We spent a week recently in Berlin and had the chance to get a fairly cursory overview of its contemporary music scene. Expectations were high, not just because of the city’s modern reputation as a unique artistic milieu, but also because of its iconic status for us as the cradle of the revolutionary musical movements that sprung from the Weimar Republic, at once progressive, politically incendiary, unapologetically populist and enduringly accessible. As in any city, the musical scene exists on a spectrum of strata which extend from the big institutions, progressing underground and culminating in layers which probably couldn’t be significantly tapped in such a short visit. This is important to bear in mind given the emphasis our manifesto puts on small-scale, grassroots projects and ensembles laying the foundations for a healthy new musical movement. However, I do feel justified in making a few observations:
- One of the most immediately striking aspects of Berlin as an art scene, as well as of the city in general, is the huge variety of non-conventional venues that artists and musicians make quick and easy use of. In the East, where rehabilitated dereliction is such an all-encompassing cultural aesthetic, the warehouses, depots and abandoned apartments which play host to squats, clubs, art installations and punk gigs are just as easily appropriated by art music collectives and experimental concert series. The new music festival that was on during our visit – MaerzMusik – included performances in a former power station and train station, the ultra-cool Berghain club (another former power plant), several live film soundtrack concerts in the Babylon cinema, as well as concerts in some of the most mainstream classical venues, such as the Kammermusiksaal der Philharmonie. It is partly this inclusivity – the programming of a number of late night events in unusual settings alongside far more mainstream recitals in traditional venues – that indicates the attitude which Berlin musicians maintain towards such ventures. There is without doubt no arbitrary sense of ‘novelty’ in choosing to stage a concert outside of a concert hall, as distinct from the UK, where an apparent lack of appropriate venues, or over-strict health and safety regulations would still render such decisions either self-fulfillingly ‘innovative’ or necessarily ‘underground’. However, having the option to use publicly accessible spaces which are completely unconnected to any central institution should also be a massive help in putting on events without any kind of presupposed comparison to the ‘rituals’ or ‘requirements’ of classical music.
- Flexibility in concert format and staging in Berlin extends way beyond the option to make use of abandoned or unused public spaces. The proliferation of classical performances and operas in venues such as theatres or multi-purpose arts spaces demonstrates the willingness of musicians and directors to attempt new modes of presentation for new musical projects. Purpose-built but unconventionally laid-out venues such as RADIALSYSTEM V and Café Moskau allow for choices to be made at a fundamental level around how to present performances. We saw a performance in Moskau’s nightclub basement of Michael Vorfeld‘s Light Bulb Music, the piece – produced through the amplification of a large ensemble of different lightbulbs – creating its own multi-media element, the venue and atmosphere fitting the work perfectly and creating something engagingly immersive out of what could have been a conceptual, experimental exercise. As another example, we narrowly missed a run of Pierrot Lunaire as directed by subversive queer cinema hero Bruce LaBruce, staged as a transgender romance scenario, at the dance/music-oriented experimental theatre group: the HAU. Equally, opera performances are in no way confined to the city’s full-time opera houses, but are as much staples of Berlin’s other theatres, including the hyper-experimental Volksbühne.
- Of course, just because some aspects and expectations of concert ritual appear to have been elided from Berlin’s new music culture doesn’t necessarily make it a utopia of optimistic, accessible music. Firstly, there is the possibility that the smooth inclusivity of traditional and non-traditional formats and venues within a single festival or ensemble programme does not signify the complete absence of undesirable cultural connotations from the music being performed, but instead that there is a particular attitude towards the music that runs deeper than context and presentation. This would be an elitist, essentialist ‘quality’ of art music that is impervious to location, and can be linked to the particularly arch ‘avant-garde’ experimental, electronic and improvised music that seems to be particularly favoured at the moment. While this scenario was by no means justified by everything in evidence, and its relationship to the sound art and other installation-based art scenes means it could have a beneficial effect on the art music’s relationship with visual arts, it suggests quite an extreme distinction from the kind of thing happening in New York or Scandinavia, and thrives on quite an extreme sense of elitism (or ‘seriousness’ or ‘importance’) which may or may not prove ultimately attractive to those interested in other art forms and musics.
- On a sort-of-related note, I was particularly interested in the description of one concert series at RADIALSYSTEM V, entitled Nachtmusik, where ‘the audience can chill out without the need for suits or the usual pomp’. This obviously implies that, even by the standards of an unconventional performance venue, ‘pomp’ is ‘usual’, and that there is still such a thing as a ‘need for suits’. With some of the world’s most ‘prestigious’ of musical institutions situated in Berlin, and such attitudes still being deeply endemic to these institutions, it is a slight wonder that the more unconventional side of Berlin’s music scene doesn’t present itself as more oppositional. How unusual can Nachtmusik be for a city in which concert-going can mean descending into a grungy club basement with a drink in you hand? Maybe it represents the kind of institution-driven halfway-house that the OAE’s Night Shift constitutes in London? Either way, it would be enlightening to gauge a kind of general attitude, not only amongst new music fans towards both new developments and old institutions, but also amongst artists from other disciplines, independent pop and dance fans, and composers. Berlin’s Weimar-era music scene was entrenched in socio-cultural theory and polemical mission statements, while much of New York’s current scene is wrapped in a kind of genre-less, all-inclusive joie de vivre which precludes any need for deep theorisation. Both attitudes mask assumptions on what art music ‘should’ entail, and it seems like such an apparently verdant, well-integrated new music scene as contemporary Berlin must also be built on some pretty sturdy assumptions.
- On one night, we went to the Neuköllner Oper to see a performance of a new musical theatre piece called Discount Diaspora. As perhaps Berlin’s fourth opera house, ‘beneath’ the more traditional Deutsche and Staatsoper, and the vernacular and theatrically innovative Komische Oper, the Neuköllner represents an institution dedicated to new works and ‘alternative’ opera productions. The work we saw was a local satire about the Neukölln area itself, utilising musical numbers sparingly amidst broad comedy in a style which obviously owed a lot to the legacy of the cabaret-revue, adding up to a comic critique of multiculturalism. Much of the dialogue was accompanied in a kind of melodrama by a jazzy stage band, yet the production was clearly rooted in theatre and, as such, made the most of the multi-storey stage structure, the close proximity of the audience, and specialist comic actors with untrained yet highly effective voices. That the result might be considered more music theatre than opera does not impact on the remarkableness of the Neuköllner – by no means a tiny venue - which manages to subsist on a rapid turnover of these everyday, vernacular or unconventional musical works, as well as hosting the OpenOp Festival – ‘European festival of alternative opera’ – in April. The big question for me is: does this system of maintaining an opera house which specialises in new works mean that the ‘main’ opera houses completely ignore new repertoire or the impetus to commission? It might not matter, but it does suggest an institutionalised segregation of new music from ‘old’ music, which risks precluding any kind of challenge to the status quo. Perhaps this is the key to Berlin’s music scene – everything in its right place. This is only a problem if it impacts negatively on classical music’s prestige in the cultural moment, or on non-musicians’ and newcomers’ perceptions of art music and new music. I would maintain that any kind of ‘relegation’ of new music below older music represents a problematic perspective, but this shouldn’t be a reflection on the exceptional status of an opera house that specialises in new works.
- Publicity for classical music in Berlin is everywhere, and often very effective. The culture of fly-posting (presumably legal), where a particularly striking poster can gain impressive ubiquity with a little effort, can prove a fantastic promotion tactic, and the presence of classical publicity on East Berlin’s bricolage urban landscape represents it as a cultural force in a way that it can struggle to appear in other cities. Individual publicity campaigns from institutions themselves can be strikingly innovative too. One that caught my attention was a series of posters designed by and depicting Wolfgang Joop in a series of super-kitsch, gold-tinted tableaux, each promoting a different work in the Deutsche Oper programme. For a culture to be able to rely on drawing audiences to alternative performances in small venues, effective publicity techniques and truly inventive design approaches are totally invaluable.