DE9: Transitions is the third in Richie Hawtin’s DE9 mix series (coming after 'Decks, EFX & 909' and 'DE9: Closer to the Edit'), and sees Hawtin yet again attempting to push both the envelope of electronic music, and the role of technology in creating such music. "Transitions" builds on the framework established by the earlier parts of the DE9 series, using the most advanced technology available to mix a number of sound sources. 'Decks, EFX & 909' was built around drum machines and effects machines and “real” vinyl, while 'DE9: Closer to the Edit' was built largely around tightly sampled loops.
Technology has advanced considerably since "Closer to the Edit", and on "Transitions" Hawtin embraces the new technology, using such tools as Ableton Live and DigiDesign ProTools to slice, dice, and dissect over a hundred tracks and then rebuild them into what are virtually entirely new compositions. A bassline from here, a drum kick from there, and a melody from somewhere else. At times sound sources from as many as seven different tracks are playing at the same time. From a technical perspective it’s a virtuoso performance. To analyze, dissect, and reassemble so many sound sources so seamlessly (even with the help of Ableton Live) is mind-boggling. In fact, with so many arrangements on the part of Hawtin, is it accurate to call this a mix disc at all? Is it a transition from the work of a DJ to a composer? A transition from a traditional DJ mix to something else entirely?
It is evident that Hawtin seeks to ask these questions of his listeners, almost confronting us with them at every given opportunity. The first example of this Hawtin's choice to give his reassembled tracks new titles. A bold move indeed, one which may anger those who feel that Hawtin cannot lay claim to an assemblage of sound sources created by other people. Yet what else could he call them? “Track 1 with elements of Plastikman, Stefan Goldmann, O, Sleeparchive, False, and Ultrakurt” is nowhere near as evocative as “Welcomm(in)”.
The cover also addresses these issues, with Hawtin’s face being made up of different track names used in the “mix”; suggesting that the work before us is indeed made up of these different tracks, yet have all come together under Hawtin’s guiding hand to make something totally new, something more than the mere sum of its parts – something that is utterly Hawtin’s vision (and, in the end, the cover is a vision of Hawtin).
"...is it accurate to call this a mix disc at all? Is it a transition from the work of a DJ to a composer? A transition from a traditional DJ mix to something else entirely?"
Hawtin plays with the concept, editing some sources down to a single note, while others have familiar melodies left intact, leaving listeners with an odd feeling of familiarity at various stages in the mix. You’ve most certainly heard many of these tracks before, but never like this. Yet, as the mix goes speeding along, you’ll find yourself saying things like “hey, isn’t this Carl Craig?” as a familiar melody or bass line or drum kick goes speeding by. (A game that is very easy to play with the DVD, with names of the source tracks flashing onto the screen.)
Yes, a DVD. Hawtin makes another transition here, of a technical kind, putting his 96-minute mix onto DVD so as to overcome the space limitations of a CD. Furthermore, the DVD version presents Hawtin with a chance to push the use of technology in music yet again, coming in a 5.1 Dolby surround sound mix. Hawtin has carefully arranged the mix to make full use of surround sound: this is the format he intends the mix to be heard in. Indeed, this is the ultimate for techno-loving audiophiles. However, don’t expect a visual extravaganza while listening to Transitions. A black screen confronts the viewer, with the names of the source tracks flashing onto the screen as they are introduced into the mix, only to literally fade back into blackness as they are mixed out again. It’s surprisingly interesting to watch, as you have a very clear visual representation of what Hawtin is mixing at any given moment in time. (And can help you identify a drum kick or melody that suddenly comes in as the new name flashes onto the screen: the ultimate in techno trainspotting.)
The DVD is not utterly bereft of visuals, though (much to the chagrin of any uber-minimalists). Short “videos” are included for two of the most striking passages of Transitions, “We (All) Search” and “The Tunnel”.
“We (All) Search” is a short three and a half minute video, using footage from Andrei Tarkovsky’s "Stalker" (of "Solaris" fame). A boy in medieval peasant clothes sits at a table and moves three glasses telekinetically. There is some very slight digital manipulation creating sudden time-lapse movements of the glasses that are in time with the backward snare hisses of the track. The table vibrates as the tension in the track winds up, and the visuals distort slightly as the camera suddenly zooms in on the boy’s face before fading to black. It’s interesting, although not compelling viewing, and feels more like someone experimenting instead of a fully realized project (and Hawtin says something to this effect in the mini-documentary).
If “We (All) Search” is an experiment, the three-minute video for “The Tunnel” is a more fully realized project. The concept is deliberately similar: a white-clad Hawtin sits at a white table in an entirely white room, as various objects fade in and out of existence on the table and move around in time with the music. Hawtin observes impassively, and eventually rests his head on the table, just like the peasant boy in “We (All) Search”. Unfortunately, it comes across as a little too static and sterile, and doesn’t capture the sheer momentum and drive of the track itself. Although the visuals and the music match up in terms of timing, there’s something of a disconnect between them in terms of mood and energy.
There is also a 10-minute documentary on Transitions, where Hawtin tells us his thoughts on the project and how much we’re missing out on if we don’t listen to it in 5.1 surround sound. Of most interest, though, is a 30-minute excerpt of Hawtin doing a DE9 performance live at the TDK TimeWarp event in Germany. It’s interesting to watch Hawtin at work, especially as some of the “tracks” on Transitions are performed in this live setting (it also seems to provide hard evidence that an attractive girl will always manage to make her way into the DJ booth).
"This is a minimal mix, proudly so, designed to glide forward along straight lines with aerodynamic grace. This is a sleek German sports car, speeding along an Autobahn through a dark rainy night."
Hawtin, however, thankfully realizes that most of us don’t own killer 5.1 surround sound stereo systems, so the DVD version of Transitions comes both in 5.1 and regular stereo. Of course, some of us don’t even own a DVD player. A bonus CD includes a slightly edited 75-minute version of Transitions (which, come to face it, is probably the one people will listen to most often, due to the ease and relative convenience of the CD format).
The urge to over-intellectualize and over-analyze Hawtin’s work is strong. Of course, questions as to the role of the DJ, the role of technology in either aiding or detracting from the music, and what that technology actually is and how it’s used are all valid and need to be asked. However, an equally important question that is often lost in such intellectual investigations is this: what is the mix like?
With track titles such as “Subtracting”, “Reduction and”, “Minimal Master”, and “Minimission”, Hawtin’s agenda is obvious. This is a minimal mix, proudly so, designed to glide forward along straight lines with aerodynamic grace. This is a sleek German sports car, speeding along an Autobahn through a dark rainy night. (Track titles such as “Welcomm(in)”, “Seiltanzer”, “Tonarzt”, “Noch Nah”, and “Weiter Noch” cannot help but summon up Germanic imagery. Hawtin’s recent transition to Berlin appears to be influencing him.) We can’t see what’s outside of our vehicle’s rain slicked windows; all we can see is a dark blur thanks to the high speeds we’re moving at. The feeling of movement, of progression, is constant throughout the mix. Except for a few notable landmarks, the entire mix is a transition, a series of transitions, as we speed along Hawtin’s Autobahn through the night. Never really at one place or another, but always between, making transitions. Most of the time it’s impossible to point at anywhere on the map and say “oh, here we are”. The tracks just move by so fast (most being around three minutes long, or shorter), that we barely notice them speeding by. It’s slick and sleek, minimal and mechanical, and stripped back.
“Visioning”, about 14 minutes into the mix, is the first notable stretch on the highway that we come to, all rolling drums and sudden snare hisses. This leads us into “We (All) Search”, distinctive for its vocals and almost funky groove. After then speeding along the straight lines of the Autobahn for a while longer, Hawtin eventually sends us plunging through “The Tunnel”, an exhilarating 8-minute stretch where the sensation of speed picks up tremendously, with a bleeping digital melody suggesting lights flashing past the windscreen as we move faster and faster. A car chase, perhaps? It’s undoubtedly the peak of the mix, with bouncing metallic noises that keep skipping up and down the register building an incredible amount of tension. The drums finally start really kicking at this point. From this point we speed on with the drums continuing to kick nicely until we reach our final destination on the CD mix, the chiming Detroit (Carl Craig, in fact) melodies of “(D)Ecaying Beauty” gently bringing us to rest.
"It’s quite a ride, although those listeners who may want to stop and dawdle at points along the way may be somewhat disappointed. Transitions is most certainly not for those who like their mixes filled with explosive and notable moments. "
On the DVD the nightdrive continues through some very nicely textured beats (the omnipresent Wighnomy Brothers working their way into the mix here), bringing us to the true finale, “Transitions”, with the moody melancholic synths of latter-day Plastikman accompanying the spoken word opening of the legendary Underground Resistance track “Transition”. It’s a solemn, even sobering ending, as the synths die away and you are strongly advised to “make your transition”. (It’s also interesting that, after all of the transitions Hawtin has made both in his life and in this particular mix, we end up ostensibly back in Detroit.)
It’s quite a ride, although those listeners who may want to stop and dawdle at points along the way may be somewhat disappointed. Transitions is most certainly not for those who like their mixes filled with explosive and notable moments. There’s very little to take note of along this minimal highway. Which is, of course, entirely the point. It’s not the destination that’s important, or even sightseeing along the way; it’s the act of movement itself that’s celebrated here. For those who love a sleek journey in a sports car that has been built with technical flair, Hawtin’s Transitions is the highway to take.