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Scene in Berlin

Berlin improvises its underground soundtrack

Experimental or improvised music tends to issue quietly from the hidden cracks of most metropolises. But Berlin's musical avant-garde strike a significant chord in the symphony of the city, says DW's Stuart Braun.

Live at Ausland featuring Magda Mayas, Philippe Lauzier, Kim Myhr, Tony Buck

Live at Ausland

The standing pianist is leaning inside her instrument, attacking the open strings with random objects, occasionally hammering the keyboard with a free hand as the drummer alongside generates rhythmic hurricanes. Meanwhile, a saxophonist and amplified zither player, before incanting whispers, are now hurling walls of sound around the room.

The music is wild and atonal, but has structure and rhythm. It's not jazz; it's freer, indefinable, a cathartic aural experiment. Happening nightly across Berlin, it's an underground soundtrack to a still untamed city.

I'm watching the band in a basement, a church to experimentation, with a mixed crowd. They still come more than a decade after the venue, Ausland, was built into the bowels of a former squat in Prenzlauer Berg. The room is packed. Everyone is a musician or related to a musician.

I often go to gigs in Berlin, but only recently skirted the depths of this musical netherworld. I'd seen synthesisers and loop machines and random instruments come out at parties and in hidden bars. I'd noticed Berlin's penchant for experimental/electronic/mashed-up sound, I'd enjoyed these nocturnal soundscapes for starving sophisticates.

But I hadn't realized that such musical trailblazing was a venerable and established Berlin tradition with influences far beyond the city.

High art

Long ago, improvised and experimental music in Berlin was appreciated on both sides of the Wall.

When English violinist Jon Rose moved to the city in the mid-1980s he was part of the free jazz/improvisation group Slawterhaus, whose members were split between West and East Berlin. He used to travel through Checkpoint Charlie with his violin and modified nine-string cello. The border guards detained him once, claiming the instrument wasn't a cello. Nevertheless, the East German regime paid him well to perform his post-jazz experiments, with song titles including "Escape to the East" and "I want my Wall back."

After reunification, the radical left of the city's improv music scene was joined under the banner Echtzeitmusik (real-time music), based mostly in the abandoned buildings turned squats of East Berlin. This was, according to a book recently published on the movement, a milieu that combined "free improvisation, punk and New Music, and social experimentation."

Ausland - a self-professed "territory for experimental music, performance and art" - is the bastion of Echtzeitmusik. When I finally made my pilgrimage to the venue, I had just met the drummer who was performing, Tony Buck, a long-time member of legendary Australian experimental jazz trio, The Necks.

Buck moved to Berlin on Rose's advice in the mid 1990s, drawn in by the tight music community and the still-flourishing Diaspora of world-class musicians who make Berlin home. A hangover from those Echtzeit days, he lives up the road from Ausland in an apartment block full of Berlin improvisers - including the pianist on show, Magda Mayas.

"The scene is so diverse," enthused Mike Majkowski, another Australian, a bassist of Polish decent who moved to Berlin in 2011 after regular visits and tours to the musical Promised Land.

The jazz and classically trained bassist says Berlin is the only place he could play sessions with different musicians daily. "It ranges from free jazz to minimal soundscape to noise and experimental," he said. "There's a lot of cross-collaboration between musicians."

Jon Rose's string orchestra accompanies Australian wire fence sounds at the Berlin club Naherholung Sternchen

Jon Rose's string orchestra accompanies Australian wire fence sounds at the Berlin club Naherholung Sternchen

A musical laboratory

This isn't just a scene but, in Majkowski's words, "a laboratory," an "open forum for exchange." It is welcoming and collaborative because most have come to Berlin from elsewhere and for similar reasons.

I recently witnessed an 11-piece string orchestra accompany a composition by Jon Rose in which he drives his fiddler's bow across warped wire fences in the Australian outback. In a former meeting room for East German politicians, the string ensemble got together for the first time only an hour before the show, yet accompanied Rose's bizarre, screeching metal desert symphony, which was projected on the back wall, with disarming precision. The basement room of a Stalinist high-rise was jammed. Majkowski was one of four double bass players.

Such inspiring performances started to become run-of-the-mill on my musical explorations around Berlin. I went back to Ausland days later to watch Russian sound poet Valeri Scherstjanoi, who moved to East Berlin in 1979. With only his mouth and lungs, he performed aural calisthenics on the stage, a cacophony of lyrics and guttural utterances inspired by the Dadaists and Futurists. It was compelling - and strangely accessible.

New sounds

In Neukölln, Berlin's du jour artistic frontier, experimental music venues seem to be sprouting daily in shop fronts and basements. Sowieso, Heisenberg, NK, an artist-run sound arts space, and O Tannenbaum, a smoky DJ bar doubling as an improv music incubator, are just a few.

I wander into O Tannenbaum one night and am transfixed by a piece of extreme musical minimalism, a series of tonal drones from wind, string and electronic instruments interspersed with long silences. It's hot inside, but the generous crowd is focused and unmoving.

Bass clarinettist that night, Lucio Capece, who first came to Berlin from Argentina via Paris a decade ago, tells me the experimental scene is booming; plus it's more open, fun and less purist these days. Typically, Capece nurtures his sound in Berlin and then branches out across Europe, playing with big names like Finish electronic music pioneer Vladislav Delay.

Tony Buck and Jon Rose once ran the Exiles Festival for experimental and improvised music in Berlin dedicated to the "internationally and musically displaced." It was all about people with diverse national and artistic origins expressing themselves with complete musical freedom in Berlin. The festival stopped in 2008. I suppose it became obsolete, as Berlin's thriving improv scene has become a kind of spontaneous, self-perpetuating experimental music festival.

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