I vaguely remember the first Atonal back in 1982. Apparently I performed at it with my band Die Unbekannten. I only know this because I still have the flyer. Dimitri “Leningrad” Hegemann had experienced our previous haphazard performances at the SO36 and Genial Dilitanten festivals, and we had been invited because he thought we were suitably avant-garde enough to appear—or at least I like to think that was the reason. More than likely, it was because our gigs were always a shambles and our lack of coordination, professionalism and musical ability made the dirge we delivered sound more avant-garde than the new wave rock band sound that we also didn’t want to be. We were frustrated, dark and we obviously fitted perfectly. But that was when Berlin was surrounded by a wall and the general attitude to making radically anti-commercial music was quite different.
For most people, the perception of how music is supposed to sound is limited by their own borders. With the original Berlin Atonal we were able to step outside of those—after all, in the the ‘80s, the city was surrounded by a border, and we danced around it. We flirted with this frustration and aimed to provoke in whichever way we could. We were not driven by commercial success, it was about expression. Antiestablishmentarianism had delivered us experimental artists like Throbbing Gristle, SPK, Blurt, Z’ev or Cabaret Voltaire and they supplied the motivation and idealistic foundation. Punk provided the youth. Berlin’s underground just took it to another level; the crumbling rat-infested ruins of the city provided the perfect inspiration for screaming, disjointed and unconventional experiments in sound, the Atonal provided the stage to perform it all on.
The most refreshing thing was that anything and everything was acceptable. Wolfgang Müller of Die Tödliche Doris performing with a boiling kettle was the kind of thing you could expect to see on stage. It looked simple, but he had actually taken weeks to perfect his piece. It was a live piece of art. Many may think Atonal music is spontaneous, but in most cases it’s very precise. Glenn Branca is a case in point: his music is very intricate, it takes months of planning. You can’t always make it up on the spot. That said, many tried. Einstürzende Neubauten used to do just that, but they were the exception as they pulled it off. They would nip off to a building site and liberate whatever “instruments” they needed for that evening’s performance.
You certainly didn’t go to the Atonal to hear a 4/4 beat and melodic hook lines. You were bombarded by noise and bold, brutal expression. That doesn’t mean everyone enjoyed what they saw; as with art you either liked it or you didn’t. Yet, it this audacious adventurism that made up for any kind of deficit in actual musical ability. Besides, if you were really, really crap, the audience would simply can you off the stage. Most of the people making this kind of music back then had some kind of arty background, this was the era of punk and new wave and making music was just an extension of their expression. If you heard the double 7-inch punk single by Martin Kippenberger & Christine Hahn today, you would probably wonder why it was ever pressed onto vinyl, it basically sounds like someone walking about with a tape recorder on spread over four sides of vinyl, but back then it was radical.
Essentially, the fledgling Berlin underground scene was a handful of enthusiastic people all wishing to make a statement and wrap a discordant musical blanket around their voices. Later, the offshoot of this music would come to be known as “industrial” but for us, the punk/new wave moniker provided an opportunity to show that anyone could make any kind of music. The idea that you could really just do it was something that made this approach to making an artistic statement so different. It was the punk ethos of having a go and see where it gets you, and it got some people very far indeed. Atonal’s legacy has influenced so many bands, directly or indirectly and a few years back I had the pleasure of meeting the bright 16 year-old son of screenwriter Paul Schrader and taking him around the second hand record shops of Berlin. I was pleasantly surprised when he told me he was looking for anything from the Berlin avant-garde scene of the 1980s. Apparently, he’d been infected from an early age by the sounds his father listened to and the inspirations quoted by bands like Nine Inch Nails. He confessed to being a total “Nu-bauten” fan and from our conversation, I realized that there were many more young people out there who were really interested in this kind of music. I became optimistic that there is a whole generation of kids just waiting in the wings, all inspired by old records.
Now, the development in new sound technologies has brought a fresh breed of noise makers. Over the decades, we’ve seen Atonal’s ideas slowly creep into the techno world and people have come to accept noise and extreme sounds even in modern pop music. Thanks to the approach of new film sound scores people are now hearing more experimentation and industrial sounds creeping into the movie soundtracks than ever before. This creates a willingness to discover and accept this style of music.
So, for my so-called DJ performance at the Electronic Beats afterparty in the SHIFT bar at this year’s resurrected Berlin Atonal, I decided to play a mixture of classical old school Atonalistic sounding music from Conny Plank, Geile Tiere, Leather Nun, Throbbing Gristle laced with Maggot Brain and even Jimi Hendrix, muddling my crossfadings with new industrialistic things derived from current film soundtracks, to Herrmann Kopp, Neubauten and aTelecine. A superb free-range Miles Davis-driven DJ-set by Arto Lindsay and Max Dax on four decks was a hard act to follow, yet I could see that the music that I started to play suddenly had people dancing.
Dancing at the Atonal?
It seemed that even the smallest suggestion of a regular pulsating beat instantly got everyone on the dancefloor. It seemed like they were craving it after hours of krach. Is this the legacy of Atonal? We will see. I really didn’t want to succumb entirely to playing a generic set of 4/4 techno-driven sounds, so I stuck to my plan and hoped the music would be at least inspiring if not educational, but in the end I compromised slightly, by slipping in my own remixes of “A Forest” and “Sweetest Perfection” just to finish them off with. After all, we have to thank Depeche Mode and Gareth Jones for successfully crossing Atonal sounds with pop.
The massive industrial, cathedral-like expanse of the Kraftwerk served as a huge reverb chamber for each artist of the festival itself to compete against, and the towering blackness made the striking visual images appear even more beautiful, suspended in the darkness. If you need a comparison, it was like a set from Alien 3; it looked and sounded breathtaking. I personally can’t think of anywhere more perfect than the HeizKraftwerk for such a totally Berlin event. It was something I had long hoped and waited for. Ever since I first saw the Kraftwerk, I had urged Dimitri to revive the Atonal, now (after almost a decade) he has succumbed. May the next round begin… ~
You can read our interviews with the current organizers of Berlin Atonal here. Below watch part of the panel discussion “Berlin Avant-Garde vs Functional Music” which took place at the 2013 edition of the festival—chaired by EB editor-in-chief Max Dax, with panelists Dimitri Hegemann (co-founder of Berlin Atonal and Tresor), Schneider TM (German musician who has been based in Berlin for many years), and Adi Atonal (co-founder of Berlin Atonal). Camera was operated by Luci Lux, video editing by Robert Defcon.