When Listening is not enough: CTM 2015 Reviewed

CTM Festival 2015 Review

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Between lowest frequencies and liquid beats: An extensive report from Berlin on CTM 2015 festival’s performances and their common factors.

CTM ranks among the most comprehensive events in the world in terms of exploring and presenting digital culture of and beyond music, sound, club culture and new technologies. Since 1999, the festival annually occupies many venues in Berlin with concerts, music events, exhibitions and lectures in cooperation with Transmediale - international festival for art and digital culture. Each year, CTM comes up with a new concept reflecting the current trends within music and art and provides political, social and scientific context to them.

This year’s leitmotif, Un Tune, provided many perspectives on perceiving the physical sound waves with our bodies on a scale from whole body to tiny sensors of our ears and brain. The performances often provided physical and sometimes even confusing experience due to the experimentation with antagonistic impacts on musical perception, frequencies and sound effects. Therefore, few tendencies which could be spotted in various performances and stretched through the whole line-up could be noticed:

(sub)bass and a physical experience of music

Since the opening till the last night in Berghain, you could feel music not only with your heart but also with your gut. And a chest, a throat and the rest of your physical body. I'm (Zuzana Friday) almost sure that few times I even functioned as a speaker myself, with my stomach wiggling like a membrane and reflecting the low frequencies back to the stage. Since this was the strongest and also the most common attribute which many performances shared, it seemed like the pure audio experience where you have to make some extra effort to feel music physically (e.g. dance) is not enough or necessarily needed anymore. This extra dimension of performed music didn't only accompany the listening; often what you physically felt was almost as important as what you actually heard. The reason for this obsession with intense low frequencies can be in artists' reflection of the status quo regarding the western society as well as their own lives. Simply put, we're going down, and so does the frequency range. From the audience's perspective, the reason may lay in the need for more stimuli to stay focused and appreciate the art of music in the ADHD times of general overstimulation and lack of concentration. Otherwise, the music will adjust to you, which leads to a second common aspect:


Other producers within this year's CTM embodied in their music a contemporary absent-mindedness, the need to reward your brain with a little amount of pleasure-causing chemicals each time you switch from one activity to another, and the anxiety people nowadays fight while standing with one leg in the cyberspace and in multiply physical realities with another one. Artists like TCF get their inspiration in the digital world of encrypted security codes and musicalise the stream of binary data. Another producers' music, like SOPHIE's, changes within seconds from one style to another, as well as our thoughts are being ceaselessly distracted by checking a hypothetical new notification or a message on your smartphone.

Lack of Joy

Apart of few performances in YAAM and Panorama Bar, the overwhelming majority of the acts were rather dark, gloomy, serious, introspective, massive. If vocals were used, then usually sampled in a twisted or high pitched way, or for screaming the hell out of the artist.

Now, let's elaborate on CTM journey day by day:

23. 1. CTM 2015 MusicMakers Hacklab Opening

Apart of music performances, concerts and lectures, the 3rd edition of MusicMakers Hacklab took place. This week-long interdisciplinary workshop brought together outstanding experts and enthusiasts from various realms of music, art and science, who had to create a final performance event on Sunday evening. HackLab also had an opening show within the whole CTM Festival opening in the old citadel of Bethanien. In this performance in terms of Hacklab, a sound artist and a performer Marco Donnarumma used his own body as an instrument and created compositions with moves and dance. I was amongst the majority of people who couldn't see the performance in its whole due to a lack of space and too many heads in front of me, which turned out to be a problem several times during the festival. But as Justinas Mikulskis said, this problem occurs quite often. The example might be Berlin Atonal festival where even art/music critics couldn’t see 4D installations by Biosphere or Senking due to the size of the venue and the number of people. Nevertheless, I could at least observe Donnarumma’s shadow which fluttered on the walls and ceiling and created impossible humanoid shapes. Together with rather mecha-generated sounds using his organic body, it reminded me of Arca's show from the end of the last year, when both Arca's rough music and Jesse Kanda's visuals tried to get to every corner of our ears and the screen.

24. 1. Alpha I and Beta I

The Alpha I and Beta I events on 24th January were sharing a venue – a club called Yaam, earlier a hub for African immigrants in Berlin, now an established club where contemporary and dance music nights alternate with reggae, dancehall or Brazilian parties. Having two stages filled with music at the same time, one could easily switch according to what do they prefer.

My first stop was Alexandra Droener alias Kepler, who threw at us a stern, angry beats between grime, future hip hop and post-dubstep. Thanks to their boldness, they could also be heard well in a chill out space between the two stages, where it blended with Franz Bargmann's squeaky guitar drones into a nice, bassy meditative music. The following project on Beta stage was a world premier of OAKE's performance which included a special decorations consisting of hundreds of tapes and a group of dancers. Unfortunately, the stage was on the floor and so were the dancers, therefore most of the visitors could only visually enjoy a light show projected on the hanging tapes. The music itself was powerful and massive, having subbass and post-techno beats as a base and a wide palette of noises and ethereal female vocal on the top, which created a post-rock-structured mini opuses narrating a story. Grebenstein's live set was similar with its dark, yet meditative atmosphere and percussive, layered beats.

Returning back to Alpha, Danny L. Harle showered us with 90s trancy PC Music madness. After him, another PC Music's producer, Sophie, took over. This shy and reserved-looking prince in black outfit paired his colour-blasting pop music with Terminator sounds and made the crowd go wild, even though it was a challenge: New music requires new dance moves. So while enjoying his eclectic music, I wished my body could fluidly transform like a pink jello or a tar according to the sound directions he conducted. Still, his marshmallow-like vocals and kawai aesthetics of material teenage girls mixed with bass and clinky beats that swooshed around like a fizzy lemonade and his biggest hit Hey QT raised a wave of XTC.

27. 1. XENO I

On Tuesday 27th, the CTM marathon continued with XENO I, an event presenting various audio incarnations of sounds of hell with a strong accent on its depth. The whole club was wreathed in clouds of artificial smoke, giving each visitor an opportunity to completely submerge into the sound and their own minds. The night started off with Elisabeth Schimana, an Austrian composer and performer, who brought an Max Brand Synthesizer to life, or probably invoked his spirits of an afterlife. The monstrous synth called Höllenmaschine (the machine from hell) from the 1950s had to be operated with help of Gregor Ladenhauf and Manon Lui Winter, and in her performance, Schimana explored possibilities of its dark insides and labyrinthine circuits.

After Schimana played Peder Mannerfelt, a Swedish artist who has been known as a techno producer under a moniker The Subliminal Kid, as a half of Roll the Dice as well as for his collaboration with his compatriot Fever Ray. Nevertheless, on his last year's debut album, 'the subbass nihilist' crumbled techno compositions into raw, pulsing loops with choppy drums and piercing synths. His performance (which included a blonde long haired wig covering his face, which made him look like Itt from The Adam’s Family) brought his new musical direction to the very core and sometimes even resembled of a no-input music.

The Bug's new bold project called Sirens, which was presented after Mannerfelt's performance, seemed to be the highlight of the night. Not only because it was said to be different from any previous show of his, but also due to its demanding construction combining The Bug's own sound system, Berghain's Function One equipment and instruments that the futurist movement would be contended about: sirens, foghorns and bass drones. But even though the project promised 'a complete body/mind wash', I experienced that kind of state of body and mind during JK Flesh's closing performance. Sirens were a massive, ambitious project which required as much attention as which you need to watch the path to a dark, unknown place if you want to find the way back. The abstract music striked our receptors with vigour and due to the fact that The Bug is a master of bass, the listening experience was indeed physical. But Justin Broadrick's musical past (grind core, metal, drone, industrial, electronica) escalated in the fantastic eternal stream of noise that was pouring towards us from the wall of speakers. JK Flesh's rough minimal drone and apocalyptic ambient filled the whole space of Berghain with sound as if it was the smoke itself and provided both massive and meditative experience when I faced the speakers, turned off the brain, closed my eyes and embraced the eternity pervading me for a moment.

28. 1. Un Tune III

On Wednesday 28th, HAU 1 histed Markus Schmickler's performance in terms of Un Tune series. He's originated in Cologne, the cradle of Karlheinz Stockhausen, whose music Smickler discovered in young age, and where he later studied music by himself. On Wednesday evening, his interest in difference tones and perception of various audio illusions was noticeable and resembled his Sator Rotas album. It started as a solid noise, which slowly transformed into sounds of circuits arguing with each other. Then, the music sounded like a liquid metal falling in drops, like a rain of heavy metals. Eventually, the metal got solid and rusty and as Schmickler turned about 85% of the volume down, I had to ensure myself that all that beautiful chaos didn't temporarily damage my hearing. But thanks to the thoughtfulness of the organisers who were giving away earplugs at the entrance, we were all fine, even though it was a mentally exhausting experience due to Schmickler’s interest in audio phenomenons like Shepard tone or divergence.

29. 1. Un Tune IV

Thursday started off with a performance of TCF, a Norwegian audio and visual artist, who extends his creative interests to block-chain encryption, tea, robotics and digital data sonification. He also gave a lecture on Artificial Intelligence and music production earlier that week. His performance merged organic and digital in such a way that thinking in labels of organic and digital actually felt out of fashion. While the visitors were partly sitting, partly lying on the ground on soft pillows, TCF's volatile music gushed trickled as if he would be tuning the radio trying to reach some broadcast space station. There was a lot of noise and aggressive synths that were following one another, but also a rhythmical work with silence. In one moment, the sounds were scattered as if you'd have many tabs on your browser opened and keep flicking through them, but eventually TCF got into more ambient mood and played around with sub bass.

The following audiovisual piece called PV868 by TeZ was caught in loops. The video part was using only a very limited range of shapes and colours and it was synchronized with the music. Maurizio Martinucci worked with binaural beats which were distributed through a quadraphonic surround system. With this, he created a sound fog, that later gained on intensity and was accompanied by deep bass and pulsing high frequencies.

After that, in Berghain and Panorama Bar, Xeno III and Theta I took place. The night started with (surprisingly) cheerful eclectic funky DJ set by Errorsmith who is DIY not when releasing music, but also creating own electronic musical gadgets. Evian Christ presented deep, atmospheric slow motion set. But what caught me the most from pacing here and back on the two dancefloors was a German premiere of Sherwood & Pinch. The legendary dub producer and Tectonic recording label owner joined forces and created deep, ecstatic and ethereal dubstep performance.

31. 1. Xeno IV and Theta II

Friday night started off with Opium Hum's set. Since he's a co-curator of the whole festival as well as Leisure System parties, initiator of ≠ (not equal) series and organizer of Boiler Room, I was expecting him to splash the freshest and exceptional music over me. But his set was surprisingly monotone and quite drab since it just contained dregs of what we could experience within the festival - doom, bass, monotone rhythms... At the same time, another Boiler Room organizer and a member of Greco Roman enterprise, Full Nelson, was playing next door (in Panorama bar to be precise). He entertained the overcrowded dancefloor with dance-friendly and energetic house music. From 3 am, James Donadio alias Prostitutes challenged our dancing skills with industrial hewn 3D beats which were breaking in arrhythmia. Even though it was engaging at the beginning, after some time it lost the magic with going nowhere and sounding all the time the same. My personal highlight of the night was following artist, Egyptrixx, who provided us a beautiful sonic experience, where he managed to blend physical (sub)bass with sound scapes and synths which gradually developed in refined techno.

All in all, this year’s CTM audience could experience all kinds of dark and deep electronic music and innovative sonic technologies and concepts, from 3D to binaural beats. And occasionally also have a good dance. Nevertheless, let’s be curious about the next year, which will maybe follow the evolution of electronic music in terms of their possibilities in biology, physics and perception as well as formal expression of concepts and sonification of data. In any case, this year felt pretty good.

About Author

Zuzana Friday Přikrylová is a Berlin based music journalist writing since 2006. She studied new media and popular music, made PR for music events, worked with artists, makes music and generally keeps being an eternal music nutso.

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