Various Venues, Berlin | 24 January – 2 February
Berlin’s CTM festival pitches itself as “A festival for adventurous art and music”. Now in its 15th year, a skim read of the bill is preparation for an expedition into a vast unknown world of noise and electroacoustic music via the more familiar territory of electronic legends and current artists. The line-up, although admittedly ambitious, felt like a labour of love. Its deft curation effortlessly drew links between the work from experimental composers, jazz improvisers and modern legends like KTL, Porter Ricks and the Moritz von Oswald Trio.
An integral part of this year’s line-up was the Editions Mego label showcase, featuring noise performances from Bee Mask, Russell Haswell and Yasunao Tone, diffusions of work by Ákos Rózmann and ex Sonic Youth member Jim O’Rourke and an exquisite, grinding and intensely loud set of improvised drone from KTL. Part of the first event of the week at Berghain, KTL’s performance was given an ideal platform for an hour of overwhelming drone and shattering percussion. A genuinely powerful performance in every sense of the word, KTL provided the highlight of a wonderfully presented cross section of the output of Editions Mego.
Figurehead of experimentalism in techno Rabih Beani, better known to many as Morphosis, shared a stage with Charles Cohen twice over the course of CTM, having recently issued three EPs of Cohen’s historic work; once as part of a series of artist talks, where Cohen and Beani discussed the story that led to their recent collaboration, and again playing an evening of improvised electronics.
Beani’s solo performance revolved around the interplay between a wealth of weird synthesized sounds, ranging from subdued loops to ferocious blasts, and a chiming dulcimer, looped and stretched to provide a unique textural underpinning, all presented in immersive surround sound.
A focussed, mature performance from Cohen followed. The set alternated between mesmerising rhythms and textures that floated somewhere between synthetic and natural while Cohen fed on the attention of the rapt audience, drawing the listeners into a world of powerfully emotive atonal soundscapes that defied definition. Working his way around his famous Buchla Music Easel, Cohen demonstrated beautiful virtuosity befitting of an artist that has spent the last 30 years of their life dedicated almost entirely to one instrument.
In the joint talk, Cohen revealed that he had almost given up making music about five years ago and that his performance at CTM was one of only a handful of European shows he has ever played. This made it all the more touching when his performance was met with a standing ovation.
The following collaborative jam between Cohen and Beani’s improvised jazz group The Upperground Orchestra was another exhilarating improvised performance, rich with development, collective shifts of direction, and a level of communication and empathy between the players that was enthralling to watch unfold.
As The Upperground Orchestra concluded, there was a rush to get a train across Kreuzberg to see the Moritz von Oswald Trio playing with the legendary Afrobeat drummer Tony Allen, billed to start only 30 minutes later.
Despite arriving breathless to see these members of the dance music establishment play something of a home gig at Berghain, following such vital performances earlier in the evening, there was something cold and unexciting about the slowly shifting pallet of electronic dub sounds and loose fluttering drums. Despite the evident craftsmanship in their music, we longed for something with the visceral connection that KTL and Cohen had achieved.
Where the Moritz von Oswald Trio disappointed, composer Owen Roberts delivered with a nuanced and overwhelmingly physical interpretation of techno, opening the following night’s techno event with a composition commissioned specifically for this year’s CTM festival. Recycled Hyperprism Plastik for Amplified Chamber Ensemble encompassed influences from the world of electroacoustic music and dance music, performed entirely with live instruments; the piece represented a genuinely innovative take on techno and the role of the acoustic instrument in electronic music.
As a counterpoint to the control of Roberts’ composition, controversial Swedish artist CM von Hausswolff and Sam Kerridge’s sets were both superbly unrestrained. CM von Hausswolff leant more towards a relatively straightforward mix of power electronics and drone, while Kerridge shouted unintelligibly into a microphone, somehow managing to squeeze an amazing amount of groove out of his unique brand of uncomplicated techno. The passion of both artists was apparent and infectious.
Dub techno originators Porter Ricks followed, bringing their submerged aesthetic to Berghain’s monstrous soundsystem with a thump so deep and material that the slow overwhelming kicks became part of the body’s reaction to the music, easily confused with the listener’s own heartbeat.
Continuing the deep rolling rhythms set in motion by Porter Ricks, a recently reincarnated Hypnobeat crouched over an incredible collection of analogue drum machines, not missing a beat over the course of the slowly evolving improvised set of analogue techno. The original member of Hypnobeat, James Dean Brown, was joined onstage by Helena Hauff, who clearly shared his understanding and love of the art of dance music and the machines that have defined its many sounds over the last 30 years.
Dasha Rush’s rich techno combined the flexibility and power of a hardware-based setup with a beautiful degree of control and a sound so polished it could have come straight from a studio. Her set was incredibly well measured and delivered with austere professionalism, whilst eliciting a genuine emotional response.
The contrast between Dasha Rush and Truss and Tessela, appearing together as TR\ER, was extreme. Without any attempt at subtlety, TR\ER’s raw Jeff Mills-esque 909 jams interspersed with punching breakbeats were well received by a crowd clearly yearning for something harder. However the similarities between the two sets were even clearer than the differences. Performing with a deep understanding of the relationship between machines, crowd and artists, Dasha Rush and TR\ER both gave master classes in the art of live dance music.
Concrete Fence, or Regis and Russell Haswell, played an abrasive and schizophrenic DJ set entirely befitting two of noise and techno’s most arrogant practitioners. Moments such as a gabber track jump cutting midway though a bar to an accapella from New Order’s Confusion were fun and entertaining but ultimately extremely tiring.
Whilst the evenings were dedicated to performance, there were dozens of talks and workshops to be attended during the days of CTM. Lectures from Christian Zanési, Kees Tazelaar and Mats Lindström were accompanied by multichannel sound diffusions of historic works produced at their respective studios (the GRM, The Institute of Sonology in The Hague and the EMS Stockholm). An exhibition on the forgotten practices of noise music in pre-Stalin Soviet Russia was supplemented by a series of lectures on audio-visual art in the soviet block up to the 1970s. There was an informative panel discussion on cyberfeminism and a series of artist talks, all complimenting the evening performances wonderfully and weaving a coherent, if at times stretched, thread through several histories of experimental electronic music.
There are many artists that will go unmentioned in this review, and many more that, due to the relentlessness of CTM’s schedule, we were unable to see. Lasting over a week, CTM is not a festival for the faint hearted. This really is the strength and weakness of CTM: as it is genuinely impossible to attend every event, one is forced to pick and choose, but the broad and fascinating range of artists on the bill tell an incredible story, leaving you wishing you could be in two places at once.
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Words: Thomas Painter