Jeff Mills Hanger, Vancouver BC, September 12
Published Sep 13, 2013On paper, Jeff Mills was the brightest star on the NFF13 line-up, gifting the celebrated media arts festival with the world premiere of a new audio/visual piece called Star People. Once patrons made it through a sluggish will-call line the length of a football field, Mills took them on a "Three hour musical observation and journey on the relationship between humans and our paternal connection with visitors from the Stars" with the help of five Pioneer CDJs, two Roland TR-909 drum machines and a big screen. Given the 50 year-old techno legend's infatuation with science fiction, having re-scored Fritz Lang's Metropolis back in 2000, the concept was in his wheelhouse.
Musically, Mills began on a cerebral tip in the piece's opening "The Night A Star Fell To Earth" sequence, remaining thoroughly ambient and minimal as the visuals played out behind him. About ten minutes in, a hushed 4/4 beat began percolating, but it would subside before long. This was a five-part, three-hour performance, so he had to pace himself.
Yet, even in sparser moments, Mills constantly tweaked two mixers with furtive hand movements, flicking knobs with micro-adjustments like a pigeon nervously pecking at fries in a busy intersection. The beats would start to stabilize within the hour, as his immersive, technical sound expanded like the universe itself. By the "Star Child Connection" sequence, there was a pulse of deep bass purring constantly. It got so heavy that he actually threw down a drop, delivered with dramatic effect after such a long stream of constant sound.
Unfortunately, the visuals weren't much to speak of. Even though they were merely being played from a laptop offstage, which resulted in an awkward moment when a stagehand brought up the media player's remote to find the "play" button on the big screen, they didn't do much of anything. For the first 45 minutes, it was vintage portraits of Native Americans set over an evolving, purple nebula, then it was a half hour of green oval, blue seminal and yellow swirl galaxies, followed by more shots of Natives over the stars from part two. They weren't being altered live at all, so one would hope for a little more effort in that regard. The stock iTunes visualiser has more going on than that.
As such, as an A/V piece, it was a failure, but the music itself was quite something. Like the lengthier works of Philip Glass, Mills' incessant minimalism lulled the listener into a trance, so even the slightest change became magnified, and he was constantly pushing his sound, rarely looking up from his workstation. It was like watching someone age a lifetime in five minutes; the sound progressed almost imperceptibly from moment to moment, but when you look back at the end, you can appreciate how far you've come.