Paul D. MILLER (aka DJ Spooky) (b. 1970)
Rebirth of a Nation - A film score and composition
Kronos Quartet
rec. Fantasy Studios, Berkeley, CA, 2 February 2007
16 page booklet included with the film
CANTALOUPE CA21110 [DVD: 95.12; CD: 79.26]

There are two discs in this set: one a DVD of D.W. Griffith’s film The Birth of a Nation (edited and overlaid) with Miller’s music and the other, a CD of a performance of the score.

Paul D'Shonne Miller is known as DJ Spooky, That Subliminal Kid. That stage name can be traced back to the character The Subliminal Kid in the novel Nova Express by William S. Burroughs. According to his Wikipedia entry he was born in Washington DC and is active as an electronic and experimental hip hop musician. He is also credited as a 'turntablist', producer, philosopher, academic, editor and author. It seems that his work is often referred to as "illbient" or "trip hop". Watching one of Miller’s presentations on YouTube I was impressed by how cultured he is and by his intelligence, imagination and sheer breadth of knowledge.

Now I am the first to admit my ignorance of hip hop culture. My usual haunt is the classical music section of his site with occasional forays into Jazz and Nostalgia. I also founded and was the first editor of the now defunct section of MusicWeb International, Film Music on the Web. With this in the background my interest was stimulated on reading that a new score had been written for Griffith’s film, and that a DVD and CD was available with the score performed by the Kronos Quartet.

Considering Miller's background it is no surprise that he had D.W. Griffith’s notoriously racist film, The Birth of a Nation (1915) in his sights for a modern rethink. The result is his Rebirth of A Nation. For it, he has written a new score to accompany a showing of his ‘reworked’ film. It is well-known that silent films were often accompanied in theatres by a solo piano, a chamber group or more ostentatiously by an orchestra in more opulent venues. Miller's score is here played by the Kronos. Anyone thinking that all they are to hear is pure unadulterated string quartet music is in for a surprise. In fact the quartet’s offering is supplemented by synth music to a very appreciable degree, often almost totally disguising the generally accustomed string quartet sound. The spooky visual concept applied to D.W. Griffith’s film comes as something of a shock too.

I will admit I have still to see The Birth of a Nation in its entirety, having just seen excerpts at various times. Now, having watched the Spooky version (and it is spooky), I am keen to see the original to appreciate the ruckus it caused back in the early twentieth century. You can get the DVD or Blu-ray equivalent through Amazon.

What about this album’s content? Miller’s visuals are unusual; sometimes confusing, sometimes bizarre and possibly a little too clever and self-aware to the detriment of the concept. It appears that Spooky was keen to look back at The Birth of a Nation and to tag it The Rebirth of A Nation. Griffith’s images are seen through overlaid patterns more associated with modern living. These frequently bring electronic circuit diagrams to mind or urban map symbols. For emphasis Miller often creates a picture-frame closely around a certain character and clears away any patterning from the portrait. Most disconcerting is the frequent use of a wacky split-screen effect with the split running top to bottom centre. The images on both sides are the same so that the result is something like a fairground distorting mirror. Was the motivation to demonstrate “if only they could have seen themselves would they have …”?

The music is progressive and Minimalist and reminiscent of Nyman and Glass. It is undeniably clever in creating an atmosphere. The use of the synth constantly gives the impression that there are far larger instrumental forces at work rather than just a string quartet the utterances of which are frequently distorted. Little touches like the inclusion of harmonica and banjo sounds creates symbols for the cultures of the North and South respectively, clashing during the Civil War.

This is an interesting and imaginative concept and one either to treasure or consign to a drawer marked ‘curiosities’.
Ian Lace

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