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

Atonal Festival Shock Is Not Enough

Raime from London on stage in Berlin.
Raime from London on stage in Berlin. | Photo (detail): Camille Blake / Kraftwerk Berlin GmbH

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.

Berlin’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.

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

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.”

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.

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.

The 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

The 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.