Jan 15, 2015

Jeff Mills: Shaping Time

Hello HAL, Do you read me, HAL?
Affirmative Dave. I read you.
Open the pod bay doors, HAL.
I’m sorry Dave, I’m affraid I can’t do that.


And so Jeff Mills brought us to space. For those who embarked the spaceship last Friday at La Bacchanale: Discovery One, the journey was epic and extreme. It certainly took a lot of energy to follow Major Mills into his quest, but one does not travel through time without sacrifices. What did we leave behind? What did we depart with? Certainly a trace was left in our communal memory.

Concepts about the cycles of time started being present in Mills’ music around the early nineties. Captivated by science fiction and physics, the notions of time and space became the base for his productions. His fascinating DJ skills and powerful live sets made him renowned around the world. However, for the past several years Jeff Mills has dedicated his life to creating electronic music that is not for the dance floor, showing the public that it is possible to bring it further.
Cinema has notably been one of his most important field of interests. Last year, The Man From Tomorrow was screened at Le Louvre in Paris. Made by the French director Jacqueline Caux, this art film features the producer in a very experimental approach. Mills also realized a film shot in the Egyptian room of the museum while using their film archives. Entitled Life to Death and Back, the film should be released in 2015.
His fascination for Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey led him to work on Mono (presented at the 2002 Sonar Festival) an installation based on the famous monolith of the movie. Consequently, the organizers of La Bacchanale were brought to create an immersive 2001-inspired atmosphere. Combined with Mills’ music, the result was impressive. His music left you no choice, you had to delve in completely… or leave. Playing at such incredible speed that it felt slow, there were two temporalities to his set.
Eliptik sat down with Jeff on the day following the event. What he said felt so crucial, but sadly rarely discussed in the world of electronic music. Jeff Mills’ work is a constant run against the clock and a lonely fight against mediocrity. The possibilities open in front of us need to be explored. And he calls for everyone to raise the level higher. Time is short, we must proceed forward through the pod bay doors.

The spiral is a key element in your work, it evokes repetition. If repetition is repeating a moment in the present, by creating a repetition are you trying to create eternity?

The image of the spiral, the circular motion, the reoccurring figure… It’s the result of trying to tie everything together. Being a DJ and watching the needle… Space and the solar system and the way we travel through it. The universe and its shape. Time. It’s all the result of trying to link everything together. And that is the figure.
About eternity, I’m not a physicist, but as far as I know that’s how it works. As a species, humans have been evolving by repeating the same things over and over. We get better, we condition ourselves not to make the same mistake, we learn with every revolution in the spiral… this is what we hope for, I guess. It’s very much related to nature and how the sun makes things grow. It’s representative of a lot of things in electronic music. A lot of subjects, a lot of methods of producing music, the method of communication between the DJ and the audience… A DJ can go to a city over a hundred times, it’s this idea of conditioning, establishing a certain relationship that makes things kind of work. So it’s more that the here and now. We don’t do things once, we tend to repeat ourselves over and over again.

It seemed you have set for yourself the mission to educate people to understand electronic music, what do you hope the people who came yesterday left with?

I tend to keep a distance from thinking about what the result could be for other people. I don’t make the mistake in thinking that I’m doing something and it’s being well understood, I would not be telling the truth. I’m hoping that the majority of people left with something. Something that wasn’t there before.
You try to bring the audience in a position where people are not quite sure what is going to happen next, so they are open. I basically try all night to put myself in this position so even I don’t know what is going to happen and I let things happen. I think that’s what makes the difference between certain DJs from other DJs. I never have a set programmed; I’m just on a journey. I have a collection of music, and things that will allow me to go right to the edge, and we decide whether we jump, or we go back.

Yesterday the event was especially organized out of a club, the venue was designed according to the concepts you use in your work. What do you think of such an immersive experience?

Last night was nice because it’s rare that promoters get behind the concept and play the whole thing out. I wish it were every weekend, I wish that promoters could understand that the distance between atmosphere and art is very close. It’s just one step away from being an artist. You have an empty room and you are making all these things happen. If events were thought in this way it would be much more impactful, people would remember them for life. It’s not just a party anymore, it becomes an event, it becomes something you look forward too. There isn’t enough of that. I think I have done thousands of parties in my life. Very few of them have been ones that I wanted to keep.

It is noticeable that you have those two tendencies in electronic music, one of making it an art and one of making it an industry.

Yes and I think neither of them will win, but both will thrive. If we are lucky, we’ll come out of it with events similar to last night. We’ll be able to take the people away from the atmosphere. You see last night was encountering the Monolith in 2001 and the different variations of what it could be. In the film it was an antenna receiving information from the planet of Jupiter. I can think of a whole bunch of things that are not specifically in that way but that would be similar to that, like the sun and the rays that it sends for example. It brings all these ideas out.

Why have you taken electronic music out of the club; worked at the Le Louvre, made movie scores, played with symphonic orchestra?

I’m convinced that all art forms fall short. In meaning that the average person doesn’t get all of what the producer is really trying to say. I think too much information is getting lost. If we understood 100% of what the producer is trying to say or 100% of what he is thinking or what he is trying to do, then it would become much more impactful. I think that technology will let us go that way. Music or sound, will still exist, but I think that techno music or dance music, even contemporary dance, art, sculpture, painting… in the long run won’t last. What will happen eventually is that they will all come together. I don’t know in which configuration but everything will be mashed together. You have various ways to experience it. Technology will bring us to the point that we will understand it the same way as the person who made it was thinking when he made it.

You have made several projects in link with masterpieces of cinema, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Metropolis, Three Ages, etc. Why is the art of light so important for a sound artist like you? Where do those two art forms unite or complement each other?

Around the end of the 90’s I was pretty much convinced that we had heard enough electronic music. We had enough examples of electronic dance music that we could move on to other things. I thought that it would be interesting if some of us producers began to show what the music looks like, if we began to try to find examples, colors, shapes, stories, things that would make us feel the way we do when we listen to electronic music. It was around that time I decided: we need to have a working example, somebody needs to do it first. That was when I decided to move out and score the film Metropolis. To show how electronic music can still retain it’s character and then branch off into another genre. And since then I’ve been working on scoring films.
We still dance 95% of the time, but the music has more dimensions, and I think we should explore even more. Film is one, contemporary dance is another. I like to take the music away just to show the distance of how far this can go.

In Man From Tomorrow, would you say that your music acts as a character?

In movies it can sometime be the case. It depends of how the producer was able to give the sound or the music such a presence that it is perceived as such. If you repeat the same impactful sequence over and over again, then yes it becomes a character. But in Man From Tomorrow, I was a subject of the film. It was an ambiguous film. It was purposely left open. There’s so many ways to get into the film. Conceptually it expands and retracts. We wanted to make something that was full of holes and multidimensional. We had a lot of discussions before making the film and were able to find so many links between our generations and our worlds. We concluded that these are the things that act as a glue to keep things together, to keep an art form together and it’s structure and allow it to flourish and move on and forward. So the film touches all those things, time and memory, individuality, commitment, the roles we have in society… The film is more a device that an entertainment.

How is it for you, being a DJ making people move on a dance floor, to work with contemporary dancers?

I learned a lot and very quickly. Some things the hard way. But I keep going back to dance since I had contact with it. Now I understand it, I see it can take the concept further. I’m scoring music for a few dance pieces. I created a contemporary dance performance based on the film 2001 that will debut in March at Cité de la musique in Paris. I wrote a story parallel to 2001. It takes place in the year 2001 in the context of Stanley Kubrick, but it’s not in space, it’s somewhere else. The same things are happening; there’s a computer malfunction and a crime, and there is changing and resetting of the universe, but it’s not in space, it’s in the ocean. Very deep. ‘The midnight zone’. So it’s called 2001: The Midnight Zone. With the five dancers we are working on creating the scenario. The score is done. Now we are working on the costume and the choreography. I spend actually most of my time between contemporary dance and classical performances… And DJing on the weekend.

So you wish to blur the lines between art and music as much as possible. What advice would you give to young producers or the producers of tomorrow?

Spend only a small percentage of your time on music. Read as many books as you possibly can. Go to contemporary dance. Go to the museum. Go to fine restaurants. Understand more about how people engulf themselves in what they create in order to do something special. And then turn to music, you’ll be surprised how much your music will change by how much life you’ve lived and things that you explored. And that’s what makes the genre of music grow.
If you think of making the same thing over and over again, if track one sounds like track one hundred you are not using all the technology for what it’s made for. You are just repeating yourself. Producers think they are conditioning the audience to like a certain sound, a certain character and that is true, but you only need to do that twenty times, the other eighty times can be exploring something new and different and I think people will appreciate that more.
It’s true people don’t like change. They feel more comfortable listening to the same thing over and over again, but nobody disrespects the idea of trying different things. If we don’t do it this genre will fade away, just as quickly as it came. The more people we can convince that this music is really relevant and can say and bring important things, the better the chances of surviving. We don’t have much time. The first generation of electronic musicians we are now in our fifties or sixties. So we have just a certain amount of time to show what we know. Otherwise it’s lost.
Important things should happen within the next years. Younger producers should feel that they have nothing to lose, everything to gain by trying anything and I wish the medias would explain that to them rather then showing the same beach party, the same DJ doing the same thing. It takes time, it’s still new to a lot of us. A lot of people of my generation are convinced that we won’t gain anything by saying anything important, so they don’t. They don’t think that anyone will listen to them. It would be great if they planed to. It’s about time to explain what we’ve experienced for a lifetime of music. But it’s still only 25 years into the genre. If you look at rock and roll, we’re a third of the way there. Compare to classical music, electronic music is just tiny. The creators of the machine we use are still living. Who invented the violin? (laugh)

Maybe it’s the reason why electronic music is going back to primitive or tribal ideas?

Yes music goes so far that it goes back. I think we are doing that naturally. We end up going back to the basics. The music is getting so complex that we end up going back to just making up some beats. And there’s the universality of the genre as well. You don’t know the audience. You need to get understood by the people of San Franscisco or Tokyo. So tribal was one thing that we established very early in electronic music, it’s a very universal music. Tribal is the common link between everywhere and probably not only here on this planet. Tribal music with sounds and frequencies, that’s were we are now. But you are right, now we are going in this more immersive type, more story telling. From an artist stand point it’s moving in the right direction. Beyond EDM and what people say, a certain part of it is moving very fast in the right direction, and by itself. I think it has to do with certain musicians like myself getting older, and having travelled around, seen the world and knowing people. Knowing what’s more important, and then capitalizing on that.

We have to find ways to convince people that it’s art, and not just about the party.

No that’s the least. For those people who say that it’s just music to get high off to on weekends, not to say that it’s not important, but artistically that’s the least. Then you have 99% of the other things that are much more interesting and connected to nature and evolution and the cycle and dealing with reality and memory… And that is the majority of what the genre is about. Time is short. We don’t have that much time to explore all these subjects. So we should all be working to bring that to the attention of the readers, the other musicians, the DJs… we should say stop doing the same damn thing, stop playing the same music over and over again. We should hold everyone to a higher standard and stop accepting mediocrity and assuming that this is the way things are. We should put pressure on producers. Put pressure on Richie Hawtin to do some of the interesting things that he did when he was younger. Put pressure on Derrick May to go back in creating an atmosphere and not just playing a house track after track… We should question them. And ask them questions about who they are and it would explain why their music sounds a certain way. Everybody is from somewhere and is the product of something. But we don’t ask these questions because we think that we don’t care.


Copyright: Arthur Rad

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