Terra Nova: Sinfonia Antarctica
nytheatre.com review by Daniel John Kelley
December 2, 2009
In Terra Nova: Sinfonia Antarctica, eclectic musician and performance artist DJ Spooky That Subliminal Kid (otherwise known as Paul D. Miller) attempts to reconstruct the continent of Antarctica on stage. Literally. Using digital audio and video recorded during his recent trip to Antarctica, combined with live music and additional film footage, DJ Spooky paints a 70-minute portrait of this forbidding and icy continent.
His model for this is a 1949 piece by Vaughn Williams, titled simply Sinfonia Antarctica. But Spooky's Sinfonia is different. "Think of it as sampling the environment with sound—something that Vaughn Williams could only do with metaphor in 1949," says Spooky in the program notes.
The piece starts out promisingly: at opening, DJ Spooky himself stands holding musical chimes and passing them over a block of ice placed on a pedestal. Suddenly, dance music starts to play, in stark contrast to the music created with the ice. For me, this was the most powerful moment in the piece. Contrasting music created by brushing chimes over a block of ice with music created from a pre-recorded track on a state-of-the-art sound system evokes the strangeness of this continent compared with our everyday experience. The moment is evocative, compelling, and highly theatrical.
Unfortunately, the rest of the 70-minute performance is simply DJ Spooky at his turntables, along with two violins, a cello, and piano, accompanying various film footage of Antarctica. I say unfortunately, only because the first image was so powerful. Had the piece simply been set up in this way, I could have taken it on its own terms—as a concert with film elements, or a film accompanied by live music or what have you. But as the opening moment was so theatrical, I kept waiting for the piece to return to that element, which it unfortunately never did.
In his composition and the accompanying film, Spooky does paint a picture of Antarctica. The film images of an endless land of ice are mirrored in Spooky's minimalist composition for strings and piano, with its endless repetition of themes. The film images of rushing icy streams are reflected back in the quicker passages in the music. In addition to this, the filmed elements also feature what seem like Powerpoint slides, giving information about Antarctica, such as the fact that it is the only continent on earth with no government, owned by no country. This fact, among others, is scrolled across the screen, as the music plays, without comment.
Through the use of these elements, we do indeed see a picture of Antarctica created on stage. But, despite the many mediums used to create it, the picture feels flat. As the contemporary composer John Adams wrote recently: "The great paradox about music is that it is nearly powerless to represent concrete things, yet exceptionally precise in evoking feeling."
Undoubtedly, part of the reason this project came to be was due to the devastation of the polar regions as a result of global warming. By de-emphasizing the metaphorical—and its appeal to people's feelings—in favor of digital recreation, DJ Spooky undercuts a great deal of the potential power of his subject matter. At the end of 70 minutes of Terra Nova: Sinfonia Antarctica, I was left cold.