Monday, 23 February 2009

from late 2008, written after the party, berlin.

The medium takes over: Ben Klock and Dan Bell at Cassys Birthday, Berghain/Panorama Bar

As Marshall McLuhan, the pre-eminent media theorist of the 1960s, suggested, the 'medium is the message': the technology of communication tells you more about something than the content. And, standing in the middle of Berghain's dancefloor on Sunday morning, something about the content of the sound made me think.

For Cassey's birthday, a marathon, open-ended event largely celebrated in Panoramabar with Steve Bug, Josh Wink, Zip and others, the culminating performance of the night/day in the Berghain came from Klock. Resident, and agenda setting artist on Ostgut ton, his sound has effectively been constructed around the parameters of a sound system and its acoustic environment. 

'We understand sound to be the most important of our senses and in fact, the root of the structure of the entire Universe. As such, we try to pay the amazing acuity of human hearing the respect it deserves by providing products that deliver as much resolution and detail as is possible.'

Sound being the 'route structure of the entire universe', as the F-One guys suggest, is questionable. What isn't is the attention to detail paid by the engineers. The six Funktion-one units surrounding the dance floor of Berghain, four floor-mounted sets, two hanging, are as inextricably linked to the Berghain/Ostgut ton/Ben Klock nexus as the music. The scale of the space – a former powerstation – and its material condition are central to the production of the sound. The systems clarity, and its shear power combine with the acoustics of the space to deliver that 'resolution and detail'. Bass is controlled, balanced with mid-range but never loosing its power.

Hearing Dettman's Shatterproof, or Klocks remix of Go, prove this. They come alive in this space: detail is never lost to power, which is never compromised to detail. By tailoring frequencies, and understanding what this space does to a sound wave, these producers achieve something specific.

That resolution, combined with the production skills of Klock, Dettman, Nodge and others, enable the 'total-system' that is Bergain to be activated. There are frequencies, sounds and rhythms specific to Berghain, most notably a shared precision of beat and basslines built to make the most of those F-One units. Like Villalobos with Fabric's Martin Audio sound, it's knowing the parameters of that Funktion-one system that allows this to be achieved. And this is where McLuhan comes in: for Berghain to work, the medium takes priority, and the knowledge of how to make this machine move air, takes centre-stage. Klock was preceded by Dan Bell, Perlon/7th City producer, dj and performer of the most minimal of actual techno. His set – charged, contemporary and musically referential (Hood, Saunderson, and the like), showed what is meant by minimal techno: pared down, percussive, multi-layered sparseness infused with an edge of funk, raw mixing (with occasional stuttering beat-misses), and powerful. However, his technical knowledge of the Berghain condition is, obviously, nowhere near as detailed as Klocks, failing to pull machine into operation: never quite pushing its possibilities, nor reaching an event of any description.

Klock's set, starting at eight am, took the functional possibility of this sound/space system to its edge. Music that had been created for this place risked hitting the resonant frequency of Berghain. His mixing is flawless, smooth and technically astute. And the sound he produces is quite literally physical. Using the dynamics of the 5.1 surround that was installed recently, he creates an envelope of air in the centre of the dancefloor: the snap of a kick-drum comes through so hard and sharp as to almost hurt, and when a bass-drum drops, rib cages across the space resonate. Clarity, depth and force of air movement are effectively the tools of Klock and he uses them to produce techno of monolithic scale: and it is producing it here, as to listen to an Ostgut ton release on anything other than this system, in this place, is to listen to another music, another thing. It only really comes into being in this space. Surprising? Not really – that's Berlin, where the Hans Scharoun designed Philharmonie, home to the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, takes the relationship between sound and space as central to its success, fame and sets a model for orchestral hall architecture.

But, and here a crucial question needs to be asked of electronic music of this literal force: is it music, emotive, human driven performance, or is it technology, the medium making the message, the content? The perfection of the whole Klock/Funktion-One/Berghain combination pushes this cultural form in a new direction. The technical possibilities of a system drive the stuff produced by it, perhaps leaving a music devoid of soul, of error and imperfection? A total machine music?

1 comment:

  1. Hey Thomas, how's life in Berlin? I have to say this makes me want to come over and hear/feel it the Berghain soundsystem in action. To date my best experiences have been from Funkton One's in Fabric (when they're on form) and at festivals, and the sound is superb. To hear the whole environment manipulating sound must be in a different league altogether.