by carl wilson

Berlin Notebook: No, Really, I Am Back

As previously mentioned and as Aaron perhaps slightly prematurely announced (to some of his readers' irritation, due to my admittedly negligent error of not being Leslie Feist), I am back. Took me a few days to get my North America legs again, after a few weeks in Europe. Now I will try to be, um, more back.

Much to catch up on. What did I catch in Europe - not the cold I'm still shaking, but musically? [...]

In Prague: People dancing to the mixed CDs I brought to dear old friends Sean Dixon and Katerina Cizek's wedding, and the next night a Serbian nationalist band that sounded like Puddle of Mudd at a beautiful old theatre club in the city Stare Mesto area (some kind of mixup got us there). But quite a bit more in Berlin:

* At a quaint old Communist-era community centre/beerhall way east in the city, German free-jazz pianist Alex Von Schlippenbach with Australian drummer Tony Buck and a bassist whose name I didn't catch (he was filling in for Joe Williamson, who could not be there for reasons explained in German). Two pretty top-notch sets - Von Schlippenbach was great but perhaps less inspired than he's capable of, but Buck picked up any slack with seemingly inexhaustible energy. The young bassist held his own too. I was surprised there wasn't more of an audience there - I wondered if Von Schlippenbach were less famous in Germany than he is here, because there were certainly more people out at his Goethe Institut show in Toronto last year, or if he played out so much that it was easy for fans to give it a miss; later I found out that the biggest show of the Amplify festival was going on the same night, and frankly if I'd known that I might have not gone to the trio concert either. I'm glad that I did.

(On the other hand, Nina Hagen was also playing that night with a "big band," whatever that means coming from East Germany's nunsexpunkrock goddess, and while circumstances were inconvenient, I do regret missing that. And by the way, amid all the Gwyneth/Chris Martin baby-naming hooplah: Hagen's daughter, an actress, is named Cosma Shiva Hagen. Apple? Big effin' deal.)

* I had been advised by Toronto electro-acoustic turntablist Mike Hansen at the last Tin Tin Tin that Amplify 2004 (see this, not to be confused with that) was going on. But when I got to Berlin I couldn't remember the name of the festival and there was no apparent coverage of it in the entertainment magazines (the Berlin equivalents of North American alt-weeklies are biweekly magazines such as Tip). If only I had made my trip to Gelbe Musik earlier.

Gelbe Musik (gelbe, I gather, means "yellow" - anyone know why that name?) at Schaperstrasse 11 in Wilmersdorf, Berlin, is one of the most remarkable record stores I've ever been to, specializing in contemporary composers, improvisors, sound art and electronics. It's small, a little gallery-like, but any fan of those musics could get lost in their shelves for hours. I restricted myself to five or six purchases, but could hardly restrain myself from buying whatever they put on the sound system - I did actually buy a limited-edition improv record with Sonic Youth (minus Kim Gordon) and reeds player Mats Gustafsson - the store's only copy outside the much more expensive Black Box - straight out of their changer. I can't help bragging - it's one of only 100 or 150 copies issued, and it's one of the most furious, best Thurston Moore/Lee Ranaldo-related improv sessions I've ever heard.

And of course, anyplace there is a record store like that, you will find out everything you need to know about events going on in town. When you're in Berlin, do not make my error and wait a week before hitting Gelbe. I immediately found the flyer for Amplify, which I'd begun to think was a myth. Sure enough I had missed the main festival, including Christian Fennesz, John Butcher and others I really would have liked to see. but there was still time to go to the final night of the off-festival that Wednesday (May 19).

* Wednesday's show was at a former squat called Ausland, in Prenzaluer Berg, the trendy-but-fun area just east of Mitte where Sheila and I kept finding ourselves, almost against our will, day after day. As an ex-squat it was quite a contrast to the very developed but self-consciously punky Tacheles, nearby where we were staying, to wit:


Cafe Zapata (bar on the ground floor of Tacheles, which closes at about 5 a.m. and where I spent a late night drinking, reading and watching people dance and flirt)


In Ausland's case, the squat has been converted to apartments or perhaps condos (it was unclear to me which), but a kind of semi-attached basement bunker has been kept as an arts space. When I entered it was already crammed with people, chattering away in English, German, Dutch, French and Japanese (to name the tongues I distinctly noticed), and it only got more crammed after that. The atmosphere was a little feverish but the globalism was dizzyingly sweet. I ended up striking up a conversation with someone from the neighbouring building - who at first was expressing his puzzlement about the music, making me think he had just kind of wandered in "off the street," so to speak, but gradually it emerged that he was a very smart Berlin-based, Italian novelist named Fabio (Favio? Googling has produced no results) who is a big free-jazz fan (we had a nice exchange about Cecil Taylor, and a less cheerful one about Berlusconi) but generally unfamiliar with electro-acoustic improvisation. It turned out to be a convenient perspective to see the event through, prompting me to wonder how a newcomer to the form would take the sets, all of which were to celebrate new discs being released.

The first was by Japanese circuitry-and-stereo-inputs improvisors Sachiko M, Toshi Nakamura and Otomo Yoshihide, and I can best describe it as "crickets." I've seen Otomo, especially, be ferocious before, but that was distinctly absent here. The second was Keith Rowe on tabletop guitar with trumpeters Axel Dörner and Franz Hautzinger (both with electronically altered horns), and this one had a bit more motive force, though only now and then. Fabio/Favio and I discussed how this very minimal music seems to retread the ground of John Cage, and then asked ourselves what exactly was wrong with retreading the ground of John Cage, or anyone else, a question that made me re-examine some of my mind-wandering boredom over the two sets (maybe it wasn't boredom but actually fun?).

No question that the final set by Berliners Burkhard Stangl and Christof Kurzmann was fun, though: Terrible poetry in English recited over cheesy folk-jazz chords, followed by little sung choruses, followed by rounds of guitar-and-electronic improv, then back to the terrible poetry again. It was just about to get tedious when the choruses were joined by a three-voice choir drinking beer at the top of the back stairs, and the whole thing built to an absurdly joyous climax, followed by the longest ovation of the night. The play-it-for-laughs aspect of German music is enormous, as you'll gather rifling through any stack of electro and rock in Berlin; there's an exasperating element of evasion in it, as if there remains something too dangerous about staking out any position in earnest in the culture, and the safe route is to be either terribly abstract or defensively jokey. In this case, though, the laughs were humane rather than cartoonish - the lovelorn poetry might even have been meant completely seriously, but the sophistication of the improv passages prompted me to assume that it was only half-seriously, which still implies more depth than the brand of German yuks that lately have influenced Montreal groups like Lederhosen Lucil and Les Georges Leningrad.

I would have liked to stick around afterwards and chat with the international crowd - including Montreal turntablist Martin Tetreault, who played the festival one of the nights I missed - but shyness overwhelmed. My apologies to Fabio/Favio, if he should somehow find this, for slipping away without saying goodbye.

By the way, there's a recent interview with Jon Abbey, the festival organizer, who also runs Erstwhile Records.

* The other concert I made it to was Xiu Xiu at the Bastard@Prater (a club adjacent to one of the city's most storied beer gardens, where Rosa Luxembourg used to rally the workers). The venue is great:

bastard.jpg (outside)

bastard1g.jpg (inside)

Unfortunately our sojurn there was brief: We had been to a play at the Berlin Volksbuhne earlier that evening (the most enjoyably fucked-up version of Tennessee Williams' Sweet Bird of Youth you'd ever care to see, called Forever Young, complete with jokes about canadians) and didn't make it in time for the opening band, and supposed headliner Scout Niblet from Secretly Canadian had cancelled, so all I saw was Xiu Xiu.

Fine show, but with a sound mix much muddier than at their Toronto show and the crowd sympathies not so finely attuned, Jamie's subtleties were diffused and the general impact blunted. Oh well.

* Our other musical discovery, which Sheila made by getting hooked on the background music during our brunch at Cafe Berio in Schoneberg, was 1920s-30s revivalist Max Raabe of the Palast Orchester. We tried to go see him at a west-end cabaret, but it turned out we'd misread the listings and were a week early. (It's amazing how much time we spent in Berlin simply Getting It Wrong.) We compensated by finding one of his English-language albums to take home, though not the one with the 1920s-style Abba cover. (Was it Super Trooper, Sheila? I forget now.)

*Oh, and one night I ended up in a bar where an excellent punk DJ was helping launch the German edition of Legs McNeil's Please Kill Me, but it was an accident, and I don't know exactly where we were.

That's all the vacation snaps from me. Nonmusically, I can recommend to you Daniel Liebeskind's Jewish Museum, the Hamburger Banhof museum (stunning contemporary galleries with amazing Anselm Kiefers), and the Assel on Oranienberger Str., among much more. Berlin was an extremely copacetic city. It was my first European trip in years and no doubt my last for awhile - indeed, we've come home so broke, I suspect I'll have a lot of extra time to spend on the site in the next few months, as I'm practically confined to quarters until the credit cards are paid off.

Next: What's up in Toronto anyway?

Read More | News | Posted by zoilus on Sunday, May 30 at 07:27 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (1)



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Posted by pawel on November 4, 2004 06:30 AM




Zoilus by Carl Wilson