Notes From Techno Boulevard: Club To Club Festival Reviewed

“A life without a story is a denarrated life,” wrote acclaimed art curator and threetime EB conversation partner Hans Ulrich Obrist in his new book The Age of Earthquakes: A Guide to the Extreme Present. “For instance, your perceived life shrinks when it becomes over-efficient from multitasking and not enough down-gaps are left between specific experiences.”

Somehow, the passage popped into my head as I entered the Conservatorio Giuseppe Verdi in Piazza Bodoni on November 4 to see Apparat open the 15th edition of Club to Club, Italy’s biggest electronic festival. As in previous years, Electronic Beats hosted a series of panels at the AC Torino Hotel, which was C2C’s central meeting place and headquarters. The building that houses the Conservatorio Giuseppe Verdi was established in 1928 and is one of Turin’s most impressive concert halls. It turned out to be the perfect stage for Apparat’s new live show, Soundtracks. The show was sold out to the last seat, and the endless queue was a visible testimony to the band’s reputation in Italy. Soundtracks delivered an impressive run-through of Apparat’s band’s recent film and theater scores. Their live set-up included the participation of its longtime collaborators Transforma, a Berlin-based art group that focuses on experimental live video performances, and the seductive imagery they projected on the screen behind the musicians was worth the ticket price in and of itself.

Piazza Bodini is also a facet of “A Great Symphony for Torino,” a project that united 15 different venues around the city to form one symphonic endeavor curated by Hyperdub boss Kode9  (AKA Steve Goodman). He commissioned separate pieces to students from IED in Milan and artists such as Dave Saved, Vaghe Stelle and Scratcha DVA and gave them one guiding rule: the sound they used had to be site-specific. In other words, Kode9 asked the participating artists to contribute music concrète.

Later that week, Kode9 discussed “A Great Symphony” at a panel held by Giorgio Valletta. “I wished we had had the means to record all the conversations people were having using their smartphones on the various locations,” said Goodman. His own contribution to the symphony was performed at the outstandingly beautiful supermarket located in Turin’s Piazza Madama Cristina market and featured processed original noises and distant voices recorded there. “There were issues of data privacy that forbid us to push concrète music to an entirely new level by wiretapping and eventually including snippets of private conversations,” he explained. The other compositions, where were mostly helmed by emerging Italian New Wave artists, are listed here.

One of the reasons why I personally love Club to Club is that its well-balanced lineup allows visitors to breathe between concerts and to thus to have enough “down-gaps between specific experiences,” as Obrist put it. In Turin, this means enjoying world-famous Piemont cuisine with home-made pasta, black truffles, porcini mushrooms and a wide range of Barolo wines. The city’s affordable trattorias and restaurants were fully booked as festival-goers and attendees of the city’s annual Artissima art fair spent every free minute enjoying great dining experiences—and using these gatherings to talk and discuss the concerts, panels and many gallery shows in the city that week.

On Thursday night, Eglo Records co-captain and recent EB interviewee Floating Points played a highly-anticipated show at the most beautiful baroque concert hall in Turin, the Teatro Carignano. He had piqued interest by announcing an exclusive performance with a new lineup that incorporated classically trained musicians on violins, cello, trombone and flute. But what disappointment that hyped-up event turned out to be! Perhaps it’s cruel to say that Floating Points and his ensemble were the materialization of hubris—but it felt true. They were the prime example of how an esteemed improvisational electronic group should not attempt to decorate itself with generic elements of classical music.

So the best was still yet to come. Lingotto Fiere, a huge trade fair hall with enough space for thousands of spectators, provided the stage for an impressive line-up of acts, including Thom Yorke, Battles, Carter Tutti Void, Holly Herndon, EB magazine cover star Jamie XX, Four Tet and Italian experimental darling Lorenzo Senni. A second stage was set up for DJs in the somewhat distant Sala Gialla, and to get there one had to walk an endless corridor with a parquet floor connecting the two venues. Hundreds of festivalgoers strolled to and fro, talking to and recognizing each other, and before long, the corridor was nicknamed the Techno Boulevard. “Let’s meet on the Techno Boulevard” became the phrase of the weekend.

The "Techno Boulevard" at Club To Club.
The “Techno Boulevard” at Club To Club. Photo by  Matteo Bosonetto.

The most discussed set of the evening came from Thom Yorke, who played quite a haunting half programmed, half improvised concert with a trio. It was playful and intense; the music and the stunning video show that accompanied it were pure aesthetic expression. No politics, no questions, no reflection—just pure beauty set to a sonic backdrop of pumping techno pop. Yorke repeated the most generic Italian tourist phrases over and over in between songs as a bizarre joke: “Ciao ragazzi,” “Buona sera a tutti,” “Grazie mille!” He could have—or perhaps should have—extended his list of lost in translations shouting “Gelato tutti frutti” or “O sole mio.” Or maybe not.

It was there that word spread about which performances were good and which weren’t; Omar Souleyman was mind-blowing to some in its deadpan delivery and others were slightly disappointed by Four Tet’s saccharine set. The traffic on the passageway increased again, thus creating a real space of encounters and conversations in flux. Sergio Ricciardone, the festival’s busy director, later announced that next year, the long corridor would be officially named Techno Boulevard.

The absolute highlight of the festival came from Slices subject Nicolas Jaar on Saturday night. Minutes seemed to last forever as Jaar built up beatless musical tension and meandered through digital improvisations only to then overwhelm the audience with the deepest and most driving basslines imaginable. The audience went beserk, and so did I.

And then I left.

Nicolas Jar Club To Club - Matteo Bosonetto
Nicolas Jaar at Club To Club. Photo by Matteo Bosonetto.

In the Lingotto November fog at 3:30 a.m. on Sunday morning, I left behind the distant sound of Jeff Mills kicking out the jams in front of a mesmerized crowd of 6,000 people who refused to leave early. I keep with me the enlightenment that it sometimes only takes a gathering place—in this case Techno Boulevard—to amalgamate everything and to allow the concert-goers to slow down for a moment. These pauses and spaces eventually lead to precious memories.

Cover photo of Thom Yorke by Andrea Macchia.

Continue Reading

Budapest’s UH Festival Takes You Off the Grid

UH Fest is one of the only opportunities to see obscure underground electronic music in Budapest. There are a few gigs here and there throughout the year, and Ultrahang (UH) itself was inspired by now-defunct Hungarian festivals from the ’90s and early 2000s like HungaroCarrot, the Nagy Fül Fesztivál and Szünetjel. But UH is the city’s only institution that reliably caters to a specific culture that’s hard to describe without deploying hackneyed adjectives like “avant-garde” and “experimental.” UH and some of its fellow members in International Cities of Advanced Sound (ICAS), a network of likeminded festivals in Europe and the Americas, often use the word “adventurous” to characterize their range of musical interests, which trace a lineage from academic contemporary classical and/or electronic composition to odd club sounds. Compared to bigger ICAS projects like Unsound in Krakow and Berlin’s CTM, UH is smaller, focuses solely on music and music-as-art rather than interdisciplinary arts, and it pays special attention to local talent and audiences rather than courting international renown.

The general layout of a day at UH involves one or two daytime events, typically a master class or lecture with a respected figure in the experimental underground, followed by a seated concert in the early evening and another show at night. Early in the week, the day and nighttime programming were quite similar, so on Tuesday a chat with cult icon and Dubplates & Mastering engineer Rashad Becker preceded a computer music concert at the gay club Capella. On Wednesday spectralist composer Iancu Dumitrescu hosted a master class at the Budapest Jazz Club before EB’s former Eastern Haze columnist Lucia Udvardyova conducted a conversation with Morphine label boss Rabih Beaini at Gödör (G3), a space tucked into an indoor mall on the bustling street Királyi Utca that also hosted the later performances.

For me, that Wednesday night lineup was the most obscure, as I recognized exactly none of the names on the bill: Baráth Bálint and Nagy Ákos, Floris Vanhoof and Karen Casemans, (co-founder of the aforementioned Szünetjel festival) Zsolt Sőrés, Tim Hodgkinson, Christian Kobi and Goodiepal. Yet it was also the dark horse winner of the week, thanks in no small part to Goodiepal, an eccentric musician and former professor known for his inexplicable advertisements in The Wire and his charmingly insane lectures.

Although it might ruin my credibility to admit that I didn’t know about Goodiepal prior to his appearance at UH, I need to concede it in order to describe how confused I was. I came in from a smoke break about five minutes after he started, so I missed his introduction and spent 15 minutes wondering if a random guy had been drafted to fill in for someone who had cancelled at the last minute. He literally just played tracks off YouTube—some modular synth noodles, his own one-channel MIDI compositions and some Drake instrumentals, all of which you can find in a playlist here and below—and filtered them on a modular synth rack. In between or during the songs he told goofy stories, made fun of the previous performers and complained about messy workstations in what amounted to stand-up comedy for synth nerds. “Imagine if I had brought visuals with me,” he intoned into the microphone as he queued up another song on YouTube. “How lame that would be.”

The club nights started on Thursday at Lärm, Budapest’s only techno club as such. There are other spaces in town that host club nights, like Capella, which from what I can tell is more defined by the sexual culture it harbors than the music it books. Toldi screens movies as a cinema and occasionally the Lärm founders host parties in its lobby. Then there are the famous ruin pubs, which became popular over the last decade and attract hordes of superdrunk travelers who puke all over the streets every single night. But unlike other local venues, Lärm is first and foremost an electronic music nightclub. It’s a two-room, 250-capacity space with black walls located behind and above a popular ruin bar, so a lot of attendees that night had wandered in from downstairs and weren’t familiar with the performers, Rabih Beaini, We Will Fail and Helena Hauff. Their presence seemed to bother the locals I talked to, who throughout my visit lamented Budapest’s weak club scene and touristy bar nightlife. But I didn’t mind because I think the club would have been stuffier and emptier without the hoi polloi.

Most of them seemed pretty confused by We Will Fail, and they stood around awkwardly shifting weight from foot to foot during her downtempo set. But they could get down with Hauff, who did her thing: she played a gritty, punk-spirited selection of acid, techno, electro, EBM and industrial. Banging techno went over well with the stomping and fist-pumping crowd, but she lost a few bodies when she delved into segments of electro and industrial. As the dance floor cleared a bit towards 2 a.m., I noticed a guy crane his neck to look up at the booth, where Helena’s not-quite-bob haircut was silhouetted against bright backlights as she jerked her neck in time to the beat. Then he turned to his friend and, in an American accent and earnestly contemplative tone, as if he was commenting on the surprisingly fleshlike flavor of a soy burger, said, “Dude, the DJ is a girl! I’m so impressed.”

We Will Fail at Lärm. Photo by Csatári Gergely.

IMO the best DJs at UH were women. Borusiade, a Romanian based in Berlin who helmed an incredible mix for us, followed fellow SHAPE program member DJ Nigga Fox at the main UH club night on Saturday. Every track Borusiade played was sick, from some wavier vibes in the beginning to one of Randomer’s LIES records and beyond. Unfortunately, by the time she started at 5 a.m., few people were there to see it, and there are several reasons for that. Firstly, a lot of people were tuckered out from the show at Trafó directly before the club night, which Dean Blunt headlined. I don’t speak for the whole EB staff when I say that I think he was the least interesting artist on the 2015 lineup, and clearly I’m in the minority here because about 400 people showed up to see him, while most UH events attracted between 50 and 100 bodies (notwithstanding body count boosts at Lärm from the ruin pub downstairs). Second, because G3 is hidden in a mall instead of installed above a well-known hangout, no one wandered in looking for a party they way they would at Lärm. Finally, UH had to compete with Lärm’s concurrent party starring trendy Sex Tags label boss DJ Fett Burger.

So although the touristiness of the local scene can grate on the club/experimental music heads, it doesn’t seem like there are enough experimental music heads in Hungary to really pack a club, even when the music is as spectacular as it was at UH. But there does seem to be a wealth of talent in Budapest making interesting music for clubs and beyond, especially for a city with little infrastructure to support it outside of this eight-day festival. Still, UH did its best to support them: the founders of the lo-fi house-oriented label Farbwechsel, which is so far Hungary’s most successful international clubbing export, headlined Friday night at Toldi as SILF (AKA S. Olbricht and Alpár). Events throughout the week showcased out-there musicians like Nagy Gergő, Omymax and Zsolt Sőrés, and on Sunday the festival closed with an exhibition devoted entirely to local musicians who had yet to play on a public stage.

While other ICAS festivals court international audiences and year-round attention, UH has focused on its hometown, country and region. As a result, its programming is more obscure and it’s not a destination for people who work in the industry to meet up, network or party, although its lineup is similar to and in some senses stronger than other likeminded events. Save for perhaps some Slovakian and Hungarian free-improv-noise-jazz heads, no one experiences FOMO when they can’t make it to UH. And that’s because they don’t know what they’re missing.

Buy tickets to Electronic Beats’ forthcoming festival in Budapest here. Cover photo of Helena Hauff at UH Fest by Csatári Gergely.

Continue Reading

Can A Festival Save A City? Pop-Kultur Reviewed

What’s musical soul? How does it relate to the soul of a city? I don’t know. But many of the acts performing in the Pop-Kultur Festival, a three day-into-night Berghain-based event funded by Musicboard, Berlin’s government liaison to the music industry, appeared to be yearning for it. Festival attendees had the privilege of watching numerous current-ish acts rouse a sense of emotion from the last several decades, and it felt like a soul-futurist response to a discontent with The Now.

During his schoolmarmish set, clever-clever sample-fiend Matthew Herbert attempted to stir the dying hopes of the early eighties, with singers garbed and emoting out of an uncanny 1981 Talking Heads-meets-Grace Jones fever dream. Ebony Bones fronted a London R&B review, though her all-over-the-place sound and camp touches—including backing dancers with fake afros abstracted into face-obscuring mums in bloom—felt closer to the house-loving punk of Detroit’s The Dirtbombs than Motown. Neneh Cherry, the festival’s most notable act, has been on the comeback trail, and despite attempts to update her sound, was very much the Neneh Cherry we remember from the turn of the ’90s. Current DFA flagship The Juan MacLean, on the other hand, boasted a multi-gendered take on several decades of NYC style that managed to successfully absorb all of the influences of the previously mentioned acts.

It fit Berlin to a T, as the city struggles to find—or at least market—its cultural soul. Indeed, paranoia has permeated the Berlin music scene and its helplessness in the face of encroaching neoliberal economic trends. Mark its origins around the time that Neukölln tenements started selling for more money than Croatian beachfront property. The back and forth of the discussion surrounding culture in Berlin is more a reflection of the usual ideological ping-pong than an attempt to ascertain what the issue is—and more importantly, whether there really is an issue. Clubs are closing, but aren’t new ones opening? The players are penniless, but aren’t musicians usually broke? There’s nothing new. Where in this Internet-razed world is the new? Berlin has a lot of problems, but it wouldn’t appear that a lack of music would be one of them, as it’s managed to maintain the strongest nightlife scene of any major city. Ultimately, those ping-pong players may, as with the tennis match at the end of Antonioni’s Blow Up, be mimes.

Still, who might resist The Shout of the Mime? Berlin likes government-based solutions, and I can’t blame it, as that, pax Sutton’s Law, is where the money is. Previous attempts at state funded music festivals failed to inspire: Popkomm, the city’s former pop music trade show, had the misfortune of moving from Cologne to Berlin during the acceleration of the music industry’s decline—but at least visitors got to hang out at a Nazi-built airport. Its replacement from 2010 to 2014 was Berlin Music Week, an amorphous, multi-venued polyglot of panels and minor bands that pleased no one. (One major player in Pop-Kultur expressed a pleasure in having had a small hand in killing it.) Of course, Berlin’s lack of financial opportunity is the major push-me-pull-you of its internal culture: Where there’s no money, nothing can thrive. When there is money, the city gets sold out from under you . . . and nothing can thrive.

Enter into this paradox a 660,000€ festival funded by both the city and the E.U., featuring performances, seminars for aspiring musicians and music journalists, and DJ gigs. The idea of Pop-Kultur was to serve as a bridge between official and underground culture, at least in part to save the one and bolster the other. But can a festival really help save a city? To a hammer—or a promoter—everything looks like a nail —or a concert. A successful festival only perpetuates itself, and success is gauged by the enjoyment and financial success of the experience and not its long-term effects. That may be why so many of these performers had little to do with Berlin in particular. And there’s the rub of the Musicboard endeavor: If the government’s money were to be put to use in ways that would benefit and expand Berlin’s musical environment, it could perhaps end up at odds with the Senate’s ultimate goal of selling the city. Here’s where the fears of selling out and selling off become real.

What about matching the money spent on such an ambitious festival with money for top-flight tenant attorneys, zoning lobbyists and tax accounts who would work to ensure that Berlin’s venues had a fighting chance against developers, interlopers and their own financial stupidities? I suspect that would stymie the government’s primary concern, which is a palliative that would stop all the bitching while using the “hip” image of Berlin to attract the investors who would, in the end, raze Berghain if they could. Or they would keep Berghain (by now a considerable and still excellent institution, but one that doesn’t need the federal swag) as a jewel in the crown while starving the players beneath, much as the hated Mayor Giuliani attempted to do to the culture makers of New York City during the 1990’s? Pop-Kultur doesn’t do a whit to prevent the modes of gentrification that are Berlin’s paramount problem, but I suppose that can’t really be its intention.


Pantha Du Prince feat. The Triad

So what did we get? A festival in which the Pop justified and was justified by the Kultur. Berghain has rarely witnessed so many trombones. There appeared to be a break between two generations. Slightly older acts equated ambition with size. Aside from the aforementioned Herbert performance, CocoRosie’s Bianca Cassidy reinforced the sentimental aspects of the fifties beatnik tradition with her current Tom Waits meets Lykke Li act, while Pantha Du Prince debuted music developed during Musicboard retreats. His triad looked like The Nairobi Trio as reimagined by I-D Magazine. If you believe bigger equals better, then Owen Pallett’s semi-orchestral collaboration with Stargaze was probably the most successful example.

And then there were younger acts, raised with fewer resources and expectations, who attempted to work smaller but think conceptually, usually in a heavily self-referential style. It befit those raised by the Internet. The music became a gesture representing itself. The problem with this approach is that the sounds risk becoming dated fast. 18+’s narcotized art-school take on hip-hop sex tropes strikes more of a snapshot of the concerns of 2013 turning into 2014, in much the same way Butthole Surfers conjure up 1986. Post-FKA Twigs, it’s the stuff of also-rans, as are the theatrical aggressions of HO99O9. Watching 18+ face one another backstage as they stared into their phones was a more succinct expression of their aesthetic than their performance. More promising was the John Zorn-like ability of Inga Copeland to unite disparate influences through her dubstep-inflected sound, as well as the miniaturist James Pants, whose Asperger’s shtick almost seemed a mockery of Herbert’s need to lecture. Pants introduced one piece with the words, “This song is only eight notes. It’s the same thing over and over again and very fun.” Which is to say he captured the essence of rock and roll.

Consequently, the most beguiling act I witnessed was also the most au courant and the final non-DJ set of the festival: Kero Kero Bonito (KKB). With trends slipping by so quickly, I felt nostalgia for their concerns even as I was empathizing with them. The London trio is loosely affiliated with the Situationist pop umbrella PC Music, with their co-producer Kane West DJing at Popkultur the night before. And like PC Music, KKB feels very 2015 in its desire to mock emptiness while yearning for its benefits. Sporting fake eyelashes and garbed in pink latex, vocalist Sarah Midori Perry bounced through a set of semi-parodic J-Pop exhortations that seemed exhausting. How did she keep that smile on her face for 45 minutes while looking as shiny as an AI anime just exposed to its self-consciousness? 20 years ago, this sort of faux-naif behavior would be taken at its word—think Cibo Matto. Today, it’s ambiguous enough to be viewed as either the apocalypse or our respite from it. “Now I know what’s real/And what is fake,” Sarah Midori Perry sings in “I’d Rather Sleep”. But do we know what’s Pop and what’s Kultur?

Cover photo of Mary Ocher by Roland Owsnitzki courtesy of Pop-Kultur’s Facebook.

Continue Reading

Berlin Atonal Festival: Caught Between Style and Substance?

The resurrected Berlin Atonal festival is the kind of success that founder Dimitri Hegemann probably couldn’t have imagined back in 1990, when the fifth and final edition of the festival’s first incarnation ended. While Berlin’s landscape has changed irrevocably since then, its art-punk industrial and noise legacy remains. That restless spirit is aptly housed in the Kraftwerk, a former power plant in the city center whose cavernous concrete interior provides Atonal’s main stage and contains a complex of clubs including Tresor and Ohm, all of which are employed for the festival.

Even after three consecutive years, entering the main space is a thrill. While many former factories and warehouses have been repurposed into venues, the Kraftwerk’s size and rawness feel special thanks to the immensity of its open-plan interior and ceiling that soars high above its three floors, its darkness and the uniformity of its concrete walls, floors and pillars. In many ways, the venue is the main attraction. But it comes with limitations.

Sound in such a large and bare space will travel and then bounce off the hard surfaces. Presumably, the organizers tried to address that with a program consisting largely of abstract electronics. On the opening night, Max Loderbauer and Jacek Sienkiewicz reprised their collaborative EP for a set in four parts based on mountain ranges. Any initial disappointment that modular synth veteran Loderbauer was using a laptop was quickly dispelled by his improvisatory proficiency with KYMA, the visual programming language and DSP he’s enjoyed for all of four weeks. With Loderbauer driving the narrative arc, Sienkiewicz worked the live mix for a remarkably musical jam and the highlight of the night.

Few of the acts who operated in the same parameters over the next four nights met the expectations set by Loderbauer and Sienkiewicz, although there’s so very much at Atonal that aspires to. But many of the artists on offer just didn’t have the musicianship to work laptops with the same efficacy. As a result, quite a lot of sets felt interchangeable and indistinguishable, and what should have sounded transgressive became so commonplace that walking into a space and hearing yet more yawning electronic chasms and distorted drones made my heart sink. Sometimes I just turned around and left.

There were two exceptions: Ben Frost and Fis. The former has found a touch of delicacy to offset the bombast of his earlier work, and the latter was one of the few who made that enormous room feel immersive. Both artists possess enough of a sense of composition to hold attention.

With so much sameness, anything that broke the mold stood out. Yair Elazar Glotman’s contrabass improvisations during the Subtext label showcase wandered aimlessly until it hit on a combination of harmonics and effects that rang throughout Stage Null. The showcase for Powell’s Diagonal label and its affiliates proved to be a festival highlight, thanks in no small part to a distinct lack of po-facedness and the kinetic energy provided by live drumming and electronics by Blood Music and the joint efforts of An-i and Alessandro Adriani. Diagonal also hosted Russell Haswell’s DJ set, a roughshod, rousing ride through noise, techno, acid and the unknown. Goth Trad’s DJ set in Ohm of Saturday night consisted mostly of the Japanese producer’s own dubstep deviations and provided one of the only moments of fun in an otherwise deathly serious affair.

Tony Conrad and Faust’s collaborative performance as their long-established project Outside the Dream Syndicate displayed master musicianship. They explored variations of texture, tonality and tempo with only the most minimal of notes and pitch. Alessandro Cortini’s solo set had beautiful sound quality and enjoyable melodicism; its lightness was especially attractive in the setting. Even David Borden and the Mother Mallard Ensemble’s dated synth film music prog sounded charming there in an electric piano recital way.

Berlin Atonal Kraftwerk
The Kraftwerk. Image courtesy of Berlin Atonal.

It was usually a relief to hear beats on the main stage, especially the live percussion by Shackleton’s collaborators on Powerplant, the clean electronics of COH and the rolling thunder of Regis and Ancient Methods’ joint project Ugandan Methods. However, at the after parties in Tresor and Globus, beats were often hampered by the venue’s restless crowds, who seemed to want something other than music.

If there was one act that should have fulfilled every Atonal dark ambient cliché, it was (recent EB interviewee) Lustmord. But the genre pioneer delivered a truly synergistic audiovisual performance instead, and it was a rare instance where the visuals both related to and improved the music. For all of the darkness in Atonal’s programming, Lustmord’s was the only performance that felt truly sinister or otherworldly.

As much as the venue is the star of the festival, the space affects sound so much that it’s like every set performed on the main stage was patched through the same effects. None of them were truly site-specific, and almost all of them seemed to aspire to an immersiveness that the space cannot allow. The Rainer Kohlberger installation of light screens and electronic escalation in a concrete room worked well because it achieved that quality. And escaping from all of the vastness was why the quiet intimacy and analog hum of the Modular Schaltzentrale, a bank of modular synths stationed in the former factory control room, felt so comforting.

Perhaps fittingly, the music is served in giant blocks: an entire block of dark drones, an entire block of techno. But there’s logic in the line-up, because Atonal’s main achievement is in the consistency of the aesthetic. They’ve so heavily occupied a scene that it’s inevitably influential. This is borne out by the sheer numbers that filled the Kraftwerk each night of the festival. But what began as part of a true counter-culture has evolved through some 30 years of industrial, noise and techno into a not-so-unusual fashion and lifestyle. Seeing, for instance, middling techno artists presented on the big stage and given the opportunity to present their music “seriously” proves just how watered down that revolutionary, rebellious spirit has become.

Many of the sets had pretentions to “high art” that just weren’t substantiated by the music itself. And while Atonal does include a healthy showing of beauty, truth and insight—did you see Pierre Bastien’s delightful installation of rickety méchanique instruments? or the screenings of Tony Conrad’s structural films?—a great deal of the rest is so blandly similar despite its ostensible experimentalism that you don’t remember much about it. But what you are left with is a sense of vibe, of aesthetic.

Make no mistake, Atonal is a success. It has broadcast its message very clearly, its crowds grow in number year after year and the production and organization are now expert (Insert joke about German efficiency here). As to whether it lives up to its heritage of trailblazing and cultural significance or merely trades style over substance . . . we may have to wait until next year to know.

Read our past reviews of Berlin Atonal 2014 and 2013. Our review of MaerzMusik earlier this year explores similar themes. The cover photo for this piece are from Georg Schroll’s Flickr.

Continue Reading