What: Concert with techno legend Jeff Mills and the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra
Where: Hamer Hall in Melbourne
When: Friday 10 October
Can techno and classical music really work together? This was the question everyone wanted to know as the big concert room of Hamer Hall was filling up with a very mixed crowd of people, with an age range from 20 to 50 years old. The stage was filled with chairs and instruments and as we got closer to 8 o’clock the orchestra members took their seats one by one while the excitement grew bigger amongst the crowd. The ensemble is a massive 60-piece orchestra with around 20 violins, 5 cellos, big conga drums, a massive piano, trumpets, floor toms, xylophones, bells, you name it. On top of this is Jeff Mills’ 909 and a CDJ player controlled through a big mixer.
Jeff Mills enters the stage with the conductor Christophe Mangou who he has collaborated with during his ‘Light from the Outside World’ tour. A big round of applauses welcomes them and Mills takes his position behind the black table on the right side of the stage where his gear is set up. The music begins – a beautiful orchestral sound, like the soundtracks in the big movies, slowly building up the soundscape. After a couple of minutes Mills introduces his 909 with some hi-hats followed by some crowd cheering in excitement. The music continues to build up as more percussions from the 909 joins in, although feeling slightly off the rest of the sound. When the kick comes in it starts to make more sense, but I’m still not fully convinced, and the rest of the crowd is also waiting for more.
After the second song Mills steps forward to the microphone to introduce the concert and the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, thanking Melbourne Festival for hosting the show over here. He explains that the name of the show came from an idea – that maybe what we experience right now has already happened somewhere else, on another planet, in another time. With that in mind maybe we should be more sensible with what we hear and see in the moment, he says. This is really what Jeff Mills’ music is about for me – his techno has a futuristic space-jungle sound like it’s coming from another planet. I saw him live last year at The Bottom End in June and it was definitely an outer space experience. His music has a very impressive and majestic sound, and with that in mind I can imagine that this fusion of techno and classical music might work together in a strange way.
The show goes on and the coming songs really make me impressed by the big sound from the orchestra. The 909 feels like it’s getting overpowered from time to time and the sampled hi-hats doesn’t fully fit in with the organic sound from the orchestra. But every now and then after a good build-up it does work together – the big orchestra supported by driving drum beats and percussions. Can you call this techno or classical music? I would say neither – it really is a genre on its own, probably closer to some kind of a classical experimental piece.
Half way through the concert when the music is coming down to a calmer plateau and people are starting to get a little bit restless, the conductor gives a sign to Jeff Mills and a second later the drum machine goes off in full force, accompanied by the bass drums and floor toms from the orchestra. The audience is screaming and applauding and it feels like we just moved to another universe and back. When the track ends a massive round of applause breaks out – we got what we came here for! The next peak of the concert comes when a single loud bell starts off a new song and everyone knows what that means – it’s the famous track ‘The Bell’! The violins and cellos join in louder and louder and the claps and hi-hats operated by Mills are gradually increasing in intensity. With a BAM the drop comes and the hall is once again in ecstasy. By the end of the concert the audience doesn’t want to stop cheering and Mills and Mangou have to run back out on the stage three times until they agree to do one last song. They finish it off with another round of ‘The Bells’ and people stands up in their seat and starts to dance along. It’s a bizarre view of these techno lovers dancing in a big contemporary concert hall, but because we’re that sort of crowd that just can’t sit still to a hammering 909 kick drum, it’s acceptable in this situation.
The verdict: So can an orchestra and a 909 work together? Yeah, occasionally they can. But in all honesty – they work so much better on their own, a massive orchestra in a beautiful classical concert hall or just Jeff Mills, a 909 and a few CDJs in a sweaty, dark, underground club. Was it worthwhile? Hell yeah! A musical experiment like this does rarely happen and when it does it got to be by Mr Jeff Mills himself, I don’t know anyone else who can pull it off.