By Leslie Gray
The Berlin Atonal experience begins as soon as you walk inside the Kraftwerk complex.
Concrete pillars hold up 65 years of charged memory, codified by numbers on the walls and arrows to long-forgotten destinations. As your footsteps clap on concrete, you can hear voices echo and machines groan just below the surface of reality. In this former-power plant, Berlin Atonal 2017 began.
OKTOPHONICS AND ORATORIOS.
The festival opened with symphony aplomb on the Main Stage with Karlheinz Stockhausen’s electro-aria Oktophonie.
The Oktophonic sound system Stockhausen developed was used by the acts that followed, including Ena + Rashad Becker, whose set was one of unsettled ambience, and PYUR presenting their Oratorio for the Underworld – a place both remote and strangely familiar, filled with glitches, grinds and ghosts.
This was capped off by the BBC Radiophonic Workshop. Eerily beautiful sound effects appeared and ran off into the distance. Piano keys quarreled then separated. Sirens wailed. Their performance was sonic storytelling where the audience filled in the plot.
INDUSTRY AS RITUAL
When you walk through the massive black doors, you can touch even taste the dark, dense air. This was a fitting atmosphere for my first show of the night – LCC performing Bastet with Portuguese filmmaker Pedro Maia.
Bastet, the duo’s second album, is the Egyptian goddess of music and female power – fitting for Ana Quiroga and Uge Pañeda of LCC. “Bastet was an immersive trip without rules,” Ana told me, where they were not tied to make a techno or ambient or experimental album. The performance it inspired was filled with ambient distortion, field recordings and synth explorations, for a show both futuristic and ritualistic.
Next, I descended into OHM for Mark Reeder. A Manchester native, Reeder has been an influential figure in the experimental electronic music scene for three decades and an influential figure since Atonal began in 1982.
The scene at Ohm was a sweaty, pulsating mass in the best bathhouse style. The dark red glow created a swampy sensuality for variety of etudes including Reeder’s Schwarzwald-mix of A Forest and John Foxx’s Underpass. I could have stayed here forever, but the main stage was calling for Demdike Stare.
Of all the performances I saw, the visuals projected behind Demdike Stare were the most human. Arranged by Michael England, they ranged from Sikh tourists at Niagara Falls, Japanese Butoh dancers and African-Americans crumping and convulsing in hip-hop ecstasy. Some guests danced themselves over the unrelenting rhythms synths and samples of their set. Others, like myself, couldn’t stop staring.
I anticipated the next show greatly and was not disappointed. Damien Dubrovnik’s “Great Many Arrows” was a unique blend of grating industrial, sonic experimentation, poetic melodies and heart wrenching vocals. I spoke with Christian Stadsgaard who, along with vocalist Loke Rahbek, make up the Copenhagen-based duo.
"We did not aim to make a one-to-one presentation of [their latest release] 'Great Many Arrows', but rather a live interpretation of it.”
What I saw and felt was music was pulled apart into its most primal state: a pipe, a drone, a single screech or teeth-clenching ka-thud. Always, Loke Rahbek’s voice cried out from the gulag.
The visual phenomena were a enigmatic backdrop where amorphous shapes merged over muted colors and spotlights flickered.“ This was the first time we presented an A/V show,” Christian said. “Eisenstein’s montage theory is pretty much present in everything we do and here we paired that with the idea of flicker films. Both film techniques let the audience draw its own conclusions.” Judging by the captivated crowd, the reaction was one of terrified awe.
FROM BIOTECH TO BLITZKREIG
The stage still was reeling from Puce Mary when Main/Regis began. On the massive screens that hung before me, I saw neurons contort over the synaptic pulses of electronic beats, like the human body plugged into a hardware sequencer. A man looked at me in the middle of this electro-bio opera and said, “This is the night, no?” Held like a spider in a web, I couldn’t disagree.
SEEN FROM THE STEPS BELOW
RE-ASCENSION TO AN ALTAR
A little before midnight, Roly Porter + Paul Jebanasam presented ALTAR.
During the subsequent hour, gunshots and fireworks erupted as the air turned red and smoke bellowed, angels wailed on broken records that blasted through a battlefield as searchlights passing over us. When the dust settled you felt like a witness and a survivor.
“Our previous solo projects had a structured narrative. For the Altar show we both wanted to move away from any conceptual ties, it was not designed as a cinematic AV experience.” When we were considering how we would like the room to look and feel, Paul discussed the idea of trying to visualize what it would look like if the sound was actually affecting the physical, visual space. “Like synesthesia,” he said, “what does this sound look and feel like?”
After a finale that I can only describe as an eclipse, all thoughts of attending an after-party were futile.
Special thanks to Maria Bungau for her thoughts on the following reviews.
Fis & Renick Bell ripped open the night with screeching binary code and bomb blasts. Bell’s music uses “algorithmic live coding environment to produce a generative, unpredictable alien music.” It is an apocalyptically painful awakening.
This was followed, in absolute contrast, with a mesmerizing fable of love and longing. Shackleton + Anika with Strawalde + Pedro Maia presenting Behind the Glass. Over the sound of chimes and gusts, through precise arrangements of swaying rhythms and ethnic patterns, Anika’s mellow voice guided us towards an abyss. Monochrome visuals with the occasional touches of yellow, misty blue and green soothed us on our journey. The performance ended with drumbeats, subsiding like drops of water in a metal bowl, until there was silence.
Atonal is a contrast of sensory confrontations. Sometimes calming, other times visceral and confrontational. Such was Powell’s midnight performance on the main stage with German photographer Wolfgang Tillmans.
As correspondent Maria Bungau described it, “An absurd and provocative match of adventurous sounds and raw and slightly cacophonous vocals that made you question what was happening on that stage and what’s going to happen next.”
The effect drove some to depart and others to dance confusingly but also excitingly to the spiky techno blasts. Overall, Powell and Wolfgang Tillmans brought a sense of surprise, inviting us not to take them seriously, and it made it all the more liberating.
While the main stage was a place for introspection and contemplation, Stage Null offered the perfect avenue to dance away the overwhelming mood above. Oliver Ho, under his Broken English Club moniker, transformed the stage into den of frenetic abandonment. Bringing together bits and pieces from his releases along with melancholic lyricism and post-punk influences, he created a fiercely incessant, techno-infused set that captivated the crowd.
DEPARTURE AND LONGING
As I flew back to the states I could hear operatic cries pierce through the engine roar and dissipate into the clouds. It was the world premiere of Fist Piece, from Chinese performance artist and composer Pan Dajing. “I am rubbing my eyes. I am putting it back. I am taking them away. I am stretching. I am holding. I am denying. I am losing,” she sang. Even if the words were indecipherable to some, there was surely no translation needed for emotion.
When it began in 1982 at Kreuzberg’s SO36, Berlin Atonal was at the forefront of progressive electronic and experimental music and art in Berlin. Then walls fell and venues changed. In Kraftwerk since its re-launch in 2013, Atonal has offered countless world premieres and mind-blowing collaborations, but the structure itself is the true partner and muse for every work of art inside.