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LIVE REPORT: Jeff Mills' Light From The Outside World
Sophie Zola , November 9th, 2015 10:46

Jeff Mills' collaboration with the BBC Symphony Orchestra at the Barbican in London acts as a segue between cultures and contexts

Photo by Mark Allan/Barbican

Jeff Mills has often talked about his own frustrations with the lack of techno used to soundtrack cinema, particularly within films that depict visions of the future. It was after he first had this discussion with friends in Berlin in 2000, that he bought a grainy copy of Fritz Lang's Metropolis, ripped it onto his computer and scored it with his own compositions: lingering patterns of grinding techno that stippled its drawn out dystopian narrative of an exploited underclass. The soundtrack was released by Tresor's label soon after, and Mills went on to reappropriate other films with these intricate compositions, first by Cecil B DeMille and Harry O Hoyt, then a re-imagined parallel vision of 2001: A Space Odyssey, and more recently Jacqueline Caux' experimental documentary The Man From Tomorrow and an installation based on the Manifesto Of Futurism for the Centre Pompidou in Paris. It's telling that these undertakings are often more discreet side projects to Mills' headline set appearances in main rooms across the world as a DJ. As he put it to the Guardian last month: "These types of visions aren't supposed to come from black guys from Detroit".

Recontextualisation plays an important role within tonight's performance, which sees the Barbican host the British debut of Light From The Outside World; classical arrangements of a collection of Mills' own pieces performed with the BBC Symphony Orchestra, adapted with French composer Thomas Roussell. It's an extension of his Blue Potential collaboration with the Montpellier Philharmonic Orchestra, performed as a free show in Pont Du Gard in 2005. Here, Mills pays tribute to the 1966 film Fantastic Voyage, Harry Kleiner's story of a submarine crew shrunk to microscopic size and inserted inside a scientist’s body to treat a brain injury. The title, as Mills explains three pieces into the performance, is a line spoken between characters as they enter an ear canal, and references "a theory around the idea the reality that we're in isn't what we think it is, that perhaps everything we know everything we we will know, is the result of something that's happened somewhere else".

Photo by Mark Allan/Barbican

There aren't many people here you might you might have found rattling between the slick walls of The Hydra at the end of August, where Mills played to a sweaty, slack-jawed crowd until 8am. Those who fill the seats tonight seem a little older, a little more wary of proselytization perhaps. Of course, it's entirely possible they've repurposed themselves too; two rows down from where I'm sitting a group of young men are somewhat uncomfortably sporting black tie, perhaps longing for the familiarity of trainers.

With Christophe Mangou conducting from the centre, Mills is situated to the right of the orchestra, a position that allows him to forgo his usual head down approach to glance at the goings on throughout the entire performance. He taps delicately at a mixing desk and a Roland TR909, and for the most part he observes quietly, waiting patiently for his cue. The 909 is a longstanding extension of Mills himself; (so much so that when he suddenly exits the room at an aftershow party, hours later, and drifts back in with it tucked neatly under his arm, it's almost comical, witnessing how inseparable the two are) and the way he wields it tonight, smoothly slipping percussion under shivers of strings and blasts of brass, seems entirely inimitable. It's intriguing how this performance functions as a segue between cultures and contexts, without ever seeming contrite or contrived. The power of an out of place kick drum feels starkly potent, and as the first set of kickdrums creep in suddenly in the silence between a drawn out ride cymbal and an protracted violin trill, the audience obediently leap up from the velvety seats of the Barbican's main theatre hall to dance in the space before them.

The merging is seamless: classic Millsean techno motifs fall impeccably between slivers of classical instrumentation. On 1997's 'Gamma Player', dramatic curls of tension shape themselves between stutters from the 909 like poured liquid. Later, it only takes one chime of the riff from 'The Bells' to elicit a Pavlovian response from the stalls, which only spirals indefinitely as the audience shriek and clap and dance in the aisles. Finally, Mills introduces a interpretation of Ashford & Simpson's disco classic 'Bourgie Bourgie', a song, he explains, that would be played at "that kind of party" in Detroit, and which strips its lifted chords into shimmering pronounced flamboyance. The minimalism and deliberated pace of the performance accentuates moments not usually considered within the usual techno framework. Suddenly Mills' own interest in atmospheres beyond reckoning; of the depth of existence; of the fragile lines of human control, feels far more tangible here than it ever does within the confines of a club, trapped in the euphoric confines of a chemically altered mind conditioned solely for physicality. It's inescapable, when you're, for the most part, forcibly seated to music that's meant to be danced to, denied permission to physically express sensory impulses that are calling out for indeterminate flailing. What does that leave behind? A performance that penetrates deep into the subconscious; a cerebral techno communion of sorts.

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