Kaltes Klares Licht: Of course, I made this ten day pilgrimage to Berlin in the spirit of the Sound Dust essay. So much good sound was coming to the Podewil Centre in Mitte that I just had to jump on a train. But it might just as easily have been a pilgrimage in the spirit of the Fluorescence Decoder essay. Because Berlin is illuminated by the coldest, clearest fluorescent lights on the planet.
Secretly German: I sometimes feel like I'm secretly German. Bread here is what I think of as 'real bread' -- stuff I can never find in Japan or France. Beer here -- particularly white beer -- is 'real beer'. I walk around the streets of Berlin singing songs from 'The Threepenny Opera', aware that its bittersweet ironies have marked my songwriting deeply. Now that's what I call real music! Oskar Tennis Champion has just been rejected by two English press officers who said they 'weren't feeling' its own bittersweet sense of irony, its cruel music hall comedy routines and NeuCanPoleOvalisms. Eventually we found a press officer (a woman) in Scotland, someone who works a lot with German groups, including my friends Stereo Total. She got her mind around it. Scotland understands. If Scotland were a separate country, I think it would be closer to Germany than to England.
Kitsch and Minimalism: Two somewhat conflicting styles have always been important in Berlin. Kitsch -- the rather tired Austin Powers-Barbarella kitsch of orange moulded plastic furniture, 70s lamps, loungecore -- and Minimalism, the reduced and purified snowscapes of Carsten Nicolai and the Bauhaus. (Walking in Mitte I find this spirit alive and well in the form of an architecture practise which blazons a manifesto in its window in the form of a stark orange and white poster with a ten point program. Point one is: 'For the melting and dissolution of all fixed forms.') Kitsch and Minimalism seem at odds, but it doesn't take much to reconcile them. Yesterday's Minimalist-Modernism, pure, icy, sharp and new, becomes today's junkstore tat. One sign of this is the current popularity in Berlin of a pack of playing cards depicting the facades of some of the ugliest Eastern bloc high-rises. (Their real life counterparts have become, apparently, the most fashionable places to live.) Divided into 'housing', 'offices', 'cladding' and 'ornaments', the pack can be used for a variant on the game of Happy Families. Will you be able to collect a complete set of molded hexagonal grids, retiring them from the game and putting you in the lead? Or will you be crushed under tons of incompatible concrete?
Post-Protestant: I've been thinking about the term 'post-Protestant' since looking, a couple of weeks ago, at a chart in the Economist which plotted nations according to their espousal of secular and rational values. Japan came high on the secular-rational axis, as did Germany, Holland, Sweden and other northern European nations grouped on the chart in a blue swatch labelled 'Protestant-Europe', but described in the accompanying article as 'post-Protestant'. The strikingly simple idea behind the label is that nations, even when they grow out of their fervently religious periods, continue to be marked by the nature of the religions they espoused. (Of course, their religions may have been adapted to their national cultures in the first place.) Post-Protestant nations tend to be ones which continue 'protesting' even when they're no longer concerned with the decadence of the Pope. Even after the Reformation has been deformed and melted into history, they continue 'reforming'. Berlin feels like that. It's protesting, and it's reforming. You see it all around you. There are quite literally 'protest singers' with long hair and guitars, busking on the subway. The youth, unlike their counterparts in Paris, are 'protesting': out along the Frankfurter Allee there are squats covered in defiant grafitti. There are trams, wind farms and recycling bins. The government itself is protesting, stating boldly that it will not support a US war against Iraq, even if it gets UN approval. (The German people profess to find George W. Bush more frightening than Saddam Hussein.) Being a post-Protestant protesting sort myself, I find this atmosphere very comfortable.
Pristine: I'm staying with a friend called Christian. (He signs his mails 'Xtian', perhaps to show he's post-Christian.) He's Christian-pristine, his bathroom is whiter than white. His shelves are heavy with post-Goth, post-Industrial music. 4AD-related stuff -- Dead Can Dance, Bauhaus, Devo. He has some classical music too, and some literary stuff, like the tape cut-ups of Burroughs and the lectures of Borges. (I immediately rip these, sending to his server in return some mp3s of Hypo.) It strikes me that his taste, rather than 'catholic', is post-Protestant. It's severe, yet radical. If you had to give this music a colour, of course you'd colour it grey, but you'd put splashes of orange or pink in there too. And that's the characteristic colour of Berlin itself. The terraced streets of Mitte are a kind of putty butter colour shading into orange. The buidlings are solid, heavy and rather conservative, but you're arrested by splashes of radical hot pink, orange, green, yellow; colours civic, primary, bold and liberal. A yellow tram rolls by. The public phones are buffed stainless steel with hot pink plastic handsets, beautiful. There's a lot of orange tiling, orange moulded plastic seats. Orange is, of course, the definitive Protestant colour. It's also the colour of the 70s, that liberal, experimental decade.
Post-Catholic Taste: The Podewil brochure describes my French friends on the Active Suspension label as 'distortion pop', and it's true they make a mockery of the post-Protestant aesthetic purism of German counterparts like Carsten Nicolai, Markus Popp or Stefan Bettke. Hypo, O.Lamm and Domotic represent French electronica's 'post-Catholic taste' -- they're as much influenced by 80s guitar bands like PiL and New Order and My Bloody Valentine as by 90s landmarks like the 'Artificial Intelligence' series on (post-Protestant) Warp, or Autechre's first album. That's why I think France is now the crucible and cradle of the most interesting electronica on the planet. There's a sense of pleasure, impurity and unpredictability about the artists on labels like Clapping Music and Active Suspension. The French are the people who'll do good work, precisely because they're not post-Protestant boffins for whom 'Minimalism' strips down to the same condemnations of decoration and pleasure that Protestants have been issuing since John Calvin. (These folks update John Calvin to John Cage, and Christianity to Zen, but 'less is more' is still the Bible they're bashing.)
Post-Communist: On a day of glittering sun, my first day here in Berlin, I head out east from Mitte to Friedrichshain. I'm staying in Mitte, and it's cultural, compact and civilised. But things have changed since I was last in Berlin. The backhanded epithet 'edgy' no longer applies to Mitte, 'edgy' moved East to Friedrichshain and the wilderness of vast Stalinist alleys and towerblocks beyond. This is evident when I search for the Humana in Mitte where, just a couple of years ago, I bought basketfulls of fabulous retro clothes -- fur hats, sta-pressed Ossie trousers. That Humana is gone, replaced by a dull electronics superstore. But out in Frierichshain -- bang! -- it's the huge Humana again, with the same working-just-a-little-too-hard fashion victims and ironists shopping there for repurposed jogging wear. I buy some huge padded military trousers with braces, a brown nylon quilted waistcoat with rounded pockets and lots of zips, a check-patterned sweater, and a bright pink scarf.
Art on the Spree: The art district has also moved east: it used to be around Mitte's Oranienburgerstrasse, now it's clustered under railway bridges way east along the Spree river at the Janowitzbrucke. On Friday night about eight new shows are opening, and I join the throng to see what Liam Gillick and a bunch of less famous artists have to offer. The most interesing piece I see is a series of videos of ordinary driving scenes, with narratives on headphones in a German Romantic-subjectivist style, describing a daily drive in the style of Klee on painting, or Kafka on writing, or Kierkegaard on praying, or Rilke on composing poetry. For all I know the texts could come from Hitler's diaries. With that radical Germanic-Romantic subjective style, you just never know whether it's Hitler or Kleist or Lessing or what. But not knowing what the texts were, or how appropriate they were for the boring modern images, gave me a good idea.
A Good Idea: I often get my best ideas by immersing myself in art in foreign languages. I don't understand what's being said, but an exoticist sense of the work's probable cleverness, irony and wit makes me work overtime to read clever, ironic and witty ideas into it. And of course the ideas turn out to be my own. In this case, I speculated that the narrative accompanying the driving scenes was adapted from Romantic-Germanic-Subjectivist texts about something quite different by, I don't know, Kleist or Herder or Schiller or somebody. And I thought, what a telling way to highlight the lack of intensity of modern times! What a great formula for generating incongruities and hilarious absurdities!
Metamorphoses: Take a text full of high-flown sprituality of that particular 19th century German kind, and change the lexis! Instead of talking about the political revolution of 1848, for instance, talk about the digital revolution of 1998, that collapse of utopian promise when the NASDAQ bubble burst! Describe going on a dodgy drug-fuelled holiday to Ibiza in the tones and vocabulary of a recent, sincere convert to Islam! Describe making a cup of tea for your friend, then change it -- without altering the tone -- to a description of murder! In the vocabulary of a scratch video maker, be a pervert parent talking about giving his daughter a pony as a surprise! Confound starlings in the snow with a language lab tape exercise! It's a funny parlour game.
Podewil: It's magical in a dead sort of way. The street is heavy with ex-communist gravitas; sepulchral institutional buildings, blackened pillared churches, museums. A major road cuts this little corner off from the hubbub of Mitte, and a little-used subway station, Klosterstrasse, is filled with ghostly images of the trams and buses of yesteryear. East Berlin was also rather heavy, dark and cut-off, and this street captures that feeling. Podewil, a state-funded arts centre, is cut off from commercial concerns. It's a Soviet-style cultural centre that nobody seems to come to, a place of marble lobbies and vast public rooms. In one of these, up on the first floor, the groups play. A sparse audience of young intellectuals sits on leather sofas on raised plaforms surrounding a central podium which seems to float on a mysterious curtain of white fluorescence. The laptops, decks and mixers the groups will use are hidden in a tangle of transplanted bushes and twigs, amongst which stand heavy ornamental table lamps with orange shades. There's a huge baffled screen at the end of the room onto which are projected Monitor Automatique's graphics, chopped up scenes in which windows zoom around until they become unreal digital samples of windows, then red vector lines dance in time to the music across grey facades. I sprawl on the wooden platform, feeling happy. I like the 'cultural centre' feeling, the unfunkiness, the unpopularity, the coldness and deadness. I'm a bit shy about the fannishness of my presence here -- after all, I'm a Parisian who's followed a bunch of up-and-coming Parisians to an away match in an act of prescient loyalty/investment not seen since all the New York scenesters flew out to LA for Fischerspooner's Standard Hotel show. So when will Hypo, Domotic and O.Lamm sign for two million pounds? When will Bjork or Madonna ask one of them to produce their next albums? It can only be a matter of time. Tonight, though, they're a little subdued. Hypo has a spiky mullet and is scratching with laserdiscs -- very cool. O.Lamm is an afro-topped Beethoven, beetle-browed as he glares at his copy of Max. He gets ferociously loud at the end. Something is eating him tonight. Domotic play to videos of super 8 flowers, and the light dynamism of their Casiocore works to their advantage. They remind me of Borthwick and Holland. Charming. At the end all the groups gather onstage and improvise a piece, which O.Lamm dedicates, surprisingly, to me -- 'This one is for Momoose... Thanks for coming!' I'm touched. Thanks for being worth coming to this post-Protestant city for, my post-Catholic friends!
Potential Habitat: When I came back to Europe from Tokyo at the end of last year, my intention was to try living in Berlin, but I settled on Paris just because I have more friends there, speak the language, and like what the music scene in France is doing just now. But there are still strong arguments in my mind for coming to Berlin, and this little trip is a way to test the water. In PQM, the art, design and architecture bookstore on the Alte Schonehauser Strasse I read in a magazine that Berlin is broke, that all the construction has failed to attract businesses and people from the rest of Germany, that you can't even get direct flights from Berlin to the US or Japan, there just aren't enough takers, and that the only people coming to the city are young creatives (like myself, ha!) attracted by the exceptionally low rents and the cutting edge style culture. It's true there are surprising numbers of young English speakers about -- so many new Chicks on Speed waiting to happen! As I walk around Mitte I'm reminded, not of Tokyo or New York (well, slightly of New York, the 'wasted young white club trash' look works here too) but of Glasgow, where provincial conditions make a certain kind of pretentiousness possible (overdressing, working at unremunerative art and media projects, drinking at Air Organic in Hillhead). By 'provincial conditions' I mean that the low rents take the economic pressure off people, allowing them the luxuries of indulgent indigence: divergence, dilettantism and derive. There's a certain kind of team spirit in smaller towns, a starry-eyed sense of the legitimacy of cultural forms hatched, elsewhere, by tired cynical professionals. In all these ways, Berlin is a 'provincial' city like Sapporo or Glasgow, a place in which people still find it 'important to be trendy', in which dreams of big city glamour (including the distant glamour of Berlin's own mythos, its past) can still enchant. This low rent, high aspiration quality makes Berlin very attractive to me. It's just very romantic, in a way that London could never, ever be.
1987: I first came to Berlin in 1987. I was on tour with Primal Scream. My job was making sure Bobby Gillespie didn't get too drunk and roll into a ditch or something. I remember stumbling from one secret late night bar to another, and meeting Blixa Bargeld in a dive hung with little plastic aircraft. ('I feel like I've just come to Rome and met the Pope,' I told him. 'What's your name? Mormons?' he said, 'Ah, Mormons have come to meet the Pope!') I remember going to a club called The Beehive and finding the weirdest people I'd seen in my life, including a man with a miniature, fully-functional record player strapped to his shaved head. I played a show at the Loft, and Monika, the owner, taped up my DMs with silver tape because they were falling apart. I remember going to her house, which was elegantly squatty, with candles on raw wood floors. She was very menschlich, very solidarische if you were a musician. I also took a day trip to East Berlin, and walked around Alexanderplatz and Mitte for the first time on a day pass issued at the wall. I remember it felt like Britain in the 70s -- there were squatty punky youths there, and rowdy teens, and a mixture of sooty old buildings and high rise housing estates. The kiosks sold Pravda and Isvestiya! I went into a shoe shop. The shoes were very cheap. You had to take a basket at the door, it was very strict. It was raining, but there was a queue outside a nearby bookshop. At lunch in a big hotel lobby I saw some very Fassbinder scenes: black American soldiers with crates of cheap vodka and women with fuzzy poodle perms. And then, by chance, I stumbled on the theatre of the Berliner Ensemble, with its statue of Brecht outside. Berlin in 1987 was electric with glamour for me because Brecht and Bowie had lived there. Now, weirdly enough, I think of it as the city where AmPatch artist Phiiliip recently lived. I imagine him doing the drugs and the clubs and living close to (whatever) edge. Of course Phiiliip is the biggest Bowie fan out, but in my imagination at least he's eclipsed his master, because the Berlin of now is much more a Phiiliip place than a Bowie place.
I'm an Idiot: Half way through my Berlin stay I realise that I've somehow transcribed a bunch of information from last year's Podewil calendar. Yes, DAT Politics, Felix Kubin and others have come to Podewil, but in January 2002, not January 2003. I scratch from my diary half the concerts I've come here to see. Luckily, Berlin has other cards up its sleeve. In a happy accident, I walk to the Sophiesaele intending to see a dance piece only to find a New Music festival in progress. I come here two nights in a row, and the late string concertos of John Cage and electroacoutic pieces by computer music students become my last-minute substitutes for Ekkehard Ehlers and Leafcutter John. It's a subsitution which stretches me in good directions, and I sit in the peeling grandeur of the grey, fabulously shabby Sophiesaele feeling rather as I used to do in Tonic in New York; that here is a local, affordable, welcoming music venue I can come to almost daily, and will encounter the most cosmopolitan, demanding and experimental art. Tickets are ten euros or less. I listen with great pleasure to pieces issuing from Dolby 5:1 speakers which combine roomtone and distant, filtered nextdoorsinging (ah, this German compoundnoun thing is catchy!) with plucking, fiddling, ratcheting and plunking sounds. Anything that sounds like scuffling voles sends me straight to heaven these days.