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Interview: Jeff Mills – Soundtracks for Future Humanity

Published 7:58 am on Thursday 15th June 2023 by Beat Magazine

Beat / In his excellent liner notes to Metropolis Metropolis, Terry Mathews writes about some of the reasons why Metropolis has remained an inspiration to many for such a long time. What still inspires you about the movie today, after watching it for many times?

Jeff Mills /What inspires me the most is that, in some ways, the facts are that our society has not yet fully understood the overall message of the film which was made about 100 years ago in 1927: That we either keep forgetting or ignoring the reality that the differences between us are so minute that we’re all basically one big organism. Where functionality greatly depends on one another. Healthy in mind, body and spirit. In our evolution, 100 years isn’t a long time when we think about how far we’ve come. But, as we look forward to the next 100, one of the most important subjects I can think of is the welfare and conditions of the average person. Where will this part of society be a century from now?

Beat / „20012 is another movie you appreciate and just like Metropolis, it offers an intriguing look at the future. Which of these two visions of the future is closer to your own, would you say?

Jeff Mills / In the not-so-distant future, I’d have to choose „Blade Runner“. But, I actually think that we might closer to a George Lucas’s “THX 1138” (1971). Where humans will have to live underground due the intense heat and radiation conditions on the surface of the planet. And, I also envision a time when each human will be born into a society where everyone will have a role to play for maintaining our civilisation. That it will be essential to work together. So, the individual freedom to choose what you do for a career might not be possible.

Beat / Fritz Lang is quoted as saying, “I was primarily a visual artist. I never had an ear, and I regret it.”Andyet,Metropolisfeaturesmanysceneswhich are, it would seem to me, clearly rhythmically choreographed. Since you‘re extremely close to his work through your scores, what do you make of that statement?

Jeff Mills / I think that (sometimes), the lack of ability – or to assume one is lacking said ability – can be a great advantage. It can help in forging new ideas and perspectives due to that lack of knowledge of what it is supposed to be. Then, Lang’s visual rhythm was purely instinctive, which created a method that only he can understand and own.
I found the visual rhythm of Metropolis to be similar to the way music is thought about and (sometimes) programmed by a DJ. That, there is a pinnacle moment in which all else makes its way to. A well-planned path of movements that opens up the possibly to move to the next scene. As I started to study the film decades ago, this is one of the first elements I recognized.

Beat / Metropolis is almost 100 years old. So, the means of making your soundtrack to the movie are far more advanced than the means of making the images – your music to this film is literally from the future.

Jeff Mills / Actually, this soundtrack was being approached with the idea that one might listen to it 100 years from now, thus watching a 200 year old film. I tried to image a person in the future that might have been through some of the life altering changes and issues that we and people experienced in the last century (1900). A time when this genre of Electronic Music would be perceived as an artform when people still used to physically plug in electronics. Or, machines that had to be programmed in order to make them operate. I thought about this person, living in a time surrounded by things we’ve only dreamed of, but that still recognizes the social and economic disparities.

Beat / How do you avoid your 21st century sounds overpowering the film?

Jeff Mills / Though the film was made a long time ago, I still tried to imagine myself as being part of the original production. Trying to imagine what Fritz Lang might have thought about it. So, watching not just this film, but also, others that he created were essential to understanding what thought was acceptable. In truth, we’ll never know, but I needed to use something as a creative gauge.

Beat / How does this shift the balance both between the image and the sound?

Jeff Mills / It really depended on what the scene was about. The feelings of the characters. Not necessarily their physical movements. For instance, in the Maria to Robot laboratory scene, I decided to create a soundtrack that reflected what might have been going through the mind of Maria, being altered to be the mind of the robot. Imagining heartbeat rates, shock and disbelief, the grief and sadness of realizing, the adrenalin that comes about when rescuing someone. All these and other factors were considered. The soundtrack took almost 4 years to make, so a lot of time was spent thinking about the scenes and what they meant. I would watch the scene, think about it for a while, then produce music until I felt it related properly.

Beat / What does the music add to the image and what is its value outside of its function as a soundtrack?

Jeff Mills / Both image and sound are intrinsic. Both forms work to translate the message to the viewer / listener. But whereas image is more believable, sound has more liberty to insinuate and incite. Sound can be more elusive and have a separate life outside the context of cinema and moving images.

Beat / Different composers could potentially approach the same scene with strikingly different music. Would you say there can be ‚wrong‘ and ‚right‘ musical decisions for some scenes? In which way can some film music be considered ‚definitive‘?

Jeff Mills / I do not believe there could ever be a wrong decision for a soundtrack. I believe it depends on the time in which we’re living and what is acceptable to the viewer(s). Meaning that, how we interpret is decided by the conditions in which we’re receiving. And no one lives the same exact life.

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