Theo Ploeg heads to Cologne's C/O Pop Festival to celebrate Kompakt and witness a sublime set from Nils Frahm. Photo by Anne Vlaanderen

"I am glad I sit at the piano and not on the floor like you do”, jokes a shy Nils Frahm. He is right. The wooden floor of one of the main studio halls of broadcasting company WDR (West Deutscher Rundfunk) is hard and so packed with people that moving is impossible. The beautiful sounds Frahm produces alleviate the physical suffering, and his sublime concert is the undisputed highlight of this tenth edition of Cologne’s C/O Pop festival.

Ten years ago PopKomm, the largest music fair in Europe, left Cologne for Berlin, and its future is uncertain. Its successor in Cologne, C/O Pop, is still there though, and this year celebrates its tenth birthday. Cologne is a city that breathes pop culture. Since Karlheinz Stockhausen made his pioneering electronic music at the local conservatory just after World War II, the city has long been known for its vibrant pop culture.

The C’n’B conference about culture and business, an important part of the festival, takes place at the beautiful and functional Fritz Thyssen Stiftung and Kölnischer Kunstverein, near Neumarkt. The first day of C’n’B is buzzing with inspiration, and during the opening panel "Being creative in a disruptive world” the speakers have no trouble defining the essence of creativity in 2013: do not think about money, follow your heart. Benji Rodgers, cofounder of crowd funding platform Pledge Music, summarises: "A creative idea is good enough only if you believe that the world is less interesting without it". The other members of the panel agree. Suroosh Alvi of Vice and co-producer of the documentary Heavy Metal In Baghdad (2007) emphasises that thinking off the beaten track is essential. "Youth want to know what’s going on in the world, they just don’t want to consume garbage”, he says, thus undermining the assumption that young people are not interested in news. The proof? The success of Vice’s documentary series. Alvi: “Geo-politics works in favor of our content, the world is an interesting place at the moment. There is so much going on.”

Later on the Austrian designer Stefan Sagmeister, who runs his own design company in New York, once again emphasises: follow your own passion. Every seven years he takes a sabbatical to rediscover his passion and gain new insights in the world of design and creativity. His lecture is exciting, funny, visually strong and constantly engages the audience. The moral? Do what you really want to do, or find out what it is you want to do and overcome the fears that won’t let you.

On Wednesday evening and night, extreme heat – about thirty-five degrees during the day – makes for hot and sweaty rooms and concert halls. So everybody is drinking Kölsch (local beer) outside. Despite the heat, Apparat’s concert in the beautiful and intimate Millowitsch Theater at Aachen Strasse is nearly sold out. Sascha Ring – aka Apparat – shines with his soundtrack to the theatre adaptation of Tolstoy’s War & Peace. To be honest, his voice is too loud and not that clear, but during the long instrumental parts, Ring and his guest musicians make magic happen.

The next day Fenster gives a great performance in the same theatre, although it begins rather tentatively. The songs with the Berlin-based American JJ Weihl singing make Fenster sound like a weaker version of The xx, but when Jonathan Jarzyna does the vocals the band turns into the missing link between the fuzz rock of Jesus & Mary Chain and the late gothic of Bauhaus and The Cure. Overwhelming and impressive.

Most beautiful festival location? Gloria Theater, without a doubt. The theatre blends 30s and 50s aesthetics with modern elements. There’s a beautiful sloping hall, atmospheric lighting and it’s intimite and cosy with only a handful of audience members. It’s the ideal location for the Danish band When Saints Go Machine and their exciting mix of electronics, EBM, R&B, techno and metal. The band themselves describe it as "electro-chamber", but Linkin Park (although trance producer BT isn’t a bad reference either) with Antony Hegarty on vocals is probably the closest you can get. Their recently released second album ‘Infinity Pool’ is a must-hear.

It’s imposable to think about pop culture and Cologne without the Kompakt label, which turns twenty this year, springing to mind. During the Pop Ambient live evening on Wednesday the Kompakt cofounder Wolfgang Voigt’s sublime set causes goosebumps in the sultry ballroom of the Cologne Dance Centre. His set of ambient, modern and classical music is loosely based on his ‘Rückverzauberung’ series. Nearly as good is Jens-Uwe Beyer’s ambient set, combining grand gestures with intimate, introverted soundscapes. It’s entertaining, but lacking the cohesion of Voigt. Friday evening and night are dedicated to twenty years of Kompakt, meaning queues in front of Stadtgarten Studio 672 and Gewölbe. DJ Koze, Michael Mayer and Matias Aguayo keep everyone dancing until the early hours.

In Studio 672 Berlin-based Dutchman Thomas Azier works his ass off. His songs are driven by synthesisers and drum machines and flirt with Italo house, 80s synth pop and EBM. His two companions on stage create the basis for the extremely groovy songs. Azier is a performer at heart. He poses and poses and poses. If Depeche Mode ever needs a replacement for Martin Gore, Azier would be an excellent candidate. This band deserves a bigger stage. The same goes with Retro Stefson from Reykjavik and Berlin. The collective turns the great hall of Stadtgarten into a steaming hot dance party, richly citing the history of disco and other black music. Cliche? Totally, but that doesn’t matter at all. Energetic live-act, smooth rhythms and great lead singer, Retro Stefson has them all.

In a packed WDR studio hall, Nils Frahm is the highlight of the tenth edition of C/O Pop. Actually, the Berlin pianist planned to perform together with townsman and friend Peter Broderick, but Broderick couldn’t make it to Cologne. After music journalist and radio producer Klaus Walter introduces Brain Eno’s Music For Airports – an ode to the Cologne/Bonn airport that, at the time, was the most modern in the world – a nervous Frahm starts with around seventy-five minutes of sublime music. His interpretation of Eno’s masterpiece is chillingly and beautiful. Frahm is not only a great pianist and musician, above all he is able to evoke extreme emotions of both distress and happiness here. It’s a beautiful highlight of a festival that celebrates Cologne, and looks more vibrant than ever.

The Quietus Digest

Sign up for our free Friday email newsletter.

Support The Quietus

Our journalism is funded by our readers. Become a subscriber today to help champion our writing, plus enjoy bonus essays, podcasts, playlists and music downloads.

Support & Subscribe Today