Berlin Atonal is a festival of electronic music and audio visual performance housed in Kraftwerk, a former power plant built between 1960-64 at approximately the same time as the wall, now flanked by legendary techno club Tresor, Globus and OHM, the most recent edition to the precinct. Cavernous, smoke filled, darkly lit, the monumental building pulls you in; a romantic reminder of an industrial past. Kraftwerks enormity and its mothership relationship to its associated venues are integral to how the music is experienced, for better or sometimes, worse. Either way, it’s a space to experience, less describe. This collection of venues all come under the care and management of Tresor’s originator, turn-cultural activist, Dimitri Hegemann, who in 1982 established Berlin Atonal, originally in Kreuzberg, as a platform for musicians such as Einstürzende Neubauten, Malaria, Didaktische Einheit to, “launch their entirely novel ideas about the possibilities of sonic expression.” Lauded as an outlet for early adventures in rock-born, European noise music, and its advocation of experimentalism, and transgressive music, Berlin Atonal from 1982-1990, set a high precedent against which the current festival is constantly gauged.
The 2016 program is the most ambitious yet in the four years since its reinstatement under the directorship of Harry Glass (AU), Laurens von Oswald (AU), and Paulo Reachi (FR), presenting 108 acts across 5 days. Two stages – Main Stage and Stage Null in Kraftwerk, Tresor, OHM, Globus, the Projektionsraum, and a more intimate, subsidiary venue in the control room for the Kraftwerk, hosting modular synthesisers, are all fired up for the festivals tenure. Whilst the program at both a glance and close inspection, invokes fits of excitement in many a techno and computer music die-hard (the list is too long to mention even a small group), this programmatic ambitiousness renders it humanly impossible to capture the festival in anywhere near its entirety. This is one of the points of tension for Atonal 2016; it’s caught between being a festival of adventurous music and a club night and the different approaches to listening and engagement they inherit. To experience, it was somewhat shambolic and at points infuriating; as though I was being teased or tested to make it through the program, which you can’t help but fail at.
Wednesday kicked the festival off with what could be seen as mini-computer/laptop music historiography, with Peter Zinovieff, of EMS and VCS3 synthesiser fame, in duo with British Cellist Lucy Railton; PITA, the distinctively 90’s project of Editions Mego label head, Peter Rehberg, and seminal Viennese duo Farmers Manual (Mego label artists also). Zinovieff and Railton presented the World premiere of THIS on the Main Stage, a piece for synthesiser and Cello in which they demonstrated a shared respect for musical space, atonalism (pun intended) and discordant texture belonging to invested interrogations of their instruments. Both PITA and Farmers Manual were as disappointing as I’d hoped they wouldn’t be. Belonging to a crucial league of 90’s European laptop experimentalism, the sine wave, glitch and digital noise walls they pioneered didn’t, from my perspective, hold attention or cause the rupture they once did.
Kraftwerks downstairs stage Null, kicked off Thursday’s program with UK based multidisciplinary media artist, musician and all round character Russell Haswell, respected for his contribution to contemporary extreme computer music and live AV performances. Presenting, “stream of consciousness youtube jockeying with commmentary”, Haswell popped a bottle of cheap champagne, and launched statements such as, “I don’t like traditional instruments, they take up my space”, as he scoured the internet for film trailers, early Yamatsuka Eye performances and the incredible video of the Incapacitants, playing outside at Fukushima in 1991. This style of performance is a trope familiar to any contemporary art follower who has heard the phrase “post-internet”, and Haswell lacked the critical, reflective or conceptual intent for it to come off as anything other than an in-joke. For a performance that at its conceptual core is tied to sharing, it espoused isolation and made me feel cold.
Later on Main Stage, duo Upper Glossa, comprised of Caterina Barbieri and Kali Malone, presented the world premiere of their new collaborative electroacoustic commission Fundament, with visuals by Doron Sadja. The duo masterfully sculpted minimal Roland synthesiser arpeggios, processed guitar with a discerning use of textures that bound a singular and focused composition. Fundament was a commanding, no-messing-about mediation on tone and subtle textures accompanied by Sadja’s liminal, pastel fragments that bled across the gargantuan vertical projection screen settling the expectant crowd. Next, These Hidden Hands, duo of Tommy Four Seven and James Kronier too utilised the resonant cavern that is the Main Stage to their benefit, but by means of their signature slow-building, dismantled break beats surrounded by complex grimey tonality and a much darker tone than present on their records. UK’s Raime, whilst leaving the audience waiting in anticipation at Stage Null for 40 mins, delivered Thursday’s peerless performance. Playing the chord progression from Dead Heat, the single off their 2016 release Tooth, for the majority of their set in different ways, the group who incorporated an intensely talented female drummer, dragged the audience deep into a foreboding tight jam.
Upper Glossa, Caterina Barbieri and Kali Malone, present the world premiere of “Fundament”, with visuals by Doron Sadja, image Camille Blake.
Friday’s Main Stage programming, whilst hosting an eminent calibre of artists such as Jonas Kopp with Rainer Kohlberger, and Drew McDowall of Coil fame in collaboration with AV installation artist Florence To, encapsulated the main downfall of the festival’s programming: an over saturation of black and white 1990’s noise and data aesthetics and resonant drone belonging partially to Kraftwerks architecture. This theme permeated so many of the performances, visual works in the Projektionsraum and the festivals design concept, that no matter how hard the granulated black and white noise in a performance teared at the large screen, they all morphed into one wash of sublimated confusion. This resulted in ordinarily engaging works (although too reminiscent of 1990’s and Ryoji Ikeda aesthetics to pass my critique fully intact), lost on one another due to their similarity. The festival’s apex though, came in the form of label Jealous God’s presentation of: Optimistic Decay on Stage Null. Fronted by white lilies and their associated perfume and winged by the Jealous God insignia, the stage hosted a stunning lineup of its artists including Kerri Le Bon, 51717, Champagne Mirrors, and DVA Damas. Label head Silent Servant and Phase Fatale in duo built a beautiful set of hissing industrial texture and aggressive rhythms that made way for Hayden Payne’s (Fatale) solo force majeure. Payne’s glistening, evil, fun, and brutally driving set cast a hostile contemporary voice against his influences like Genocide Organ and Haus Arafna made interesting by his utilisation of live feedback and vocals, controlled perfectly to fit a heavy EBM framework. Alexey Volkov closed the stage with a much darker, sombre and statuesque delivery of what he terms as a “modern interpretation of techno body music”; a somewhat difficult adjustment after Fatale’s coursing momentum, yet none the less, an interesting way close the the stage’s presentation of Jealous God’s signature cold, post-industrial techno stylings. This particular part of the festival was for me personally, positively life changing. The energy that poured of this stage from these artists was palpable, unforgiving and liberating in a way that I have not experienced in years.
Phase Fatale and Silent Servant in duo on the “Jealous God: Optimistic Decay” showcase at Stage Null, image Helge Mundt.
Sunday was one of the more resolved nights of programming, including ambient techno legends Porter Ricks and Australia’s Robin Fox jaw dropping RGB laser performance at Main Stage. As the audience stood paralysed by the trio of coloured lasers that cut through the smoke with the chaotic and precise geometry that Fox is for good reason synonymous, it was clearly the most suitable performance for the cathedral-like space across the festival.
Robin Fox, RGB Live Laser, Main Stage Kraftwerk, image Camille Blake.
It’s clear that in 2016 Berlin Atonal festival successfully set out to support an incredible group of artists in presenting highly calibrated articulations of their work. The festival brings together a (very) specific community of predominantly white, Euro-American, and too often male-centric, electronic and techno artists under one roof for a week for a growing audience hungry young ears. The comparative hot pot it finds itself in between the transgressive and experimental Atonal of the 80’s and 90’s and its contemporary incarnation is from my perspective irrelevant; the time, context, industry and tools with which artists produce have changed too much. This is not an experimental festival, nor does it present transgressive approaches to techno, laptop experimentalism or its media art crossovers in the way that it might have for other music in the late 80’s and 90’s. Atonal is a different beast in a different time, one that would not exist without the histories established by Hegemann and generous funding from the Hauptstadtkulturfonds (Berlin Capital Cultural Fund) with a very strong sense of image. Speaking with Oswald, Glass and Reachi cemented the fact that the contemporary Berlin Atonal avoids strategic curatorial moves, political complexity and “transgression for transgressions sake”. Their interests lay in working with artists from these fields that align with their “taste”, those associated with Tresor’s networks, and strengthening the activities of the wider Berlin community by inviting them into the fold, (recently closed Neukölln venue N.K devised some of the OHM program). Historiography, criticality and experimental rhetorics aside, Berlin Atonal is a unparalleled opportunity to experience a particular breed of dark, raw-edged, post-industrial, bass heavy, world class techno, electro-acoustic and technology centric music, in new and exciting collaborations all under one magnificent roof.