Berlin Atonal 2015

Berlin Atonal 2015

Written By:

Simona Mantarlian


September 8, 2015

1. A Sonic Retribution

There’s this story going around about Berlin, that everything which us mortals from some other corners of the world deem underground and make an assumed effort to dig after, musically, in Berlin becomes a sort of - closed circuit, yet - gasp - mainstream.

I hear it sometimes from your basic, party people who report feelings of anxiety and deficit of adaptation after visiting this place, rather than what they would expect in terms of getting wasted on a fun night out. And these are people you would never see admitting such profound feelings to anyone else than their shrink, and who would seldom get to feel this strongly about music. I think it’s only fair. This alleged angst that some people experience when faced with the abrasive techno culture in Berlin is, to me, a familiar echo of the feeling I would normally get during my teen years at their parties, while listening to Lustmord on the headphones in a corner and avoiding purposely shallow behaviors resembling dance or any other human interaction. And judging by this law of balance and polarity, Atonal would feel, in this sense, an epitome of cultural and sonic retribution, if I had to recur to a subjective analogy. A less subjective, genus-differentia type of definition, would be quite challenging to put together, while thinking in retrospective at the proportion of the festival, as long as it would require thinking of a category that Atonal would individualize as a part of. Its massive attempt at connecting dots, culturally, as well as the precision with which the ambitious project was met, makes it an event in time, space and sound that manages to pose enough questions on the imaginarium it involves.

Some ravers out there struggle to justify their weekend escapades as a “club culture”, and as much would this hedonistic view struggle for our attention, it often pales while confronted to its real meaning, in terms of intrinsic value. Atonal is not club culture, in that sense, even though its after show-sets that blasted in the basement of Tresor or through the Void Air Motion sound system at stage Globus kept a dark-clad mass of humans dancing until noon, with some clever and pretty challenging, not so easy-listening play list choices.

And this challenging quality is why a phenomenon as Atonal feels necessary in defining value and embodying its furthest limits, to which one can imagine it staged and performed in real life. Being a singular event that comprises of a collection of events, screenings, concerts and parties, Atonal concentrates organically that which makes electronic music a part of our present civilization and intellectual capital, but even more than that, a coherent and unabbreviated lifestyle. Fully embraced in all that its program offers, this festival gives the impression of a cultural movement - if you want - that reverses, hacks and dynamites all the principles of music and image as means of entertainment. You get to see the often unseen, stealth, network of the underground coagulate into a micro-universe that allows it to express naturally, taking as much space as possible and blasting with the tremendous force that it was initially intended to contain.

In a way, Atonal is not just an opportunity but also a challenge and it addresses the curiosity of what each of the artists would do while out of their performative comfort zones.

2. Articulating Space

Atonal is a whole experience that addresses the fringe, unmapped territories of the audiovisual present on the same level as names that originated massive fractures in artistic perception starting off from an outsider playground (such as Tony Conrad, Clock DVA who performed at the festival, or Terry Riley and Patrick Gleeson, on the soundtrack of Bruce Conner’s must-see experimental film “Crossroads” (1976), that was just one of the essential screenings included in the festival program, among a Tony Conrad retrospective and the German premiere of the recently released documentary Industrial Soundtrack for The Urban Decay, by Amélie Ravalec & Travis Collins).

The physicality and heaviness of this five-day experiment in light and droning sound is not only about creating a space on a metaphoric level, but also about the actual space itself. Out of the 12 hours or more, which one could spend in the Atonal complex from starting hours till dawn, a great amount of time found us inhabiting the tremendous, skyscraping building Kraftwerk halle, where the more sound-sculpting acts were scheduled, which complimented its monumental acoustic qualities. As you walk down Köpenicker Straße, not looking past the yard that shields the industrial complex where Atonal happens, it would be easy to ignore this place, as just another building to line your peripheral vision. This adds up as an absurd element of surprise to the powerful impression that entering such a colossal structure makes, as something that couldn’t be described otherwise but in exaggerated terms. The haunting space formerly activated as a power station - as the name, Kraftwerk, literally suggests, although it is perfectly understandable why many reviewers compared that place with an industrial version of a gothic cathedral.

The spatial articulation of such monuments of transcendental functionality was known to suggest a sublimation of matter, by following a dynamic trajectory aiming for the heights, achievable through a dematerialization of the self. The German medieval mystics were known to seek acceding to the identification to a higher, divine realm, through a process of clearing out and decoding their sense of self. Upon my first acquaintance with the Kraftwerk Halle, such thoughts came to me, most likely triggered by an instant resurfacing of an idea about drone music that I read in an older article of Marcus Boon a while ago. He reminisced how “once upon a time, there were enormous halls, which could be found in many cities, where you could go and listen to the raw blast of Just Intonation tuned drone music every week, under a cascade of multi-colored lights. It was said by those who had visited these halls that this was the loudest sound in the world, and people crowded into these halls week after week, to be saturated in sound and light, and have ecstatic experiences”.

Before anything else in modern music showed up to evoke such transformational experiences, the aforementioned halls which were exactly the gothic domes of Europe, were practicing a ritualistic exposure to drone music drowning the audiences in state-altering lights and the loudest music ever heard. It is essential to bare this in mind while thinking of drone music as a fully perceivable experience, since spatiality and proportion, light and volume, come as necessary ingredients to such an event even before electricity comes into question. Considering new media and pixels just as vital as the air we breathe to a contemporary life defined by a perpetual exposure to screen surfaces, we get a picture of the minimum requirements to meet in order to make such an experience happen. And it’s a scary, anything but minimum.

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3. Crossing Formats

The upper floor alone, where the main stage performances took place, seemed as high as three movie theatres stacked on top of another, at least - as the projections happened on a vertical surface made up of three huge projection screens, redefining the cinematic, rectangular proportion and forcing a vertical viewing axe upon a biased human eye, much too educated and accustomed to a visual format under the autonomy of the horizontal. This choice is bold and seems a completion of the struggles of the modern visual avant-garde to restore verticality to the cinematic screen. Vertical framing is an idea that Sergei Eisenstein was hinting towards in the thirties to no avail and Paolo Gioli would strongly advocate later on in the sixties. In such a visually deconstructive context, the performance of Tony Conrad and Faust, “Outside the Dream Syndicate” felt as legitimate as it would have felt downtown Manhattan in the ‘60s, when the Theater of Eternal Music was heralding an irreversible and unheard of shift in the sonic paradigm as known back then, bringing with it a complimenting suite of structural cinematic patterns and pulsations.

Not that the idea of projecting cinematic flickers on a horizontal streak was neglected, since, during Atonal, a whole room was dedicated to an experimental visual installation of Rainer Kohlberber, which presented the pieces “humming fast and slow”, “moon blink” and “not even nothing can be free of ghosts” in continuous loop screening.

Back to the main stage, each of the performances came up with a personal take on the given format choosing to make use of the audiovisual carte blanche or not to. The different approaches to the format resulted in a cohesive experience, and even if some of the artists were familiar to me, having seen them before during regular gigs, the way they fit their musical personality into the tremendous space at Kraftwerk revealed new facets of their work, a more exhaustive view on what they do and how they see music as part of a bigger picture. In a way, Atonal is not just an opportunity but also a challenge and it addresses the curiosity of what each of the artists would do while out of their performative comfort zones.

4. Storyline Structures

The line-up of encyclopedic proportions that filled in this year’s program at Atonal would have been a completely chaotic experience if not organized by some minimal logical principles, and here I would like to give a shout-out to the ones who decided to give each evening a well compartmented, storyline kind of structure.

The main stage hosted events tangential to the performance side of the drone, techno, industrial and ambient and anything in-between. These were the pieces that you could see performed at MoMA, the ones accessible not only to the aficionados of these musical approaches but also to your regular art critic that wouldn’t have to know this music at all, in order to understand the experience. It was so much more than what was played, which sometimes resulted into some people paying more attention to that. These were the shows you would travel in time to watch again or that you would write about in a treatise on this music and what it means right now.

I was a bit high-brow, darkened out and reclaimed by 1) legit buzz-names to do so (Shackleton, Lustmord, Ben Frost, CoH and Tina Frank, Clock DVA, Tony Conrad), or 2) newer names with the potential of making it to that level - and who, by their performances in such space proved that they already practically made it there, and here I’ll mention Varg, Samuel Kerridge, Alessandro Cortini, Lawrence English, Fis, Kangding Ray and Barry Burns and I would so many more - the conclusion being that the category of fresh artists that come up with a smart approach to such audiovisual standards was predominating and constantly stimulating.

The iconoclast techno of Ugandan Methods, accompanied by screened black and white glimpses of Dreyer’s Joan of Arc 1928 movie was a third experiential layer that found its place on the main stage. On this same page I’d also like to mention Shed’s punchy and impeccable beats, in industrial black and white visuals, as well as Powell’s eclectic and postmodern way of getting that whole crowded room of people that seemed into sound art and stuff to bounce like bad-asses.

Some of the performances were introspective journeys, meditative and digging deep into one’s subconscious, a play of shadows and of patterns, turning the place into a dream machine of absurd dimensions. They still stay with me even after a long time has passed, like the glimmering, iridescent reflections that made the whole room feel like spinning during Ben Frost’s performance of Aurora coming after the minimalistic performance of Samuel Kerridge.

Kerridge didn’t need more than music in order to conduct a whole entrancing and hypnotic journey into the darkest corners of one’s mind, to which all those bodies in the room were compelled to move without being able to control, predict or think of what would follow - the kind of roller-coaster symptom that makes you close your eyes because it’s too intense to accept further visual feedback. At some point a guy in the audience lost it and started swearing in despair at the stage and I think everyone around him heard it - most of us knew it’s a common reaction in some people, when on a too powerful trip like Kerridge’s music lead us into, the slightest sense of self once abandoned.

Just when I figured out that there’s an old school, a soundscaping / introspective and a rhythmic logic of categories going on at the main stage, there came this thing that reduced everything I scrutinized so far to sheer astonishment. It was quite impossible to put a finger on it, because it had to be old school, but it was probably the youngest clique that got to perform main stage. It had everything early (and late) Industrial Records performances would have and also the harshness of gigs like Sutcliffe Jügend or Brighter Death Now and the sober stance of the neo-folk originators yet the only thing we were expecting to see, as the program announced, was “Varg presenting Ivory Towers”.

I knew there would be a five-person line up version of a Varg project, as the artist description on the web site stated, but this didn’t count as a spoiler not even in the least sense. The line up comprised of Jonas Rönnberg (Varg), Ossian Ohlsson (Vit Fana), Frederikke Hoffmeier (Puce Mary), Erik Enocksson and Loke Rahbek (of Damien Dubrovnik and Lust for Youth), doing their first performance as super-group Body Sculptures. I would say that this stood up as a point of maximum intensity.

There was a festival legend going around saying that the moment Loke Rahbek literally choked Frederikke with a microphone, shoving it down her throat, he accidentally hurt her to the point of puking blood backstage, right after the performance. What is sure, that moment happening on stage is an image impossible to forget anytime soon, with or without its anecdotic follow-up that people around Body Sculptures talked about.

5. Stage Null, Ohm, Tresor

I couldn’t think of any act that didn’t leave a strong impression, and this goes for the late night performances at Stage Null as well. Stage Null was located on the first floor of Kraftwerk, and it prolonged in a very logical, conceptual way, the sonic vibrations set by the main stage performances.

The way Stage Null functioned in the first nights was retrospective of the most relevant underground labels of the moment. There was a Subtext Recordings showcase, featuring Ellen Arkbro, Yair Elazar Glotman, John Bence and obviously Roly Porter. The smoke-drenched, dimly lit performances were immersive, poignant, elevating and reflective. Stage Null felt like a colder and more obscure relative of the main, and the people who stayed for the rest of the night there were fewer, darker, quiet and less diverse than the crowd you would meet at the main-stage meeting point.

On Thursday, Stage Null brought Diagonal Records and related acts such as Blood Music, Not Waving, AN-I, Russell Haswell, and ended it up gloriously with Powell spinning all sorts of gems. It couldn’t get anytime soon out of my head the banger track “Insomniac” which I’m blasting right now on repeat or the Koto – “Jabdah” theme that Powell played then, as well as at the festival after party on Sunday, which happened at stage Ohm. Until the closing party, stage Ohm was known already as the chilling point in the whole complex, presenting dreamier acts, bass bits, not very known producers, but also exceptions like Sleeparchive, during whose over-packed performance at Ohm set the pace to exhausting perpetual movement. But let us not digress.

Back to Stage Null, Friday was an outright highlight. I’m talking about the Northern Electronics / Posh Isolation showcase, which kicked in with Acronym’s rugged and dynamic yet cinematic performance and continued with Vit Fana’s declarative industrial noise performance, which Ossian Ohlsson carried with a well-dosed, suspenseful stage presence and attitude. The line up was very balanced, from a gender perspective, thanks to the fact that Puce Mary’s performance - who was the only girl in this six act selection - was heavy enough to counter-weight everything else with a very intense and abrasive, no-nonsense and convulsive noise moment.

Abdulla Rashim as Lundin Oil (read our review HERE) induced a bone-chilling hex as he presented his side project, showing a darker and multi-layered noise side of his acknowledged work as a visionary techno producer. As Varg performed in the closing of the showcase night along with the Damien Dubrovnik team, those crazy stories heard about early days industrial performances and harsh noise gigs were all going on right on the spot. Loke Rahbek was being this messianic industrial figure about to break the microphone stand in two and smash it, the stage was trashed, the noise was loud, some people were covering their ears, Jonas Rönnberg broke his arm crashing DIY instruments against walls and nothing in this world seemed real.

At the same time with the Stage Null mayhem there was mindless techno going on at loud volumes at the Tresor stage, and this was an occasion to view some of the cutting-edge, mavericks of the moment. It was great to see such producers reference each other while spinning tracks that you would recognize, of someone else in the line up. Regis playing Powell, Abdulla Rashim playing Varg’s soon-to-be-released catwalk techno project The Empire Line (yes, that is techno music at the perfect tempo to stage a fashion presentation to), and many more which my auditory memory could track down but not quite identify. Sigha and Shifted were so successful in making Tresor feel like it was about to crash and Peder Mannerfelt (who had one of the most touching sets at the main stage that very night, with visuals to which you could see your aura colors spinning) presented a very complex knowledge in clean-cut techno music.

6. Right-after thoughts

The closing party had an unannounced line-up, consisting of a Powell DJ set, Bryan Kasenic and Andres Zacco. The music was more relaxed, and not all the techno heads there enjoyed it thoroughly for that reason, but I think it was a good choice, not just because I have a soft spot for DJs who seem to drop any moment now a Cómeme reference, but also because it was a feel good note to close the festival on.

And by this I’ll end my brief and incomplete retrospective, not covering exactly all that happened at each stage, since it would take forever to inventorize everything. In fact, what you’re left with, once the festival is over, on top of the occasional tinnitus, is a kaleidoscope of inner states and outer stimuli, which make sense as a long-range sense of knowledge you can’t learn in books or magazines, and not even going to gigs. It’s more on the side of that kind of knowledge through experience, which you would sometimes find defined as wisdom.


*photos courtesy of Berlin Atonal // credits to Camille Blake
**read also: Atonal interview: SUMS (Kangding Ray and Barry Burns of Mogwai)
Atonal interview: Clock DVA

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