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Shock Is Not Enough – the revitalized Atonal Festival in Berlin

Camille Blake / Kraftwerk Berlin GmbHBerlin’s post-punk scene met at the Atonal Festival in the 1980s. Now, after twenty-three year pause, the festival has positioned itself anew. Rock music hardly still plays a role. Today Atonal is enrolled under the banner of electronic music.

Lost in laptop music: the duo Raime from London at the Atonal Festival 2013, photo by Camille Blake, Kraftwerk Berlin GmbHRaime from London on stage in Berlin, photo: Camille Blake / Kraftwerk Berlin GmbH

Dimitri Hegemann organized the first series of Atonal festivals between 1982 and 1990. He had come to Berlin from a Westphalian small town in the seventies and witnessed bands such as Malaria and Die Haut, Berlin’s reaction to punk. They toured the United States, but at home appeared only at small venues before initiates. “I wanted to bring this new form of expression to the stage in concentrated form and present it to the public. People came and wanted a sensation. We even once had Syrian choirs”, says Hegemann, recalling those years.

At the first Atonal Festival local scene stars such as the Einstürzende Neubauten appeared next to unknown groups such as Didaktische Einheit. Over the years, they were joined by international artists like Psychic TV and Test Dept. It was about breaking old listening habits and offering an alternative to the mainstream. There were also small scandals. In 1982, for example, the cult band Die Tödliche Doris refused to appear: Atonal was supported by the Berlin Senate and the musicians wanted nothing to do with the likes of them. Too much Establishment.

The Atonal Festival 2013

Dimitri Hegemann, pioneer of techno events and master mind of the Atonal Festival since the beginning, photo by Camille Blake / Kraftwerk Berlin GmbH For the revived Atonal Festival in the summer of 2013, Hegemann no longer chose the artists himself. He engaged the music journalist Harry Glass, the label owner Paulo Reachi and the musician Laurens von Oswald as music curators. All in their mid-twenties, they are the same age as was Hegemann when he organized the first Atonal. This means both continuity and re-orientation. “What was uncompromising in 1982 is no longer necessarily that in 2013”, says Harry Glass. “Smashing your instrument, for example. The same attitude puts you somewhere else today. Today it’s about creating something and playing with expectations. The shock, experiment as such, isn’t enough any more. In this way, the challenge is now greater.”

A kind of handmade cultural anarchy: the poster of the Atonal Festival 1985, copyright: Dimitri Hegemann The stars of yesteryear were not invited back; Frieder Butzmann and ZE´V were the only exceptions. In general, almost no bands played at Atonal 2013, but rather projects and individuals artists, a sign of the times: “We believe that today the most exciting music originates in the zone between electronic dance music – techno and house – and experimental electronic music”, explains Glass. This starting-point was chosen deliberately. The first Atonal phase ended in 1990 when “atonal” experiments and electronic dance music came into contact. At the end of the eighties, the acid house wave spilled over from Great Britain to Berlin.

Hegemann and his comrades-in-arms ran the UFO in a Kreuzberg basement, then beginning in 1991, Tresor. The new club in the basement of a war-ravaged department store close to Potsdamer Platz consolidated Berlin’s reputation as techno city. Tresor, and its successor club in the basement of a power plant, Kraftwerk, where today the Atonal Festival takes place, represented the pure doctrine of techno and to this day the latter still addresses the Party People. To this extent the new festival also raises an “atonal”, experimental claim on the cosmos of electronic dance music. So we have come full circle, at least conceptually.

At least it is party time in an unusual surrounding, photo by Camille Blake / Kraftwerk Berlin GmbHParty with some industrial flavor: late at night at the Atonal Festival, photo: Camille Blake / Berlin Kraftwerk GmbH

Not much of then

In one point the new Atonal is more radical than its predecessor: back then it used established venues. Atonal 2013 distanced itself from the concert scene by taking place in a former thermal power plant in Berlin-Mitte. The hall is as big as an airport hangar, as raw as the set of a post-apocalyptic science fiction film; summer heat pervades the room. Projects like the Italian Duo Voices from the Lake, which like many other acts at the festival emerged from the electronic dance music scene, have long freed themselves from its imperatives. The pounding of grooves has been reduced to a tapping. Instead of animating to dance or spreading party mood, the tracks generate a wall-of-sound, as absorbing as it is enigmatic. In front of the stage, the audience tries to dance, but the music hardly allows it. Farther back in the room, festival visitors sit on the floor in groups.

Electronic Crossover from Berlin with international fan base: Brandt Brauer Frick at the Atonal Festival 2013, photo by Camille Blake / Kraftwerk Berlin GmbHThe old Atonal was an event for Berliners. In 2013 it was also aimed at music fans among Berlin tourists who want to throw themselves into the city’s nightlife. Harry Glass: “Today you have a hostel round the corner where a thousand people are living. They’re here, they want to see something. We want to show them something they haven’t yet seen. And in the best possible form.” It is no accident that the adventuresome music understanding of the eighties has just now again become relevant. Industrial once embodied the electronic wing of post-punk and was one of the breeding grounds out of which techno developed. In their repetitive, mechanical rhythms the two styles are similar. But in mood and attitude, industrial and techno have nothing in common: existentialism, No Future, (self-) hate and aggression turned over the years into ecstasy, affirmation and community. You no longer ram your skull against the wall of the concert hall, but dance until your body drips with sweat.

Party meet industrial

An inspiring venue and a challenge for the Atonal Festival 2014: the former thermal power plant in Berlin-Mitte, photo by Camille Blake / Kraftwerk Berlin GmbHThe industrial revival represented at the festival by musicians like Cut Hands, Vatican Shadow and Kassem Mosse confronted the people in Kraftwerk with pounding noise landscapes and massive hammers. But an aesthetic shock such as when Blixa Bargeld of the Einstürzende Neubauten bored holes in the concert hall wall with a jackhammer in 1982 was hardly likely to reoccur. The concerts were too uniform and closed in themselves for that. Nearly all the musicians played with a laptop. The plethora of available sound material seems to prevent a confrontation with the audience; much of the music sounded similar, without edges, without vision. Dimitri Hegemann was therefore not completely satisfied: “That’s the Apple Generation. Despite the 500 plug-ins, everything sounds nice and pleasing”. Subversion was yesterday. And it is the challenge for Atonal 2014.

Alexis Waltz
is music journalist and cultural scientist. He works for magazines like Spex, Groove, for the Süddeutsche Zeitung and lives in Berlin.

Translation: Jonathan Uhlaner
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Internet-Redaktion
September 2013

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