Paul D. Miller, the composer, multimedia artist and writer who's also known as DJ Spooky, has made a career out of being on the cutting edge of electronic music and digital media.
So, at first glance, one of his most recent projects seems uncharacteristically retro: He was commissioned to write scores for a number of classic silent films made by pioneer African-American directors.
But it's not really that much of a stretch at all.
"I'm kind of a collector," Miller said this week in an interview with The E as he prepared for a trip to Corvallis for a screening of one of the films, the 1925 silent film "Body and Soul," directed by Oscar Micheaux. As the movie shows at Oregon State University's LaSells Stewart Center, Miller and a select group of musicians will perform the score live.
"I'm always looking for cool stuff that's a little bit off the radar," he said. "I always collect vinyl and I still collect films."
So when the film company Kino-Lorber approached Miller to see if he'd be interested in writing scores for a box set of classic early African-American films, the idea appealed to him on a number of different levels.
First, it gave Miller "access to some pretty amazing films" — and it also presented an opportunity to raise awareness of the work of artists like Micheaux, who produced and directed 44 films during his career and is considered the first major African-American film director. Micheaux's "Body and Soul" also is notable in that it features the first screen performance by Paul Robeson, the famed singer, actor and athlete. Miller loves the idea of being able to introduce younger generations to the work of artists like Micheaux and Robeson.
And the continuing struggles by filmmakers of color to leave their mark on the industry lends a definite contemporary twist to the work of pioneers like Micheaux.
"Reclaiming history and creating a new conversation with history, that's the urgency of our moment," Miller said.
Miller's spare and jazzy score for "Body and Soul" is one way to continue that conversation, although with a group of musicians skilled at improvisation, it seems unlikely that Friday's performance will follow Miller's score note-for-note.
Miller said his score aims to "connect the dots" between the original 1925 movie and more modern influences; it was important to be true to the original movie, but he also wanted it to somehow reflect these times. It's a bridge of sorts between the past and present, and the idea of having musicians perform live while the movie screens is a reflection of that.
It is, he said, "an improvised conversation between different genres and styles."
Miller first came to OSU at the invitation of the Spring Creek Project, the effort that aims to combine environmental sciences, philosophical analysis and the written word. Since then, he's returned to OSU on a number of occasions to showcase different projects and frequently has worked with Dana Reason, the pianist and coordinator of contemporary music and research at OSU. "I'm a huge fan of what she's doing," Miller said.
Reason will be performing Friday night with Miller and guitarist Mike Gamble, bassist Andre St. James and drummer Ryan Biesack. The pianist is quick to return Miller's compliment.
"He's an artist who reaches when it's time to reach," Reason said of Miller. "We'll be taking our cues from him."
But Reason also said the musicians likely will be taking a spare approach as the movie shows — and that, she said, is testament to the power of "Body and Soul."
"The picture tells so much," she said. "We don't need to overwhelm it."
Many of the films featured in the "Pioneers of African-American Cinema," including "Body and Soul," are streaming on Netflix; search for "Pioneers of African-American Cinema." The Netflix version of "Body and Soul" features Miller's score.