Review: Jeff Mills – The Planets @ Concertgebouw

Two queues of bodies were lined outside the sumptuous building, outstretched their tickets to Jeff Mill’s world of “The Planets”. Instead of a scent of hesitation and wonder, the foyer was filled with an equanimity, quite particular to the Dutch character. The symmetric red velvet lining, the lines of still empty red seats and steady structures of arcs hinted this man built Chef d’oeuvre, this Hall of Royal beauty can take in any kind of surprises and rebels with stoicism.

The conductor decided to shorten the concert, thinking that since the public were being given a totally new language like that, “half an hour of it was as much as they could take in”. No, that did not happen this day in Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw. This took place in London’s Queen’s Hall in 1918 during the last weeks of war, when Gustav Holst premiered the original suite “The Planets”, which Jeff Mills based his interpretation on. Thus evidently, one couldn’t dismiss the similarities of the two settings, as the novelty of this language, being the DJ and orchestral performances, is still odd for the eyes and ears of today’s audiences. A handful of DJs have went this road so far, e.g. Carl Craig & Moritz von Oswald reinterpreting Ravel, Henrik Schwarz and Derrick May creating Orchestral arrangements for their own music. However, none dedicating themselves to the classical genre as deeply and assiduously as Jeff Mills.

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Thus once again the seminal producer, artist and innovator Jeff Mills dove into his favourite topic of cosmic spaces, reimagining Gustav Holst’s illustrious score, ‘The Planets’. The suite is considered to be one of the most important modern classical music pieces, especially among the scientific community. Each movement of Holst’s compilation is corresponding of the physical and emotional characteristics of a separate planet of the solar system. However, whichever way I tried to link the original compositions of each movement to Mills’s interpretations, it seemed that, while sticking to the mood and the narrative given by Gustav Holst for the seven solar planets, Mills created a total different musical manisfestation of “The Planets”.

The take-off

The second Mills stood behind his massive set of decks, gradually the room, from its elegant roof to the ground, was quaked by the low bass. The pairs of naked lamps slowly lighting up in the background of the orchestra were alarming of a spaceship take-off. The base grew more and more unsettling for the stoic Hall. Part of me was already boarding that spaceship. But the sceptic part was suggesting – one could have expected that, as in comparison to analog instruments only DJ equipment can bring so much bass. Thus just as the viewer in 1918 was unsettled with a blatant dissonance and unconventional meter in the first movement “Mars, The Bringer of War”, Mills’s viewer was taken by the same mood and order of the original piece.

In the second movement I wrote down in my notes “a tender piano and bells, repetitive clarinets creating a rhythm, lightly turning into a blue airy calm of the instruments with synthetic sounds of Mills”. Later on I discovered, it was “Venus” that followed as the “Bringer of Piece” and a solution to Mars in Holst’s sequence. Hi-hats and a fast paced techno beat came in, blending the winds, with the strings staying in a dissonance loop, envisioning a troubled spaceship.

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Adding the Dimensions

The concert was in its peak, when all of a sudden the winds stood up and left their places. Next thing I know, a trumpet and a trombone was responding to the main orchestra in full volume right from my row in the parterre. The child in me was curiously observing, while the sceptic was already shouting, “Why bring those poor musicians to the audience? It does not create a smoother sound, it’s a distraction! Is it just to “spice things up” and be different?! No way!”.

As they went back, I noticed myself very aware of the sounds surrounding: a squeaking chair, whispers, coughs… As next to Mills, I would be listening to Cage’s 4’33’’. And there there was another layer – I noticed a blue Chinese hieroglyph was light on the walls, I wondered what did Mills want to say with it? As if in realization, that something is really strange and special going on here, people took out their phones and started secretly filming the show – (but hey, in the middle of the concert!). However this moment I understood, all these dimensions pushed me out of the focus and I could hardly come back to that spaceship Jeff Mills was taking me on before.

Blending into a vision of slowly descending into space, the Cellos and the ContraBass gently touching their lowest strings and Mills playing a low murmur of a spaceship ended the suite. For half a minute the hall was silent.

The King is Naked?

Live masterful classical instrumental precision stood in contrast to the computer generated beat, the looping strings and winds, the bells, the drums, the piano… among this pool of sounds I was trying to catch Jeff Mills. what is live? what is synthetic? what is looped? … And then why the hieroglyphs? Why to put the musicians in the audience? Are all those special layers actually distracting from the core? The music? And thus, are we just afraid to say, something created by a certain authority is not actually perfect not to seem imprudent?

As I looked around I saw the names on the balconies – Ravel, Wagner, Tchaikovsky… I wondered, what would these guys say about that? What would Holst say about that? Would they say the King is naked? And no one dares to say it? Or maybe Mills would be the misunderstood underdog? But perhaps greeted as a visionary?

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Have you been to Space?

At the time of the presentation of The Planets the conductor decided to shorten the show, due to the chance of this musical language being misunderstood. Our first impulses are capable of understanding just a few dimensions at a time. However, have you ever been to Space? Have you ever thought of what is to be on Space?

One Sunday morning I saw a Virtual Reality video of New Horizons spacecraft landing on Pluto in 2015. It put me on a surface of a distant planet, where no human has set their feet, and told: “Look around!”. There is a moon rising on the other side, an unfamiliar moon:

“Look around!” – Jeff Mills was saying to us. You are not in your Royal Concert Hall. You came with a ticket to The Planets, to space. Be aware of everything that surrounds you. Because in space nothing is what you expect it to be. It is a strange and unfamiliar world. His new angles for cellos, piano, violin will just party sound like you are used to. But most important, amongst all the dimensions, you will have to discover your own compass to find the treasure.