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From the Archive: Jeff Mills

Nothing Concrete text
3 Jun 2020
29 min listen

In this archive episode, we look back at two interviews with DJ and producer Jeff Mills, exploring time and space through ambitious techno and orchestral experimentation. 

When I'm performing, I'm actually inside of the body of the orchestra...I feel that I'm part of a larger machine

From the Archive sees us dig into our extensive contemporary and classical music and cinema podcast archive as we rediscover interviews and discussions with artists, with our long-standing producer and presenter, Ben Eshmade. 

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Ben Eshmade: Hello, and welcome to Nothing Concrete, the Barbican podcast. I'm Ben Eshmade and this week we're blasting back through space and time to hear from DJ and producer Jeff Mills, talking about the orbit of his career so far.

Jeff Mills: Trying to imagine that our reality is just a fraction of very small sliver of something much larger, that actually everything that we’ve ever known and everything that we will ever know is perhaps, maybe a reflection of something else.

BE: Jeff Mills has been pushing and pulling at the boundaries of techno, ever since he first lit up the Detroit airwaves with his DJ mixes as The Wizard. He takes up the story

JM: Before I had made it to radio, I mean, I was pretty active in the streets of Detroit, you know, in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. You know to do that, you know, one had to be very creative and very consistent, very impactful, because there were many, many, many DJs trying to do the same thing. This idea of being able to do something with music, to get a reaction is something that I learned at a very, very early age. So I've kind of carried it with me throughout my whole career, you know, even from house music in the ‘80s and, you know, techno in the ‘90s, and classical music and things like that. So yeah, it really becomes a tool basically.

BE: We begin in 2015 when the artist came to London to present his then new project ‘Light From The Outside World’, an ambitious techno-meets-orchestra experiment. You would have heard Mills' electronic map of sounds and shapes re-imagined with layers of strings and brass, and the percussion of the BBC Symphony Orchestra. Enhancing the harmonic layers in the original electronic compositions, these new arrangements, casted classics, like ‘The Bells’ in a totally new light. Now based in Europe, he spoke to me about where his love of the orchestra came from in the first place.

JM: Well, I mean, my influence mainly comes from, well it comes from science fiction actually. As a kid, I you know, every week we were at the movie theatre and then as you get older, you become a little bit more aware of, you know, the film and the meaning of the film, and the soundtrack, you know, was always something that we really began to pay more attention to, and who made it and you know, who you know, who did the arrangements and things like that. And so I kind of learned classical music actually through film, actually.

BE: I’m interested to know, were there early soundtracks that you distinctly remember?

JM: As a young kid Star Wars was above all the, you know, the top, you know, film. And then also the soundtrack, with John Williams. You know, I found out later how much of his work actually for many, many – for as long as I can remember, you know, from TV shows to commercials to other films – well, I realised that I had always had this connection since I was very very, very young, you know, because I knew all these things, you know; so Star Wars really wasn’t my first contact with John Williams and his work. But you know, Jerry Goldsmith also you know, was very, very active in the ‘70s and ‘80s and, you know, science fiction, and then later Hans Zimmer and then as I got, you know, even older, in my mid-20s, I got into György Ligeti and you know, through, of course, through films and more mature type of composition work, I guess and yeah, and you just kind of progress along.

BE: How do you think it affected your work? I mean, maybe from what you're saying the sense of melody was always there, or maybe the thicker orchestral textures?

JM:  Well, like very early in my career, I always made compositions that kind of lean more towards orchestration, but these weren't the compositions that that I'm best known for: it's more club music, you know. But since the late ‘80s, the early ‘90s, I'd always had a certain amount of compositions that were kind of, you know, kind of wishful thinking, you know, that perhaps maybe I could compose this track to the point that people would not think that it’s electronic music, but actually classical. I kind of done it, you know, time and time, over and over again, for years and years and years, and then when I was asked to put together a collection of my work that could be translated for orchestra, I had a good number of compositions that I thought that would be perfect for that type of arrangement and translation.

BE: What are the challenges of translating the music?

JM: Well, translating the definition of funk is very hard to do. It’s very, very hard to explain to an orchestra, you know, depending on the conductor, if the conductor has, you know, has some jazz background or something or… I guess that might be the elements in electronic music, you know, we use funk as sometimes an underlining character in the music you know, because we have to deal with physical, the physicality of the music. So wanting to translate not just the composition, but also the way the composition feels to the listener is something that's really hard to do. The objective is basically the same, you know, you're trying to explain something through sound, through chords, through harmonics and things like that, trying to explain something that is not in the classical vocabulary, I think is interesting, yeah.

BE:  Do you get involved in the nitty gritty? Do you say things like more timpanis, more bassoon, give me double basses?

JM: Yeah, I mean, I can I can explain to the arranger, you know, my original composition and why it was made and what the sounds mean, which is really important. So what is the conversation? is it between two and three voices? or you know, is it just one solo voice? The more that I explain to the arranger, the more he has a better idea of how to how to create something that's close to the original. So of course, yeah, I can say, you know, this composition – the strings, you know, were more prominent than say any other sound. So then, you know, the arrangement can be that, or I say, you know, the composition was really designed for the listener to feel as if they are by themselves – so then a lone instrument, maybe clarinet, or you know the tuba or something like that, you know, is applied in that position. You know, and communicating is not a, you know, it's not a problem that I’ve run into yet.

JM: When I'm performing, I'm actually inside of the body of the orchestra, which means that what I hear isn’t exactly what the audience hears. I'm generally closer to the double bass and to the cellos, so what I hear more prominently are those, of the sounds of those instruments and even though you know what I'm playing and when I'm doing is coming out very balanced and very even for the audience, but I, you know, I feel that I'm actually part of a larger machine, that's, you know, for my ears and what I'm doing and where I am positioned on the stage, that's kind of how it feels. So it's quite different from being in the studio and being over equipment having complete control and balance and I can listen to it from a distance and things. It's a bit different, you know, you're kind of like inside the machine basically, that’s the feeling.

JM: And so, the compositions were selected based on this idea about our surroundings and so the compositions were, I kind of compiled them to kind of show the different textures, I suppose, of the way that we live as a human species, so some are very aggressive, some are very experimental, some are very charming, some are very mysterious, some feel very comfortable some feel very strange. Just trying to look at the human emotion and trying to attack it by, from my many, many different directions, is how I came to the tracklist.

[clip from ‘Fantastic Voyage’]

JM: The title actually comes from a film. It comes from the science fiction film ‘Fantastic Voyage’. And the film was released in 1965. It’s the film where this team of scientists and doctors we're shrunk down to a microscopic size and then injected into the body of this dying person, to go into the body and travel through the body up to the brain to kill the cancer with laser beams. And part of the story, they're travelling to the brain and they pass on the ear and so they're in the… this tiny little craft, one of the actors points to this light that's coming from the outside and she goes, you know, ‘What is this light?’, and then the other character replies back to her that, you know, ‘That's the light from the outside world’. She, you know, she looks at him in a very curious way, but it made me think that perhaps the reality that we live in is something like that. That maybe what we see, maybe all the colours, all the shapes, all the reality, all the memories, everything, is really a reflection or the light from something else. So there's a long explanation of where the theme and the story comes from.

BE: Have you enjoyed the translation from the clubs to the concert hall? Has that been an interesting sort of journey?

JM: Yes, I have. I mean, it's nice because it's the most formal thing that you’re ever gonna do, you know, so tuxedos, and it's just really nice to be involved in something that's so organised. And I mean I've done the most unconstructed type of things that one could imagine from being a DJ, so it's in contrast to that it’s, to be able to manage both at the same time is very, is very nice, you know, so having to have to perform earlier in the evening is great because on the next night I have to play till six o'clock in the morning. So it's nice to have a variety and I would recommend it for any other DJ or electronic musician to find something else to hold and to have in contrast to what you normally do and then I think it makes DJing and producing music even more enjoyable actually.

BE: Your career has been incredible, you know, from Detroit and through to the modern day, I mean, what have you learnt, I mean, what lessons, you know, have you come to?

JM:  I learned the reality of the way things are. That we got here by making mistakes, you know, and if we, if we don't make the mistakes, we won't learn as much. So exploring new things, not worrying about whether you're going to be loved or liked, or you know, whether you're going to get a good grade, or maybe the best education for whatever you do is to try something. And if you're lucky, you know, you may fail at that, and if you fail from that, then you know, you know what not to do the next time. You know, on the other side of the coin, if you are successful, then you don't really know what failure is really like, so the more the more a person tries to try new things, the more that if they're unsuccessful, the more they're going to learn about and narrow down which things will bring more success, or more deeper success. And so that's been pretty much the, you know, my agenda for the past fifteen, twenty years is to try to explore as much as I possibly can with this music, because I'm learning so many things in the process and maybe all those things, all these things will lead to something else, maybe not even musical. I'm learning a tremendous amount of things by doing things that I'm not familiar with.

BE: So he performed ‘Light From The Outside World’ to a rapturous reception at the Barbican in October 2015, accompanied of course by the BBC Symphony Orchestra with conductor Christoph Mangou. Let's time jump now two years to June 2017 when he presented a series of events entitled ‘From Here To There’, incorporating music, dance and film. This was also part of a bigger science fiction series called ‘Into The Unknown’, which ran across the Barbican Centre that year. He even returned to once again expand the original ‘Light From The Outside World’ performance to include a new arrangement, ‘Utopia’. Let's learn about that first.

JM: Over time I realised that you know, we really have to get this track arranged and I was insistent on putting this one in. It's, I think it's one of the most interesting tracks in the whole performance, it speaks to a subject that, it relates to any and every, every living thing, basically. You know, and it's story-form type way, so it starts off really dark and then it gets very mysterious and then it gets aggressive and then it's very calm, like it's arrived at somewhere, you know, from all that, from all that energy and all that activity. 

BE:  So let us hear more about ‘From Here To There’, as we continue our ‘Fantastic Voyage’ with this artist. I started by asking about the themes and ideas of the residency and the early conversations with the programming team at the Barbican.

JM: Well, yeah, I mean, I was informed that the residency will kind of fall in, in a time of a larger science fiction fair and it was pretty much up to me to decide the contents of the residency and how I would tie them together. So I thought that maybe I need to have a general theme and that theme dresses it in different perspectives for each night of the of the residency and so I thought that a lot of science fiction subjects and stories, you know, they tend to take place about time, so time travel or the time that it takes to get here, or looking at time in a completely different way and these type of ‘what if’ type of scenarios. So I thought that time, the subject of time, would be the main subject and then it would be approached in four different ways. So ‘Fantastic Voyage’ is a race against time, that there is a you know, the main character in the film is dying from a violent attack and these characters need to shrink themselves to microscopic scale and insert themselves into his body to cure him from the inside, you know, and there is this race of time for that. Life To Death And Back’ is really about the twelve hours it takes for the God of Osiris to reincarnate you so that you can come back to Earth again and walk the planet, you know, so twelve hours there. ‘Planets’ is classical piece that is about planets, but it was made very much in reference to the time, and the time that it takes to get from one planet to the next is factored into the way that you listen to the performance and you listen to the, to the concept. And then the last one ‘Light From The Outside World’, referencing time, but it's using light as the element to measure that. It speaks to a time different from our own time or reality that we're in now. So those are the four perspectives of that subject that we’ll address.

BE: Let's start with the project ‘Life To Death And Back’, this project is a really interesting mix of live music, dance and film.

JM: Well yeah, it addresses what most ancient Egyptians practised and how they, and what they lived their lives for was to basically live their life in the best possible way. 365 Gods for each day of the year, just about everything that they did was under the spirit of, or almost in a way, the instructions of what a God of that day described. And they did that all the way until the end of their life and so this performance references just that, it starts with the point where they're reborn again and they make their way down to earth from the star that they travel from and then they walk the earth and experience things, life. The viewer is watching the film, they're experiencing different parts of the Egyptian wing of la Louvre, so there's three different periods where they go to, or three different parts of the museum that we film dance choreography in.

BE: I wanted to ask about filming in the Louvre in Paris. That must have been an incredible experience. 

JM:  Yeah, yeah, it was, it was quite interesting. I mean, I was only given a window of about eight hours a day for two days. So sixteen hours, we had to film the whole entire thing. On a Tuesday, which is the only day that the museum is closed, so we started quite early in the morning. And yeah, you can't sweep anything, you can't wipe anything, even the dust on the floor, you have to call someone in order to be able to do that. You can't move anything around, you can't move a trash can around, you can't lean on anything, you can't touch hardly anything. It required a lot of discussion, a lot of thought and a lot of me going back to the museum, taking measurements, looking at the lighting, looking at the, just a whole huge outline of points that I needed to do before even getting to the part of the choreography and the dancing, the what the dancers you know, would actually do, you know. So we did it, it's a very beautiful film and performance and yeah, it really required a lot of work.

BE: So moving to ‘Fantastic Voyage’, you've rescored an incredible amount of films now, what do you look for in a film to make you want to create your own soundtrack?

JM: Well, first the film has to be enjoyable, the cinematography helps greatly. So working on a Fritz Lang film, you know, it's like paradise, you know, because, you know, there's so much that I can use in order to be able to address that with sound. The movement of the characters, this is really the work of the director, I can really tell whether the director was really conscious of detail of movement and placement: the scene just doesn't have characters but it also has different layers of ways of communicating to the viewer and so I'm generally looking at what I can kind of latch on to, things that would get me indications of the tempo, for instance. If the scene is consisting of multiple characters, I know that I can use more voices sometimes to address each one of those characters, or just make it a sixth character that's there - some sound that doesn't have the character of any of those people. Yeah, just a variety of things that I’m generally looking for, or to be able to apply the music.

BE:  And with a score such as this, is there a certain amount of improvisation? How much do you have planned in advance?

JM: Well, you know what I do to get ready for cinemix is I make the music for the segment of the film, but then I apply it manually, you know, by hand, in real time and so I'm mixing the music so I can, I can modify it and extend things and shorten things and change things around in real time, while the while the film is running. Or I can improvise on certain things in the music that I made or I can just change it completely. So that's what kind of makes it closer to the way films were addressed back in the, you know, the 20th century where a group of musicians would play the soundtrack, as you watch the film. It's pretty much the same thing.

BE: We moved to the return of the project ‘Light From The Outside World’, I wanted to start by asking whether you remember fondly the 2015 performance at the Barbican? 

JM:  Yeah, yeah, of course. Yeah, that's, that's been actually one of the highlights of my whole classical, you know, electronic performance career so far. I mean that show was just incredible, you know, the reaction of the people and the reaction of the musicians. So it's something that, it's a show that we talk about all the time and actually we use it as a measurement for a lot of other shows, you know. You know, the London show is what we call it. We're constantly modifying it, changing it, because we are taking some things that we experienced from one performance to the next, you know, and we can see, you know, that certain things could be better. For instance, in the track of ‘Amazon’, we've modified the solo part between me and the percussion a few times, you know, we now understand that that part needs to be longer, it needs to be, it needs to allow time for me to be able to really play the drum machine and do whatever I want to do, and break away from the orchestra. And it's also a time for the percussion part of the orchestra to just improvise and just play what they feel some of the magic of this performance kind of rolls out. ‘The Bells’ is always changing because of what I'm doing on the drum machine while the orchestra is playing the part, so I'm always trying to find ways to make new versions of it: so different drum patterns, different breaks, different… different things I'm adding all the time. And then I'm also you know, in more the experimental parts, like ‘Medium C’ and in other in other things, I'm always trying bringing in new pieces of equipment. Yeah, so we'll be doing the same for this, for the London show.

BE: Okay, we've reached finally ‘Planets’. This new work seems like a logical development of the ideas and themes from ‘Light From The Outside World’.

JM: Yeah, I mean, what I wanted to do was to, at least in the least case, was a step forward and to improve the idea and really show that a collaboration between two genres can really be almost seamless, you know, it can be in a way that it becomes difficult to distinguish between who's playing what, that the listener just begins to just listen to the music as it is. And so I thought that ‘Planets’ should be at least a new type of sound, so I started off from that and the subject matter was the nine planets and different from Holst, from Gustav Holst, what he did 100 years ago, with ‘Planets’. This version should be really based on a journey because the, you know, the idea of the journey to another planet or to something away from Earth will be more commonly explored in the decades and the centuries to come for humanity. Imagining 100 years from now where humans will have been probably will somehow reflect what I was trying to say in this project: so we're using the force of the Sun to propel ourselves towards the planet of Mercury, using the force in the rotation of Mercury to propel ourselves to Venus, and so on all the way into Pluto; exploring each type of planet, or rock planets versus gas planets, but then when we get to Jupiter, and to Saturn and Uranus and Pluto, it becomes more mysterious and so does the music. So what I was doing was using what we generally know of each planet, what science data tells us about each planet, translate that into the original scores and that's really what the point performance is about.

BE: Lastly, if someone did give you a ticket into space, say on one of those shuttle trips we see in the news, would you go?

JM: Yeah, of course. Of course, yeah. If I could go tomorrow I’d be packing my bags now. It takes a certain type of person to want to not go, to stay. To not be curious about what's, you know, what's out there. I think that takes a very special circumstance to not want to know what's you know, up and beyond the stars you know. So, Yeah, course. Yeah, I would be willing to go like right away.

BE: Thanks to Jeff for speaking to us, I hope you enjoyed his words, music and journey through time and space. I’m Ben Eshmade, thanks for listening to this archive edition of Nothing Concrete, the Barbican podcast. A series that is about inspiring more people to discover and love the arts, with weekly episodes of archive finds and themed series. Subscribe to Nothing Concrete on Acast, Spotify or wherever you find your podcasts. And if you can, leave us a review to help us get the word out.

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