“All of a sudden, noise was music” – Dimitri Hegemann on the heritage of Berlin Atonal

Berlin Atonal 1980 (Left) and Berlin Atonal 2014 (Right)

Tomorrow, Berlin Atonal kicks off its 2014 edition, the second since the festival’s timely reboot last year. Here, f estival founder and head associated with Tresor Club Dimitri Hegemann recalls how Atonal became the most important festival for avant-garde music within the eighties and, after introducing techno as a new paradigm in 1990, entered hibernation for twenty-three years. T he year’s event—presented by Electronic Beats— proceeds its legacy of groudbreaking shows, with obvious highlights including Cabaret Voltaire playing their first show in more than twenty years, and Outfit Modern performing Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians .

In the early eighties, locations in West Berlin were obtaining infected with strange sounds that I’d never heard before. Musicians generated all kinds of noise from discard yard junk and untuned guitars—a lot of them probably couldn’t have got played guitar anyway, at least not in a classical sense. At first these types of aural experiences shocked me, they will broke through my aural comfort zone, but that’s exactly what defined this sort of music. These new forms amazingly drew me in. Noise experienced suddenly become music.

I was rapt by the idea of getting this new, independent Berlin picture together on stage and in a focused form. The “Große Untergangsshow” (“the grand apocalyse show”) in Tempodrom in 1981 labeled these artists as “Geniale Dilletanten” (“ingenious amateurs”) and included such avant-garde artists as Einstürzende Neubauten, Die Haut (“the skin”) Sprung aus den Wolken (“leap from the clouds”), Wechselfieber!, Didaktische Einheit (“didactic unity”), Notorische Reflexe (“notorious reflexes”) and many others. The press described the brutal noise-sounds emitted by these bands because the “Berlin illness” (“Berliner Krankheit”). In spite of many a serendipitous experiment, it was actually a pretty grim time. Nobody had any money, nobody felt that the future was bright.

This Berlin illness formed the particular polar opposite of what was happening in the mainstream at that time, which was stuff like Abba and pop music such as Neue Deutsche Welle or New Wave. There was a need to separate through the rock scene and from the clean and sterile artistic endeavors of the academic music scene of Neue Musik. From the spirit of the punk movement increased new scenes like industrial or any wave, which became intensified around places like New York, Sheffield, Hackney and West Berlin.

With financial support from the Berliner Rocksenat we got to produce a plan magazine called Die Atonale Inneneinrichtung (“the atonal interior design”), documenting our lives in West Berlin back then, including photos of Einstürzende Neubauten storing their tapes in the fridge, or how Kiddy was living in the tent in some attic. The first Atonal took place at the end of 1982 over a couple of days in the iconic SO36 venue. Organizations were working with different elements, media and formats that hadn’t proved helpful their way into music however: 8mm projections, abstract sounds, field recordings and soundscapes with brand new instruments. Neubauten worked with sonic items from the scrap yard, as well as a bend, a hand drill and a jackhammer that accidentally went out of control backstage. Sprung aus den Wolken staged body paintings and daubed a massive screen while they played. There was some pretty precarious work done on ladders, too. It was chaos research. Notorische Reflexe put on white overalls and projected photos of demonstrations and police violence onto their bodies. It was like a exciting theatre program, you’d stand in front of the stage and let yourself be fascinated, challenged and unhinged.

The festival didn’t simply push mental boundaries, it pushed physical boundaries as well. It ran non-stop from the first day towards the last. I didn’t go home, I just stayed for the whole thing and slept there. It was research into how long you could go—your brain would get completely fried.

It was David Peel who was partly responsible for the particular festival’s success, he talked about Atonal on his radio show for weeks. Yet on the financial side, the particular festival completely ruined me. I had been already broke beforehand and afterwards I had a lot more debts! If you think right now about how we ran things in those days, everything was hand to mouth. While we didn’t have a idea we did have passion. Through the years, the festival grew way past the borders of Berlin. As the first Atonal was focused on homegrown groups, the following events featured a growing number of important international acts like Psychic TV, Laibach or Test Division and as the audience grew, the particular venues got bigger. Atonal grew to become a core element in the new motion and grew to become an important factor in the music landscape.

The end of the eighties saw the dawning of the new epoch. I got to know Sheffield group Clock DVA and agreed upon them to my label Interfisch. Not long afterwards I was in Chicago, hanging out with Jim Nash who owned Wax Trax and flipping through demonstration tapes, when I stumbled across a music group called Final Cut. The guys behind this were Tony Srock and a certain Jeff Mills from Detroit. There was a 313 number in the white label, so I called it straight away and said, “I’d love to put you out in Germany”. I remember how difficult it was to obtain their record, Strong Into the Cut , into circulation—nobody was interested in it. These commercial beats and heavy-machinery sounds had been the beginning of something new and were still a bit rough. At the same time, I had simply released Clock DVA’s album Buried Dreams upon my label and I still observe Final Cut and Clock DVA as being bridges between the old and new scenes. Techno evolved from Deep Into the Cut and Buried Desires, the logical development in to the next chapter.

The fifth Atonal was held in Künstlerhaus Bethanien in March 1990, soon after the Wall had come down. It was the beginning of a new scene, shaped by the boundless euphoria and the anarchy of the city on which the authorities experienced turned their backs for a brief, spectacular period of time. If you see Atonal as being a theatre stage in the eighties, it was the audiences who grew to become the star in the nineties. Suddenly the beat took the foreground, Last Cut with drum machines, Clock DVA with the early Apple 2000. People wanted to dance and in West Berlin nobody danced, after a concert people used to leave the hall. This new way of listening developed new physicality. A new era began with DJ culture and mega parties. The effort and expense of the traditional festival could not compete with the particular anarchistic and partly illegal actions and locations that offered totally different event and business opportunities: it was a new job to do with completely new challenges. The nineties could begin—and we were well prepared. Atonal, on the other hand, didn’t reflect the days. It was time for a break.

Twenty-five years later, our personal success has overhauled us. Techno is played everywhere—from department stores to hairdressers, cafes to clubs—and not just in Berlin. Techno has become place. This has caused a longing to create the spirit of the Atonal celebration back to life and the need to put in radical experiments back into electronic music. In 2013 we presented over forty artists, including Jon Hassell, Glenn Branca, Moritz von Oswald, Juan Atkins, Murcof and many others. This year we’re happy to present a 4-D sound installation and excellent functions like Ensemble Modern and Cabaret Voltaire and a whole lot of innovative experimental types like Donato Dozzy, Bioshere, Monton, TV Victor or Tim Hecker. ~

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