Since my time in Berlin during a spring 2010 sabbatical, an area of interest for me has been the electronic music and art scene in Europe. This year’s Transmediale/Club Transmediale Festival that took place February 1-6 provided an opportunity to reconnect with some of the sounds, ideas, and people I encountered last year in the city of Berlin. When I originally started planning for travel during the 2010-11 academic year, my idea was to attend the festival on my own. However, when I returned to the classroom in Fall 2010, I found there was significant interest among students in visiting Berlin and attending this festival. By the end of the semester, this turned into a field trip for twelve Berklee students.
The Berlin Radio Tower
In planning the trip I wanted to include activities beyond festival events. Two of the major manufacturers that produce software included in the Electronic Production and Design Department’s major bundle, Native Instruments and Ableton, are headquartered in Berlin. I had contacts at both companies and was able to arrange visits. In addition, I wanted to give the students an opportunity to perform while there, and I, along with Nick Meehan, a Berklee alum working in Berlin, was able to include performances at two clubs for the majority of students on the trip.
We arrived in Berlin a few days before the start of the festival, giving us some time to explore the city over the weekend. The students wasted no time getting to some of the best known dance venues in Berlin, Watergate and Berghain, the evening we arrived, only to find that showing up doesn’t automatically mean getting in. Popular clubs can afford to be picky and control to mix of patrons by choosing who gets in and who doesn’t. Although their enthusiasm was somewhat dampened by this, all were able to return to Berghain later in the week as part of the festival.
Relaxing on the U-Bahn
Saturday was a day to explore Berlin as a group. While the city is rich in cultural tradition, it’s hard to escape the twentieth-century legacy of World War II and the country’s divide, symbolized by the Berlin wall. We visited the Topography of Terror museum, built on the site of the World War II SS and Gestapo headquarters where there was a detailed accounting of the rise and fall of the SS. Visiting the Holocaust Memorial at sunset, while beautiful, was a stark reminder of the atrocities suffered by the European Jews in the Nazi era. The Germans hold back on in dealing with the darker periods of their recent history, and the experience was a moving one for all.
A week of club music started out with stops at a couple of smaller venues in the Kreuzberg area of Berlin, near where we were staying. While the large Berlin dance clubs focus on DJ sets, some of the more interesting electronic music happens in these smaller venues. The evening started out at Madame Claude. The headliner this evening was a solo Jamaican artist from the UK living in Berlin named Infinite Livez. While most live electronic is performed using a laptop computer these days, Livez’s live rig consisted solely of various hardware devices, a drum machine, looper, and effects pedals, all run through a hardware mixer. The set was a tour de force of live looping and structured improvisation over basic song forms. Livez was a very capable singer and performer who was able to seamlessly integrate all of his technology resources into an engaging live set. While the table he set up on looked more like the window of a pawn shop, the tools became transparent once he started playing.
Later that evening, most of the group met for a performance by Robert Henke, in a small, intimate setting that was essentially a neighborhood bar. Most of the students had met Robert on his Fall 2010 visit to Berklee. At that time they saw one side of his work as a sound and visual artist, but this was the first time they were able to experience the dance-oriented side that most of his German audience think of as Monolake. This show was one part of a very busy week for Robert that included new audiovisual work for the CTM Cine Chamber series and Tau, a sound field piece at the Berlin Arts University. The set was a combination of classic Monolake, as well as some new material prepared for upcoming 2011 performances, This featured his characteristic polyrhythmic beats and bass-line motifs, as well as more textural sound design elements found in his sound art work. I spoke with Robert afterward and he mentioned that the set was more improvisational than what he would usually attempt, and the that he was going further with live effects processing than in his previous live work. He had abandoned his custom Monodeck controller in favor of a more generic one that fostered flexible mapping to individual effect parameters. This approach affords him a greater ability to shape the sound using realtime control of effects, which was abundantly clear from his performance that evening.
Robert Henke at Cine Chamber Live
On Sunday and Monday we had some free time that gave everyone the opportunity to explore Berlin on their own. I, for one, spent much of this time preparing for my upcoming live gig on Tuesday night, February 1. The venue was Cafe Wendel, where I had previously played during my visit in August 2010. For this performance, I invited a couple of students, Austin Stone and Tyler Randall, collectively known as Phonoride, to play their own set, and for a piece with the three of us. Another student, James Frame, provided live video for all of our sets. While most of the students on the trip knew me as a teacher, none of them had seen me perform as an electronic artist. In preparing for the show, the three of us worked together to prepare the material we would play together. I was very impressed by their ability to work collaboratively with electronic instruments and live video processing. The discussions we had centered more on elements of form and the texture and density of sound than specific keys or motifs.
The Transmediale/Club Transmediale festival got it’s official start the same night as the Cafe Wendel gig, so we missed some of the opening events. However, the keynote presentation and opening concert from American electronic music pioneer Morton Subotnick came the following day. While most of the artists performing at CTM were from Europe, Subotnick’s work is held in high regard and he was honored at this year’s festival. For the concert, Subotnick performed a revised version of his pioneering work from the 1960′s "Silver Apples of the Moon," in collaboration with video artist Lillevan and pianist Soojin Anjou. His main instrument was the Buchla 200e, the same type of modular synthesizer recently acquired by the EP/D department. This was quite a tour de force, demonstrating the instrument’s vast capabilities, including it’s native multichannel architecture, that provided quadraphonic sound diffused throughout the concert hall. The concert was sold out, and not all of the students were able to get tickets, but those who could attend were duly inspired by the work. In a keynote presentation the following day, Tape Recorders, Transistors, and the Credit Card: A Personal History, Subotnick provided a revealing and entertaining view into the early days of electronic music in the US and his development as an artist.
Morton Subotnick speaks.
The Transmediale/Club Transmediale festival had events scheduled for both day and evening times, and seeing and hearing everything was impossible. Individual students choose the events that interested them and later shared their experiences with each other. Transmediale was more of an electronic art festival that was housed in a central location in Berlin’s House of World Culture. The highlight is a juried show of installation pieces from around the world, along with a number of workshops and symposia. Many of the pieces offered a reflection on current technologies.
One of these, Mirror Piece, used face recognition technology to scan the faces of willing attendees and match the image with a database of nefarious figures from the twentieth-century. Participants were surprised when their features matched profiles of murders and alcoholic writers, and this pointed out how flawed such a technology could be in identifying potential criminals. Another of these, the Braun Tube Jazz band, used discarded video monitors as playing surfaces for electronic instruments. Despite the name, the music had nothing to do with Jazz as we know it. Most of the students on the trip had never really seen much in the way of media art, and for them, it offered a completely different way to contextualize the ubiquitous technologies that surround them.
Most music events at CTM were club nights in various venues in and around Kreuzberg. Again, since multiple venues programed artists each evening, it was impossible to see to see everything. This was a drawback, as there were some though choices to be made throughout the week. I’ll focus on just a couple of events I attended here. Many of the more cutting edge music events took place at Festsaal Kreuzberg, which was more of a concert club about the size and vibe of a House of Blues in the US, than a dance club. The Wednesday night concert featured one of the artists I met during my visit for the 2010 festival. Masayoshi Fujita, known as El Fog, is a vibraphone player who performs with electronics and incorporates a kind of "prepared" vibraphone approach on some pieces. He explores the textual aspects of the instrument more than traditional melody-harmony relationships, and the preparations, which include draping tin foil over the bars, expand the timbral possibilities of the instrument, while his use of Ableton Live allows for looping and further electronic processing. For this performance Masa was joined by electronic composer/producer Jan Jelinek. The two have been collaborating for several years and their first CD, Bird, Lake, Objects, was released in 2010, just prior to their festival appearance. Jelinek performs with hardware devices, without a computer, and is able to supplement and complement both the acoustic and electronic aspects of Masa’s playing. Their set ranged from ambient textures, to rhythmic explorations.
Earlier that evening, I had to opportunity to dine with another one of the artists performing that evening. Tujiko Noriko is a Japanese avant singer/songwriter, living in Paris, who is among a growing number of artists in this category who perform with a laptop computer. While her solo act stays close to the recorded versions of her material, and the laptop is used mainly to provide backing tracks, she often seeks to perform with other artists who expand on her music in more of a live, improvised setting. For this performance, she used two musicians, Lawrence English and John Chantler, who accompanied her using analog, modular synthesizer rigs. Over dinner, Tujiko mentioned that she had never worked with these particular musicians before, and that she depends on a high level in improvisational skill from her collaborators.
While her music is rooted in pop music, her minimal approach gives the sound of a kind of electronic art song. The performers on the bill this evening were well known to the Asian electronic music community in Berlin, so I had the opportunity to reconnect with Raster Noton artist Aoki Takamasa and Berklee alum Juno Kang who I spent time with during my winter 2010 visit.
Tujiko Noriko stage set-up
For most of us, the high point of the festival was the Cine Chamber series of events. Cine Chamber is an outgrowth of the former Recombinant Media Lab in San Francisco. Here, multimedia artists were offered residencies in the labs facilities to develop work for their unique immersive media environment that combines 10.2 multichannel sound with a 360 degree viewing surface that uses twelve HD video projectors to provide an unbroken surround viewing experience. When RCM lost it’s lease in 2008, director Naut Humon decided to configure two systems, one for Europe and one for North America, that could be in residence at festival events on both continents. This year’s CTM Festival was the inaugural run for the European system, and in the month prior, four teams of artists had time to work with the system on site, developing new work to be premiered during special live performances. The two most notable of these were from the three founders of Raster Noton label performing together as Signal, and from Robert Henke and Tarik Barri performing as Monolake Live. Along with these special performances, there were screenings of prior work developed for the cine chamber system from the Recombinant Media Labs archives.
EP/D alum Barry Threw has worked with the Recombinant Media Lab project since 2006, and was the technical director for Cine Chamber Berlin. All twelve streams of video and twelve streams of audio run from a single computer, a technical marvel when it works. Unfortunately, the system was plagued by various difficulties, and Barry spent much of the week scrambling to keep the system running. Talking with Barry provided a fascinating view of how precarious the intersection of art, commerce and high technology can be.
A number of students on the trip had been working with live video processing using software they developed, and for them, The Cine Chamber events provided an opportunity to experience highly developed work they would normally not see in Boston. Stylistically, the work shown here ran the gamut of approaches, from abstract, computer generated animation as in see in Tarik Barri’s work, to patterns of geometric shapes that characterizes the work from Raster Noton artists Signal, to processed still images and video from others. Sound for these ranged from the dance influenced rhythmic work from musical artists like Robert Henke and Signal, to the more abstract soundscapes many of the other artists chose to explore using the multiple-channel format.
Monolake Live, Fundamental Forces.
With a vital electronic music community in Berlin, it’s no wonder that two major manufacturers of music software, Native Instruments and Ableton, are based there. Ableton has an educational outreach program and my contact there, Yukio Van Marin King, was instrumental in helping to set up a tour for our group from Berklee. While there isn’t much to see in the offices of a software company, our hosts gave us a tour of the facilities while explaining the functions of the various departments, essentially how the company works. Interesting as this may have been, the high point of the visit came with a hour-long workshop and question and answer session with one of the resident product specialists, Dennis Fischer. Many of the students were already accomplished users of Ableton Live, and the discussion quickly moved to advanced topics, which I think impressed the folks at Ableton. While many academic music programs use Ableton Live in their curriculum, the company doesn’t often have the chance to directly connect with these users, and this visit was a useful experience for all.
Likewise, Native Instruments had never hosted a student group, and our presence was somewhat of a curiosity for the office staff. Our host for this visit was, Florian Schneidmadel, the head of product design at NI, and he was joined by two of the software engineers I met on my visit the year before. I was frankly surprised and impressed that we would meet with someone that high up in the company. While some topics, like upcoming new products, were understandably off limits, they were quite forthcoming about the process of developing new products and structuring their product line. They admitted that, like Ableton, they experienced rapid growth, and as a result, had too many products. The line became difficult to maintain, and didn’t allow for the resources to develop and market new products. The students never realized the amount of work it takes for a software company to ensure that their existing products are compatible with a range of operating systems, plugin formats, and host programs. At the time of our visit, they were busy converting their entire product line to be 64-bit compatible, as well as working on a major update to their flagship DJ software, Traktor.
While they approached these visits with a certain reverence, taking pictures in the lobbies to document their visit, students saw that there is a wide range of employment possibilities in this field. They could sense a difference in the corporate culture between Ableton and Native Instruments that perhaps influenced their product focus. They were equally surprised to learn that both view themselves as international companies, and as such, they were bilingual, with much of their business conducted in English.
A recent EP/D grad from the class of 2010, Nick Meehan started work at Ableton in September 2010. Nick was very helpful to our group, spending time with us and acting as tour guide to after-hours electronic music events, along with setting up a showcase gig for the students. Nick was very interested in maintaining some sort of ongoing relationship with Berklee, perhaps setting up an alumni group in Berlin. In February, he was in the process of securing a loft space to present workshops, clinics, and performances, in a series of events called B-Vision. I was very impressed with Nick’s energy and enthusiasm, and look forward to working with him on future collaborations.
Early morning in the Berlin U-Bahn