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‘Heart of a Forest’: Navigating environmental understanding

By Brett Campbell
November 9, 2016
Featured, Media, Music

“Music is a mirror we hold up to society,” says Paul D. Miller. “It shows us things we didn’t think about or engage with enough.”

Better known as DJ Spooky, Miller’s new project Heart of a Forest, which he performs this week in Portland, Bend, and Newport, wants us to think more about, and engage with the forests we Oregonians cherish, yet may take for granted.

“People take a lot for granted right now,” he says. “That’s a tragedy at the beginning of 21st century. The issue for me isn’t about information. Now we get plenty of that stuff from politicians. Trump and politicians in the southern states are denying climate change. The [Republican] governor of Florida has forbidden state employees to use the words. We have too much information. The problem now is how to navigate it in a compelling way. ”

DJ Spooky performs 'Heart of a Forest' this week in Portland, Bend, and Newport.

DJ Spooky performs ‘Heart of a Forest’ this week in Portland, Bend, and Newport.

For more than two decades, the composer / turntablist / multimedia artist /author has been brilliantly remixing music, images, science, history and a wide range of interests into acclaimed projects like Re-Birth of a Nation with Kronos Quartet. Often seen at universities, festivals like the Venice and Whitney Biennales, venues including Carnegie Hall, TED Talks and more, lately the creative polymath been exploring the interaction of nature and art and information.

“It’s such a pleasure working with scientists,” he says. “Scientists in the Oregon state forestry department are concerned about the human impact on nature. Scientists are more important than ever. They really care about information. Information is one of the critical tools for thinking about the world around us. Art and information are reflections of each other, and science is the bridge.”

Representatives from Spring Creek Project for Ideas, Nature and the Written Word at Oregon State University reached out to Miller after learning about his National Geographic Explorer Award and similar projects he’d shown at the Sundance Film Festival. They offered him an artist residency at the HJ Andrews Experimental Forest in the Cascade Range under the project’s Long-Term Ecological Reflections program, which for a dozen years has invited writers and artists to interact with environmental scientists, explore the forest, and write or create art. Beginning in fall 2015, Miller visited the forest in each season to get a sense of how the environment changed throughout the year.

The result: Heart of a Forest, which Miller calls “a composer’s response to how art and music can interact with science and nature.

“I wanted to explore how to remix some of the ways we think about traditional forms of music versus digital interpretation of nature,” he wrote in his artist’s statement. “I am inspired by Thoreau and the collision of data, sound, and new ways to think of the absence of ‘origins’ – no one owns the forest and the sounds that it inspires.”

Its initial expression was a score for chamber orchestra performed last May in Corvallis’s LaSells Stewart Center by the OSU Wind Ensemble while Miller mixed electronic music and images of the forest. Inspired by Thoreau, the multimedia production draws on both classical (including a sly Vivaldi quote) and electronic music influences and incorporates video shot by drones floating over the forest, which Miller edited to complement his music score. This week’s performances will use only two to four musicians, with Miller mixing in samples from that score, loops and other electronic elements along with the projected video. It will be followed by an onstage conversation with a forest ecologist.

Which raises the question faced by other composers from Oregon and the Northwest and beyond: how do you turn a landscape — in this case a forest — into a composition?

“I think of these projects as ‘acoustic portraits,’” Miller told ArtsWatch. “Some people will go into the forest with a mike and record the crickets and that’s the piece. That’s cool, but that’s been a done a lot over the last 40 years, so for me it was important to try different paths.”

Given his fascination with information, Miller’s starting point was clear. “I look at data as sonic palette,” he explains. “So first I looked at patterns: not just natural patterns but the history of American forestry, the ratio deforestation to reforestation. Then how people have looked at issues facing the forest and how that bleeds back into peoples view of materials. [Musical] instruments are made from wood. Violins set the tone for a lot of classical music and they were made at a certain time from wood from forests in Europe starting in the Renaissance. Other instruments are made from more current materials.” His forest music skillfully employs both ancient acoustic instruments and modern electronics and digital sampling and loops.

I spoke to Miller the morning after a national election that will likely change the course of environmental protection, and therefore affect the fate of humanity. It makes this multimedia exploration of our precious Oregon forest even more urgent. Miller’s multimedia project may help us navigate that information through the musical lens  — make that the musical mirror — of some pertinent lessons from his time in the forest and other natural settings like the Antarctic.

“I just tend to think humanity has a deep arrogance about its relationship to power,” he says. “We still think we can control nature. We might be foolish, like lemmings rushing off a cliff. But when I was in the forest, I felt humbled. Nature is not sad or bad or good or evil. We’re part of it. That’s what I learned from the forest. We’re part of it.”

DJ Spooky Performs Heart of a Forest on at 7 p.m. November 9 at  Cheatham Hall at Portland’s World Forestry Center, on November 10 at Newport Performing Arts Center, 777 W. Olive Street, Newport, and on November 11 at High Desert Museum, 59800 South Hwy 97, Bend.

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