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pitchfork's "this week in techno" goes to berlin


TRIBE Member
I really enjoyed this, and I think some of you will too.


Wed: 02-15-06
Column: The Month in Techno
Story by Philip Sherburne

In 10 days in Berlin I only saw a "Berlin Wasted Youth" t-shirt three times-- and two of those were on the same person, two weekends in a row-- but evidence of the phenomenon is everywhere. Berlin is famous for its days-long nightlife and weeklong weekends, and rightly so: Berliners may hit the clubs slightly earlier than Barcelonans, say, filling the floors by 2 a.m. (rather than 3:30 or so), but they stay much, much later. Beginning around 6 a.m., "Are you heading to Panoramabar?" becomes the common refrain, and clubbers may easily visit three or four venues in the space of a "night" (scare quotes required when said duration lasts more than 24 hours-- with an emphasis on scare).

Before you ask, of course drugs are a part of the equation; the scene at Watergate at 11 a.m. on a Sunday morning is a gurnfest of such extreme proportions that it must have jaw surgeons rubbing their hands with glee. But chemicals are hardly the be-all and end-all of it; there are plenty of folks, including DJs, who make it through the marathon nights fueled by nothing other than adrenaline and disco naps. Red Bull helps, too; as for alcohol, you begin to understand those hippies who get on their high horses about the life-enhancing qualities of weed vs. the soul-crushing spirit of spirits. In fact, one of the gravest dangers of Berlin's redeye schedule derives from the simple problem of pacing-- at least for those of us whose livers are accustomed to calling it a night at 4 a.m. (or even earlier, in the quasi-prohibitionist city of San Francisco). I wound up being introduced to A Guy Called Gerald somewhere around 7 a.m. on the morning after my arrival-- yeah, he's here too; it's probably easier to name the electronic musicians that don't live in Berlin than those who do-- and the most intelligent thing I could muster to say was "Erm, don't you work in Pier Bucci's old studio?" In Berlin, nine words and an equal number of vodka tonics are about all it takes to make a prime ass of yourself.

Of course, with clubs running almost around the clock, the city is almost an embarrassment of riches. In 10 days and nights, I managed to catch gigs, or at least parts of them, featuring Troy Pierce, Richie Hawtin, Magda, Matias Kaden, Oner Ozür, Butane, Alex Smoke, the Wighnomy Brothers, Thomas Melchior, Zip, Pier Bucci, Luci, Zip and Ricardo Villalobos, Phon.o, Modeselektor, Ellen Allien, Daniel Meteo, and Trentemøller-- and those are just the techno-related billings. At the same time, I had to take rain checks on Eats Tapes, Ilsa Gold, Like a Tim, Christopher Just, Phako, Jimmy Edgar, Jackson, Frivolous, Henrik Schwarz, Dandy Jack, Baby Ford, Andreas from Freundinnen, folks from Phonica London, Hawtin and Magda at a semi-private Sunday afterparty-- and those are just the techno-related misses I can remember, to say nothing of the bulk of the Club Transmediale festival, which as an invited panelist and DJ, was the ostensible purpose of my trip.

With a horizontal arc like this, techno's recent mutations, long and labyrinthine, begin to make more sense. Music evolves according to artists' and listeners' experience of it, and part of that experience is temporal. It's no wonder that first electroclash and now rock'n'roll-style DJing triumphed in the United States: when bars close so early, DJs have to pack in as many hits as they can, while clubbers keep pounding drinks in the dwindling minutes before last call. But when parties go as late as they do, and DJs are accustomed to playing four or five hours at a stretch-- the Wighnomys seemed almost sheepish when, the night of Vakant's Watergate party, they explained they would play for "only" three hours-- then 12-minute tracks begin to make more sense. With more time to stretch out, minimal techno's endless variations seem less like noodling and more like an exercise in time travel, a laptopper's update of the "eternal" music proposed by LaMonte Young, Tony Conrad, and their peers in that other minimalist movement.

And perhaps the sheer quantity of DJs and clubs has something to do with the development of new strategies: When everyone is a DJ, and everyone's got a gig somewhere, you have to work harder to keep things interesting. So I don't think the reason so many people are using Final Scratch or Serato Scratch and incorporating loops and effects into their DJ sets is simply to jump on Richie Hawtin's digital bandwagon; in part, they're looking for their own edge. And when, if you're one of the bigger names in the scene, you find yourself playing two or three or four gigs a week, all across the continent, you have more time to try new things; you have to try new things simply to amuse yourself. Case in point was Zip and Villalobos' Club Transmediale performance, which began around 4 a.m. and sprawled until noon with a fevered crowd in tow. Armed with decks and laptops both, it wasn't a live set but it wasn't strictly a selectors' affair either, but a third way fusing others' records and their own loop libraries. Some of the times the schtick didn't work, but when Basic Channel came clanging in at +5 accompanied by an Arabic-language a cappella, you knew you'd hit paydirt. At their best, they achieved a perpetual state of pre-climax, dancers trading slo-mo, incredulous looks that said "Is this still really happening?" and everything bubbled at 124 BPM but moved at aquarium speed.

To answer another question: Yes, "minimal" is everywhere. There's so much of the stuff it's almost mindboggling: I'd dance for hours on end without hearing a single track I recognized. And the unlikeliest of characters are playing it: Ellen Allien is hardly a very minimal artist, and her DJ sets often go bang to the max, and yet there she was at 7 a.m. playing a track off Villalobos' hypnotic Achso EP. Even for a minimal evangelist like myself, sometimes you wanted to scream "Enough, already!" No wonder ILMers are talking about a "minimal backlash"-- whomever's buying all those dub and disco records at Hardwax, they weren't playing at the venues I visited.

Daniel Meteo, whose work for ~scape and his own, more downbeat-oriented Meteosound label would hardly leave him at a far remove from the minimal movement, decried the trend as engendering a kind of monoculture in Berlin, in which other forms of music fall to the wayside simply because promoters want to book only minimal acts because those are the only acts audiences will come out to see. Predictably, claims Meteo, as minimal becomes more hegemonic, the quality of the audience declines: fewer people come for the music, and more simply because the parties promise endless dancing and endless drugs. He seemed to have something: By 11 a.m. on a Sunday at Watergate, when the music had devolved from a sexier, housier skip to an almost proggy series of buildups and breakdowns punctuated by clipped percussion and Nth-generation acid bass lines, "minimal" in and of itself hardly seemed special any more; I longed for, well, just about anything else: März, This Heat, Scriabin...

But it's hard to be too pessimistic once you glimpse the sense of community that underpins the scene, whether it's promoters like Meteo (who, full disclosure, booked me-- albeit to play minimal) continuing to throw more leftfield parties, persevering but barely breaking even, or clubs like Maria that happily booked Club Transmediale, where the minimalists were outweighed by outsiders like Felix Kubin, Dick El Demasiado, Ove Naxx, and Volcano the Bear.

Even within the minimal scene, it's difficult not to be infected with a collective sense of enthusiasm-- or perhaps that should be an enthusiastic sense of collectivism. A visit to Luciano's studio in Kreuzberg, a stone's throw from Hardwax, revealed a salon atmosphere: Thomas Melchior was there, collaborating on a new track; the guys from Mobilee/Lan Muzic act Exercise One, who inhabit the studio next door, wandered through every now and then, munching on bananas; Guido Schneider dropped by to test out six new tracks for Poker Flat on Luciano's brain-scramblingly massive speakers. (The tracks themselves were pretty brain-scrambling as well, deep and sprawling and relentlessly funky, bristling with tiny little hooks and formal trapdoors. At one point, when a track went scurrying off exactly where you'd least expect it to go, you could hear a sharp intake of breath, not to mention a dizzy laugh or two, from everyone in the room.) By the time Jackson, another new arrival to the city, traipsed in and everyone headed off to dinner, it felt like the freaking Super Friends Hall of Justice in there.

More impressive than the mere presence of so many underground superstars was the sense of camaraderie and the apparent lack of competition. Genre-based music moves forward one minor variation at a time, and watching it happen in front of you-- allied artists comparing their daily research as peers, not rivals-- felt like peering through a microscope and seeing genetic engineering take place before your eyes, one splice at a time. Maybe jungle was like this, in its heyday, but I doubt it: Here was all the sense of collective effort, but with none of the guarded jealousy of dubplate culture.

But if an almost open-source ethic reigns in Berlin techno studios, don't let that fool you into thinking that the city is a utopia. The last morning there, as I was leaving Maria, I ran into a friend who had just been denied entrance at Panoramabar, Berlin's most famously anything-goes club (thanks in part to what I'm told is a gay, S&M vibe in the downstairs venue Ostgut, complete with a "darkroom" and rubber gloves available upon request). Deciding to give it another go, we taxied across town and trudged through the snow and mud to the door. As the doorman waved me through, he pointed a finger at my friend (who was neither poorly dressed nor fucked up, and is in fact one of Brazil's most important promoters of electronic and independent music). "Not him," he said. Why? There was no reason, and so we joined the other rejects outside to contemplate our next move. That's where we ran into L, a Berlin-based expat musician, who had also been given the bum's rush for no reason at all. Meanwhile, a steady stream of the trashed and underdressed stumbled through the door, with the occasional unlucky soul receiving the "eenie, meenie, minie, No" treatment. If I sound resentful, I am, but it's not a personal thing. Panorambar is known as one of Berlin's most democratic spaces, where even Richie Hawtin is shooed out from behind the DJ booth if he's not playing. There are no VIP rooms, no special treatment. To encounter, in a muddy parking lot in the dawn light, a door policy so mean-spiritedly arbitrary-- it had nothing to do with gay or straight, male or female, stylish or dumpy, sober or trashed-- signaled a darker side of the city's nightlife, libertinism giving way to illogic, where exclusivity itself is democratized by reserving the right to deny admittance to anyone at all, for no reason.

Or maybe the bouncer had just been awake for too many days in a row.


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Word. That's a nice spin on how the concept of community and performing for the sake of creativity supercedes the retarded concept of "genre".
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dig this

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will be there in June during World Cup... man it's gonna be crazy, and touristy crazy... which won't be as good, but i'm sure i'll have a blast nonetheless.

I keep on hearing Berlin is the most musically progressive/diverse city in te world (and I'm sure it's the same for most of the arts...) but this article explains how techno is essentially minimal or bust... doesn't sound very diverse to me.


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there's other stuff besides minimal there

there are parties that have harder/bangin stuff, there are clubs and crews that do exclusively funk/70s parties (i saw jazzanova and beji b one night at cafe moskau), and they have regular dnb nights too