London Sinfonietta / Jeff Mills
Warp Works & Twentieth Century Masters / Blue Potential
dding strings to popular music is one thing, but collaborating with a full orchestra is something else entirely. Used sparingly and in expert hands, orchestral sounds can add wonderful textures and tones to music, but generally speaking, the more classical instruments you add to the mix, the greater the potential for things to go horribly wrong, especially if you’re treading into unfamiliar territory. Visions of big-haired rockers with delusions of grandeur run rampant.
But what about electronic music? There have been a few novelty acts: check out the Balanescu Quartet’s Possessed, for instance, wherein they tackle several Kraftwerk numbers. Kraftwerk’s motorik pulse is a bit like Baroque music when broken down into parts, and their compositions rarely got terribly complex, so the transition works. But what about more dancefloor-oriented material? Or complicated IDM works, full of dissonant, conflicting parts and strange time signatures?
Jeff Mills attempts to answer the former question on Blue Potential, recorded live in July 2005 in France with the Montpelier Philharmonic Orchestra. Broken down compositionally, Mills work seems ideal for the setting. His electronic music is at times cinematic (he’s soundtracked both Buster Keaton’s Three Ages and Fritz Lang’s Metropolis in recent years), and built on repetition. If anything, one could picture the results sounding a bit like loop-based minimalists like Philip Glass, Steve Reich, or John Adams. In fact, the best moments on Blue Potential sound exactly like that.
The problem is, simply put, Jeff Mills. Look no further than the first full track, “Imagine”: the strings float and build and weave like magic, creating a truly wonderful and challenging orchestral work for the first few minutes until the fucking drum machine comes in. Oh Jeff. Oh no.
Mills isn’t taking the piss here either, lest you be misled by the presence of Underground Resistance stompers “Amazon” and “Sonic Destroyer.” Mills has always been a progressive thinker and an adventurous sort, and based on the interview and live performance footage on the bonus DVD included here, he is deadly serious about this project. The pieces that are left unsullied by drum machines show great promise and provide an intriguing listen, and I really would have loved to have heard an entire performance sans 909, but as it stands, Blue Potential sadly leaves a bit too much of that potential untapped.
Not so with the London Sinfonietta. Warp Works & Twentieth Century Masters presents highlights of three concerts from 2003 and 2004 across two CDs wherein Warp mainstays Aphex Twin and Squarepusher sit comfortably alongside similarly minded avant garde composers of the past, such as Cage, Ligeti, Reich, Stockhausen, and Varèse. Unlike Blue Potential, Warp Works takes the wise choice of leaving the music strictly to the experts—Tom Jenkinson thankfully does not show up halfway through “The Tide” with slapped bass in tow. As such, it succeeds beautifully, or at least as “beautiful” as this sort of experimental classical music can get. This ain’t exactly Beethoven’s 5th.
The real credit here should go to the visionaries at the London Sinfonietta who bravely saw through the electronic instrumentation in the Warp material and recognized an inherent similarity in compositional thinking with the giants of avant garde classical music. Sure, its easy to say now that John Cage and Richard D. James both wrote pieces for treated pianos, but it isn’t like you’d typically find their CDs next to each other in your changer either. But here, it makes perfect sense. Warp Works is a brave, challenging, and ultimately triumphant listen.