Mixing electronic music with orchestral elements is certainly nothing new. It is, however, incredibly hard to pull off without coming across as somehow pompous, overblown, or even trite. But it’s not impossible, as the sublime work of Mexican artist Murcof demonstrates. And now techno legend Jeff Mills offers his attempt but with an added twist: it’s an entirely live performance.
‘Blue Potential’ is a CD and DVD package that documents Mills’ live collaboration with the Montpellier Philharmonic Orchestra in a free concert performed in July of 2005 under the magnificent Pont Du Gard just outside of Avignon, France. The concert consists of fifteen orchestral reworkings of Mills’ tracks ranging from classics such as ‘Amazon’ and ‘Sonic Destroyer’ to more recent material from his soundtracks to ‘Metropolis’ and ‘Three Ages’. The arrangement is simple: Mills provides the rhythmic backbone with his trademark 909 percussive hiss and snare while the orchestra provides the melodic and harmonic elements.
People interested in how this collaboration actually looked will pop on the DVD. Concert films are notoriously boring, films such as ‘Stop Making Sense’ being the exception that proves the rule, but director Matthieu Charter is no Jonathan Demme. Aside from the occasional sweeping shot of the orchestra with the Pont Du Gard framed nicely in the background, the film consists mostly of shots of the various orchestra sections, the conductor, and Mills. But many of these shots seem quite arbitrary: we’re more likely not to see the brass section as the horns kick in on ‘The March’ as we are to see them, for example. As a consequence, the film loses any sense of drama it might otherwise have had; there is no feeling of pace, of excitement. Anyone who has seen Mills perform knows that he’s incredibly exciting to watch, his hands flying across his decks and machinery with the Zen skill of a Jedi Master, yet the film manages to drain this excitement, giving us only occasional shots of Mills twiddling a knob or two. This is sadly a lost opportunity to see exactly how Mills interacts and engages with the orchestra in a live performance, a crucial element of this project.
Enough of the visuals – how does the concert sound? For some tracks the orchestral arrangements work well, offering interesting variations on the originals: ‘Entrance to Metropolis’ and ‘Daylight’ are particularly lovely, the orchestral introduction to ‘The March’ is suitably grandiose and ‘The Bells’ now features real bells. It’s difficult to say, however, that the orchestral arrangements actually add anything to the tracks; no previously unnoticed elements are revealed. On the tracks with beats in particular, the orchestrations rob the originals of their dynamic kinetic energy, softening them, turning them into something more “appealing” (by which I mean inoffensive). The reworking of ‘Amazon’, for example, cannot hope to match the relentlessness of the original. I’m struck by the feeling that the tracks are compromising themselves in some way, giving up some vital element in order to seek approval. For Mills fans these variations may be interesting but will never be classed as essential.
On the included documentary Mills says that the performance proves “that it’s possible to put more emotion into electronic music” yet aren’t tracks such as ‘Amazon’ already drenched with emotion? The notion that the inclusion of organic orchestral instruments somehow makes electronic music more emotional is dismissive of what electronic music can achieve. Granted, a synth cannot perfectly replicate the rich, melancholic tones of an oboe but a synth is more than capable of producing sounds that provoke the same emotions an oboe does. How long does electronic music have to sit at the kid’s table before it’s allowed to join the grown-ups on its own terms?
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