hear beats, like "boom, boom, boom, bap, bap."  You know hip hop, house, techno.  So how do you translate between those electronic motifs and the motifs of the landscape itself?  That is what I wanted to go for.
Question: What do you want people to get out of it?
DJ Spooky:  Antarctica is one of the most remote and beautiful places on earth.  I don’t think that everyone should go there.  I also think that we need to respect it as a kind of a national park for the planet.  It should be you know put in parentheses.  You know, in the sentence of humanity this place needs to be a parentheses. And when I say parentheses I mean I’m talking like you go around it.  Leave it alone.  Let it exist.  And what I want people to see with this film is not only a respect for this place from the bottom of my heart.  I’m talking like just the beauty, but at the same time to get people to realize that we should treasure it.  Maybe visualize it, but leave it alone. And it’s… there is a sense of awe with these huge landscapes and open spaces.  Maybe someone living out in the American deep Midwest desert can imagine the same thing, or somebody living in Namibia or the Arctic is very different... but yeah, just awe of the landscape.  I know that sounds like nerdy and corny and stuff like that, but you know let it be nerdy and corny.  It’s a beautiful place.  I could just sit on an ice glacier and just watch the land for like days, months, years.

Recorded on April 8, 2010