Barbican Centre, London
A labour of love, Planets was composed by the techno pioneer over a period of nearly a decade.
Inspired by Gustaf Holst’s 1918 classical score The Planets, Mills’ ambitious orchestral and techno score aimed to take its listeners on a journey around the solar system. Unfortunately, at the UK premiere of the piece, my feet mostly stayed on the ground.
In recent years, Mills has graduated from his exuberant and ever-innovative DJ sets to combining electronic and classical music. He’s sold out concert halls around the globe, released a studio version of Planets earlier this year, and just wound up a much-hyped four day residency at London’s Barbican centre (the Planets UK premiere was the culmination of the residency). Already a legend within the annals of techno greats, Mills has done more to bridge the gap between classical and electronic music than any other artist, with the possible exception of Matthew Herbert. He’s also helped legitimise techno as as valid a music genre as any other – which, given Britain’s current climate of outright hostility towards dance music and dance music venues, is no mean feat. But Planets didn’t take me on a journey to outer space – at most, I was cresting the earth’s atmosphere.
I really wanted to love Planets, but in the end I merely ended up liking it a lot. Mills’ intent was to “paint the solar system” electronically, and the lush, rich orchestral sounds of Britten Sinfonia do him justice. There were a few dense, evocative moments – a rich cello section towards the end overlaid with cosmic sounds was strangely moving, and a col legno passage in the middle (where the string section en masse tapped their bows onto their instruments) was genuinely eerie. Mills excels in producing unusual, distorted soundscapes: even crackles seemed evocative, like wrinkles in time.
But despite this, I think the reason I didn’t connect with Planets as much as I’d have liked is down to its structure. Composed of nine sections, each representing an individual planet, with “loop transits” scoring the empty space between each planet, the overall effect for me was disjointed – more lots of separate long-haul flights rather than one epic interstellar odyssey. And when I read the accompanying notes, this made more sense: Mills composed each section with a period of time in between them, to make sure all the sections sounded different.
Still, most of the audience didn’t agree with me: Mills, conductor Christophe Mangou and Britten Sinfonia received a standing ovation after the performance.