As Dave Segal wrote, "The recordings, live performances, and DJ sets of DJ Spooky (Paul D. Miller) always come freighted with substantive concepts and science-fictional expansiveness. ... Judging by the YouTube trailer, The Hidden Code seems like a cross between a physics lecture, an episode of Cosmos, and planetarium-friendly, futuristic jazztronica. Looks like a heady trip, in more ways than one."
So that's a parsing of the component parts of The Hidden Code. But Monday I called up DJ Spooky, also known as "That Subliminal Kid," to ask him to riff about the ideas beneath those component parts.
He told me he created The Hidden Code after being invited by a friend, the theoretical physicist/saxophonist Stephon Alexander (author of The Jazz of Physics), to visit Dartmouth in 2014 through its interdisciplinary art/science Neukom Institute for Computational Science.
At Dartmouth, DJ Spooky met an entire crew of scientists who take an interdisciplinary art/science approach. (The Hidden Code, being presented by Seattle Symphony, is also part of this week's 9e2 art/science/tech festival here in Seattle.)
DJ Spooky sat down with each scientist individually (there were eight of them in all), recorded the conversations, and went back to his own studios to create.
"I’d be sitting across from a guy who works on non-linear or non-Euclidean aspects of space, or something like that," he recalled, "and if you show them a chord progression, it was beautiful to see different sparks fly."
His favorite conversation was with experimental cosmologist Marcelo Gleiser. Gleiser actually became part of the performance of The Hidden Code, along with DJ Spooky and Alexander. Gleiser's portion is that he reads texts developed from his book A Tear at the Edge of Creation.
"He’s a professor in physics and astronomy in the way that a poet is an architect of language," said DJ Spooky. "He’s really thinking about patterns and structures. I’m still in touch with him to this day. I stay in touch with all of them, pretty much."
A handful of years ago, DJ Spooky spent six weeks backpacking in Antarctica. He did it to create an "acoustic portrait" of the rapidly melting continent, a place besieged by "the clash of time and space and consumerism." Influenced by the intellectual accomplishments of his professor parents (a father and mother who must be equally proud of their son), "I've always been drawn to things that are slightly on the edge of knowledge."
The "healthiest" part of the 21st century is the access to more knowledge and information than at any other time in history, he added. But as soon as he detects a predictable pattern, he looks for new ones. "In the Middle Ages, they would have maps that would end and at the edge, it would say, 'Here be monsters.' I think I would always be heading towards the edge of the map. Boredom is much more of a motivation than fear."
The Hidden Code was first performed at Boston's Charles Hayden Planetarium about a year ago. The visual imagery that mixes with the sounds was created by the planetarium's staff, and the performance spans from the Big Bang into the future. There are eight tracks, with titles like "Gödel, Escher, and Bach," "Ramanujan’s Gambit," and "Objective Physiological Psychology."
At the end of our conversation, I asked DJ Spooky whether there was anything he wanted to be asked. This is what he said:
The basic principle of DJing is generosity, because you're asked to mix and remix and go through your record collection—you’re already thinking about sound as a social space. We live in this socially generous time. Everyone’s sharing and updating pretty much everything that goes across their mental headspace. But to me it becomes, how do you filter? This is a time of mega overload.
It’s not really about overload but more about filter failure.
A DJ allows you to understand the complexity and connections between everything. If you were to ask me what question I would ask myself about all of this, I would say, where does the human mind process all of these things? And I would just be left in the stunning beauty of the fact that we just simply don’t know.
When I make music and I make art, I try to give people thought-tools for mindfulness, or for thinking about the patterns we inhabit as not fixed or locked down but changeable. It's the beauty of that, that makes life worth living.