PRINT October 2017


Jeff Mills

Jeff Mills, Planets, 2015. Performance view, Barbican Centre, London, June 12, 2017. Jeff Mills. Photo: Mark Allan.

THERE HAVE BEEN many unlikely events in the career of Jeff Mills, but perhaps few as odd as scoring to a Raquel Welch vehicle. Mills’s live soundtrack for the 1966 cult movie Fantastic Voyage was part of a weekend of happenings at London’s Barbican Centre this past summer that nodded to the pioneering DJ and producer’s decades-long experiments in sound and image. In 2000, he crafted a new soundtrack for Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927), the popularity of which led to further cinematic interventions; included among these was Mills’s arrangement for Georges Méliès’s 1902 A Trip to the Moon on the occasion of the film’s 2011 restoration. At the Barbican, the Wizard (the alias under which Mills once performed) extended his wide-ranging experiments with the four-part series “From Here to There,” which featured the UK premiere of his abstract dance film Life to Death and Back (2015)—for which he teamed up with French choreographer Michel Abdoul—and renditions of two of his orchestral pieces, Light from the Outside World (2011) and Planets (2015), performed with the Britten Sinfonia.

Not coincidentally, the themes that ran throughout the series—science fiction, space travel, and time itself—are all active parts of Mills’s usual day job: that of producing singularly innovative, intergalactic techno music. Whether conjuring distant galaxies or evoking the inner network of the human body, Mills is a master at building expansive—and sometimes irreverent—soundscapes through relatively humble means: For his musical accompaniment to Fantastic Voyage at the Barbican, the American visionary wielded his favored instruments—a Roland string synthesizer and TR-909 drum machine—while somehow remaining faithful to the action evinced in Leonard Rosenman’s original symphonic composition.

The screening of Life to Death and Back, which also featured live electronics, kicked off the London program. Shot in the Louvre in Paris, the film opens with a battery of synthesizers that summon three dancers, who move at a funereal pace through the marbled stairwells and halls of the institution’s Egyptian wing (Mills structured the plot around the twelve stages of reincarnation in ancient Egyptian mythology). As the trio weave their way through colonnades and past sarcophagi and lion-headed statues, images of pyramids, clouds, and forests are superimposed over their labored, balletic movements. At the Barbican, despite the effective sound design—which, replete with tinny synth lines and frenetic percussive elements, produced a markedly eerie atmosphere—the piece only ignited when the three dancers unexpectedly emerged live onstage for the final thirty minutes of the performance, rescuing what until then had been a fairly formless story.

The audience was considerably more responsive to the performances of Mills’s orchestral works, which were left bare of any distracting visuals, allowing the music to stand alone. For both shows, the Detroit icon was attired in a somewhat conservative—yet suitably techno—all-black suit. First up was Light from the Outside World, a sprawling selection of tracks from the Wizard’s back catalogue adapted for symphony with the help of French composer Thomas Roussel. Stationed stage right before a table of equipment, and illuminated in shifting hues of indigo and red, Mills masterfully balanced digital and analog sounds, his growling and burbling synthesizers growing louder whenever the Sinfonia’s trumpets, horns, and strings died down. At one point, Mills performed “The Bells”(1997)—possibly the most popular track in his prolific discography—whose titular opening chimes prompted cheers from the audience, many of whom rose from their seats in order to dance along to the song’s frantic strings, twittering clap track, and thumping four-on-the-floor rhythm. Although the auditorium was far from the most accommodating dance floor, it was moments like these that came closest to successfully “[blurring] the lines between the club and concert hall,” as the event’s press release declared. On the flip side, the UK premiere of Planets—a collection of nine tracks, one for each celestial body in our solar system—two nights later was pronouncedly more somber: Before the orchestra and Mills began, the conductor requested that the audience remain completely silent throughout the duration of the show.

Mills has long been focused on an imagined future rather than on the prosaic present. He pushed beyond the otherworldly liberationism of 1970s Afrofuturism into what would become the peculiar aesthetic of ’80s Detroit techno—a sound both space-age and on the ground, mothership and concrete, utopian and resolutely political. Mills ventured into Sun Ra–esque Egyptology even as he pitched gritty mixes on Detroit radio stations WDRQ and WJLB. As a member of the industrial outfit Final Cut, he scored an unlikely minor UK rave hit with “Take Me Away” in 1989, before joining forces with disaffected musician “Mad” Mike Banks to form the militant techno outfit Underground Resistance. Although Mills is regarded as part of techno’s second wave (the first comprising the Belleville Three of Derrick May, Juan Atkins, and Kevin Saunderson), his work with Banks and his later solo missions on his own label, Axis Records, have set the tone for the Motor City’s subsequent output as combative and unyielding.

In Mills’s case, the recent shift from the club to the concert hall seems rooted in a desire to be free of the constraints of having to play to the crowd: “Most techno DJs from my generation [understand] DJing as a need to translate feeling [and not exclusively as a means of entertaining] a crowd. If you can dance to it, that’s great . . . but music should say something. It should . . . enlighten someone simply by listening to it,” he told Thump in 2014. To that end, Mills’s sober Barbican performances seemed to draw on techno as both imagination and insurrection—forming a space apart, but also challenging the here and now.

Planets, Jeff Mills’s latest album, was released on vinyl this past September by Axis Records.

Bill Brewster is a UK-based DJ and music writer. His latest compilation, Tribal Rites, will be released by Eskimo Records this month.