DJ Spooky in front of the eyes of Abraham Lincoln (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

The Civil War is still an irrevocable wrent through America’s indelible fabric. As part of The Met Reframed a new artist residency program at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Paul D. Miller (aka DJ Spooky That Subliminal Kid) teamed up with Jeff L. Rosenheim, the curator of photography and organizer of the Photography and the American Civil War, to present a multimedia interpretation of the exhibition accompanied by violinists, a cello, drummer, and vocalist. The point of this collaboration is to reframe the museum, both as a place that archives history, and to let living artists interrogate history within the physical space of the museum itself.

In 2004 Miller, an composer, multimedia artist, writer and DJ, remixed D.W.’s Griffith’s 1915 Birth of A Nation, a white supremacist and racist movie credited with inspiring the formation of the ‘second era’ Klu Klux Klan. The beginning of The Civil War Symphony shows an archival black and white film clip of Griffith being asked, “When you made Birth of A Nation, did you think it was true?” The auteur answered, “Yes, I think it was true,” implying his views on race remained unchanged. The Symphony unfolds as a response and investigation to the severe and damaging effect embedded racism has using music and imagery to evoke a past none of us has experienced, but that lives on through shared archetypal memory.

Andrew Joseph Russell, “Slave Pen, Alexandria, Virginia” (1863) is one of the many images featured in the Metropolitan Museum’s Photography and the American Civil War exhibition. The Museum’s photo caption explains: “This view of a slave pen in Alexandria guarded, ironically, by Union officers shows Russell at his most insightful; the pen had been converted by the Union Army into a prison for captured Confederate soldiers.” (via MetMuseum.org)

Miller did his homework by listening and incorporating essential musical slices of Southern Americana. Along with his signature electronic remixes he included “Negro Spirituals,” famous speeches, lullabies, hymns, and period music to accompany the somber and tragic photographs of antebellum slavery, war, and emancipation.

The evening included a haunting violin refrain of “The Battle Hymn Of The Republic” played by Jennifer Kelso Curtis. Its main rondo, “Glory Glory Hallelujah” is so embedded in the national conscious it was played at President Barck Obama’s formal swearing in ceremony this past January. Snippets of the great oratory voice of Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I Have A Dream” speech, delivered on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in 1963 curl inside the reverbs and remixes. Abraham Lincoln’s written words “ A house divided against itself cannot stand,” from his 1858 speech about the pitfalls of slavery flash onscreen followed by the iconic photo from the battlefield at Gettsyburg, Pennsylvania, “The Harvest of Death” by Timothy H. O’Sullivan.

Pictures of wounded soldiers

The Confederacy’s General Robert E. Lee’s statement “I thought my men were invincible,” also about the July 3, 1863 battle of Gettysburg massacre appear. The snare of the military drum and bugle corps weave in and out of the orchestral arrangements, highlighting the tragedy of approximately 50,000 men who died that day in battle between the opposing sides.

Tragedy is further reinforced by the projected quote, “No tongue can tell, no mind conceive, no pen portray the horrible sights I witnessed this morning,” attributed to an anonymous Pennsylvania soldier viewing the remains of a particularly gruesome battle. The photographs show sepia toned men on horseback. They use simple pans and sweeps, with occasional negative imagery to illustrate their point, including one soldier holding onto his national flag, now in tatters.

Civil War soldier waving tattered flag

“It is well war is so terrible otherwise we would grow too fond of it,” General Lee is quoted as saying. This statement introduces the gospel singer Inyang Bassey’s stirring rendition of “Walk With Me Lord,” while a photo of a slain, bloated battlefield corpse is projected behind her. Miller also remixed “Amazing Grace” as well as the perennial lullaby “Hush Little Baby, Don’t You Cry.” Stripped down to their simplest forms they resembled ballads from the Gershwin musical “Porgy and Bess.”

Sojourner Truth, “I Sell the Shadow to Support the Substance” by an unknown photographer is one of the many images featured in the Metropolitan Museum’s Photography
and the American Civil War exhibition. (via MetMuseum.org)

The tone grew more upbeat with sections of reels and minuets, pieces often played at Southern quadrilles and cotillions. Strains of “Turkey In A Straw,” a whirligig music accompanied photos of wounded soldier boys posing in their hospital beds, their bandaged stumps preventing them from ever dancing again. The rich vibrato of “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” incorporated classical overtones, representing a mature phase in Miller’s oeuvre, one that acknowledges its enormous debt to the history of classical music.

“Will the Circle Be Unbroken,” paired with photos of children and emancipated slaves, as the composer reintroduced electronica, this time mixed with scratchy recordings of old spirituals. The evening ended with the rousing “Lord I am climbing that mountain trying to get home,” sung by Bassey.

The question however is which Met is Miller’s home, the current one where he is artist in residence, or the one he seems to be aspiring towards performing at, the Metropolitan Opera, located next to that yet unclimbed mountain named Lincoln Center.

A Civil War Symphony by Paul D. Miller aka DJ Spooky That Subliminal Kid  played at the Metropolitan Museum on May 10, 2013 with Inyang Abbey, Jennifer Kelso Curtis and The Randolph String Quartet.

Photography and the American Civil War continues at The Metropolitan Museum of Art (1000 Fifth Avenue, Upper East Side, Manhattan) until September 2. Streamed footage of the May 10 performance is accessible here.

The Latest

Required Reading

This week, the Tonga eruption as captured from space, Boston gets a big gift of Dutch and Flemish painting, 30 years of New Queer Cinema, an important Marcel Breuer house is demolished, and much more.

Hannah Lee’s Dreamlike Realism

Being bowled over by an unknown artist’s first one-person show does not happen often but when it does, it renews your faith that the art world is not just about buzz and hype.

Ellen Pearlman

Ellen Pearlman is a writer and new media artist who lives between New York and Asia, where she is a PhD candidate at the School of Creative Media, Hong Kong City University.