Listening Session #16

Jeff Mills – Exhibitionist Mix 3  TR-909 Workout

Jeff Mills and his 909 in classic white cube setting. Artsy as artsy can get. I watch the »Mix 3 TR-909 Workout« from the DVD Exhibitionist 2. Nothing but Mills and machine in sight. In impossible elegance he is kneeling in front of the grayish cabinet. Pressing start quickly, only the rimshot is running for one bar. Then Mills plays the four-to-the-floor kick via the big push buttons, and suddenly his hands start swirling back and forth across the interface. Next, he taps a clap on the off-beats, but with the volume knob turned down, it’s not heard yet. Only with the start of the next bar does he turn up the knob and start the clap. He adds a stumbling kick before the two and then plays a pattern on the toms after that. The whole thing is running for a good ten bars. Now a closed hi-hat on the sixteenths. Then – silence, breakdown. Mills has stopped the running sequencer, pauses exactly until the beginning of the next bar and then starts it again. The rimshot is back and is now playing a bouncing pattern over the sixteenths. Via turning one knob, Jeff Mills opens the hi-hat a bit, then suddenly cranks in a snare swirl at the end of the measure. The hihat stops, kick, tom and rimshot continue to play, then Mills lets the pattern stutter along with only the eighth notes using start and stop/continue buttons triggered in quick succession. Kick and rimshot also drop out, freeing up the tom figure.  Next comes the ride cymbal on the eighth notes and the return of the hi-hat, then snare swirl over snare swirl and a solo on the snappy knob …

I can’ t keep up anymore. On the one hand, in terms of speed: Jeff Mills is simply too fast. His DJ alias The Wizard, the name under which he enchanted Detroit radio audiences as a teenager, is no coincidence. Magic is perhaps also a question of timing more than anything. But it’s not just the sheer speed with which Mills’ hands are flying over the 909’s knobs and buttons at an uncatchable pace. It’s also my language, which lags behind. My descriptions seem tremendously trivial and sound more like a passage from an instruction manual than doing justice to what Jeff Mills is performing. It’s as if I were trying to capture the virtuoso performance of a pianist by listing, one by one, the individual keys she plays. 

Jeff Mills performs the TR-909 as his solo instrument. His entire gesture is highly stylized, seems artistic, yet effortless and, as already said, downright unreal elegant – Jeff Mills is a virtuoso on this machine and that’s exactly what he wants to be. But that also means that he thinks of the machine in a fundamentally different way. In his handling of the 909, an alternative conceptualization becomes visible and audible, one that understands the sequencer not as a programming interface, but as a genuine playing surface. Knobs no longer serve to set fixed values, but as a possibility for playful, ongoing design. Once again, Jeff Mills plays and thinks of the TR-909 as his solo instrument.

»A musical instrument doesn’t become one by calling it an instrument, but by using it as such. But what, then, does it mean to use something as a musical instrument? What are the actions typically associated with musical instruments? And what, other than that, constitutes a musical instrument as such?«

Hardjowirogo, Sarah-Indriyati (2017): »Instrumentality. On the Construction of Instrumental Identity«. In: Till Bovermann/Alberto de Campo/Hauke Egermann/Sarah-Indriyati Hardjowirogo/Stefan Weinzierl (ed.): Musical Instruments in the 21st Century. Identities, Configurations, Practices. Singapore: Springer Nature. P. 9-24.

Sarah Hardjowirogo’s concept of instrumentality is accurately elaborated in Jeff Mills TR-909 workout. Here it is not the artist Jeff Mills who is presented first, but above all the 909 as a musical instrument to be played with virtuosity. The Computer Controlled Rhythm Composer, which shares the ponderous, eggshell charm of 80s home computing at first glance, not only in terms of its case color, thus becomes – in the literal performative turn of a knob – an instrument.

This new instrumentality of the TR-909 is not simply the effect of Mill’s (unquestionable) skill. The fact that he is able to handle the machine with such virtuosity is precisely the result of the new comprehensive technical/cultural constellations, the new dispositives, which were developed around the TR-909 in Detroit and Chicago (and wherever else). His playing is based on established creative strategies, functioning within the framework of a track aesthetic that emphasizes the continuous layering, the addition, interlocking, and removal of various sonic patterns and elements as a moment of becoming connected (cf. Bonz 2015, p. 55ff.). With the TR-909 alone, just by fading in and out individual instruments, by continuously changing patterns and sound parameters with the sequencer running all the while, Jeff Mills can thus unwind a genuine narrative of the track.

Besides this backdrop of a track aesthetic, however, it is also the visual staging of the performance that particularly contributes to the TR-909’s becoming an instrument. The solo performer alone with his instrument. No podium, no stool, no loudspeakers – just Jeff Mills kneeling in front of his 909. In addition, the (paradoxical) claim of a ›live‹ recording, the documentary idea of capturing uncut the mere confrontation of virtuoso and instrument. So there is an old, genialistic program running in the background, which is more likely to be found on the stages of classical concert halls than on a techno DVD production. The emancipatory moment in Jeff Mill’s performance – taking the machine seriously as a musical instrument – thus gets a slightly bitter taste. Does the adherence to concepts such as instrumentality also have to accept the simultaneous persistence of genialist concepts of artistic subjectivity that have actually long been outdated?

As I am writing this, Jeff Mills keeps it running, completely unimpressed. The kick drum is now hitting swinging sixteenths, and everything is picking up speed. Snare and hihat stumble over the bassy pulse and get caught up in each other. By now it’s not so easy to tell who’s actually playing with whom. »What is now becoming clear is that the composer is as much a tool as the tool itself, or even a tool for the machine to manifest its desires.« Perhaps I have been misled. Perhaps Jeff Mill’s virtuosity was not the question from the beginning. Perhaps he was, from the start, much more the instrument of a machinic desire. He serves the machine. Er be/dient die Maschine. There is something immensely sensitive about his restless movements, a loving gentleness. In any case, this has nothing to do with mastery, with a ›myth of control‹ (cf. Großmann 2010, p. 196ff.). Meanwhile, little by little, the instruments are dropping out. Only the rimshot and the toms are still running now, slowly becoming quieter. One more quick, last roll of the kick drum, then it’s over. Jeff Mills smiles very slightly. He looks content.

This Listening Session is a translation from the book ›Futurhythmaschinen‹. Drum-Machines und die Zukünfte auditiver Kulturen by Malte Pelleter. The book (in german language) can be accessed here.

Citation: Pelleter, Malte (2020): ›Futurhythmaschinen‹. Drum-Machines und die Zukünfte auditiver Kulturen. Hildesheim: Olms und Universitätsverlag. 349-352.