WEEK 19: WASHINGTON, DC

A Mathematical Musician’s Journey from Our Nation’s Capital to the Arctic Circle

By Paul D. Miller, aka DJ Spooky, musician, composer, author, National Geographic Emerging Explorer

Paul Miller, known as DJ Spooky, in the Svalbard Region of the Norwegian Arctic. ( (Photo courtesy of Paul Miller)
To speak truly, few adult persons can see nature. Most persons do not see the sun. — Ralph Waldo Emerson, 1836

My path to the Arctic Circle started in the museums and galleries of Washington, DC where I was born. From my earliest memories, the Smithsonian with its collection of landscape paintings, the Phillip’s Collection with its radically diverse visions of art and photography, and the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden on the National Mall gave those of us growing up here not only welcome shelter from the sweltering humidity and heat of the city’s primal summers, but a kaleidoscopic array of history and culture that shaped our minds.

LISTEN TO DJ SPOOKY’S ALBUM OF WATER AND ICE HERE.

(Photo and album image courtesy of Paul Miller)

When I think of Washington, DC and the many memories I have of the national monuments, Federal architecture, and elegant blend of nature and urban design that informs the city, I’m left with the feeling that I’ve always felt at home in the heart of the city as much as I’ve felt at home in the heart of nature. Today, as a composer, author, and musician, I take elements from both and integrate them into whatever piece or project I’m working on.

DC has much to offer those who seek nature, art, history, and culture. (R) The Washington Monument framed by cherry blossoms (Photo credit: Rizka via Creative Commons); (R) An ad from Paul Miller’s mother Rosemary’s clothing boutique, which she owned for 40 years. (Photo credit: Oohlala Blog)

I grew up in Washington D.C. at Connecticut Avenue and R Street, and in Shepherd Park, at 13th Street and Geranium Street. They were two different visions of what Washington could be, and the connection was Rock Creek Park. I went to the park to ride my bicycle down from our house to my mother’s clothing boutique, Toast and Strawberries, one of the few African American-owned stores at Dupont Circle. When I rode down to the store and then back home after it closed, my main objective was to avoid traffic, and that’s exactly what the park did for me: it gave me a sense of beauty to contrast with the Federal City. In a world where geographical frontiers are becoming more and more scarce, sometimes it’s our sense of contradiction about something that leads to new visions. Even as a child, something as simple as the quiet, natural beauty of Rock Creek Park and the challenges that it posed to the bustling, man-made fabric of the city was an intellectually fascinating juxtaposition for me.

Rock Creek Park, which runs through the heart of DC, stands in juxtaposition with the buildings of the capital of the free world which surround it. (Photo credit: Rock Creek Park Conservancy)

Today, I still collect my inspiration from the contrast between the natural and man-made. In 2014, I traveled to the Arctic with Sierra Club Director Michael Brune and Rue Mapp, Founder and CEO of Outdoor Afro. This journey inspired me to create my album Arctic Rhythms. The music on the album is electronic, but inspired by the nature, specifically the geometry, of ice.

Today we view the Earth in a radically different way than when the Apollo 17 photos of the “Blue Marble” whole Earth photos from 1972. Like the astronauts’ sense of wonder at seeing the complete picture of the Earth, sometimes it’s all about getting a new vocabulary to explain phenomena that are at the edge not just of what we can imagine, but literally what we can experience. The place the Arctic holds in our imaginations is truly is larger than life.

Before visiting the Arctic, I took two expeditions to Antarctica to shoot and film an “acoustic portrait” of the rapidly changing continent. In visiting the Arctic, I also saw a place undergoing rapid change, but also a place that gave me a new vocabulary, and new data for composing my music. When I compose, I take data from nature, such as the geometric formulas of snowflakes, and turn them into music.

By melding “inventive digital applications and live musicians, DJ Spooky weaves together an evocative multimedia trip to the Arctic landscape.” — National Geographic Live!
Stills from National Geographic Live!’s presentation of “DJ Spooky’s Arctic Rhythms.”

Every aspect of the landscape in DC is drenched with the powerful currents that shaped our modern times. The tectonic forces of politics that carved the Federal District out of a place between North and South set the tone for how we think about the current state of America. Those forces are still alive across the city, shaping and influencing America’s future. The idea of the Arctic has spread across the city like a wildfire across parched tundra. Washington insiders and influencers from Secretary of State John Kerry to think tank elites to university students are looking northward. They are taking steps that will determine the fate of the Arctic and how its narrative fits into our national identity.

Another person from DC intrigued with ice…. (Photo Credit: Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

Even President Obama has caught Arctic fever (the term hardly an oxymoron now given the rising temperatures of the region). Last year, he issued an Executive Order on the Arctic and outlined steps to “prepare the Nation for a changing Arctic and enhance coordination of national efforts in the Arctic.” He then traveled from the White House to Alaska to visit the American Arctic, pointing to the region as a bellwether of global climate change impacts to come.

I wonder if the President issued his Arctic Executive from the Oval Office’s Resolute Desk, which is made from the timbers of HMS Resolute, a British Naval ship used for Arctic exploration. After being frozen in the ice in the Canadian Arctic and abandoned, it was eventually recovered by an American whaler, restored by the U.S. government, and returned to Britain as a gesture of goodwill. Once it had served out its useful life in the UK, it was dismantled and some of its timber were used to create a desk, which was then presented by Queen Victoria to President Hayes in 1880. The Resolute Desk has been used by most U.S. presidents since.

(L) President John F. Kennedy’s son, JFK, Jr., peeks out of the Resolute Desk as his father works circa 1962. (R) President Obama shows a group of Oval Office visitors the Resolute Desk in 2015. (Photo credits: White House)

It’s been over 50 years since the Russians launched Sputnik, the first artificial satellite, into orbit and set the tone, literally, with its telemetry signals for the Space Age that created a ferocious competition for technological progress between the Western nations and the Soviet Block. When humanity heard the signals from Sputnik, our sense of being part of Nature changed. It opened up the idea that we could look up at the sky and remember that we are just a part of the larger universe.

The men who discovered the North Pole, Arctic explorers Matt Henson and Robert Peary, rest side just across the bridge from DC in Arlington National Cemetery (Photo credit: U.S. Department of State)

It’s competition for these vision-expanding firsts that move humanity forward. When Admiral Peary and Matthew Henson fatefully met in the late 1800s in Washington, DC at a clothier near what is known today as Pershing Square, Peary was already dreaming of being the first human to reach the North Pole. This desire pushed the duo forward to Greenland by ship then by dog sled toward the top of the earth many times, with their final and successful effort in 1909.

In Greek, Arktos means “constellation of the bear.” The Greeks named the Arctic either after the constellation of Ursa Major (Latin for “big bear”), which is prominent in the northern hemisphere, or after the constellation of Ursa Minor (“little bear”), in which we find Polaris, the North Star. With language we define places we can see at the edge of our vision. Today, that edge is expanding rapidly. For me, the Arctic gave me new information, a new way to relate with the earth, a new language that I can use in my work.

Music and art can be vehicles for provoking thought, overcoming inertia, and helping people engage with issues that are exponentially reshaping our information-driven world. — DJ Spooky

While Peary and Henson had to rely on the most basic scientific tools, today technology can provide us with a picture of the entire Earth in real time. From Global Positioning Satellites (GPS) to Google Maps, humanity has now seen far beyond both the big and little bears, but is able to look back down at itself from the sky. In this technology driven-world creates an information-drenched sense of the impact of climate change. Thanks to NASA, which is based here in DC, we can see that Arctic ice is melting at an astonishingly rapid pace. The question is how will we move forward now that the ever-evolving language of science is presenting us with this new vision of the Arctic — not the one of our imaginations, but one that we are irrevocably changing.


About the Author:

Paul Miller, known by his stage name DJ Spooky, That Subliminal Kid, is an electronic and experimental musician, philosopher, composer, and author. He was born in Washington, DC. He studied philosophy and French literature at Bowdoin College in Maine, is a Professor of Music Mediated Art at the European Graduate School. He was the first artist-in-residence at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. Learn more here: www.djspooky.com.

#OurArcticNation

Next week’s featured U.S. state: INDIANA