Concert halls of the future Spaces of possibility

Bar, club, concert hall at once: Hamburg's “resonanzaum” shows a possible way of building event rooms of the future.
Bar, club, concert hall at once: Hamburg's “resonanzaum” shows a possible way of building event rooms of the future. | Photo (detail): resonanzaum

Trends in techno “Just before everything goes dark”

Statistics say that concertgoers are becoming older and older. Initiatives such as 'resonanzraum' in Hamburg counter this with new concepts and lure the younger generation into concerts. A model with prospects.

Before, of course, everything was better and a lot was also easier for the concert organizer. He set a time and a classical program, without outliers from other genres, took care that there were enough subscribers present, and then the music was performed and after the applause someone dutifully switched off the lights. Although things still function this way in many classical concert halls, and although some rising new buildings have the ambition to do it better than the top dogs, one question worries the industry: what should we do and omit today and all the more tomorrow so that we don’t show ourselves to be, out of a pure sense of duty to the tradition, expendable and from yesterday?

Concert halls as spaces of possibility

There is only one way to remain contemporary and relevant in the balancing act between entertainment and serious music: venues must transform themselves into spaces of possibility, away from traditional formats, away from rigid evening slots. For a musical snack a little concert would do as well. Away from stiff subscriptions structures, which smack of compulsory attendance. Away from “chalk and talk” instruction in emotion. Away too from some cherished formulas for concert menus, particularly the now stale sandwich model with the indigestible avant-garde between more popular pieces of music. Instead: use what you have, do as much as you can with the site and the site-specific options. New concepts and longer-term, tailor-made artist residencies.

No other new concert house construction in recent decades has caused so much turmoil as has the Elbe Philharmonic Hall. It can be considered as Hamburg’s attempt consistently to re-group itself and to derive a commitment to musical excellence from its own tradition, from the Gänsemarkt Opera of the Baroque to the beer-showering punks of the Electro / Hip Hop band Deichkind. In the autumn of 2012 a performance of tremendous symbolic power already showed the hanseatic audience how much seductively creative energy can be generated in a place when you exploit its unique character. Ironically, it was not Christoph Lieben-Seutter, the general director of the Laeiszhalle and the the Elbe Philharmonic Hall, but the Hamburg Theatre Festival that imported from the Radialsystem in Berlin Jochen Sandig’s Human Requiem. The music of the Deutsches Requiem by Brahms, a son of Hamburg, staged as a theatral spatialization in the Philharmonic’s so-called plaza. Thirty-seven meters above the Elbe, the Berlin Radio Choir performed the piece, thrice sold out.

Model: resonanzraum

In October 2014 an ambitious alternative concert house experiment was started in Hamburg. With a great deal of luck, bold capital injections and the backing of the Hamburg cultural policy, the Ensemble Resonanz (ER) found a new home in Europe’s largest high-rise bunker in the Feldstraße. The brutally chunky concrete block stands between the Reeperbahn and the trendy quarter Karolinenviertel and the also near Schanzenviertel. It is filled with, among others, creative companies, the studio of the internet radio station ByteFM and the club Uebel & Gefährlich (i.e. Bad and Dangerous). And the resonanzraum (i.e. Resonance Chamber): a mini-concert hall with a well-concealed orchestra infrastructure behind the large swinging doors. Its design is a far cry from noble and classic, and is instead rough and hip, there is a bar directly next to the seats. The resonanzraum is a classic club for a clientele of twenty-somethings and late-thirty-year-olds.

Here this age group is quite natural to stop by a concert of the “urban string” series for a cold beer and some late Beethoven. There are drinks and short concerts, DJ sets in between, and the word “subscription” comes from a parallel universe. At the opening ceremony, the members of the ER could hardly believe, after years of roving through the city, how well this 650-square-meter location fit their intentions, much more their target group. First they played Bruckner, then lounge music from a laptop, after that early classical by Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach. In the dim light of the bar a barmaid, with a revolver tattoo on her forearm, stopped serving. She wanted to listen.
“urban string” at resonanzraum, source: Ensemble Resonanz / Youtube

Cooperation instead of demarcation

Since then things have gone well for the ER. The concertgoers are as young as they are consistently excited. There are a dozen “urban string” concerts a year; the percentage of seats sold, with 230 to 250 visitors per evening, is one hundred. And then there are the concert series of other organizsers, including even the public service radio broadcaster NDR. Through a cooperation with ByteFM, the ER has gained a fine little information platform.

The resonanzraum is a “giant step”, thinks the ER manager Tobias Rempe, “for the city, to a whole new audience, to ourselves. The combination of good acoustics for chamber music and the club atmosphere is unique and ensures an overwhelming response. On the basis of this experience, we’re very much looking forward to the next big step: the opening of the Elbe Philharmonic Hall and our residency in its Chamber Music Hall. In the tension between these poles – the residency at the Philharmonic and the home base in St. Pauli – lies a fascinating opportunity for us in the music city Hamburg.”

Can Hamburg in general and the concept of the resonanzraum in particular serve as models? That is a difficult question. After the forbidding planning and cost disaster of the Elbe Philharmonic, municipalities barely still dare to plan new concert halls. The debate about the construction of a concert hall in Munich takes a long time, in spite of purported decisions. The new Music Centre in Bochum contains, as befits a new building, a multifunctional hall; but the decisive thing will be what is done with it.

For the Ensemble Resonanz, on the other hand, this is the beginning of exciting times, because the Chamber Music Hall of the Elbe Philharmonic will become their new home in January 2017. This is a clever move in several ways. On the one hand because it executes an image transfer from an off venue that could give the Elbe Philharmonic, a grave of alleged billions, a good dose of coolness. On the other hand because the string ensemble then will be in the enviable position of being able to tailor-fit even better its offerings and concepts in the dazzling freestyle grey zone between repertoire and risk to the respective venue. A win-win situation for classical music, which could hardly be more classical.

What music is played in techno and house clubs is subject to a constant change of influences and styles. The past decade was marked by minimal. Now the German club scene is increasingly producing artists who draw on classical techno and work it up for the present.

The word “techno” is often forced to serve as a description for all forms of electronic dance music. In a stricter sense, however, the term means a style that originated in Detroit in the late 1980s and set itself off from other kinds of electronic music by its particularly harsh sounds and fast, mechanical rhythms. After techno in its original form had long become an integral part of the German club scene, the minimalist approach dominated the noughties: the erstwhile rawness gave way to a more accurate sound aesthetics.

For several years now, however, the hard machine-sound has again found a larger audience. In their own series of events in small clubs and on newly established labels artists have again focussed on the rough-and-ready variant of electronic dance music. They transfer the force of classical techno to today’s club culture: the rhythms have become slower, but the harsh sounds all the more prominent.

More than just a party

One of these artists is Henning Baer. In 2009 he began with a friend to organize the party series Grounded Theory in Berlin. The idea was that Techno-DJs who were seldom heard outside Berghain and Tresor should play at their own parties. Baer and his friend organized the first parties in Berlin’s Arena Club. Later the series moved to the Stattbad Wedding, a municipal baths from the early twentieth century that had been converted into a club. Large format flyers, reminiscent of art prints, still announce the parties and are an important part of the project. Because the two organizers see techno as part of an artistic concept, not as “background music for lumpish partying”, as Baer puts it.

Baer himself and the Berlin DJ Milton Bradley deejay as residents at the events. In 2011, they together founded the label K209, on which they issue their own pieces. The success of the events and the label has led them to appear at European, Japanese and American clubs. Baer never supposed that a spontaneous idea would turn into a project that represents Berlin techno culture abroad: “Now people from England and Scandinavia ask me when the next party is taking place. Naturally that’s an emotional enrichment”, he says.

Artists in hiding

The Dystopian series of events had a similar development. In 2009, friends of the Berlin DJ Rødhåd were of the opinion that he needed his own forum because his selection of music did not really fit in at the parties where he was booked. “Rødhåd played sombre, melancholic techno. He created an atmosphere like a sunset, just before everything goes dark. He maintained this mood for hours”, says one of the organizers. Inspired by the sets of the young DJ, they founded Dystopian and appointed him their resident.

Later he was joined by the artists Alex.Do, Recondite, Felix K and Don Williams. The series takes place at the Arena Club, though not regularly. Because now the Dystopian artists are often on the go to gigs in other countries. The founding of the eponymous label, on which the artists have also appeared as producers since 2012, has probably contributed to this. Despite, or because of, their increasing success, neither the artists nor the organizers have revealed their real names. In this way they pursue that anonymity with which artists have repeatedly sought since the early days of techno to direct attention only to the music.

For the Vault Series, a Berlin techno label, playing with anonymity also belongs to its conception of itself: “The people behind the music are unimportant; it’s about the moment on the dance floor”, explains the label boss, who deejays as resident at the Stattbad Wedding under the name of “Subjected”. Other members of the projects are the producers Sawlin and Mørbeck. Subjected founded Vault Series in 2010 because back then there was hardly another label that showed any interest in the aggressive approach of the three Berliners. “Too hard, too distorted, too industrial” they were told. Subjected nevertheless invested in the first vinyl pressing and designed the label himself. He knew that this had been the right decision when well-known DJs started playing the pieces in his sets and industrial influences were heard more and more in the clubs.

Dreams of the future

Classical techno is present again not only in Berlin. In Munich, which is known rather for its house music culture, the brothers Dario und Marco Zenker operate the label Ilian Tape, on which they release both their own music and that of other producers. Techno is here the clear frame of reference, but there are also elements of Chicago house and electro (meaning the genre of the late 1980s).

With this mixture, the brothers initially found recognition mainly abroad. For a few years now they have been on the go in Europe and the United States as DJs and a live act. In Germany they are only now becoming better known, which may be owing to the Berlin-centrism of the German techno scene. In the Munich club Rote Sonne, the brothers hold Ilian Tape parties, which attract more than only a local audience; sometimes they draw even techno fans from Italy.

In tranquil Gießen, far away from big city club culture, the DJ and producer Johannes Volk has been honing his pieces since the 1990s. After first releases with other labels, he started in 2011 his own Exploration Records so as to realize his idea of techno not only acoustically but also in design. The Hessian designed the labels together with a friend: celestial bodies and spaceships in retro-futuristic drawings. The music is reminiscent of the origins of techno, when the then novel machine sounds awakened visions of the (technological) future. The label maker does not, however, see the reference to past utopias as backward-looking. For him, techno is “still the music of the future”. And this future may well possess positive connotations. In contrast to the sombreness of Berlin techno, harmonies repeatedly emerge in his pieces that bring light even to the darkest dance floors.
 

The video clips are from the Berlin artist duo The29Nov Films. Kevin Paschold and Sebastian Kökow search in online archives for footage and create from this videos for their favourite pieces of techno, house and electro. In the electronic music scene, not only their art of editing but also their music selection has found recognition.