berlin-atonal-2014-high-res-©-camille-blake-94

Electronic music, even at its most adventurous, has a bit of a chicken and egg problem at the moment.

Festivals feed off of other festivals. Projects are made to be as portable as possible, touring from one place to another. Venues, crowds, and even the festival programs themselves are made to be as interchangeable as possible.

None of these things on its own is a bad thing; music touring as an institution has likely been around as long as musicians have owned shoes. But at some point, you need something new to happen. You need someone to do something specific – something that has to happen at a particular moment, and a particular place. Without that, there’s no spark to keep the engine of sonic exploration going.

We already have overwhelmingly broad access to sounds and shows online. And while “portable festivals” have some place in places like the Americas and Australia, where distances are forgiving, in Europe almost everything is a short bus or cheap plane ticket away. Even on a student budget, it isn’t hard to hop from festival to festival. That means those festivals had better be genuinely different.

What would a festival look like if missing the festival really meant missing the festival?

Barabara Morgenstern, who will transform a power plant into a spatial sound experiment using unamplified voices.

Barabara Morgenstern, who will transform a power plant into a spatial sound experiment using unamplified voices.

Berlin’s Atonal Festival, opening tonight, has evolved in its short rebirth into a template of just how that might look. Read the press about the program, and invariably you’ll see some mention of the festival’s historical roots (because Berlin and nostalgia seem weirdly inseparable). Or there will be the usual mentions of lineup and labels and … all of that.

But the real headline act at Atonal remains its space, Kraftwerk. The former power plant is one of Europe’s largest venues. It’s really hard to put into words how vast the space feels – and, more importantly, how vast it sounds, with unique architectural features that are sonorous and unpredictable, even by large industrial standards. What Atonal’s curators have done is turn this impressive sonic challenge into their greatest asset. They’ve created an environment where your usual set actually won’t work. And then, rather than let that produce a messy collision of performers and a giant man-made cave, they’ve used that feature to produce things that are genuinely new.

Call it the site-specific festival.

Atonal has what too many festivals these days are missing: original commissions (augmented by a healthy selection of premieres). These works are all new, often collaborative, and each responds in some ways to the environment. I once heard David Byrne talk to architects in New York about the importance of space, about the impression cathedrals and chambers and CBGB’s make on the music. It was beyond acoustics: it was mood, content, social event. This is a chance to make a scene for the power plant at the explosive heart of Europe’s creative collisions.

We’ve certainly seen that happen in past installments. Then on top of that, Atonal instigators surprised us in the spring with The Long Now, a marathon 24-hour experimental concert with its own selection of sonic scenarios and experiments. We’ll be talking about how artists handled each of these environments in coming weeks, both in our coverage of Atonal and The Long Now.

Alessandro Cortini, the leading synthesist, experimentalist, and Nine Inch Nails veteran, is all over this program – starting tonight with a commissioned collaborative premiere with Lawrence English. (They promise an “immersive sound field” in the space.)

Max Loderbauer and Jacek Sienkiewicz work together, combining yet more synthesis and experimental knowhow. Kangding Ray meets Mogwai’s Barry Burns for a live premiere. Tony Conrad meets Faust in a historic live collaboration. Ancient Methods joins Regis for Ugandan Methods. And so on down the line… there’s live and A/V all over the program, itself notable in the age of the DJ in the summer festival. And a whole lot of it will be seen and heard for the first time.

I’ve been loving Kangding Ray’s work in generally, lately, on the short list of people I want to follow around at Europe’s festivals.

It’s not just about amplified sound, either. Barbara Morgenstern and her Chor der Kulturen der Welt work with the sound of voices alone, without electricity, combining human and architecture directly into a sound collage in space.

The usual assortment of Atonal’s projections and installations return, too, to illuminate the shadowy corners of the space. But visually, perhaps the most interesting suggestion comes from Samuel Kerridge and “Fatal Light.” Here, the man known for aggressive electronic baths of sound and his role as ringleader of the experimental/eclectic Contort parties will instead return a bath of light.

The placement of label showcases and afterparties in the other venues of the Tresor complex are meaningful, too. Whether it’s the basement cage of Tresor itself, the warm wooden depth of Globus, or the intimate tile-walled former power plant battery room of Ohm, you’d never mistake the location for somewhere else. And we’re curious about showcases from Subtext, Northern Electronics, and a who’s-who of experimental sounds. Atonal promises to be a notable scene as well as a notable show.

I don’t know if all of these artists will succeed in responding to the demands of the space. But then, that’s what makes this interesting. We already know there are plenty of places to go hear music and see visuals that we’re reasonably certain will be reasonably good. But by demanding new works and commissioning new collaborations, Atonal’s presenters are asking artists and audiences alike to take a chance. They’re suggesting some projects actually will fail. And that alone is better reason to show up.

I certainly hope other event organizers try their own improvised scenarios, their own commissioned challenges.

If you are in Berlin, Atonal starts tonight. Day tickets are still available and buy you essentially one marathon concert plus one marathon party for the price of what one of those normally costs.

For your listening pleasure, here’s some sound and mix for some of the artists I’m especially interested in:

slumber session: chra

Atonal: Line-Up + Mix von CoH [German]

berlin-atonal.com

Photo at top – Camille Blake.

  • problem with electronic music is still: what are these people doing on the stage? there’s something about human expression through an instrument which seems to translate a lot better with expressive instruments. or forms like dancing. a light show might add something to the experience, sure. but if you go to far, you could simply delete the people on stage and let the soundman trigger the play-button.

    • Shannon

      nah, just close your eyes!

      • but then it would be the same as home/train/anywhere

        • guyz x guyz

          While I normally experience the sensation of it, I do not often actually have hundreds of people in my living room, listening with me, at home/train/anywhere.

          It’s the comfort one gets from feeling others sharing the same experience that you are, minus the potential for awkward social interactions.

          You still want people there, and want to feel a part of something, you just don’t want to interact with anything but the music.

          While I routinely attend the symphony, I am not sitting in a box, halfway back into the house, to watch the antics of the conductor, or the sweat bead off the first chair – I am going to experience music in a public setting, with other like-minded individuals, for that feeling. Often I will close my eyes – yet I still hear and feel those around me, the expansiveness of the place, and it makes appreciating the recital that more enjoyable.

          • ElectroB

            In other types of music (jazz, folk, rock, etc.) audience feedback and
            improvisation can take the music to unexpected directions that sometimes produce completely new ideas that generate entire new styles (check out Miles Davis, or Ornette COleman, for instance).

            The way each individual musicians connects with his/her instrument makes each performance unique.

            The physical act of singing, playing drums or a violin or another physical sound producing device produces certain expressive ideas on the spot that create unique moments.

            Even in a classical music context, where everything is written down, the performance has variations that depend on the musician’s physical and mental talents, his/her mood, and even feedback from the audience.

            The problem with most electronic music “performances” is that no matter what the audience mood is, what your mood or individual talent is, all you’re doing is chaning tracks and volume levels. Apart from that, when you press that play button, everything will always sound the same, because *you are just presenting a recording of music, not actually playing the instruments*

            The only interesting electronic music performances I’ve ever seen
            are the ones where the musician combines loops and live sound processing
            with keyboards,percussions and controller devices for live sound processing and loop playing and even then it is hard to make your performance engaging because of the disconnect between your physical actions (which influence your ideas at the moment) and the sound coming out of the speakers.

            Personally, as an audience member, I prefer watching bands, orchestras and concerts, and listen to electronic music at home – with the exception of projects where electronic musicians also play instruments and/or belong to bands and perform in actual live settings. And that is why I never go to most events billed as “electronic music festivals” (read: mostly overhyped people playing recordings in front of a lot of people) and avoid “laptop performances” (read: boring events where guys bring their compositions on laptops and press play).

            If you want to see actual live electronic music being done properly, check out CDM’s post on The Battles.

            http://createdigitalmusic.com/2015/07/watch-battles-reflect-loops-ableton-live-band-setting/

        • Smuff

          No its not. The experience of loud music in a room with eyes shut is very different from listening on headphones on a train or at home. For a start you feel the sound bodily. Often people close there eyes at classical music concerts to be at one with the sound and the performer is a distraction. Any way there is no right or wrong way to listen. If music is compelling one tends to find a way to engage with that, with performers or without… Your argument is like saying that cinema is not as good as live theatre. However if this is a personal preference and if that works for you then fair enough, but there is no such qualification in your argument.

          • yes this is a personal view of mine of course. not saying it’s not good. just saying that I feel there’s something missing in my opinion when performing music with devices. sure cinema is cool. but it’s not a performance.

        • Shannon

          Making music with computers and electronics is a trade-off. Musicians usually loose the one-to-one connection to sound but the gear opens a door to another world of sound and possibility.

        • Would it, though?

          You never closed your eyes at an orchestral concert? Like a bunch of people in black and white in chairs was the best image for the entire orchestral repertoire?

  • problem with electronic music is still: what are these people doing on the stage? there’s something about human expression through an instrument which seems to translate a lot better with expressive instruments. or forms like dancing. a light show might add something to the experience, sure. but if you go to far, you could simply delete the people on stage and let the soundman trigger the play-button.

    • Shannon

      nah, just close your eyes!

      • but then it would be the same as home/train/anywhere

        • guyz x guyz

          While I normally experience the sensation of it, I do not often actually have hundreds of people in my living room, listening with me, at home/train/anywhere.

          It’s the comfort one gets from feeling others sharing the same experience that you are, minus the potential for awkward social interactions.

          You still want people there, and want to feel a part of something, you just don’t want to interact with anything but the music.

          While I routinely attend the symphony, I am not sitting in a box, halfway back into the house, to watch the antics of the conductor, or the sweat bead off the first chair – I am going to experience music in a public setting, with other like-minded individuals, for that feeling. Often I will close my eyes – yet I still hear and feel those around me, the expansiveness of the place, and it makes appreciating the recital that more enjoyable.

          • ElectroB

            In other types of music audience feedback and
            improvisation can take the music to unexpected directions that sometimes produce completely new ideas that generate entire new styles. Check out Miles Davis, or Ornette Coleman, for instance. Or Brazilian folk musicians. Or classic (Hendrix / Zeppelin) and progressive (King Crimson) rock bands. Or some hip-hop acts with percussionists and/or scracthing DJ’s who use turntables as percussion instruments.

            The way each individual musician connects with his/her instrument makes each performance unique.

            The physical act of singing, playing drums or a violin or another physical sound producing device produces certain expressive ideas on the spot that create unique moments. Hell, even mistakes can turn into wonderful musical events if the musician is talented enough.

            Even in a classical music context, where everything is written down, the performance has variations that depend on the musician’s physical and mental talents, his/her mood, and even feedback from the audience.

            The problem with most electronic music “performances” is that no matter what the audience mood is, or what the DJ’s mood or individual talent is, most DJ’s are just choosing and changing tracks and increasing or decreasing volume levels. Apart from that, when they press that play button or drop a needle, everything will always sound the same, because *you are just presenting a recording of music, not actually playing the instruments*

            The only interesting electronic music performances I’ve ever seen
            are the ones where the musician combines loops and live sound processing with keyboards,percussions and controller devices for live sound processing and loop playing, and even then it is hard to make your performance engaging because there is still a level of disconnect between your physical actions (which influence your ideas at the moment) and the sound coming out of the speakers.

            Personally, as an audience member, I prefer watching bands, orchestras and concerts, and listen to electronic music at home – with the exception of projects where electronic musicians also play instruments and/or belong to bands and perform in actual live settings. And that is why I don’t go to most events billed as “electronic music festivals” (read: mostly overhyped people playing recordings in front of a lot of people) and avoid “laptop performances” (read: boring events where guys bring their compositions on laptops and press play).

            If you want to see actual live electronic music being done properly, check out CDM’s post on The Battles.

            http://createdigitalmusic.com/2015/07/watch-battles-reflect-loops-ableton-live-band-setting/

        • Smuff

          No its not. The experience of loud music in a room with eyes shut is very different from listening on headphones on a train or at home. For a start you feel the sound bodily. Often people close there eyes at classical music concerts to be at one with the sound and the performer is a distraction. Any way there is no right or wrong way to listen. If music is compelling one tends to find a way to engage with that, with performers or without… Your argument is like saying that cinema is not as good as live theatre. However if this is a personal preference and if that works for you then fair enough, but there is no such qualification in your argument.

          • yes this is a personal view of mine of course. not saying it’s not good. just saying that I feel there’s something missing in my opinion when performing music with devices. sure cinema is cool. but it’s not a performance.

        • Shannon

          Making music with computers and electronics is a trade-off. Musicians usually loose the one-to-one connection to sound but the gear opens a door to another world of sound and possibility.

        • Would it, though?

          You never closed your eyes at an orchestral concert? Like a bunch of people in black and white in chairs was the best image for the entire orchestral repertoire?

  • problem with electronic music is still: what are these people doing on the stage? there’s something about human expression through an instrument which seems to translate a lot better with expressive instruments. or forms like dancing. a light show might add something to the experience, sure. but if you go to far, you could simply delete the people on stage and let the soundman trigger the play-button.

    • Shannon

      nah, just close your eyes!

      • but then it would be the same as home/train/anywhere

        • guyz x guyz

          While I normally experience the sensation of it, I do not often actually have hundreds of people in my living room, listening with me, at home/train/anywhere.

          It’s the comfort one gets from feeling others sharing the same experience that you are, minus the potential for awkward social interactions.

          You still want people there, and want to feel a part of something, you just don’t want to interact with anything but the music.

          While I routinely attend the symphony, I am not sitting in a box, halfway back into the house, to watch the antics of the conductor, or the sweat bead off the first chair – I am going to experience music in a public setting, with other like-minded individuals, for that feeling. Often I will close my eyes – yet I still hear and feel those around me, the expansiveness of the place, and it makes appreciating the recital that more enjoyable.

          • Elekb

            In other types of music audience feedback and
            improvisation can take the music to unexpected directions that sometimes produce completely new ideas that generate entire new styles. Check out Miles Davis, or Ornette Coleman, for instance. Or Brazilian folk musicians. Or classic (Hendrix / Zeppelin) and progressive (King Crimson) rock bands. Or some hip-hop acts with percussionists and/or scracthing DJ’s who use turntables as percussion instruments.

            The way each individual musician connects with his/her instrument makes each performance unique.

            The physical act of singing, playing drums or a violin or another physical sound producing device produces certain expressive ideas on the spot that create unique moments. Hell, even mistakes can turn into wonderful musical events if the musician is talented enough.

            Even in a classical music context, where everything is written down, the performance has variations that depend on the musician’s physical and mental talents, his/her mood, and even feedback from the audience.

            The problem with most electronic music “performances” is that no matter what the audience mood is, or what the DJ’s mood or individual talent is, most DJ’s are just choosing and changing tracks and increasing or decreasing volume levels. Apart from that, when they press that play button or drop a needle, everything will always sound the same, because *you are just presenting a recording of music, not actually playing the instruments*

            The only interesting electronic music performances I’ve ever seen
            are the ones where the musician combines loops and live sound processing with keyboards,percussions and controller devices for live sound processing and loop playing, and even then it is hard to make your performance engaging because there is still a level of disconnect between your physical actions (which influence your ideas at the moment) and the sound coming out of the speakers.

            Personally, as an audience member, I prefer watching bands, orchestras and concerts, and listen to electronic music at home – with the exception of projects where electronic musicians also play instruments and/or belong to bands and perform in actual live settings. And that is why I don’t go to most events billed as “electronic music festivals” (read: mostly overhyped people playing recordings in front of a lot of people) and avoid “laptop performances” (read: boring events where guys bring their compositions on laptops and press play).

            If you want to see actual live electronic music being done properly, check out CDM’s post on The Battles.

            http://createdigitalmusic.com/2015/07/watch-battles-reflect-loops-ableton-live-band-setting/

        • Smuff

          No its not. The experience of loud music in a room with eyes shut is very different from listening on headphones on a train or at home. For a start you feel the sound bodily. Often people close there eyes at classical music concerts to be at one with the sound and the performer is a distraction. Any way there is no right or wrong way to listen. If music is compelling one tends to find a way to engage with that, with performers or without… Your argument is like saying that cinema is not as good as live theatre. However if this is a personal preference and if that works for you then fair enough, but there is no such qualification in your argument.

          • yes this is a personal view of mine of course. not saying it’s not good. just saying that I feel there’s something missing in my opinion when performing music with devices. sure cinema is cool. but it’s not a performance.

        • Shannon

          Making music with computers and electronics is a trade-off. Musicians usually loose the one-to-one connection to sound but the gear opens a door to another world of sound and possibility.

        • Would it, though?

          You never closed your eyes at an orchestral concert? Like a bunch of people in black and white in chairs was the best image for the entire orchestral repertoire?

  • Shannon

    that Cortini track is epic!

  • Shannon

    that Cortini track is epic!

  • Shannon

    that Cortini track is epic!

  • Tom

    You really have to work on your headlines.

  • Tom

    You really have to work on your headlines.

  • Tom

    You really have to work on your headlines.

  • Patrick

    What would a festival look like if missing the festival really meant missing the festival?…it would look like burning man

  • Patrick

    What would a festival look like if missing the festival really meant missing the festival?…it would look like burning man

  • Patrick

    What would a festival look like if missing the festival really meant missing the festival?…it would look like burning man

  • Tekknovator

    Inspiring stuff all along, thanks for that one. I gonna miss it though… 😉

  • Tekknovator

    Inspiring stuff all along, thanks for that one. I gonna miss it though… 😉

  • Tekknovator

    Inspiring stuff all along, thanks for that one. I gonna miss it though… 😉