Witching Hour: DJ Spooky on remixing the sounds of Explorer, Space, and the Van Allen belts

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Music was a hobby that “sprawled out of control” for composer Paul D. Miller — all the way to outer space.

Through a University of Iowa commission, he spent about a year finding musical inspiration in the newly restored and digitized data from the historic 1958 satellite mission that led to the discovery of Earth’s radiation belts. They are named for the late James Van Allen, head of the UI department of physics and astronomy, whose instruments aboard the Explorer satellites provided data about the belts.

Miller, performing under the name DJ Spooky, will debut his “Explorer I Remix” at the Englert Theatre on Friday night, as part of Iowa City’s Witching Hour Festival. The multimedia performance, described as “a musical collage at the intersection of art and science,” features Miller on his custom-designed iPad DJ app and a local string ensemble.

“There’s a deep irony here, in that we don’t hear sound in space, because there’s nothing to carry the medium,” Miller, 47, said by phone from Boulder, Colo., where he’s setting up “a studio escape hatch” from the bustle of New York City. “Every time you hear a science fiction movie soundtrack, it’s more an allegorical. So there’s a fun sense that this is a data soundification.”

He sees himself as “an archivist who reads and uses reading to generate composition.”

“To me, music isn’t separate from sounds. It’s more like organized sound, so you have to imagine that composers put together patterns, but nature itself is patterns, so you see an overlap. That’s the vibe I wanted to go for.”

The journey’s genesis began as a way for the UI library to activate its archives, Miller said.

“They had an exhibition series about the history of the Van Allen Belts’ relationship to the university,” he said. “I was blown away. I had read about the American response to Sputnik (the Soviet Union’s 1957 satellite). It’s a powerful thing when you look at the space race, and geopolitics and sound. Sputnik was the first sound to be heard around the world, because it had these telemetry signals. You just hear this weird beep, beep, beep, so that’s the first electronic music, as well.”

After the UI approached him about the project, he made a couple of trips to the university.

“I was really intrigued to see how something that’s so powerful could be so invisible to the average person,” he said. “The second step was then to start thinking about the power of the invisible. Without the Van Allen Belts, we would all basically die — fundamental stuff here. The whole issue is the way the arts are also partly about the ephemeral. ...

“I wanted to figure on how to balance that with some of the issues of being a composer and DJ — those are all mutually reflexive roles. A DJ is somebody who plays beats. Beats are patterns. A composer is somebody who makes patterns. The Van Allen Belts are literally loops, so as an allegory to 21st century culture, the arts are the perfect place, because there’s actually electromagnetic fields that interact and generate something that keeps us all alive. It’s not an everyday, in-your-face situation, but it’s a fundamental situation. Without that protection, the sun would burn us all alive.”

At its core, he wants his piece to “show people the history and to think of it as a storytelling,” he said. “I’m really fascinated with being able to use music to tell narrative stories without words.”

And to spark imaginations.

“I want people to think about ideas. The problem with our society right now is that everyone is bombarded with so much noise. How do you cut through that and get people to look up at the sky and realize how powerful nature is, how deep our relationship to earth is,” he said. “I’d like to give people a bubble of reflection on that. A lot of music, and entertainment in general, is distraction. Instead of that, I want immersion.”

GET OUT!

WHAT: DJ Spooky: “Explorer I Remix”

WHERE: Englert Theatre, 221 E. Washington St., Iowa City

WHEN: 7 p.m. Friday (10/20)

TICKETS: Festival pass or $10 students, $20 adults in advance, $25 show day, Englert Box Office, (319) 688-2653 or Englert.org

ARTIST’S WEBSITE: Djspooky.com

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