Jeff Mills:
Light from the Outside World

Jeff Mills often argues that techno isn’t solely for dance floors.

To help demonstrate this, he’s scored films, held a residency at the Louvre, and in 2005 performed with the Montpellier Philharmonic Orchestra at Pont du Gard. His recent show at The Barbican with the BBC Symphony Orchestra, Light from the Outside World, was another attempt to bring techno into different spaces – literally and figuratively – with virtuosic orchestral accompaniment. It was one of the best nights I’ve had the pleasure of reviewing.

The pairing of techno with orchestral music may seem incongruous and gimmicky. You might have quite fixed, opposing ideas about what those things are: new vs old, machine vs human, future vs past, whatever. But the only way techno will stay relevant is by defying those stereotypes.

Mills started out as DJ. He developed an idiosyncratic, blisteringly fast style of mixing in the early ‘80s, assuming the pseudonym ‘The Wizard’ on Detroit radio. He was given immense freedom, playing electro, new wave and house, only once receiving a reprimand from the station’s bosses (for playing Public Enemy, thought too controversial at the time). He later took to production, eventually helping set up Underground Resistance, then Axis Records, in the 1990s. He has toured and produced music, among other things, ever since.

His more recent career seems to show Mills cannot abide the formal constraints others (primarily music journalists) seek to impose on techno. The performance opened with a new composition, then segued into Imagine, a beautifully layered, Martin Bonds-style scene-setter that uses a snare instead of kick drum to provide its off-beat pulse. This wasn’t four-to-the-floor nosebleed techno (although there were shades of that later). Mills then took to the mic to introduce the themes of the performance; futurism, space, and, above all, the more ‘emotional‘ songs of his oeuvre. Appropriately, included later was The Art of Barrier Breaking, something Mills has been doing for decades.

The Bells was always going to be a highlight, and had most of the crowd standing and fist-pumping. This visibly delighted the orchestra, who probably hadn’t seen such scenes since the annual jingoistic and nationalistic tub-thumping that now passes for the BBC Proms. It made so much sense to have actual bells! But I think the highlight came at the end, when Mills again took the mic, first to graciously thank the audience, then announcing ‘we’re gonna play an old Ashford and Simpson track, Bourgie Bourgie’. It was funky, lush, and laced with emotion; the best rendition of a much imitated song.

Just how ground-breaking and experimental it was is moot, given Mills had given a (at least conceptually) similar performance a decade ago. But such concerns seem churlish. Mills’ music often employs futuristic, ‘sci-fi’ themes, and this, combined with the epic scale dozens of strings and horns lends, raised it beyond the mundane. I hesitate to say it was ‘out of this world’, but if you can’t say that about Jeff Mills, who can you?