Thunder, lightning, a brick in the face – Berlin Atonal 2014 reviewed

It’s the opening night of Berlin Atonal and I’m riding the U-Bahn. A pair of weathered violinists perform Aqua’s timeless classic “Barbie Girl” to a carriage of captive commuters, which gets me thinking about the avant-garde and Berlin. For a city so often associated with the cutting edge, it’s ironic that much of Berlin’s electronic music scene is powered by deeply ingrained strains of musical conservatism. So when a festival like Atonal comes along courting an “experimental and uncompromising spirit”, you’ve got to wonder how far they’re going to go and what they think those terms entail. Scanning the four-day program it seemed that dark droning techno variants, tempered with a smattering of British industrial clang and a dash of continental avant-gardisms, constitutes experimental in 2014. Whether you agree is up to you, but last week Berlin Atonal had the floor.

The opening night featured performances of two Steve Reich pieces, namely the ubiquitous Drumming and Music for 18 Musicians. I was wondering what new light could be shed on Reich’s ossified yet doggedly relevant compositions. Atonal’s trump card took care of that; the gargantuan Kraftwerk power plant does things to music you can’t experience anywhere else. To put it into rough perspective you could probably fit a cargo ship in there, or maybe ten Berghains. It was the unavoidable narrative of the week. You couldn’t talk about the music without the space dominating the conversation, such was the extent that it colored the experience.

The building’s decades-long reverb made for a volatile atmosphere of psychoacoustic microclimates. Different angles of auditory perception were on offer to those willing to wander. Younger attendees lay stretched out on the floor pondering the yawning space above, while festival volunteers were beset by older visitors complaining about the lack of seating, (a couple of days later one savvy patron took the festival by storm, erecting a hammock between two pillars and floating in luxury). Meanwhile, the percussive attack of Drumming was dulled into an oozing system of percolating clouds that searched out the building’s far flung extremities. The Reich pieces worked where others failed in that they allowed the echo of the power plant to dominate the music, rather than trying to overpower it with brute force. To make the space speak the conversation had to run both ways.

Thursday marked an early high point of the festival with Sendai getting the Kraftwerk singing in ways no one else quite matched. Peter Van Hoesen and Yves de May have some pretty serious techno pedigree and they didn’t spend more than a minute messing around sans bass. As he’s mentioned in the past, Van Hoesen isn’t a big fan of elaborate lighting so the duo performed in near darkness for the duration of their set. Imagine atoms of Sandwell District and Raster Noton colliding and fusing in a power station and you’ll get some idea of the sounds on offer. Some of their finest moments came in the middle of their set as they shifted into odd metric territory. Getting away from 4/4 allowed their brilliant sound design new spaces to shimmer and burn. It made me think what a shame it is that Westerners turn to stone as soon as someone beats out some unquantised 13/8. Asian, African and Middle Eastern cultures have been dancing to irregular pulses since music documentation began, yet veering away from rhythmic consistency remains a risky tactic for us funkless Westerners, even in musically openminded contexts like Atonal.

Following on from Sendai, I was pretty hyped to see what Milton Bradley had in store for his live A/V set. Billed as The End Of All Existence, Bradley was accompanied by a screen that panned slowly through black and white images of post-apocalyptic urban dreadscapes, reminding us how static the network of visual associations orbiting techno has been over the past twenty-five-odd years. At this point in time getting something fresh out of such a juxtaposition is a bit like drawing blood from a stone. In contrast, Abdulla Rashim’s A/V performance on Friday was daringly subtle. Rashim was one of the only artists to use bass sparingly, allowing the intricacies of his precisely layered mid-range to blur into the hall’s dubby ambience. When the bass eventually reared its ignoble head I’d forgotten it was even gone, so the effect was fresh and potent. Rashim gestures toward possibilities still untouched in techno as we know it, raising the idea that there’s still more to hear in this well worn sound.

Having said that, after watching Donato Dozzy and Nuel take the stage in Rashim’s wake, it was evident how little has changed in ambient techno in the six years since their Aquaplano project laid the blueprint. Their three dimensional style inspired a subsect of horizontally minded producers who adopted their template without advancing much past the initial mission statement, mainly because most imitators lacked the animate emotional core that made the Aquaplano material so resonant. Their set was liquid and underpinned by a real sonic force that filled the cavities of the power plant with a throbbing aural weight, as if the air had gained mass and density. By this stage of the festival it was clear that one of the underlying tensions facing these artists is how to reconcile textural stasis with rhythmic movement. We’d either hear slowly evolving drones or be thrown headlong into propulsive forward movement, with not a lot in between. Dozzy and Nuel managed to navigate through this binary, finding that sweet middle ground where timbre, harmony and rhythm blend into a musical unity.

The main event for Saturday was Richard H. Kirk performing as Cabaret Voltaire. Billed as a “no nostalgia” set, the most immediately confronting aspect of Kirk’s music was its sheer volume. His vocal cut-ups rang out of the system to wreak havoc on your cochlea, while the triple-screened visual accompaniment layered VHS footage of various low points in human history. Kirk’s set sounded right at home in the Kraftwerk—his connection to the spirit of the original Atonal was particularly poignant as he blasted past the furrowed-brow meanderings of ambient techno, making it sound positively dainty in comparison. His set was a militaristic pastiche of genre detritus, performed with a gleeful and wilful disregard of the conventions which kept other festival artists from really exploding. Kirk used sudden stuttering silence in an effective way which revealed the true extent of the room’s reverb; those moments of jarring stillness revealed the thick ambience constantly hanging in the space.

Kirk’s set begged the question: what will he do with this music? Is it being released in the form we heard at Atonal? Of course the ball is in his court, but judging from the size of the crowd there’s probably at least a hundred labels that would kill to put it out right now. Maybe the experience was greater for being a one-off, but there was an air of importance around this work that felt vital. The sense of freedom his music exuded threw the conservatism of much experimental music into stark relief.

I’m not sure how he felt, but if I were Fis standing in the wings waiting to follow up Mr Kirk I would be freaking. Last time I saw Oliver Peryman play the promoter asked him to change the music during his set; now, less than a year later, he is following up the triumphant re-emergence of a veteran at a major festival. It’s great to see him be plucked to close out events of this type so early on in his career, especially after being initially misinterpreted as a drum’n’bass producer. His set featured the nuanced dynamics and crushing claustrophobia of his best work and marked him out as an artist to watch.

While the sound in Kraftwerk was akin to thunder and lightning, the afterhours events downstairs in Tresor came across like a brick in the face. A constant flow of people stumbled in to see sets from the likes of Powell and Sigha, but many squeezed straight back out after five seconds of constant smoke, high speed strobing and a bludgeoning mid range. It’s a context determined to singe off your nerve endings and turn you into a hollow straw shell.

A similarly malignant atmosphere came to the power plant on Sunday, especially during the debut appearance of UF, a new collaboration between Samuel Kerridge and Oake. Needless to say, it was a match made in hell. Visualise a gigantic Victorian-era steam engine blasting out of the industrial epoch to crush our shiny, torpid future—hulking rotors, churning gears, rusted steel, all delivered with a live visceral energy that set their performance apart from some of their more reserved contemporaries. More predictable but no less satisfying was Tim Hecker. He’s played about a billion of these festival slots, and his powers haven’t shown any sign of diminishing for the past few years now.

Most people who talk trash on drum’n’bass haven’t heard much Source Direct. Jim Baker closed out the festival by showing how fresh and relevant his music remains today. There’s a virtuosic exuberance and personality to it that’s genuinely thrilling and freewheeling. His set was a fitting end to a festival that was at its best when artists rendered phrases like “experimental” into the amorphous by-lines they really are. We learnt that while this distinct world of music has its own clear and rigidly defined set of conventions, there will always be artists who smash out of the grid. The power of their own story is too great to contain, and it’s a good thing that Atonal gives them such a spectacular platform from which to shine. ~

To read more Berlin Atonal content, including an interview with founder Dimitri Hegemann, go here.

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Dimitri Hegemann Explains The Legacy Of Berlin Atonal Festival

atonal 1983


In the early ’80s, venues in West Berlin were getting infected with strange sounds that I’d never heard before. Musicians generated all kinds of noise from scrap yard junk and untuned guitars—a lot of them probably couldn’t have played guitar anyway, at least not in a classical sense. At first these aural experiences shocked me, they broke through my aural comfort zone, but that’s exactly what defined this kind of music. These new forms magically drew me in. Noise had suddenly become music.

I was rapt by the idea of bringing this new, independent Berlin scene together on stage and in a concentrated form. The “Große Untergangsshow” (“the grand apocalyse show”) in Tempodrom in 1981 labeled these bands as “Geniale Dilletanten” (“ingenious amateurs”) and included such avant-garde artists as Einstürzende Neubauten, Die Haut (“the skin”) Sprung aus den Wolken (“leap from the clouds”), Malaria!, Didaktische Einheit (“didactic unity”), Notorische Reflexe (“notorious reflexes”) and many others. The press described the brutal noise-sounds emitted by these bands as the “Berlin illness” (“Berliner Krankheit”). Despite many a serendipitous experiment, it was actually a pretty grim time. Nobody had any money, nobody felt that the future was bright.

This Berlin illness formed the polar opposite of what was going on in the mainstream at that time, which was stuff like Abba and pop music like Neue Deutsche Welle or New Wave. There was a need to separate from the rock scene and from the sterile artistic endeavors of the academic music scene of Neue Musik. From the spirit of the punk movement grew new scenes like industrial or no wave, which became intensified around places like New York, Sheffield, Hackney and West Berlin.

With financial support from the Berliner Rocksenat we got to produce a program magazine called Die Atonale Inneneinrichtung (“the atonal interior design”), documenting our lives in West Berlin back then, including photos of Einstürzende Neubauten storing their tapes in the fridge, or how Kiddy was living in a tent in some attic. The first Atonal took place at the end of 1982 over a couple of days in the iconic SO36 venue. Groups were working with different elements, media and formats that hadn’t worked their way into music yet: 8mm projections, abstract sounds, field recordings and soundscapes with new instruments. Neubauten worked with sonic objects from the scrap yard, as well as a flex, a hand drill and a jackhammer that accidentally went out of control backstage. Sprung aus den Wolken staged body paintings and daubed a massive screen while they played. There was some pretty precarious work done on ladders, too. It was chaos research. Notorische Reflexe wore white overalls and projected pictures of demonstrations and police violence onto their bodies. It was like a thrilling theatre program, you’d stand in front of the stage and let yourself be fascinated, challenged and unhinged.

The festival didn’t just push mental boundaries, it pushed physical boundaries as well. It ran non-stop from the first day to the last. I didn’t go home, I just stayed for the whole thing and slept there. It was research into how far you could go—your brain would get totally fried.

It was John Peel who was partly responsible for the festival’s success, he talked about Atonal on his radio show for weeks. Yet on the financial side, the festival completely ruined me. I was already broke beforehand and afterwards I had a lot more debts! If you think now about how we ran things back then, everything was hand to mouth. While we didn’t have a clue we did have passion. Over the years, the festival grew way beyond the borders of Berlin. While the first Atonal was focused on homegrown groups, the following events featured more and more important international acts like Psychic TV, Laibach or Test Department and as the audience grew, the venues got bigger. Atonal became a core element in the new movement and grew to become an important factor in the music landscape.

The end of the eighties saw the dawning of a new epoch. I got to know Sheffield group Clock DVA and signed them to my label Interfisch. Not long afterwards I was in Chicago, hanging out with Jim Nash who owned Wax Trax and flipping through demo tapes, when I stumbled across a band called Final Cut. The guys behind this were Tony Srock and a certain Jeff Mills from Detroit. There was a 313 number on the white label, so I called it straight away and said, “I’d really like to put you out in Germany”. I remember how difficult it was to get their record, Deep Into the Cut, into circulation—nobody was interested in it. These industrial beats and heavy-machinery sounds were the beginning of something new and were still a bit rough. At the same time, I had just released Clock DVA’s album Buried Dreams on my label and I still see Final Cut and Clock DVA as being bridges between the old and new scenes. Techno evolved from Deep Into the Cut and Buried Dreams, the logical development into the next chapter.

The fifth Atonal was held in Künstlerhaus Bethanien in March 1990, just after the Wall had come down. It was the beginning of a new scene, shaped by the boundless euphoria and the anarchy of a city on which the authorities had turned their backs for a brief, spectacular period of time. If you see Atonal as being a theatre stage in the eighties, it was the audiences who became the star in the nineties. Suddenly the beat took the foreground, Final Cut with drum machines, Clock DVA with the early Apple 2000. People wanted to dance and in West Berlin nobody danced, after a concert people used to leave the hall. This new way of listening created a new physicality. A new era began with DJ culture and mega parties. The effort and expense of a traditional festival could not compete with the anarchistic and partly illegal activities and locations that offered completely different event and business opportunities: it was a new job to do with completely new challenges. The nineties could begin—and we were well prepared. Atonal, on the other hand, didn’t reflect the times. It was time for a break.

Twenty-five years later, our own success has overhauled us. Techno is played everywhere—from department stores to hairdressers, cafes to clubs—and not just in Berlin. Techno has become pop. This has caused a longing to bring the spirit of the Atonal festival back to life and the need to inject radical experiments back into electronic music. In 2013 we presented over forty artists, including Jon Hassell, Glenn Branca, Moritz von Oswald, Juan Atkins, Murcof and many others. This year we’re happy to present a 4-D sound installation and excellent acts like Ensemble Modern and Cabaret Voltaire and a whole lot of innovative experimental types like Donato Dozzy, Bioshere, Monton, TV Victor or Tim Hecker. ~

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Berlin Atonal’s New Curators On What To Expect From The Revamped Festival

Harry Glass: With Cabaret Voltaire, it’s hard to say what to expect. In this long process of working towards this show, I get the sense that it’s as important for Richard H. Kirk as it is for us. He is taking it very seriously; this is clearly a big deal to him. Every logistical and creative point was labored over, but all we can do is try and create the best possible setting for him to be able to express himself in whatever way that he choses.

Laurens von Oswald: Cabaret Voltaire in its various stages have highly influenced what we do for the festival as a whole. We’ve all heard Richard H. Kirk’s solo work. It’s different, but it’s got the same sort of edge. I think he’s changed a lot as a person. The show that he’ll be doing is audiovisual. It’s going to be exciting to see how Cabaret Voltaire translates to the current climate. He’s made it clear that it’s not going to be nostalgic, that it isn’t going to be a greatest hit concert or anything you might expect. It will be something different.

HG: For the opening concert, Ensemble Modern will perform Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians. Ensemble Modern is the ensemble that recorded this specific piece of music for RCA in the nineties. They’re performing with a team of vocalists from London. For them it’s an historic production—they’re taking the music very seriously. They’re doing it especially for the space and have been sending their sound guys months in advance to check it out. The opening concert will also have a couple of other interesting performances: Konrad Becker/Monoton, who released an album in 1982 that was described by The Wire as one of the most important electronic albums of all time, has agreed to develop a completely new performance based around this album. It’s the first time he’s ever done that and he’ll be debuting it in the opening concert. John Elliott, the boss of Spectrum Spools, one third of Emeralds and one half of Outer Space, is also coming and he’s prepared a special performance for this occasion. It’s been easy to convince them both because they’re both big fans of 18 Musicians. Both described it as some of the most influential music of their life. In fact, it’s interesting how many of the artists that on the surface have nothing to do with New Music—minimalist music—have claimed that it’s one of the most important pieces of music for them.

LvO: That specific piece is usually performed in a a very institutional context: classic theaters, operas, concert houses. I think that’s why it’s exciting for them as well—they get the opportunity to do it for a completely different audience, in a completely different surrounding. On the flipside, for us it’s also important that the other music which might not be well known to the world of the philharmonics gets re-contextualized also. It will be a different audience for both when John Elliot plays alongside Ensemble Modern performing Music for 18 Musicians.

When you take a look at the program, it’s very diverse. There’s a lot of special performances that have a nod backwards but are also very clearly looking forward. The diversity comes also from the way it’s programmed: we have the stage, the afterparties, different contexts all throughout as well as showcases like the VUP Lounge. We have people doing something unusual, in a context that isn’t common in the landscape of music festivals or the Berlin club scene as we know it. Part of our experience is convincing people to do something that they wouldn’t normally do. For them, it is an opportunity to do something different.

HG: We have people that have had no releases like Bleed Turquoise performing next to someone like Cabaret Voltaire, whose catalog of releases you couldn’t fit in one room. But that’s not an agenda or a political statement; we were lead by what we thought fit together. These pairings happen naturally. The fact that we can all have it in one space, in one home, is another reason why we do what we do.

LvO: It’s important that people see it as an experience. We give them a place to consume and to digest the whole experience: music, workshops, film screenings, installations–and food, so there is really no need to leave the premises.

HG: That’s all the virtue of having a single home. You don’t have to be checking your phone for the train schedules to make sure you don’t miss the next act. For the whole five days you know where to go when you’re at Atonal.

LvO: The venue, the context in which the festival is staged in, is a big part of the whole concept. The club program at OHM and Tresor is an integral part of it because it’s another opportunity to showcase music in a context that’s different to the stage. It’s all part of this greater constellation and there are people who will come to this festival just for that. For us, OHM is almost an extension of this garden—this idea of a kind of homey feeling. Last year someone said that every good party ends in the kitchen – for us, that’s OHM and it’s what Atonal is about.

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