One weekend in early November, we gathered at the Funkhaus in Berlin, to do something that might seem obvious for the music community: listen. But this time, it was not just to hear music, but to listen to lectures, sound installations, performances, and most of all, each other. This was Loop, a summit for music makers and creative thinkers run by the seminal software company Ableton.
Although the weekend welcomed performances by a canon of incredible artists from pioneers to up-and-comers, for me the weekend’s highlights came in its lectures and panel discussions, where the opportunity arose not only to hear the words of the people shaping today’s music world, but to engage with them, challenge them, ask them questions, and make them think.
Dr. Tara Rodgers, a music historian, musician, and composer of electronic music flew in from Washington to lecture on the history of synthesized sound. The founder of Pink Noises, a website geared to connecting women in electronic music, Rodgers’ talk used literary critiques to approach music theory. Her “sound as waves” concept stood out in particular, that music terminology is inherently male because of its associations to a mariner’s journey, a notion that romanticizes the white male position — men as explorers, composers, engineers, and figures of electronic music. I liked her talk so much that I just purchased Pink Noises, a selection of interviews with women in electronic music compiled by Rodgers and published in 2010.
Later, Loop creative producer Ed Williams shared clips of Ableton’s recent project with RBMA, Searching for Sound, a documentary film series that follows different artists around their native city as they make field recordings, collaborate with locals, and write a track based on their experiences. Mitya, from a small forest-side small town in Russia, and Sandunes, from Mumbai, one of the most densely populated cities in India, shared their stories. The contrast between the two stories and the music they inspired was palpable, but the real charm came in how they re-experienced those experiences while watching the clips, remembering special moments and the songs that went with them.
Dub techno pioneer Moritz von Oswald sat down in conversation with esteemed journalist Philip Sherburne for a chat on the studio as an instrument. While the talk itself was interesting — “Sometimes I get up at four am just to see if a track I wrote still sounds the same,” von Oswald said — it lacked the energy of some of the weekend’s other highlights. Von Oswald was a tough one to crack; offering up a rare smile only when talking about his various collaborative efforts. Kudos to Sherburne for his interview tenacity.
Morton Subotnick, the synth pioneer whose Silver Apples of the Moon was the first longform electronic piece ever to be pressed on vinyl, played a round of “Invisible Jukebox” with The Wire’s Frances Morgan. True to form, Subotnick was gruff and at times conflagrant, but his stories about his early days were charming and authoritative. Offering up educated opinions about each track that Morgan played, and correctly guessing one of the Pauline Oliveros numbers down to the year it was released, his agency as one of the most important figures in synthesizer music was strikingly clear. His shrewd analysis that “just because it’s strange doesn’t make it experimental” was on point, and the discussion about intuitive music versus truly experimental music that followed was compelling.
In one of the most inspiring discussions of the weekend, Robert Henke’s artist talk filled the smaller studio setting over capacity. Henke, an Ableton co-founder, collaborator, artist, producer and industry veteran, discussed his Fragile Territories installation with composer and Loop moderator Dennis DeSantis. Fragile Territories was Henke’s first foray into laser-based generative AV installations, debuting in 2012. Henke described the show’s various iterations, focusing on a certain dark shadow that moves across the field at regular intervals. Initially in 2012, he said, the shadow passed every three seconds. When he reworked the installation in 2014, the shadow passed every six seconds. Now, in 2016, the shadow passes every nine seconds and is, Henke explained, a testament to his growing confidence as an artist that can trust in his own work without needing to show everything at once.
Suzanne Ciani, the affectionately named Diva of the Diode, took over the Funkhaus’ main recording studio, which likewise filled to the brim as revelers gathered to witness her unforgettable live set, performed on the Buchla 200, one of the company’s earliest models. Her set was like a thunderstorm; so much movement and emotion that the electricity in the room was almost tangible. Her talk, moderated again by Dennis DeSantis, was equally inspiring and engaging. Ciani’s interest in the animation of electronic instruments is no secret, she refers to her tools and her music both as “alive,” claiming she has no idea what she’s going to do until she gets up there and brings the music to life. “Follow your passions,” she said warmly in response to an audience member who wondered how to transition from piano to synthesizer, “And the piano will be there waiting for you when you get back.”
Lastly, in what was clearly the most anticipated discussion of the weekend, The Wire’s Frances Morgan hosted a discussion with the inimitable Lee “Scratch” Perry, his longtime bandleader Emch, and Volker Schaner, the director who made Visions of Paradise, the documentary on Perry’s life and career. Perry emerged in his signature outrageous outfit — mirrors adorning his hat, gold record bag in tow — to booming applause, spouting words that seemed silly on the surface but as you listened more deeply, unfolded as strong, powerful and poignant. Schaner chimed in telling the audience about his experience filming Perry in his native country, that for all he’s done for the scene in Jamaica, people bow to him in the streets as he walks by. “Lee has secrets that nobody else knows,” Schaner explained as a clip of Perry singing his own version of a Bob Marley tune rolled in the background. Those secrets rang so stunningly true throughout — Perry confided to us, “I wish to never be an adult,” because it would be too boring. The talk and the weekend wrapped up perfectly, as Perry laughed loudly, stating matter-of-factly that we would be lost without music, singing that reality can be magic.