Berlin: Take My Breath Away

Roddy Schrock
Roddy Schrock
Photo by Hideki Kubota

Within the wild, wide universe of music, there’s a small planet called New. On that planet, there is the narrow island known as Electronics. Way off on the northwest side of that island, just past the savage village Video Installation, is a tiny unnamed cave where sound art lives, and off in the corner of that cave there’s a warm fire burning and that part of the cave is known as Berlin. The hoodie’d group warming themselves around the flames are all originally from other parts, drawn here by the sparkles, flashes, glitter, and strange popping noises seeping out of the crevasses. Once inside, easily finding available space for themselves and their shiny aluminum PowerBooks, they never desired to leave again.

If there is a Berlin aesthetic, and I would answer affirmatively on that question, pinning it down is a bit of a challenge. It’s all about studies in contrast: concrete yet ephemeral, bird chirps plus white noise feedback, depth and surface that seems to be one and the same. Everything appears to be represented here, and it’s all completely wide-open. The kind of openness demanded, not requested, by this aesthetic is a breath of cool, fresh air. The technology has completely and tangibly saturated the masses and is now firmly in the hands of kids of all ages.

Freed from weary conceptualism, fascinated by inherently playful qualities of sound on its own without apology, the artists of Berlin are defining in real-time what sound and technology are capable of, feeling out its border and pushing at its edges. Ragtag and idealistic, they make music that is up and down and all over the place but clearly focused in its 360-degree peripheral vision.

Example one: Nathan Fuhr’s ad hoc Cobra Ensemble. Performing at a space called Ausland last week, the ensemble featured avant-turntablist Ignaz Schick playing broken pieces of records with spinning toys rubbing up against the stylus, Otomo Yoshihide-style. Within the confines of Zorn’s game piece classic, they tore through expectations, at turns playful, aggressive, pensive, and reserved. The range of their performance and the enthusiasm from both the performers and the audience is the norm in this city of experimental sound. The ensemble itself is curated on a rotating basis by different artists, in the past featuring Berlin-based American expats such as Jason Forrest and Kevin Blechdom. Nathan Fuhr keeps Cobra super fresh, continually breathing new life into it by finding the most fascinating cutting-edge musicians at any given time and sharply focusing their collective creative energy to make a sonic flash in the moment.

Example two: Sinebag, the project of Leipzig-based Alexander Schubert with whom I shared the bill at Zentrale Randlage in Berlin and Hörbar in Hamburg. He plays behind a collection of junk objects: an antique PC laptop, an old battery-powered fan, a hanging Indonesian cymbal, a child’s tape recorder, several large blocks of something-or-other, and a tiny microphone suspended inside a small glass used for making and controlling feedback, perhaps an homage in miniature to Alvin Lucier. When performing he pulls out a guitar and scrapes, tweaks, bangs, and abuses it in a simultaneously serious and playful manner. Meanwhile, the computer picks up pieces of his eccentric weaving, hacking it into a strange colorful tapestry of sound. Schubert seems to have found the answer to the persistent question of how to perform with a laptop. Just pile up enough bric-a-brac around it and clink everything together….It keeps the audience interested, and it sounds amazing. His fragile balance between a historical understanding of electronic experimental music and a sharp pop sensibility is super kühl.

Berlin, with its combination of low rents, high IQ’s, and restless creativity, has become the unquestioned international center of innovation in the sound arts, and may have something akin to the relation between New York City and Abstract Expressionism in the ’50s. Who can say how long this aural paradise will last, but one thing is certain: The future is being created in this crazy laboratory of a city right now.

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Roddy Schrock is a sound artist who digitally mines everyday sound for the profound and canvasses the glitzy, rough edges of pop for its articulate immediacy. He has lived and worked in Tokyo, The Hague, New York, and San Francisco, with performances in the Czech Republic, Holland, Japan, and North America. He is also an educator, teaching summer workshops on SuperCollider software at STEIM (Netherlands).