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Image: NASA/Melanie Bojano

'Inhuman' music

Gavin Blackburn
February 22, 2013

A four-day festival in Berlin aims to make visitors aware of music in situations they might not expect. The event's installations present works generated by animals, machines - and by accident.


Berlin is renowned as a center for musical experimentation, and the city has produced some highly imaginative sounds like cutting-edge techno, free-form jazz and quirky art-pop. But almost without exception, these new trends were created by people, whereas the sounds emanating this week from the Haus der Kulturen der Welt (House of World Cultures) are quite different indeed.

From a bass-playing robot or a symphony with 100 power drills to a cell phone/piano concerto or a Klingon opera, what all these off-beat pieces have in common is that the human element in the composition and execution of the music has either been entirely removed or reduced to an absolute minimum.

The four-day “Unmenschliche Musik” (Inhuman Music) festival, which runs from 21-24 February, is part of the art center’s two-year interdisciplinary project focusing on the Anthropocene, a proposed term for the current geological period in which human activities have begun to affect the global climate and ecosystems.

Man and music

Event co-curator Detlef Diederichsen said that the festival has many aims, but chief among them is to encourage visitors to question ideas of humanity.

"Who is man? Where are his limits? Where does he come from and where will he go to?" he said in an interview with DW, adding, "The idea is to step aside, to look at the human species from the outside. And to do that we take music which is usually seen as the most intimate of the arts, subtract the human from this and see what's left. I think we maybe get a new picture of what the human race is and what we can expect from it."

While dehumanizing music is possible to a certain extent, the human factor was present in every installation, albeit in small doses. One person who kept his involvement to a minimum was sculptor Kolja Kugler. The performances by his animatronic creations Sir Elton Junk and Afreakin Bassplayer were dictated by the robots themselves.

"Obviously the basic theme is decided by me but the execution is decided by the robot," he said, continuing, "He's got his own way of playing and his own character. I program the computer, tell these little files and bytes what to do, then it goes through processors and cables and ends up in a valve which controls the movement analogue. It's kind of an absurd loop. There’s some kind of higher intelligence in there somewhere I think."

Tamer Fahri Özgönenc's
Tamer Fahri Özgönenc's "Cluster 100," a symphony with 100 power drillsImage: DW

The music of nature

Far removed from the intimidating world of colossal, jerky animatronics was the relatively serene environment of the hills around Glynwood, Ohio. That’s where musician David Rothenberg recorded a symphony of woodwind and insect song for his album, "Bugs." Rothenberg is keen to exploit the natural music present in the animal kingdom.

"The easiest way is to take their sounds and mess with them - as you can easily do with technology - but the more challenging thing is to go out and play live with all kinds of creatures and see what happens," he said. "The most challenging is to play with hump-back whales because they're singing these long, complicated sounds but sometimes you can get them to interact with you. I actually think animals are making all kinds of music. There's more music in nature than there is language."
But installations didn't have to be inspired by lofty concepts such as what it means to be human or how animals interact with each other. Sometimes a simple pun could be the inspiration. That was certainly the case with Berlin-based electronic musician Andrew Pekler whose Prepaid Piano installation is a reference to the John Cage piece "Prepared Piano."

"Prepaid Piano consists of five mobile telephones that are placed inside the piano, directly on the strings," Pekler said, "Their numbers are given out to the audience, and they call the telephones, and their vibration signals vibrate the strings of the piano directly. These sounds are then amplified by microphone and sent on to an electronic apparatus that modulates the resulting sound, so the sound keeps looping and repeating until the next incoming signal."

The sold-out event drew a young crowd, something which both surprised and pleased curator Detlef Diederichsen. So what did some of the visitors make of this trip into a whole new world of music?

"I'm personally interested in the general theme of the Anthropocene," said one student, "I think all of the installations were very successful but in very different media, so I think they succeeded in translating all of these themes."

A trainee biologist added, "I think about the functionality of music and the background of music, and how music and techniques interact with each other. It makes me think more about the background of music."

Kolja Kugler's animatronic bass player, called Afreakin Bassplayer (c) DW
Kolja Kugler's animatronic bass player, Afreakin Bassplayer, who has a performance style all of his ownImage: DW

Forgetting musical snobbery

While curator Detlef Diederichsen admits that the event may raise more questions than answers, he also says that it's important for people to get over their prejudices that music made by machines is somehow a sacrilegious bastardization of an untouchable original work.

"In the case of Professor Cope, a lot of people feel insulted that he has a machine composing in the style of Johan Sebastian Bach, who is somehow a holy figure in the world of music," the curator explained, continuing, "This is something that makes people aggressive, and they try to prevent this. Why is it so important that music is distinctively human? What will we lose if tomorrow a spaceship lands and out come aliens with beautiful music? What will we do, kill ourselves? You are free to interpret music and noise and sound. I hope that they come out thinking more intensively about these questions, about mankind, about human vanity."

And there are more opportunities to think on the way; the Haus der Kluturen der Welt is not quite finished presenting off-beat forms of music just yet. Böse Musik (Evil Music) and Doofe Musik (Stupid Music) festivals are planned for later in the year.

A script used as part of Andrew Pekler's installation
Calling for a song: Andrew Pekler's "Prepaid Piano"Image: DW

Sample some inhuman music by listening to excerpts from some of the installations below.

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