It’s impossible to watch the new multimedia spectacle Terra Nova: Sinfonia Antarctica without thinking of Philip Glass. That Terra Nova is being performed at the Brooklyn Academy of Music for its New York premiere only heightens this comparison, as BAM has been presenting Glass’ work for decades.
Quite simply, Terra Nova aims to do for Antarctica what Glass’s “Quatsi” trilogy did for the other six continents. Like those films (Koyaanisqatsi, Powaqqatsi, Naqoyqatsi—all directed by Godfrey Reggio) Terra Nova involves an interesting visual collage set to a minimalist soundtrack. Here, composer DJ Spooky appears onstage along with a pianist and string trio, to provide a few scratches, although pre-concert interviews suggest that Spooky was also layering sounds of glaciers melting and breaking apart—sadly, these ears couldn’t detect any of those sounds.
Like in Koyaanisqatsi, there are beautiful panoramic shots of nature, like Naqoyqatsi there are cool digital effects, and like Powaqqatsi, there is a definite agenda. In Terra Nova, that agenda is: Antarctica is in danger. This point is made mainly with statistics that fly around the proscenium of BAM’s Howard Gilman Opera House—little in the music or in the imagery conjures these sentiments naturally.
This is the bummer of an otherwise cool evening of light and sound: that the message of Terra Nova needs to be stronger and more potent, given that that its form is not innovative enough to alone satisfy. DJ Spooky and the International Contemporary Ensemble’s music does effectively underscore the images, but if it were truly a “Sinfonia Antarctica” (to quote its subtitle) why does it need the multi-screen imagery? And at one point the creative montage of images ends and the main screen simply shows an old soviet documentary about Antarctica. At these moments, Terra Nova seems to be caught between symphony and documentary, a place that looks dangerously like an amped-up power point presentation.
The show opens with DJ Spooky (aka Paul D. Miller) letting dry ice vapors rustle a wind chime. These theatrics combined with his ear-grabbing music are the building blocks of a compelling evening—what’s missing is a statement more profound than “hey, Antarctica is cool.” Most people know that. There’s nothing wrong with Terra Nova stylishly showing us something we already know; but the enduring power of art like the “Quatsi” films is that they force us to experience the world we thought we knew as if it was hitting our eyes and ears for the first time.
Photo of DJ Spooky in Terra Nova by Stephanie Berger