Electronic music 2015 A generational project

Electronic music in Germany

The German electronic music scene, solely sustained by the passion of its movers and shakers, was particularly multi-layered in 2015.

Even if electronic dance music has a different self-image, and many DJs, producers and label makers still have the feeling they’re blessed with privileged access to the sounds of the future: the great upheavals in pop culture, if there are any, have long since been playing out elsewhere. Which doesn’t detract a whit from the relevance of electronic music. It is still the soundtrack to all-night partying, the beloved and much-discussed object of post-adolescent musical enthusiasm, a factor in city marketing, a problem child for various guardians of public order. But if anything was clear in 2015, it was that electronic music in Germany is, above all, a generational project. Those born between 1970 and 1990 in East and West Germany alike use house and techno to tell each other about the world they know, people who came of age in the ’90s and found rock music boring, who experienced as schoolchildren the fall of the Berlin Wall, who took part in the Love Parade (or some other street parade), who witnessed first-hand the rise and fall of the rave movement and were subsequently part of electronic music’s withdrawal into that ample niche in which it is now growing and thriving. Most of their elders feel that machine-made music is not music at all, while their juniors often turn to other music. Young DJs don’t stand much of a chance in house and techno, the old guard just won’t go away. But that is simply the nature of innovation in pop music. The young folks have to shout at the old folks, “Get lost! You don’t get it! You’re old!”

2015 was a year in which what was exciting about electronic music had less to do with specific records or artists or even new ideas or approaches. What was more interesting was the cultural landscape as a whole that gave rise to this scene. A nationwide network of clubs, labels, record stores, agencies, software developers and graphic design studios, which in size and diversity has long since come to be comparable to Germany’s network of municipal theatres – except that it gets by without government subsidies and is solely sustained by the passion of its movers and shakers. It is a network slightly overshadowed by the massive presence and visibility of the Berlin scene and its international appeal. And yet house and techno in Germany is more than just Berlin. “Im Raume lesen wir die Zeit,” historian Karl Schlögel once wrote: literally, “in space we read time”, in other words geography tells us about the times we live in. And this goes for house and techno in the year 2015 too.

Hamburg: No-one’s poodle

In no German city is the electronic music scene as deeply intertwined with the history of other subcultures as in Hamburg. Even a quarter-century after it was started up, the Golden Pudel, for example, in St. Pauli is one of the most important clubs in town, only a stairway away from the famous Hafenstrasse, where one of the biggest urban riots in West German history took place in the late 1980s. Producer/DJ Helena Hauff has a regular residency here. Last summer she put out her debut album Discreet Desires (Werk Discs), which generated a bit of a buzz, a sombre record that takes after the dark, cumbersome Wave and electro sounds of the ’80s. In interviews Hauff stressed her obligation to a pop culture tradition for which music always has something to do with being against something, an idea that countless generations of Hamburg musicians have already made their own. Meanwhile, however, Hauff would appear on stage confidently stylish in perfect-fitting shirts. Suchlike images have a long history in Hamburg too: subversion and suit-wearing were never a contradiction here.

Stefan Kozalla (43) alias DJ Koze, the most influential Hamburg producer in recent years, is also clearly marked by Hamburg attitudes. Koze is the big surrealist among German house producers, many of his tracks depend on their Dadaistic humour, time and again mixing seemingly unmotivated blathering voices into the music, peculiar extraneous noises upset the track structure. Last spring Koze released his mix in the renowned DJ-Kicks series, interpreting the medium of the mix CD as a cosmic radio show in which he merged all kinds of different tracks overlaid with strange announcements. His track XTC, an irresistible piano house sensation, was one of last year’s big club hits.

Berlin: Techno is the “folk” music of the capital

The Berlin scene is so varied and multifarious that it’s impossible to even begin to give an overview with a clear conscience, there’s just too much going on. Berlin is and remains the capital of electronic music, artists and DJs are still moving into the city. Now it is no longer because it’s cheaper here than elsewhere, those days are gone. Newcomers to the capital want to make contacts, make a name for themselves and play one of the main clubs. Electronic music is omnipresent in the inner-city districts, an everyday soundtrack running not only in the clubs at night, but even at the bakeries in the morning, in the shops in the afternoon and in the bars in the evening.

Nick Höppner (43) named his debut album Folk (Ostgut Tonträger) for that very reason: because electronic music in Berlin now works like folk music. A kind of music which is open to everyone, easy to make – with a laptop and the right programs, it can be produced or mixed as easily as banging out folksongs on the guitar. It is the natural soundtrack to a certain lifestyle. Höppner is an erstwhile music journalist and for a long time managed Ostgut Tonträger, the label of Berghain, Berlin’s largest and most famous club. Folk is an unobtrusive masterpiece of house music, reduced, restrained and elegant. Music created out of love for other music, house for connoisseurs.

But the most successful Berlin record label last year was probably Innervisions. Originally founded as a label by Steffen Berkhahn alias Dixon and the producer duo Kristian Beyer and Frank Wiedemann alias Ame, it has long since become a cutting-edge platform for electronic music. The Innervisions people run a web shop, hold their own parties, publish music by themselves and others – and play all over the world. In December 2015, for the third time in a row, readers of the influential Resident Advisor web site voted Dixon the best DJ in the world. That is an unparalleled achievement. Beyer came in 9th, and Ame were voted the world’s 3rd-best live act. That’s about as high as one can go.

In a certain sense, electronic music has reached a dead end with Steffen Berkhahn’s art of DJing. He is now 40 years old, he played deep house in the ’90s, broken beats at the turn of the millennium, then minimal house, and his recent sets include conspicuous elements of trance. Few have mastered the art of big dancefloor drama like Berkhahn, who knows exactly when to put on a vocal track to rouse the crowd. He is as popular with simple clubbers as he is esteemed by most of his peers. In a word, the best DJ also happens to be the most successful. Which is actually the pop-cultural ideal. But also the terminal point of an evolution. Dixon is unbeatable in his field. So young contenders simply go elsewhere.

Dresden: In Uncanny Valley

If one German city in 2015 epitomized the country’s difficulties finding its way into the complicated present day and age, then it was the Saxon capital. Every Monday demonstrations were held there by so-called Pegida, a right-wing Islamophobic grassroots movement. And when Germany began taking in tens of thousands of refugees last summer, xenophobic riots broke out in Heidenau, a suburb of Dresden.

Intriguingly enough, one of the best German labels is also located here: Uncanny Valley, est. 2010. The very moniker is a comment: “Uncanny Valley” is a loose translation of the German "Tal der Ahnungslosen" (“Valley of the Clueless”), as the area around Dresden was called back in the days of the GDR because it lay beyond the range of West German TV broadcasting. Uncanny Valley is a collective that began as a group of friends from Dresden, but has long since morphed into something bigger. A network that maintains ties to the rest of the world and put Dresden on the electronic music map. Joel Alter’s Heart was the big Uncanny Valley album of the year 2015. Alter is actually from the Swedish city of Göteborg, but now based in Berlin. He’s in his late 30s, and Heart is a record that owes as much to Depeche Mode as to drum ’n’ bass, the Beach Boys, early ’90s hip hop and minimal techno. An album like a summing-up of a life spent listening to and making music.

What does Uncanny Valley say about Dresden? About a city almost completely destroyed in World War II and marked to this day by a neurotic will to assert itself? The people behind Uncanny Valley take up these aspects and play with them. They will not be pinned down, there is no commitment to origins at Uncanny Valley without irony. They’re a label from Dresden, they once said in an interview, not a Dresden label. This light-heartedness amid the heavily charged atmosphere in Dresden may well be their greatest strength.

Jena: Out of the long shadow of Schiller’s house

After Berlin, there probably isn’t a single German city that attaches as much importance to electronic music as Jena. The scene has been mushrooming around the Fatplastics record store in Schillergässchen for nearly twenty years now: several record labels and recording studios; club nights at the Kassablanca arts centre, once a squat, now one of the best clubs in Eastern Germany. Many an Eastern German city is permanently overshadowed by its great past: no present can rival Martin Luther, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Johann Sebastian Bach or the Bauhaus. Jena, a student town, is the big exception – and electronic music plays a crucial part in enabling Jena to thrive culturally in the here and now.

Jena’s big album release in 2015 was Mathias Kaden’s Energetic (on the label Freude am Tanzen): at first glance a heavily retro deep house disc, packed with tracks that could have come out in New York in the early 1990s. In fact, however, Kaden undertakes a very different journey into the past: on Energetic he sought to revive the sort of atmosphere that reigned in the mid-’90s at the clubs he frequented by night in Gera, as he explained in an interview. When a small club opened in that city (or anywhere else in Eastern Germany, for that matter), weekend clubbers would party to the exciting new sounds from the big wide world that had just opened up for them. “New York in Thuringia” was a viable tag-line back in those days when only a small number of people were in the know. And still is today.

Munich: big boom-boom-boom

When Munich nightlife was discussed in previous years, it was usually about a line of tradition that started with Munich disco, the sound of Giorgio Moroder, and found its way into the present through cosmic disco. This kind of music is a perfect fit for the Munich bourgeoisie’s self-image and their special lifestyle of good food, outings to the surrounding countryside, skiing, beautiful apartments and well-paid jobs. Permanent Vacation, a label that has brought this music into the present, released some excellent music again in 2015, such as the album Purposely Uncertain Field  by Leipzig producer Martin Enke alias Lake People: grandiose electronica, sporting a space telescope on the cover, and the music is accordingly rapturous, searching, vast.

But Munich actually does have a long history of hardcore varieties of techno, too. This sound has had a home in Munich since the ’90s, and no-one does a better job of bringing it up to date than the brothers Marco and Dario Zenker. Ilian Tape is the name of their label, Immersion the album with which they made a splash in 2015, probably the best deep techno record of the year. Ten tracks that draw their potency from minimal rhythmic shifts revolving around a powerful bass drum. This is, in a word, a dark monument.

Cologne: the Voigt factory

The German electronic music label that is still the most influential is not located in Berlin, but in Cologne. Not because the albums that came out last year on Kompakt Records are necessarily the best or most important. Kompakt has shown what a techno label in Germany can be. Every German DJ around forty years old today can still remember the feeling of landing his first gig abroad, the surprise of actually being of interest to someone in London. In England! The birthplace of cool pop. Even shortly after the turn of the millennium, it was still unusual for German artists to get booked abroad. Today it’s a matter of course. And Kompakt was the first label to work with this new coolness and to turn minimalism, which had always influenced techno culture, into a major coherent artistic and commercial concept – and to market it all over the world. The Kompakt building in Belgisches Viertel is something like the Warholian Factory of techno. Record store, distributor, label, booking agency, studios and workshops: all in one building. Held together by Wolfgang Voigt, acid producer and cofounder of minimal techno in the ’90s, idiosyncratic artist-prince in a self-made empire of pop, visual arts and techno today: he put out his latest peeping techno in 2015 under the pseudonym Dieter Bowie.

The big Cologne record of 2105, however, was by David Krasemann alias Dave DK. Krasemann (37) is actually part of the Berlin scene; he DJed in the ’90s at the legendary Tresor and later at the Panoramabar. And yet with Val Maria he has made a record that sets a monument to the diverse facets of the Cologne techno sound. As though the sound of Kompakt were a colour palette, on the album’s eleven tracks he uses a couple of the styles, micro-genres and shades of techno that Kompakt and its artists have brought into the world over the past twenty years – pop ambient, minimal techno, Stolper-Funk (“bumpy” funk) – and transforms them into new music.

Frankfurt/Offenbach: Where techno is at home

The dispute between the Berlin and Frankfurt scenes over where “techno” actually started is nearly as old as the music itself. It is now pretty much established that Andreas Thomalla (53) was the first to use the word, back in the early ’80s when he was working at the Frankfurt record shop City Music and introduced a compartment for electronic dance music that he termed “techno”. DJing as Talla 2XLC, he played techno and trance records himself for many years and was one of the pioneers thereof. Thomalla is now a cofounder of an initiative to set up the world’s first techno museum, the Museum of Modern Electronic Music. It is slated to open in 2017 on one of the lower levels of Frankfurt’s main station. On 800 sq m of exhibition space, it is to be a monument to “contemporary music history”, paying tribute to the protagonists of the scene, telling the story of this music and tracing the influences it has had on fashion, design and art. A robot from the band Kraftwerk is to be among the exhibits, along with a reconstruction of the entrance to the legendary Frankfurt club Dorian Gray.

It is easy to make fun of the desire to have one’s own museum. As long as a culture is as lively as techno and house in Germany, there really is no need for a museum; as long as there are so many terrific clubs and DJs around, stepping out is still the best form of commemoration. After all, subcultures still live in the here and now, their beauty lies in their very volatility. And yet 2015 may have been a year in which something started to slip here, in which some of the scene’s protagonists, growing older themselves, began to feel that this volatility represents a danger. No-one who reads the papers regularly can help feeling that the world is changing brutally right now, that we’re sliding from one era into another. That the good times we enjoyed by night may soon become the good old days.