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Things Learned At: Berlin Atonal
Ollie Zhang , August 31st, 2017 09:03

Space and time plus Pan Daijing, Ana-Maria Avram, Puce Mary and Killer Bong make for an extraordinary experience at this year's Berlin Atonal.

The 2017 edition of Berlin Atonal is opened by Reinhold Friedl, who cuts through the gaping dark space of the Kraftwerk complex with pieces from Romanian avant-garde composers Iancu Dumitrescu and Ana-Maria Avram. Avram’s ‘Klavierutopie’ is particularly consuming, a tribute to its composer who passed away just a few weeks before the festival. It's a privilege to hear the work here and it sets the tone for a rich programme and a extraordinary festival.

Musical diversity is key (or too much of a good thing is not a good thing)

Undoubtedly, many of us come to Atonal for a generous helping of dark, industrial noise in a former power plant, but after the first day the main stage does get a little oversaturated with a similar weighty hue of noise. Dark, heavy and often accompanied by black-and-white visuals, many acts iterate a very similar shade of ‘experimentalism’. Monochrome palettes and harsh noise are two of my favourite things, but they can get a bit tiresome and it's the slightly different takes on noise that bring the most rewarding moments.

Some highlights come in the form of Stockhausen’s ‘Oktophonie’ on day one, and it’s fantastic to hear the piece in its eight-channel glory on the main system. Rashad Becker and Ena also perform on the octophonic setup, which is also a treat to hear. Breaths of fresh air arrive in the form of excellent performances from Puce Mary and Pan Daijing.

New duo Belief Defect perform a live set on Friday, ahead of their release on Raster, and Roll the Dice (Peder Mannerfelt and Malcolm Pardon) play a hefty set on Saturday, complete with fragments of thrashing breakbeat. Main/Regis also provide some of the soul-crushing techno that is so oft associated with Berlin.

Musical variety is mostly found away from main stage acts. Varg’s Nordic Flora showcase brings younger artists to Kraftwerk’s stage null, including Swan Meat, Oli XL and Sky H1. They deliver crisp and exciting takes on noise and ambient music. Poet Chloe Wise also features in the showcase, delivering her sardonic, deadpan work with the occasional wry smile.

Surprises make the best moments in a festival

The Ohm stage proves to be the site of many welcome surprises. On day one, I’m captivated by Robert Aiki Aubrey Lowe’s set, despite my initial plan to split the hour between him and Moritz Von Oswald downstairs at Tresor. Lowe progresses slowly from melancholy vocal warbles into techno’s periphery, complete with unique rhythmic work topped with the occasional guttural noise-spurt. The balance of harsh noise with delicate details works beautifully.

HATAM’s vinyl set on day two of the festival gives another pleasing moment. HATAM covers much musical ground, and the show closes with ‘3’ from Pita’s Get Out, and overjoyed screams from the audience.

But perhaps the best surprise of the week arrives in the form of Killer Bong’s set on Saturday. The Japanese rapper, armed only with an AKAI sampler and 2 Korg Kaosspads, delivers forceful bars over lilting, lo-fi grooves that keep listeners on their toes. His eccentric style is a delight, and his take on Japanese hip-hop marks a welcome break from the heavy sets on the main stage lineup.

‘Discomfort’ is a term too easily thrown around…

…especially in noise music (and this is something I myself am definitely guilty of), but Pan Daijing stuns with the premiere of ‘Fist Piece’. It finishes with cheers from the audience, as well as stunned faces. I am part of the latter party - it doesn’t quite feel right to clap politely after a performance that is actually unnerving.

'Fist Piece’ consists of material from her recent LP Lack 惊蛰, performed live and cleverly orchestrated into a rich new performance. Her particular marriage of music, performance art and BDSM culture is a potent fusion: the unsettling album makes for an unsettling show. I expected this to a degree, but I wasn't expecting to feel genuinely perturbed. There’s nothing like being face-to-face with a performance artist holding a camcorder to make a cameraphobe feel genuinely uncomfortable. I try to duck behind someone else, but in vain - this is what I get for pushing to the front.

Pan’s stage presence is uncompromising. She moves around the stage fluidly and adroitly, she commands attention. As she kneels down, camcorder in hand, she stumbles slightly and smiles; Pan is the one in control. In her clever execution, I find her antics become (begrudgingly) welcome. Her wild grin is evidence of a vulnerability that arrives as a breath of fresh air after acts cloaked in darkness and anonymity, like the preceding act Pact Infernal.

Sometimes we'd be better off without visuals

My patience for black-and-white abstract visuals has worn very thin, but they are at least less offensive than the hackneyed shots from Michael England during Demdike Stare’s set. With cheesy nature stills, footage of tourists iPhone selfies being taken by tourists, and exoticising footage of a nude Butoh dancer and black street dancers, England’s visuals feel reductive and distracting.

Something of the inverse is found in Wolfgang Tillmans’ collaboration with Powell, which attempts to differ from the ever-common palette of light and fog. But well-composed images still fail to redeem an unfortunate performance, chock-full of pseudo-profound clichés hollered until the point is long-past made: “We build the future, we build the now,” and my personal (un)favourite, “The idea that one is spoken by the other”.

Bass nose is a real thing

Puce Mary’s mighty set on Friday marks the first time that I experience this phenomenon in full, as she employs frequencies that make your nose vibrate bizarrely. On Friday she premieres ‘A Feast Before the Drought’, using a particularly powerful sub that makes your nose and throat shake to the point of physical discomfort, inducing light suffocation. While the main stage lineup is heavy on sub, no other act is quite as physically affecting. Armed with an electric violin and her signature screams, she wields goosebump-inducing timbres on the high end to balance the unyielding bass.

“You can’t do this anywhere else in the world”

This I steal from a fellow audience member, but it’s certainly something that’s been on my mind. Atonal is impressive in so many ways – from scale to production, from the razor sharp techno of Inga Mauer and Anastasia Kristensen to the infectious fusion of Equiknoxx – it genuinely makes you feel lucky to be there. Berlin has the space and resources for such sonic ventures, as well as the imagination and the determination. In many other places, including London, programming on this scale is much more difficult – to carve out space for movement and experimentation is almost impossible in a city of stifling regulations and a oppressive living costs. At Atonal, where the venues are big and the hours are long (from 6pm to 6am), the freedom of space and time lead to a freedom of spirit for everyone here.

Pan Daijing photo by Helge Mundt; Nordic Flora photo by Camille Blake