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?
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:
Atonal: Line-Up + Mix von CoH [German]
Photo at top – Camille Blake.