Acoustic Cities: Berlin
Street performer in front of Berlin Cathedral. Photo by Mike Long.
Trying to understand what’s happening musically in Berlin is like trying to eat one dish from every country in one sitting: You’ll fail, but you’ll learn a lot on the journey. Berlin encourages musicians from various countries and unique styles to join its bustling streets, resulting in an eclectic mix that’s anything but boring.
The city has a reputation for being an electronic music hub. It’s said that techno-spinning DJs run the clubs in Berlin. While I found that story to be true, it wasn’t my story. Berlin, again and again, proved to be an epicenter of experimentalism that’s driven by multi-nationals and expats.
Nearly all of the street musicians I met were from other parts of the world. In one day alone, I met a guitarist from the UK, a steel drum player from New York, two guitarists from North Carolina and several brass players from Turkey.
Musician Michaud Savafe in Berlin park. Video by Mike Long.
On the same day I arrived in Berlin, a friend of mine from Seattle was touching down from the U.S. armed with three guitars and loose plan to find stable work as a musician. His name is Michaud Savage (pictured right), and he’s 28. Michaud is undertaking the journey of many bold artists and planting himself in a cultural city with hope and a guitar. Berlin is famous for being amenable to professional musicians, even if they aren’t native Germans, and Michaud hopes to join this group. During my time in Berlin experiencing music in locations ranging from subway stations to opera houses, I came to see it as a melting pot for such artists.
Berlin is rooted in its musical traditions. From my viewing of Wagner’s classic “The Flying Dutchman” at Deutche Oper Berlin to seeing the Brno Philharmonic Choir in the Berlin Konzerthaus, the city is in no danger of losing its conventional sounds and styles. However, both in clubs and out on the streets, the number of transplants pushing boundaries and experimenting with sounds was unmatched in my travels.
Brno Philharmonic Choir, Berlin Konzerthaus. Photo by Milke Long.
I spent an evening at Keith Bar with a mix of locals and expats. Andreas, the one-man “band” known as Window Magic was performing. Window Magic is self-described as featuring “tape deck ghosts,” which is a good indicator of the level of experimentation going on. He was not so much giving a concert as creating a living, breathing ambient auditory backdrop for the small bar. Tapes with found sounds and pre-recorded melodies fluttered in and out, augmented with various pedals and synths as accompaniment. The entire operation was an organized accident—and a clear diversion from today’s popular music.
On a different night, in the neighborhood of Kreuzberg, I saw local act “Jawbones” play a set of psych/synth rock. Kreuzberg is supposedly giving Brooklyn a run for its money in achieving hipster “coolness,” and it showed in the band’s musical choices. Though they cycled through conventional genre norms, the musicians also injected weird tape-deck sounds and other experimental elements. Like many other acts I saw in Berlin, Jawbones was an expat collective, with one German, one American and three French members.
It makes sense that musicians who specialize in contemporary, avant-garde and challenging music choose Berlin. Its sheer size and cultural endorsement of the arts enable unconventional (and sometimes schizoid) styles to thrive there. Something about Berlin welcomes progress and novelty. The word “eclectic” only begins to do the massive sprawl justice.
Local street musicians in Berlin. Photo by Mike Long.
Musicians Glenn and Burkhard practicing in Tempelhofer Feld, Berlin. Photo by Mike Long.
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