It's pretty ironic that at a time of such technical prowess, dance music's most inspiring music would come from an artist who doesn't even use a computer. But that's Jeff Mills for you. The techno legend doesn't just make beats for the sake of making beats. Rather, his body of work is created with extensive thought and has true meaning on sociological levels. Sound a bit too deep for dance music? It might be, but that's one reason why Jeff Mills is so damn important. He adds craft and artistry to a genre of music that is often perceived as being mindless or too much about the party.
A founding member of the legendary Detroit crew Underground Resistance (along with Mike Banks and Robert Hood), Mills was instrumental in building the U.S. techno scene from the ground up. After numerous productions and releases through their label, Mills left Underground Resistance in 1992 and moved to New York to start a residency at the infamous Limelight. Soon thereafter, Mills signed a recording contract with Berlin's Tresor Records and launched his own Axis Records imprint (he now owns sister labels Purpose Maker, Tomorrow and 6277). A true showman in the DJ booth, Mills' live setup still features three turntables and a drum machine.
When it comes to a Jeff Mills artist album, fans can always expect something outside of the box. In recent years, Mills has taken a great interest in scoring classic films and combining old visual imagery with modern-day sounds. In 2000, Mills created a score for Fritz Lang's 1927 classic film Metropolis (Tresor) and went on to perform the soundtrack live at screenings around the world. In 2004, Mills created a score for Buster Keaton's 1923 film The Three Ages (MK2). Also released that year was The Exhibitionist (Axis), a multi-angle filmed DVD of a live Jeff Mills DJ set. And earlier this year, Axis released The Bells: 10 Year Anniversary DVD to commemorate the 10th anniversary of “The Bells,” one of techno music's greatest and most-played anthems.
As with every Jeff Mills project, his next one is just a little bit more ambitious than his last. This is the case for his new DVD/CD Blue Potential (UWe/Axis), a greatest-hits CD with a radical new twist. Blue Potential documents a July 2005 performance of Jeff Mills alongside the Montpellier Philharmonic Orchestra. With the aid of a talented composer/arranger and conductor, the orchestra transformed the Mills originals from electronic music to sublime orchestral pieces.
GATEWAY TO BLUE POTENTIAL
It was during the recording sessions for Metropolis that Mills first got the idea to transcribe his original work into orchestral versions. Mills was encouraged to make this a reality through the UWe record label, which had previous experience working on a similar project. In 2000, UWe released Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow, a collaboration between the Montpellier Orchestra and DJs Manu Le Malin and Torgull. Having already worked on such a project, Montpellier Philharmonic Orchestra's Director René Koering encouraged Mills to see his idea through to reality. With help from UWe and Koering, Mills was introduced to a talented young composer and arranger Thomas Roussel. On the surface, the match was perfect because Mills and Roussel were huge fans of film soundtracks and the cinema. It also helped that Roussel was already a fan of Mills' work and had previously seen him spin in Dijon 10 years earlier.
At least 80 percent of making Blue Potential a reality depended on the working relationship between Mills and Roussel. It wasn't until about five days before the live performance that the Montpellier Philharmonic Orchestra and its conductor Alain Altinoglu even rehearsed, so these preproduction stages were crucial. Work commenced on the project when Mills handed Roussel a disc with the 15 original tracks to see what the young composer could do with them. With the exception of “The Life” and “Metropolis,” Roussel found that the tracks were largely made up of rhythms and noises and lacked enough notes, chords and melodies for the orchestra to replicate. “It was very difficult for the orchestra to play live versions of Jeff's music, so I proposed to him to do something completely different,” Roussel says. “I asked him to play the live beats and rhythms using a 909, while the orchestra would play some brand new music, melodies and tunes. I made a recording of the orchestra on my computer to show Jeff what could be done, and he loved it.” Next, using the Sibelius 4 composition program, Roussel created computer-generated samples of what the orchestra would do with each composition. This gave Mills a general — though not completely accurate — idea of where each track was going.
THE CURTAIN DROPS
On July 2, 2005, Blue Potential was performed at Pont du Gard, France. Mills was accompanied by the 70-piece Montpellier Philharmonic Orchestra, while Thomas Roussel was positioned offstage with the sound engineer. Mills' live setup featured a Tascam 24-channel mixer that ran all the separate lines from a Roland TR-909 drum machine and a Vestax PCM-500 mixer. He also had two Pioneer CDJ-1000s CD players running into the PCM-500. Mills did not preprogram the TR-909 drum machine and instead actually programmed it live during the performance. “I thought that since the musicians are playing something that's already set for them, there needs to be some sort of spontaneity. So I decided to start with an empty machine and write the patterns as the track was progressing. I know the drum machine very well, and I use it often when I DJ, so I know the functions to write it very quickly. That was the riskiest thing we did,” Mills says.
Each track on Blue Potential was positioned in the set for a very specific reason. Because the Montpellier Orchestra was already warming up the crowd before Blue Potential was to commence, Roussel felt the need to create a piece that transitioned from the previous music and created the opening sequence. This is the only piece of material from the performance that was not based on a Jeff Mills' original track.
Due to its simplistic structure, the first original Jeff Mills track chosen to be performed on that evening was “Imagine.” “The structure — even the original — is like a sophisticated metronome,” Mills says. “It's a very simple composition where I used layers of strings to create a mountain and landscape inside of the track. I presented the track to Thomas in this manner and wanted to keep the track even more of a metronome so that the orchestra could get used to our situation. Also, if there were any technical problems, I would have time to sort them out because the track is so simple. It allowed me to keep a balance between my mixer and understand the acoustics of my surroundings. This is why the track was inserted first in the performance.”
“Jeff wrote the tracks with classical instruments in mind, so for me it was simple to rewrite,” Roussel adds. “It was really close to the original, but I added some brass interventions, some brass hits and some rhythm in the orchestra.”
MAN VERSUS MACHINE
Throughout the entire project, it was often a struggle for the orchestra to replicate music that was previously created using machines. Making things more difficult was that Jeff Mills is very specific about what certain sounds mean in his tracks. For instance, take “Time Machine,” a track based on the H.G. Wells novel. “I had to compose and structure the track as if it was giving the indication of a new beginning, an adventurous beginning,” Mills says. “There was some complexity in the original composition. There is a certain type of fear that I used with the string arrangements and the composition; it gets more courageous the more you listen. I explained to Thomas that for the orchestra, we had to take special care about the complexity that the flutes were to play. We had to simplify this part about three times because it was really complex. That was the first time that we were challenged by how precise you can be with electronic machines, that perhaps it was too difficult to translate to a musician in a physical aspect.”
“Entrance to Metropolis” was an instance where the orchestra wins over machine. That was the first track that Mills ever wrote by just sitting at a computer and playing without sequencing. As a result, there was no tempo. They were forced to slow down the composition so that the orchestra could work off a tempo and scale. The track was originally composed using many synthetic sounds of flutes, violins and clarinets, and Roussel was able to easily transform the sound into a live version with real instruments. “Jeff had a vision, but at the time of the recording he couldn't do it because his classical sounds were translated with keyboards,” Roussel says. “He was really happy to hear this track with the real sounds he imagined.”
It's not easy to create special effects with a live orchestra, but Blue Potential was full of the trickery necessary to replicate electronic music. On “Eclipse,” there is an instance where the music pans from the left to the right to simulate the physical aspect of an eclipse. For the live version, the orchestra created the eclipse in real time. “The first violin on the left of the orchestra began the sound, and the sound moved to the right of the orchestra. Visually, it was really cool,” Roussel says. The remainder of the track is tied loosely to the original because Roussel felt that there weren't that many usable elements. Roussel built the track around one motif from the original and then added his own James Bond — sounding theme to bulk it up.
“Gamma Player” was the initial track that Roussel worked on to show Mills what he could do with the music. In reconstructing the track, Roussel kept Mills' original chords and added in some strings in the vein of Maurice Ravel. He also added in some mutes on the violin to make the song darker and effects like old brass parts, flutes, clarinets and horns. “We can hear a lot of delay effects in the orchestra,” Roussel says. “The brass is playing one big hit, and after that we can hear a delay much like electronic music. However, there is no delay. They play a big chord, and it fades away like a real delay effect. I tried to listen to delay effects on my computer and tried to translate it. I reduced the volume of each hit and the frequencies of each sound to make the sound disappear in the whole orchestra.”
“This was the most important track of the performance because of the meaning,” Mills continues. “It's like you are an adventurer and put yourself in unpredictable circumstances. The track symbolizes sort of what we were doing with the performance. This was uncharted territory for me to do something like this.”
FOR THE DANCEFLOOR
Mills was reluctant to include his most famous track, “The Bells,” in the performance because he felt it was too close to the dancefloor and might disinterest the orchestra. As it turns out, that is one of the coolest moments of the performance due to the live bell parts that Roussel decided to add into the track. “Thomas came up with the idea of focusing on just the bells alone by creating a solo or isolating the sound of a bell before the track,” Mills says. “We would start the track and very quickly get into a groove and keep it. When mixing the track in the studio, it was really important that this had the same type of feel as the original composition. So, the kick is a bit louder, the bass is tighter. I also envisioned that it might be possible for a DJ to play this record, so we had to balance it in a way that it was comfortable for that.”
The curtain drops on Blue Potential with “Sonic Destroyer,” the final track of the performance. “I remember having conversations with people over the years, and whenever we talked about the idea of an orchestra redoing techno tracks, ‘Sonic Destroyer’ was always the track that people got excited about,” Mills says. “Sonic Destroyer” gave Roussel the chance to explore the space between classical music and techno more so than any other track of the performance. “It was interesting because the original is completely mad,” Roussel says. “It was like a game for me. Jeff gave me the chance to do something really silly with the musicians. I tried to write for each musician at the top of each factor. I wrote things that gave as much sound as possible. So we have something with a lot of volume for everybody, and when you have 60 musicians playing like that, it's very interesting. I also tried to replicate the distortion sound from the original. It wasn't easy, but I used the horns and the strings to create a cool down note. Just before the end of the track, I added a solo part of kettle drums. It's a very classical thing to do in a concerto, and looks great on the DVD.”
Although Blue Potential ends with all the performers taking a well-deserved bow, the concert was far from being over. Mills continued to entertain the crowd with a 45-minute DJ set featuring the original versions of all the tracks from Blue Potential.
A GAME OF OPERATOR
The biggest roadblock standing in the way of creating a perfect Blue Potential was the difficulty in communication between Mills and his French colleagues. Due to protocol and the fact that orchestra members didn't know English, Mills was unable to directly communicate with the orchestra musicians. It was a three-layered process where Mills spoke with Roussel who spoke with Altinoglu who in turn spoke with the orchestra. “After meeting with Thomas, it was tough to adjust certain things,” Mills says. “For instance, there are certain things in the original tracks that were swung or a bit funkier. Listening to the orchestra at different times, I kinda felt like it was an interpretation of something I would have done differently if I could have intervened a bit more.”
One result of the difficulty in communication is the Blue Potential version of “4 Art.” Mills could not convincingly explain to Roussel how he wrote the original track, and the bass line was too unorthodox for him to understand how to translate for an orchestra. This led to the decision to create a completely new version of the track. Originally, Mills was going to play alongside the orchestra, but he thought the part was so nice that he decided to let the orchestra go at it alone. What you hear is an entirely new track.
You've really got to hand it to Jeff Mills for staying ahead of the game. While it seems that many people these days are blown away by the infinite possibilities that new technologies offer, Mills' project is another case where concept reigns supreme. Mills has created inspiring works like Metropolis, The Three Ages and loads of other material with a bare-bones setup. As previously mentioned, there's no computer anywhere to be found. He still uses synthesizers, MIDI and triggers. There's very little outboard gear, and he doesn't use multi-effect units, compression or sampling. Most of the compositions are not multitracked, and he even sequences everything and mixes it right on the spot. Consequently, he has to think much more about how he prepares a track before mixing it because he won't have a chance to go back to it again. Each track is a one-shot creation. Jeff Mills' work is proof positive that sometimes the way to the future is a return to the past.