May Day in Berlin turned out to be relatively calm: only 117 injured police and 119 arrests. I celebrated the holiday with a trip to an early evening concert in Radialsystem V, a culture and event center in a repurposed 19th-century sewage pumping station along the Spree River south of the Socialist blocks of the Alexanderplatz. Radialsystem’s Victorian brick façade and smoke stack are partially overlaid with a mantle of steel and glass. It’s a fine metaphor of modernization: the dirty business of the Industrial Revolution has turned into the “clean” economy of culture and knowledge. The shit is dealt with elsewhere these days.
Directly across the grey-brown water on the opposite bank of the Spree is the massive headquarters of Verdi, the second biggest German union with some two million members. The union’s building is a big boxy thing also of glass and steel, with brick elements that might be a vague signifier of the industrial past, though Verdi is a service union. The slogans hanging in the atrium and visible from across the water argue for a new European-wide minimum wage policy. Some 400,000 people took to the streets across Germany on May Day to show their support for a fair wage standard. Just downriver the renovated warehouses of this formerly industrial district have their own banners trying to attract loft tenants. From Radialsystem’s terrace directly on the river the architecture of deindustrialization can be surveyed in all its contradictions, from factory chic to the steely glint of globalization.
Repurposing the past is also the mission of the zeitfenster festival, the Early Music biennale that concluded its sixth edition yesterday. Radialsystem is the ideal venue for reanimating not only old music but the sometimes crusty format favored now for a couple of centuries by European art music: the concert. In four performances this week, the black box ground floor space in Radialsystem has been the site of what the organizers called “a staged concert” by the newly-formed group Urban Strings. This band is made up of six instrumentalists (two violins; viola; guitar/lute; harp; gamba/cello) who are also members of Berlin’s celebrated baroque orchestra, Die Akademie für Alte Musik. According to its manifesto, Urban Strings will strive to create thematically coherent yet provocative programs in which to create a lively internal dialogue within the chosen repertoire that sheds light on the both the well-known and the obscure. The group will also dedicate itself to an expanded notion of musical performance that will mean more than simply being musically expressive.
The group’s inaugural program found the perfect home in zeitfenster and in Radialsystem V. The staged concert took its title of “Angel’s Share” from the phrase given by distillers to describe that portion of the Scotch that evaporates , as if drunk by those lighter-than-air beings: spirits for the spirits. Violinist Georg Kallweit had came up with the idea for the program after he and Folkert Uhde—a founding director of Radialsystem V, who was also responsible for the conception of this year’s zeitfenster—went to a fiddling festival in Scotland. That experience inspired Kallweit to learn a bundle of fiddle tunes and then search out an ingenious way to bring them into raucous dialogue with the grace and grit of Henry Purcell’s late 17th-century London.
The musical creativity of Purcell and his contemporaries found some of its most fertile ground in the elaboration of repeating bass-lines, appropriately enough called “grounds.” The art of variation on both well-known patterns and on the newly-invented ones of which Purcell was a particular master marks out a common terrain where fiddlers and urban violinists can meet. Purcell himself tilled these same fields with his “New Scotch Tune” and “A new Irish Tune,” presented on this program along with other variation types found in genres such as the chaconne and sonata. Urban Strings relished the many juxtapositions and parallels between Purcell’s music, traditional Scottish tunes, and the songs of the greatest 18th-century fiddler Niel Gow (a fine portrait of Gow by Henry Raeburn hangs in the National Gallery of Scotland); the titles of his music say pretty much everything about landscape and life: from “Dunkeld Bridge” and “Loch Earn” to “Farewell to Whisky” and “Welcome Whisky Back Again.”
But preparing a purely musical mélange, however delicious, was not enough. A partly improvised narration and commentary on the proceedings was provided by Adrian Gillott, an English “performer” who trained in Paris as a clown. Gillott moved around the floor with a comic lightness, occasionally mimicking the movements of the musicians, or declaiming his snatches of poetry with perfectly overdone elocution. At other times, he alternately encouraged and goaded the performers and audience with spur-of-the moment observations and sublime non sequiturs. Excusing his Englishness with Robert Burns’s claim “That my heart is in the Highlands,” Gillott’s plummy and relentless rehearsal of the lines “Tune your harps to cheerful strains / Moulder idols into dust” were meant to irritate Giovanna Pessi as she tried to tune her harp at the midpoint of the concert. His banter served up a charming critique of that sometimes fatal flaw of the early music concert in which it can seem that more time is dedicated to tuning than to the music itself.
The performance began when Kallweit entered carrying a 1950s portable turntable and violin. He put the former down, opened it up and plugged it in, dusting off a 45 and then dropped the needle. What came out was a droning G over which he proceeded to play Gow’s “Lament of the death of his Brother Donald” on his violin. It was a classic zeitfenster moment where retro technology met still-vibrant ethnic traditions just smuggled into Germany by a baroque violinist sporting not only a vintage tweed jacket but also an experimental streak as wide as the collar on his seventies orange shirt.
As the duet of violin and 45 dissolved into melancholy silence, Gillott sneaked up behind Kallweit and tried to lure him into the present of the concert, an effort that came to fruition only at the end of the evening. Kallweit appeared and disappeared in irregular intervals, occasionally joining the black-clad musicians on the podium, or Purcell and company, as when he played the fifth part of Purcell’s sublime Fantazia Upon One Note. Four of those parts weave a colorful contrapuntal fabric around a drone placed directly in the center of the texture—an unceasing middle C. This brilliantly banal musical restriction makes the resulting tour-de-force of invention all the more impressive.
Gillott paraded in front of the musicians before the Fantazia with an organ pipe and a chubby mattress a bit longer than he was tall and several feet thick—like a giant pillow. He put the pipe in a hole on the step to the musician’s podium and then plugged the pillow into the stair (and therefore the pipe) with a plastic tube. As he laid himself regally across this plastic pocket of air, the organ pipe fluttered and hiccupped until the recumbent Gillott found the right posture required to produce the proper air pressure to yield the necessary middle C throughough the Fantazia. Declaiming in fluty tones John Donne’s lines about the amorous infidelity of birds, Gillott’s gag transformed Purcell’s polyphony orbiting around the constant C into a humorous discourse on inconstancy:
Are birds divorced, or are they chidden
If they leave their mate, or lie abroad a-night?
Beasts do no jointures lose
Though they new lovers choose…
Also in the cast was the dancer Nadine Milzner. With her Elizabethan red hair, austere powdered face, shimmering golden dress with stylized ruff the size of a tractor-trailer tire, she sat in state on a post-modern throne of black steps and armchair. Her disapproval of Gillott’s jesting and other antics occasionally coaxed her descent to the floor to strike a series of tensely angular poses whose form was writ large on the back wall by the footlights.
The ensemble for Angel’s Share was completed by the curly-haired soprano Julla von Landsberg, dressed a in shiny red, white, and blue jump suit. A dazzling stage presence—sometimes serene, sometimes exuberant—her voice is unaffected and direct, and she knows how to withhold intensity in volume and expression for the crucial moments. Her performance of Purcell’s most famous song, “Music for a while”—sung with Gillott on the floor, his head between her feet caressing her bright white platform trainers—was a study in poise and insinuation that then glowed in the radiant move from minor to major.
Over the course of the concert increasing bits of tartan appeared at heel, calf, and elbow of ensemble members, especially as the fiddling broke out in all its fury and shots of Scotch were distributed to the audience, which was encouraged to dance, join in—to do whatever took them. Aside from knee-slapping and foot-stamping, only an off-duty bartender rushed the stage and virtuosically helped to fill the glasses.
The idea and dramaturgy for the staged concert were Uhde’s; the stage direction came from Nicola Hümpel, a much-prized theater-maker who leads a group called Nico and the Navigators, credited co-producers of the event. What resulted were moments of beauty, spellbinding irrationality, dramaturgical and musical improvisation, and newly interpreted masterpieces. Highland traditions jostled with London bawdiness and sophistication, yielding a musical/theatrical experience that will change my communion with whisky and Purcell forever.
Leaving London fully behind towards the end of the evening, all the musicians joined in an orgy of devilish Highland fiddling to drinkmaster Gillott’s urgings. As he shouted “Don’t stop, let’s do it again!” the lights were suddenly extinguished and the show ended at a highpoint of geographical altitude and musical energy. Here’s hoping that Gillott’s injunction resounds into a future of many more brawling and beautiful outings for Urban Strings in Berlin and beyond.