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DJ Spooky's 'Rebirth' aims high but falls short

CAMBRIDGE -- Operating under the ''constructed persona" DJ Spooky That Subliminal Kid, Paul D. Miller has become a college and art-gallery favorite, as much for employing highbrow literary theory as for his introspective, mid-tempo beats. Miller's latest blurring of the lines between concert and art installation is a video remix of the technically pioneering 1915 propaganda film ''Birth of a Nation," by D.W. Griffith, which celebrates the rise of the Ku Klux Klan in the ravaged post-Civil War South. The result, as performed Friday evening before an enthusiastic crowd at Harvard's Sanders Theatre, was a sometimes exhilarating exploration of the film's political and racial themes but fell short of the ''deconstruction" that Miller promised.

Titled ''Rebirth of a Nation," Miller's performance employed an apparatus built around a Macintosh laptop, two monitors, and a video mixing board that allows him to alter and cross-fade video tracks. He projected the work as a triptych, with one narrative occupying the center screen -- roughly the film in its proper sequence, though sampled, accelerated, and frozen at Miller's discretion -- and a second narrative, rich in flashbacks and flash-forwards, framing it on two side screens. The setup allowed Miller to excavate the content at will, sharply pointing out underlying themes and contradictions.

Miller augmented the images with filters, linear designs that framed certain characters in geometric shapes or overlaid the action with images of maps and stylized circuit boards. He also inserted elements of a dance piece by the Bill T. Jones company. Though visually attractive, these effects did not feel essential to the project. The most vivid images are still those of the Griffith film, with its prim Southern belles, shucking-and-jiving Negroes (played by white actors in blackface), and cavalcade of hooded Klansmen.

No two ''Rebirth" shows are the same: Miller selects material in real time from the cuts and loops on his laptop, matching them with elements from the master soundtrack he composed. The musical aspect was disappointing, however. Too often the beats and images passed like ships in the night: Miller switched tempo and style in pace with the plot, but beyond that the sound felt remote, neither underscoring the mood of the film nor aggressively picking it apart.

One wonders what might have been had Miller chosen to dig in the crates and spin a wide range of music rather than just his own electronic composition. But though he places himself in the hip-hop tradition, Miller is less a DJ who cuts, scratches, and mixes than a contemporary-music composer who aims to leave behind more than just mix tapes and dance-club memories.

A post-show discussion between Miller and film critic Elvis Mitchell underscored this ambition. Miller name-dropped dozens of theorists, from Hegel to Derrida, marring a smart, if incomplete, performance with undirected academic verbiage.

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