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.
Last week the Michigan-based electronic musician Zach Saginaw, aka Shigeto, released his third LP, No Better Time Than Now via Ghostly International. Now, his first single “Detroit Part 1” gets a classy, almost black & white video treatment, which we’re premiering below. Made by director and actor Rafe Scobey-Thal of the The Mandus Films collective, this short film shows us Shigeto himself getting shot and more.
No Better Time Than Now arrived August 20 via Ghostly International
The rapping pianist holds a unique position in pop music as musical advisor to the stars and an anachronistic artist in his own right. Here he talks to Lucia Udvardyova about working with Daft Punk, Stravinsky and music education. Photo by Alexandre Isard.
The classically educated, Canadian, rapping piano player—who has previously collaborated with Peaches, Drake and Daft Punk—currently lives in Cologne, but has spent the last decade on the stages and in the studios of the modern music world. Chilly Gonzales played at the Electronic Beats Festival Graz this year, where we caught up with him before his warmly received Solo Piano concert to talk about music education, icons and being pop music’s favorite man for harmony.
Where have you just come from?
I came from Cologne in Germany. I live there.
You lived in Berlin before.
Yes. I lived in Berlin and Paris for almost ten years. I moved to Cologne last year. It’s a very central place and a bit more relaxed for when I’m not traveling. It’s not a great musical area—for electronic music it could be considered that—but for what I love, which is jazz and classical music, Cologne isn’t that great.
Do you like German rap?
I don’t. I like rap where I can understand the details. For me, that’s the point of rap. I listen to American rap, where it was invented. I don’t listen to a lot of Canadian classical music either, for the same reasons.
Who is your favorite classical composer?
I like a lot of German, a lot of French composers. I like Brahms a lot, Mahler is amazing. I also like some Czech composers, Dvořák, Smetana, Martinů.
How did you start with music?
My grandfather was my first teacher. Later I had a very intense two or three years of study, followed by two or three years of ‘I don’t want to study anymore, but I want to make music.’ I was very interested in being in a band and making pop music, and all of a sudden I would feel the need to learn more, to go deeper. I was always stopping and starting. I had many great teachers. I still look for people who can take the role of a teacher with me, a mentor.
What do you look for in a mentor?
I have to have a lot of musical respect in them. And I have to feel that they have something to offer, and they have to be interested in passing on the knowledge. If I spend eight hours in the studio with someone, I can learn a lot, but it’s not like having a mentor. I learn a lot by being with Daft Punk in the studio for a day, it’s fascinating, because they are Daft Punk and I’m watching and learning, but I’m not actually an electronic music producer or writing pop songs as they are. I learn from them, but I learn about how they organize themselves, how they handle their career, what their relationship is between the two people in the band. But I don’t get concrete things to use in my own music. That only comes from someone who has a really specific set of skills. The problem with modern composers is that 95 percent of them compose music that goes against my idea of pleasing people. It’s meant to be very cutting-edge and challenging, but a lot of people cannot listen to it, actually. I’m rather interested in finding a composer who is alive who respects someone like Brahms and that’s difficult to find. Michael Nyman does quite a lot of film music, he’s a great composer. I’ve been trying for a couple of years now to approach him.
In the past, if you were a part of the music world, you were either the (clasically educated) interpreter or the composer. Nowadays a lot of producers/musicians often lack the knowledge of basic musical theory.
In Western music there was always a great history of folk music, of people who don’t know on a theoretical level what exactly they are doing. But in terms of art music, at the end of the 18th century, there was a feeling that music had gone as far as it could, and everyone was looking for the next thing. Schoenberg’s idea was to make harmony a democracy, while Debussy said it’s about sound. He was right actually, because music became much more about technology and sound. These laptop producers are using the tools that are available today, the sound and timbre has become what music is about. It’s true that most electronic and rap songs are not very complex, maybe just a couple of notes.
So you have a greater affinity for their predecessors who were making all these pleasing harmonies and melodies?
A few Mozart pieces were radical at the time. It seems all very genteel now. A hundred years ago today, do you know what happened?
The Rite of Spring?
Stravinsky made a riot one hundred years ago in Paris. There is a place in radicalism in that music. I still see music the way they saw it, which is to say harmony, melody, rhythm, sound being important; but in my case, it is the sound of the piano, which is a very old instrument. I definitely feel I have a different way of looking at music than 95 percent of my generation. Very few of them are interested in getting deeper into music theory and that includes people I respect and work with, like Peaches, Boys Noize or Feist—they don’t really give a shit.
How do these two worlds come together?
They are more like an audience member who feels the result. No one needs to know what goes into the sauce as long as they enjoy it. It’s more a case of Feist singing me a melody in the studio and saying, “Yeah, I’m hearing these dark chords,” and I have to guess what’s in her mind. Because I have the theoretical knowledge, I’m in a good position to deliver 20 choices until she says, “That’s it.” Same is true for Daft Punk or some of the bigger names that I’ve worked with. They were always interested in the harmony. Harmony is hard to do if you didn’t study it, whereas with melody and rhythm, you can be a natural. I’m not angry or judgmental that most of my generation don’t care about it, because actually it helps my career that I’m one of the only ones in my age group. So if someone like Tiga, A-Trak or Boys Noize ask me a harmonic question, I feel very flattered. It’s good I took time to study this and they can use it to great effect.
Lots of these people who are classically trained also have these boundaries and remain stuck in the classical world.
Lots of people who know about music are disappointed with the new generation. I’m not. I can accept how music is today. Like I’ve said, I get a lot of work for the fact that I know the old skills. I want to be a part of modern music. My proudest moments are working with artists like Drake or Daft Punk, or my song being used in an Apple commercial. I’m just a weird, rapping piano player, and I’ve never felt I had a chance to be a part of real music. In these moments I know I’ll never be an icon, but to be with a modern day icon, and to participate and contribute, is already great.
What makes an icon these days?
Someone who changes the direction of music. It’s the place they occupy; a large part of it is the quality of music. Someone like Drake, not only is his music very different, because he combines certain pop singing elements with rap, he was one of the first rappers that didn’t have to demonstrate that he had a certain kind of lifestyle. He not only pushed the music in a different direction, he pushes the culture in a different direction. Daft Punk did the same thing. To me, that’s what an icon is.
How do you work when you write music?
I imagine the audience. At the same time I try to make something that gives a feeling. I guess it’s more focused on the feeling and the technical things that go into making that feeling. I spend a lot of time writing music. Only with a lot of time can I understand what’s an effective piece.
I’m proud that I’m the only artist who can play electronic beats on a piano. I’m proud to be the only pianist in many of the hipsters’ record collection. Maybe all they have is my two albums, and maybe if they’re lucky they have a Satie. I’m also proud to have older classical fans who come to my shows and are a little bit shocked at first because of my humor and how I act on stage, but then they get on with it, and it brings everyone together. The piano is very powerful, it has been around for four hundred years. There is still so much to say on it, new techniques to find on it.
What about your extra-musical activities, do you still act or write?
I’m working on a book for people who lost their momentum in learning music. Lots of people who had a couple of lessons, stopped. I’m going to write a series of etudes for people to get reintroduced to music, using a lot of techniques for pop music so people can hopefully play this book of music over the course of a couple of months, and then listen to music they normally do, and realize, “Ah ok, I listen to a lot of heavy metal, that has a lot of fifths to it, and I remember that because of the etude that talked about fifths.”
I remember growing up in Eastern Europe back in the day, music education was pretty wide- spread, though most kids stopped around the age of ten through 14.
In Canada we have zero real musical heritage, or real feeling of cultural education. The average Canadian wouldn’t come out of high school and know about Stravinsky and The Rite of Spring, for example. In general, the average European person has a better understanding of Western culture and art. But North America is not based on art, it’s based on entertainment. That’s what I grew up with, too. My grandfather taught me Richard Wagner, and I was watching Michael Jackson on TV. And that’s when I decided, I’m going to be a man of my time.
I believe in music education, I believe that countries that have a deep tradition of subsidizing, sometimes do it the wrong way. The countries that have the most vibrant pop culture are the countries that actually subsidize the least, like England or the US. I come from a country that has subsidized the arts a lot, and I lived in France—that is probably a country that spends the highest percentage of their GDP on subsidizing adult artists. I think this is a bad move. Forget the adults, focus on young people. Give them wide exposure to everything, and that includes Mozart and South Park. I think it’s very dangerous to take that money and give it to someone who never built an audience for themselves. You can make very strange art and still find an audience. Nobody would say that it is easy to be a humorous, rapping, piano player, but you have to dream it and say to yourself, this actually fits to who I am, and fuck it—I’m going to push until people get it. And slowly they do.
Even Cage has a lot of fans.
Nicholas Cage, exactly. [laughs]~
Watch Chilly Gonzales live at Electronic Beats Festival Graz 2013 below.
As you’re probably aware, Electronic Beats offers full episodes of Electronic Beats Slices DVD Magazine for streaming on our YouTube channel. However, you may not know that you can now view the whole of Slices DVD issue 4-12 as a continuous playlist, and in 1080p full HD video. That’s a whole lot of quality content to wrap your eyes around, in fact studies show that you’ll be 12 percent more knowledgable about electronic music after watching this issue. Well, they don’t, but they should.
Need a reminder of the audio-visual bounty contained is our latest issue? Well, lan Abrahams graces our cover in his Portable guise while the Slices team bagged features with Âme, Prosumer, Nicolas Jaar and Raster-Noton co-founder Byetone. Tech Talk turns its spotlight on software developers Sugar Bytes while EB Live & Rare footage comes courtesy of EB favorites Dillon, James Blake and Hudson Mohawke.
Still hanker after a real life artefact you can store on your DVD shelf? Fear not, you can still get the real thing by subscribing to the DVD.
Electronic Beats by Telekom presents: We Are Modeselektor, a film by Romi Agel & Holger Wick.
What’s the “Seilscheibenpfeiler”? What is the origin of the first Modeselektor tracks? Where is Monkeytown? Why is riding a coach more fun than flying? These and many more questions will be answered with the documentary film We Are Modeselektor.
In 72 minutes, filmmakers Romi Agel and Holger Wick tell the story of Modeselektor as a post-German reunification movie, a travel report, and a portrait of the special friendship between Gernot Bronsert and Sebastian Szary all in one. We Are Modeselektor is the story of two men, possessed by techno, who took their massive beats from their small hometown village to the world. And it’s a story that has only just begun.
Public Screenings (see links below for ticket info):
April 30 / Berlin (GER) / Kino International – Exclusive world premiere presented by Electronic Beats
May 08 / Munich (GER) / Gabriel Filmtheater
May 09 / Vienna (AUS) / Ottakringer Brauerei
May 17 / London (UK) / Roundhouse
May 19 / Boston (USA) / Museum of Fine Arts
May 24 / Paris (FR) / La Machine du Moulin Rouge
June 13-15 / Barcelona (ES) / Sonar Cinema at Sonar Festival (3 screenings)
June 19-23 / Cologne (GER) / C/O Pop
Modeselektor play our festival in Poznań on April 26th. Read some of our recent interviews with them here and here. Check out our YouTube playlist below, featuring footage of Modeselektor and Moderat (Modeselektor and Apparat) playing live, plus our Moderat Slices DVD feature.