DJ Spooky’s ‘Explorer I Remix’, featuring sounds made by Van Allen radiation belts, will premiere at Witching Hour

Witching Hour: DJ Spooky

Englert Theatre — Friday, Oct. 20, 7 p.m

Photo by Mike Figgis

DJ Spooky is going to drop some science, literally. His new Explorer I Remix emerged from a collaboration between this visiting artist and a group of University of Iowa scientists, musicians, librarians and archivists. One of the featured performances at the Englert Theatre during this fall’s Witching Hour festival, the world debut of this composition is the product of an innovative partnership between a public university and a nonprofit community theater, something that could only happen in a place like Iowa City.

The University of Iowa Libraries commissioned Explorer I Remix in anticipation of the 60th anniversary of a satellite launched in 1958 that contained an instrument built at the university, which was used to discover Earth’s radiation belts (known as the Van Allen belts in honor of UI scientist James Van Allen). Rather than honor this anniversary with another staid lecture, the good folks at the university sought out ways to transform science into art, and vice versa.

DJ Spooky, born Paul Miller, developed his composition by incorporating samples of acoustic sound waves produced by the Van Allen belts recorded by UI physics Professor Donald Gurnett and UI research scientist Bill Kurth — lead scientists on the Voyager, Cassini, Van Allen Probes and Juno missions. The show at the Englert on Oct. 20 will be a hybrid performance that mixes digital sampling with traditional musical instrumentation, provided by local musicians in the Red Cedar Chamber Music ensemble.

“I imported sounds that were edited from the Van Allen belts and made them parts of the composition,” Miller said. “I’m a big fan of live sampling, and I’ve worked with artists as diverse as Public Enemy and Yoko Ono, amongst many others.”

Paul Miller believes that the critical term for the 21st century is “interdisciplinary.” He is inspired by everyone from early video artists like Nam June Paik and Dadaist Marcel Duchamp, to hip-hop musicians such as Grandmaster Flash and the Roots’ Questlove.

“It’s all a mix,” he said. “One time I took a studio to Antarctica and made a symphony about the sound of ice. I also did paintings, and a series of graphic design prints. I love the way that software has made this kind of interdisciplinary approach a fundamental way to think about the creative economy. It’s all connected.”

That’s why he jumped at the chance to develop this project.

“The University of Iowa crew that commissioned the project comes out of a few different departments — a really great group of enthusiastic folks from the university library and archives, and the astrophysics departments,” Miller explained. “Thomas Keegan, who runs the Digital Scholarship and Publishing Studio at the University of Iowa Libraries, and Dr. Cornelia Lang, associate professor with the Department of Physics and Astronomy, both helped spearhead the scenario.”

Miller said they were interested in developing ways of putting art, science and contemporary music into a dialog. He previously came to the University of Iowa two times to review the archival materials and distill them into a series of compositions that meditated on the Van Allen belts and their historical contexts — “No easy task,” he noted.

The creators of Explorer I — including James Van Allen, center — pose with a model of the satellite. — photo courtesy of NASA

“During the interim, I got to meet many amazing University of Iowa professors and really expanded my approach to what people call ‘data sonification,’ in order to try and invoke the way the Van Allen belts are actually loops around the planet,” Miller said.

Data sonification, Miller explained, involves taking very specific mathematical information and translating it into music. In preparing Explorer I Remix, he also gleaned insights from a wide array of musicians and composers who have mashed up music and science — from European art music to the Wu-Tang Clan.

“I’m inspired by composers like Iannis Xenakis, who I worked with before he passed away, and more minimalist composers like Steve Reich and John Adams. If you look at the history of composers responding to interstellar phenomena of course, Holst’s symphony of The Planets is in the mix. And yes, these days even GZA from Wu-Tang is rapping about physics, so there’s a lot of material to riff on.”

The University of Iowa has a long history of multidisciplinary collaborations — having commissioned, for example, several pieces by the string ensemble Kronos Quartet — and Explorer I Remix is an extension of this tradition.

“And there are some amazing professors at the University of Iowa, like Professor Larry Granroth and of course Professor Don Gurnett … They are inspirations, as are folks like contemporary dance choreographer Professor Michael Sakamoto and Professor Jason A. England, who are all doing some great interdisciplinary work. I wish I had been able to come out to Iowa more often,” Miller said.

Paul Miller a.k.a. DJ Spooky. — photo by Giancarlo Minelli

As someone who has had a longstanding interest in copyright and remix culture, it doesn’t escape Miller’s attention that the data produced by federally-funded projects is in the public domain, which allows anyone to transform it.

“I’m a firm believer in open source media. My Antarctica project was made open source because, literally, there is no government in Antarctica. It’s the only place on Earth with no government,” he said.

“I wanted to reflect that kind of approach as a fundamental question about how artists reflect what’s going on. I just pay respect to the concept that we all share, because that’s the way electronic music works. No one is isolated, and we need to think of the world as an unfinished mix that can always be changed and transformed.”

In the lead up to the world premiere, Miller has been working working with Professor Lang to develop visuals that will accompany the performance — drawing on archival materials taken from the University of Iowa Library. Miller notes that the UI has amazing material from the mid-20th century space race era: “I’m super psyched to see how people from the university see their own history!”

Kembrew McLeod regularly explores the mysteries of the Van Allen belts with his homemade DIY rocket and space pod. This article was originally published in Little Village issue 230.

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