how soon is now? just ask jeff mills. the so-called godfather of a legion of contemporary techno djs and producers, mills aptly brought the future to the present with the formation of underground resistance; a music collective he helmed alongside mad mike banks in 1989. if you want to know how it all started, that’s where you look. in fact, if you want to know what “it” is exactly, that’s who you ask. combining the technology of present with the knowledge of the past and a hope for the future, jeff mills’ version of techno is some of the most important, relevant, and — let’s just say it — magical, around.
last night in berlin, mills took to a different stage to perform, providing a live soundtrack to the walter ruttmann film, die sinfonie der großstadt. the event, thrown by the pullproxy label and the online magazine electronic beats, had a 1920s theme, a nod to the film which was shot and released around 1927. a semi-documentary city symphony film, the piece was actually created specifically with an orchestral soundtrack in mind — originally, the score was written by austrian composer edmund meisel. a departure from ruttmann’s typical abstract films (part of the german absolute film movement of the 1920s), sinfonie is one of his most comprehensive but open narrative works, telling its story through long montage sequences.
looking back at berlin through this lens, it’s amazing just how much, and also how little, things have changed. mills himself apparently undertook the project as a kind of nod to the city’s many 100 different shades in almost as many years. but to me, sinfonie’s streets actually looked eerily familiar, almost perfect replicas of their modern counterparts, just empty and somehow haunted. train stations were easily recognizable. once the renowned center of the roaring twenties, 1927 berlin didn’t look so far removed from 2016 berlin, the center of thundering techno. a solid gold sound for a golden city.
jeff mills first came to berlin in 1990, when just a year earlier, berlin had undergone one of its most soul-shaking changes: the iron curtain fell. the years that followed were tumultuous: his first gig and residency at tresor, the upsurge of the underground resistance, the rise of electronic music and techno as we know it, and all of it heavily influenced by mills’ connection to berlin.
with sinfonie, mills created a melting pot of these inspirations, and the result was weird, often unexpected, sometimes jarring, and altogether very trippy. sometimes you felt a great wave detroitness within mills’ universe — no surprise there. a clambering, clunking composition soundtracked steam trains rolling past or the mass production of bread, lightbulbs, and bottles of milk; detroit-era industrialism with household commodities instead of cars.
it took while to realize that the film followed a simple chronological pattern: a day in the life, a familiar timeframe in a familiar setting that was both, well, familiar and completely foreign. the aesthetic is perfectly 1920s; chaotic activity, bustling city, typewriters, private cars, telephone operators, street sweepers, horse-drawn carriages… but as the film moves in to showcase the nightlife, there’s a wink of familiarity as we see feet tapping, legs dancing, drinks swilling, disco balls in slow rotation. mills’ soundtrack followed suit: despite its futurist tendencies and space-age sound, it somehow felt right at home in ruttmann’s world. at times the score got lost completely, like in regular film, you’d forgotten that mills was even there. at times the sound jolted you back to reality; it cut from deep ambient galaxies to a whirring dynamo of carnival sounds, or moved from almost quiet classical to a lead drop of techno. every stretch of time, past, present, future, whenever, mixed together as the pace of the film and the mills’ music quickened and we watched animals (or was it people?) fighting, lights flashing, and smoke stacks against the sky. they don’t call him the wizard for nothing.