Nobody operating on the world stage now embodies the idea of techno as much as Richie Hawtin. Sleek and lean, fastidiously attired, topped by a symmetrical shock of what might be called "post-hair," Hawtin remains the medium's most recognizable and progressive ambassador well beyond Detroit, where he had his storied beginning. He lives in Berlin now, which suits the tenor of the times. He still means it when he speaks of minimalism as a guiding principle. And, at 35, he continues to follow the swift evolution of a sound whose advancements play out on an increasingly atomic scale.
Nowhere (except a dance floor at 4 a.m.) is Hawtin's methodology on better display than it is on DE9: Transitions, a stunning mix made from somewhere around 110 tracks. The third part of a "DE9" series that includes 1999's Decks, EFX & 909 and 2001's Closer To The Edit, Transitions makes use of Ableton, new software that regulates rhythmic time between different tracks in a way that leaves a DJ free to think about things other than simple beat-matching. The result is a big-picture mix composed of fleeting snippets locked in a ghostly embrace: Different passages feature as many as 10 tracks playing at a time, with elements of each liable to pipe up, fade out, and reappear minutes later. (It's all chartable on a cool DVD display that lists active track names that dissolve in and out when appropriate.)
The technology is impressive, mostly for the way it suits the sonic whole. Hawtin highlights a number of timely sounds, from the dark, mysterious "ketamine house" of Ricardo Villalobos to the minimal marching-band snares of Robert Hood to the zippy fabric-flow funk of Wighnomy Brothers. Most striking is the meticulous placement of what could be clatter in a spacious sound-field: Hawtin focuses the ear on particular elements the way a film director trains eyes by the arrangement of objects within a frame. The sound explores disorienting back-corners in a 5.1 surround-sound version, but the mix proves deep and dizzying in its also-included stereo guise, especially on headphones. It's the kind of techno that makes the mind reel as fast as a sound that shows no sign of slowing.