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Michail Stangl’s Insider’s Guide to the CTM Festival

Berlin throbs with musical (im)pulses, from all-night techno bacchanalias to esoteric aural explorations, so it’s no surprise that such a city would spawn one of the world’s most exciting experimental festivals, CTM. We asked Michail Stangl, one of three curators of the 10-day audio/visual extravaganza’s music program, to give us an insider’s perspective on the can’t-miss highlights.

CTM’s monstrous program can be a bit intimidating, especially for first time-attendees. In addition to an extensive musical lineup that includes over 100 artists whose work ranges from industrial grime to Gregorian chant, there’s also a “sister festival” called Transmediale, which involves a series of exhibitions, conferences, workshops, and screenings dedicated to investigating the cutting edge of art and digital culture. The abundant activities on offer from both CTM and Transmediale are united under this year’s theme, Un Tune, which focuses on showcasing avant-garde music as well as engaging new thought patterns, social issues, identity, and technology. We asked CTM organizer Michail Stangl, who also spearheads the record label and regular Berghain party Leisure System and Boiler Room’s branch in Berlin, to help us navigate the milieu. While we (and surely Stangl) would recommend experiencing as much of the festival as humanly possible, here’s a broad overview of the festival’s program and some insider tips from Michail on some its must-see events and installations.

Jan. 24th: Opening Night at YAAM

Michael Stangl: YAAM—formerly Maria am Ostbahnhof—has been home to CTM for nearly a decade. It’s great to return there, particularly with a lineup that includes PC Music‘s SOPHIE and Danny L. Harle. For us, this label’s audio reconceptualizations fit the Un Tune theme in the most literal sense—weird sounds that still captivate as pop songs. Furthermore, not many people have focused on Harle yet, which is interesting because he has a background as a modern classical music composer. It puts the label in a different sort of perspective.

We also have the Berlin Current program, which allows us to support emerging local musicians and producers. OAKE is one of them, and we’re very excited to premiere their new live show following the release of their new LP Auferstehung on Downwards. The new live show is quite complicated, with lots of dancers. It should be quite something.

Jan. 25th: Electric Wizard at Astra

MS: This is a big one. As much as CTM pushes the boundaries of experimentalism with themes and concepts, we’re also still a festival. We’re still about having a beer in your hand and going wild to a live show, and Electric Wizard are a perfect fit for that sort of vibe. If you talk about doom or stoner metal and how it works with the raw, physical energy of tuned-down guitars, it obviously fits to the theme. But for me, as much as it’s conceptually interesting to have a band like that play, it’s also fucking metal, and that’s awesome.

Jan. 27th: The Bug, JK Flesh, Peder Mannerfelt & Elisabeth Schimana at Berghain

MS: This night is very special to me, particularly due to Elisabeth Schimana‘s Höllenmaschine performance. It’s basically a monstrous sound machine that’s been developed over decades, played by a classically-trained pianist. Because a synthesizer offers so many opportunities to detune and go into alien frequencies that are normally unreachable, this device is an important part of the festival—but it also puts this music into a historical context, as it’s such an old and complicated instrument.

The same night also features an appearance by The Bug, who’ll be premiering a performance piece called Sirens.  If you know The Bug as an artist and how he works with sound as a physical force, then you know this is going to utilize the Berghain sound system in a way that is raw in the extreme—a physically challenging performance that deals with sound system culture.

Jan. 28th: Alec Empire & Zan Lyons

MS: If you look at the history of digital hardcore, Alec Empire has been pushing so many boundaries for year—that’s the whole meaning behind the name Atari Teenage Riot. Even the concept of their ambient tour album Low On Ice  (which is the basis for his and Lyons’ performance) was taken to the extreme by producing it on a glacier in Iceland. Even though it’s an ambient album, it also kind of hurts. It’s probably my favorite album of Empire’s. I heard it even before Atari Teenage Riot. It’s been nearly 20 years since the album was produced and there are still over seven hours of unpublished recordings. I’m thrilled that we can be the ones to host its live world premiere.

Jan. 29th: TCF at HAU2 

MS: Formerly known as Cracksmurf, TCF has since gone into a different direction, which is something like powerful, de-tuned ambient music. He just released the cryptograph-locked album 415C47197F78E811FEEB7862288306EC4137FD4EC3DED8B on Liberation Technologies, and it’s very edgy. A friend of mine once said that if an artist is lazy, he records a drone album. In this case, however, every epic-length track is meticulously crafted from beginning to end. It’s going to be a very interesting sound palette to hear live.

Jan. 29th: Amnesia Scanner, Sherwood & Pinch at Berghain/Panorama Bar 

MS: A lot of people don’t realize the way that dub music is embedded so deeply in almost everything we listen to. Dub engineering is established technology and approaches music in a way that makes you think about sound and how it changes in a way unlike many other electronic music technologies. It’s about the physical presence of bass, but also the untuning of original compositions into something completely unique. By melding of grime and industrial, Adrian Sherwood rethought the whole approach to experimental palettes. Pinch has advanced those sounds himself; he’s one of the forces that crafted the sound that would eventually become dubstep. Looking over the last 10 years, it’s obvious that this sound has changed the way we listen to and perceive rhythms in electronic music. It’s very exciting to have their new project premiered in Germany for CTM. I’d say it’s essential.

Also playing that night on the main Berghain floor is Amnesia Scanner. They take the aesthetic of this newer generation of futuristic, hyper-real grime and combine that with a quite radical artistic approach. Amnesia Scanner, to me, sounds like what would happen if Mark Fell did grime tunes. They don’t work with pleasant sounds.

Jan. 30th: Senyawa at HAU2

MSSenyawa is an Indonesian duo that we’ve brought to Berlin before, but it was very important for us to feature them as part of CTM as well. The band is highly experimental, and it involves very traditional Javanese music. From the vocals to the primitive instruments used in strange and modern ways, it fits the Un Tune theme on every level. It’s avant-garde and stays true to a certain cultural heritage of their environment.

Jan. 30th: Atom TM and Robin Fox at Haus der Kulturen der Welt

MSAtom TM is a great friend of the festival and has been featured multiple times, but that’s because he’s such an amazing artist. He never stops. If you look at his works, from the ’90s drone stuff he made as Atom Heart to his big-band electrolatina music as Señor Coconut, he always approaches sounds with a very radical outlook. Together with Robin Fox, he’s presenting a sort of multi-sensory overload implementing laser, video projections, and other A/V phenomena. It’s serious, but also tongue-in-cheek. Atom TM always brings a certain kind of smart silliness to his work, which I very much appreciate.

Jan. 30th: Aleksi Perala at Berghain

MS: That same night we also have a performance at Berghain from Finland’s Aleksi Perala called Colundi Sequence. He’s known more for his IDM work, but he’s also a highly experimental conceptual artist. Basically, he came up with a completely new musical scale where instead of dividing a keyboard into octaves with semi-tones, he found 128 resonate frequencies through experimentation in trying to find a certain human bio-resonance. It’s a quite complicated concept detailing exactly how they found those frequencies and put that in to music. It’s going to be a six-channel performance on the Berghain sound system. This is the performance that makes all of us drool. It’s a curator’s dream come true.

Another aspect of this night that shouldn’t be missed is our traditional Panorama Bar blowout. As I mentioned, though the festival is about challenging your perceptions of music, it’s also about having a really good time. Knowing that Joe Goddard from Hot Chip and Totally Enormous Extinct Dinosaurs are playing, you can rest assured you’ll be dancing for ages. Last year, we closed the Panorama party at 4 p.m. the following day.

Jan. 31st: Jenny Hval & Susanna at HAU 

MSJenny Hval & Susanna’s Meshes of Voice was one of my favorite albums of 2014. It reminds me of Laurie Anderson, or Bjórk, but much more serious and much more mystical. This is the kind of concert I would take my mom to.

Jan. 31st: Yung Lean & Sad Boys, 18+, Born In Flamez at YAAM

MS: The entire lineup here is unmissable. It’s all music where you understand where it comes from and what its reference points are, but it doesn’t sound like what you would expect of harmonies. It questions a lot of what’s thought to be acceptable in specific genres. I like what an eclectic combination this lineup is. In the main room, Egyptian street DJ Islam Chipsy plays right before Yung Lean, a white guy from Scandinavia who crafted his own take on American hip-hop. It’s not just a switch in sound, but in cultural reference.

Feb. 1st: Emptyset at HAU

MS: One of the absolute most important projects at the festival is Emptyset‘s performance Signal. It’s a very complex performance based around the Earth’s ionosphere—radio signals being thrown into the atmosphere, reflected, caught and used as an analog signal chain. You won’t see anything like it anywhere else.

Feb. 1st: Carter Tutti Void at Astra

MS: It’s Carter Tutti Void. What should I say? It’s the best of all worlds.

Cosey Fanni Tutti, one-half of Carter Tutti Void, starred in a recent ABC column for Electronic Beats Magazine. To read our review of Atonal, another long-standing experimental music and arts festival in Berlin, click here.

Published January 21, 2015. Words by Daniel Jones.