In 2014 free jazz and electronic music continued to grow closer. A key factor in that ongoing development is Berlin’s international appeal as well as its flourishing gallery and art scene, which makes trendsetting collaborations possible in new venues.
Kraftwerk, a band that have always been more highly prized in the great wide world than in their native country, perfected a performance concept in 2014 and increasingly cleared up misunderstandings about what faithfulness to the original really means. Their concept for a retrospective, which involved playing eight of the albums in their catalogue raisonné eight nights in a row, was commissioned in 2010 by Klaus Biesenbach, then curator of the Berlin Biennale, and premiered two years later at MoMA. And four years later, in 2014, Kraftwerk gave a series of retrospective concerts in various cities, including Mexico City, Los Angeles and Vienna.
Thanks to a light touch, improvisation, dynamism and a poetically concrete approach to their lyrics, Kraftwerk managed to auto-regenerate, even without releasing a new album, and to seem more permeable than a host of other electronic musicians, many of whom, given their precarious situation and identical digital instrumentarium, are turning in circles, struggling to assert an identity and pertinent positions.
It was also fascinating to observe last year how the media are still grappling with the question of whether a band who play within the crash barriers of complex audio-visual patterns and without visible instruments to boot should be rated as static or as free after all. The answer is never perceptible at the first concert: the differences from previous gigs only become apparent in the course of (supposed) repetition. Kraftwerk, whom many still have the knee-jerk reaction of regarding as the antithesis of improvisation, have demonstrated an ability to regenerate that radiates into other fields as well. The question of the disappearance of the protest song, for example, which has been debated (by and large inconclusively) in recent years in the electronic music scene and elsewhere, is loaded with topical importance by Kraftwerk in the audio-visual update of their track Radioaktivität: Ralf Hütter intones a lament in Japanese in the direction of Fukushima, thereby underscoring that, above and beyond micro-improvisation in live performance, a song can indeed undergo a macro-evolution over the course of decades.
Electronic music is slowing down
How slow can electronic music get? That was demonstrated by the Gatto Musculoso Listening Session organized by Phuong Dan at the Pudel in Hamburg, Detlef Weinrich’s Salon des Amateurs in the Kunsthalle Düsseldorf and Hanno Leichtmann’s Grand Jeté series at the OHM Club in Berlin’s Kraftwerk.
Phuong Dan | Photo: Promo
What these concert series have in common is that they don’t treat electronic music as entertainment for weekend tourists looking for kicks, but dare some anti-functional experiments in the lowest BPM zones, where krautrock, cosmic and minimal electronic music in the tradition of John Carpenter become post-kraut and post-cosmic. And the new thing about these club nights is that the venue is regarded as a meeting place and the music as inspiration, thus celebrating the opposite of functionalized music, and it seems merely a matter of time before the club concepts explored here in Germany find copycats abroad. Liberated from the dogma of danceability, the performances by the DJs, many of whom share their gigs with guest DJs and play the exact opposite of the electronic music for which they’re known, smack of grass-roots revolutions.
It’s remarkable how the generations mix and mingle at these events, how the sonic visions of the DJs – all of whom also produce the music they play – are starting to converge on a conception of barroom music best described by imagining a pianist in a hotel bar improvising on John Cage instead of playing Moon River. It is a matter of gestures expressing both rejection and inclination at once, pitting the rampant commercialization and resulting reduction of electronic dance music to its practical function against a position that is presumably harder to consume and embraces the listener as a critical authority.
Improv music enters into new alliances
Electronic musicians are increasingly looking to close ranks with improv musicians and the performance art scene. The in many respects felicitous collaboration between label operator (Monika Enterprise and Moabit Musik) and musician Gudrun Gut and Faust’s Hans Joachim Irmler under the moniker Gut and Irmler is worth singling out not only because it cuts across the lines of demarcation between generations, but also because it casts off all prejudice to fuse contrary musical concepts. Free improvisation meets the patterns of programmed beats and sequences here.
While the Gut and Irmler sessions were a unique encounter, half the world have been collaborating with André Vida, who works the border between free jazz and electronic, including musicians like Max Loderbauer, Rashad Becker, Ricardo Villalobos and Arto Lindsay as well as artists like Tino Sehgal, Tarek Atoui and Lawrence Weiner. Vida lives in Berlin and is signed to PAN Records, whose musicians and producers, many of whom are likewise based in Berlin, are constantly collaborating. Sometimes atonal, sometimes improv and free jazz-influenced, these collaborative pursuits in the field of electronic music have become a matter of course, having long been fostered in London (at the Serpentine Gallery, co-curated by Hans Ulrich Obrist, as well as at Hyperdub Records) and at art institutions like the Castello di Fosdinovo in Italy through performance series and artist residencies. This new and mutually stimulating juxtaposition of abstract music, electronic music and art is enjoying an unprecedented boom in Berlin. André Vida put out the album Minor Differences on the London label Entr’acte last year and was commissioned to compose the opening music for the 8th Berlin Biennale in 2014.
Of course these digital-acoustic crossovers between electronic music and free jazz are also fuelled by increasingly courageous serialized reissues of music by the likes of electronic pioneers Hans-Joachim Roedelius and Conrad Schnitzler on Bureau-B. The lines between the decades are blurring as more and more methods from the ’70s come to be fused with intuitively playable touchscreen instruments. One noteworthy example is Felix Kubin’s reissue of Science Fiction Park Bundesrepublik (on Finders Keepers), a collection of obscure early ’80s electronic experiments by the likes of Cinema Verité, Pyrolator and Holger Hiller, in which it turns out the avant-garde of yesteryear were anticipating our listening habits today. Another is the re-release of Nachtstücke (on Bureau B) from 1980, with which Asmus Tietchens, one of the younger godfathers of electronic music, has finally received the recognition he deserves. Rarely before this suite of nocturnes and rarely thereafter was the Hamburg sound researcher and tape manipulator Tietchens to venture so patently towards electronic soundscapes.
Bad times – sounds good
“I’d rather have better times and worse music,” alt/pop singer-songwriter Bernd Begemann once said in a 1992 interview. Along these very lines, Spex magazine headlined their 2014 end-of-year review: “Ein Scheißjahr geht zu Ende” – i.e. “A lousy year comes to a close”. Meanwhile, however, the music in 2014 was fantastic. In their 20th year together, Kreidler came out with ABC, the best album of their career to date, with a cover designed by Georgian artist Thea Djordjadze. The recording was filmed (2+2=22 (The Alphabet)) by Heinz Emigholz. ABC combines all of Kreidler’s strengths into a synthesis they’d never achieved before. The robust bassline fundaments are set against freely meandering melody lines; Thomas Klein’s straight-line acoustic rhythmics amalgamated with spoken-word samples and a patient build-up of atonal electronic arcs of suspense. But Kreidler aren’t the only ones driving the development of electronic music in Germany forwards.
Other protagonists who also put out new albums in 2014 include Roman Flügel and Efdemin. The latter released his third record to date, Decay, an outstanding work of deep techno, which he recorded during a three-month artist residency in Kyoto and back home in Berlin. Decay is the best proof around of the theory that techno, recorded uncompromisingly, stylishly and gracefully, can have a highly meditative effect on the listener. Frankfurt-based Roman Flügel recorded Happiness Is Happening last year, his second album on Hamburg’s Dial label. It is uncool in the best sense of the word: Flügel shows the courage to make melodies; his tracks have quasi song structures, with an unmistakable affinity to Depeche Mode’s modular synthesis.
Alva Noto and Olaf Bender’s new Diamond Version project also deserves special mention. After releasing a series of five limited-edition singles, Diamond Version came out with their debut album, Ci, in 2014. It’s an abstract, danceable electronic meditation on the thoroughgoing commercialization of society on the semantic level (though not only). The slogans of global companies – such as Sony’s “make.believe” or Nokia’s “Connecting People” – are increasingly creeping into current usage, placing promises or idiomatic locutions in the context of a brand promise. Diamond Version address the corporate hijacking of language in their music, producing modern songs of protest that go beyond and yet remain within the Kraftwerk tradition.
Record labels of the future?
Despite the persisting sales crisis in the recorded music market, niche labels like PAN, Live at Robert Johnson, Dial and Tresor Records aren’t giving up, and they released socially relevant music for their niche again in 2014. Though the question arises as to what that niche is now that the art and music scenes are steadily coalescing. Both disciplines are now reaching new interest groups. It will be interesting to watch as previously sporadic collaborations and joint ventures with galleries, museums and art institutions increasingly tap into new revenue streams and areas of activity for correspondingly focussed record companies. At the same time, labels and artists alike are using free digital platforms such as Soundcloud to distribute music without any barriers. The prime example is the PAN series of mixes on Rinse FM: once again, a progressive format promoting the interpenetration of the disciplines of improvisational and electronic music in such an open-minded manner that lately it seems the most natural thing in the world. And with regard to open-mindedness, 2014 was also a year in which podcasts reached new heights. A case in point is Berlin Community Radio’s efforts to unite leading lights of the Berlin scene – natives and newcomers, Germans and foreigners alike – under the aegis of an Internet radio station.