Electronic Sturm und Atonal Drang in Berlin

Live long enough if you’re human, or stand long enough if you’re a building, and you’ll witness history overtake you. For the phenomenon to assume public form you must have attained some measure of fame or notoriety, been accorded the accolades of widely acknowledged beauty or ugliness—or maybe just have occupied enough camera time or square footage.

This Wednesday evening past, American composer and keyboardist David Borden and his Mother Mallard’s Portable Masterpiece Company—the world’s first synthesizer group founded in 1969 near Ithaca, New York and originally equipped with ground-breaking instruments then newly developed by Robert Moog—journeyed to Germany to perform at BERLIN ATONAL, arguably the world’s most important setting for live electronic music.

Funny, foul-mouthed and vividly creative at seventy-six, David Borden must be three times the average age of the hundreds-strong audience that poured into the hulking decommissioned power station for the 8:30pm concert that opened the festival. These mostly black-clad connoisseurs of electro-soundscapes and gluttons for invisible body blows meted out by dozens of heavyweight subwoofers forsook the perfect north German summer evening of cloudless light-blue skies and leafy beer gardens to lurk and sway in the apocalyptic gloom of the building’s interior.


Except for the acoustic waves that crash and eddy through this echoing post-industrial cavern, entering the Kraftwerk Station during BERLIN ATONAL is like stepping into one of eighteenth-century Roman engraver Giovanni Battista Piranesi’s fantastical dungeons, their irrational vaults and bits of baroque ornament straightened into the rational rectilinearity of socialist concrete, and the Italian master’s foreboding chiaroscuro channeled into stark shafts of shifting sculptural light that Albert Speer might have thought up had he been given the chance to redecorate his Spandau prison cell and had that cell been about fourteen-thousand times bigger than it actually was.

These vast surfaces and light installations were presided over by a towering screen behind the main stage on which were projected a succession of moving images that often sought abstraction in nature—or nature in abstraction. Aside from such allusions, Kraftwerk is about as far from nature as you can get. Yet for the techno youth it’s the closest thing to the Garden of Eden, a sonic playpen that does its briskest business between midnight and six in the morning. The opening concert of a large festival would normally be the marquee slot. But that would be the view of an older generation. For the electro-music crowds 8:30p.m. is ungodly early. From them twilight is the crack of dawn: in Kraftwerk during BERLIN ATONAL all the rhythms of the world beyond are turned inside out and upside down.

Born on either end of that decade so crucial to the histories of the Cold War and of the synthesizer, Mother Mallard and Kraftwerk are both children of the 1960s. The power station was built in 1961 exactly as the Berlin Wall went up just two blocks away. No trace of the wall remains in that stretch of its ninety-mile course. As for its socialist twin of 1961: there’s no way you can miss Kraftwerk if you go strolling down the Köpenickerstrasse. During the Cold War this street was wedged in between the banks of the Spree River and the Anti-Fascist Protection Wall abutting the Kreuzberg district, once the heart of counter-culture West Berlin and the setting of the original BERLIN ATONAL launched in 1982 and revived in its current locale two years ago by an intrepid and indefatigable trio of youthful organizers—Laurens von Oswald, Harry Glass, and Lilli Ebert.

Here’s guessing that none of the former technicians and laborers employed in the power plant when it heated the Workers and Farmers State of East Germany were in attendance at any of this year’s ATONAL shows. The turbines and coal fires of yore have been removed to make way for nocturnal slackers who, paradoxically it might seem, have a fascination for the musical technology of that same epoch. They love the analog. In the control room where technicians once oversaw the generation of heat and electricity for much of East Berlin are now arrayed vast banks of modular synthesizers operated by young bearded men inserting and pulling out cables and turning nobs. It is relatively quiet in this space, whereas out in the room these small manual motions can create cataclysmic effects, especially as things heat up in the after hours sessions of this festival that hosts more than 150 “artists.”

Ironically, the pioneering Borden has long since shepherded his group out of the Analog Age in which it was birthed and into the Digital Epoch. In place of the Moogs and Fender-Rhodes of the group’s golden age, the Mallards now play keyboards hooked up to Mac laptops. This certainly makes mounting a campaign to take Berlin by storm logistically easier.

Whether this transformation represents an affront to authenticity was a subject I discussed with a one of Borden’s fans at the bar after our show. This admirer argued that the “retro” music required the “real” instruments. I’ve been a member of the group since the turn of the millennium—also the moment of the band’s digital makeover, and I can’t say that I disagree with his thesis.

Seen from another point of view, however, Borden is simply trying to harness technological innovations just as he did back in the Sixties. Still, many of his younger fans, mostly males (like most of the performers in BERLIN ATONAL), are fascinated by analog synthesizers and Borden’s work with them. It’s doubtful that anyone could discern any difference between the real analog McCoy and its simulacrum of a Macintosh in the perception-bending vastness of Kraftwerk.

Yet that is hardly the point. The gear is crucial for the new nocturnal antiquarians. That Borden’s music is complicated, ambitious, joyful is largely irrelevant at an event like BERLIN ATONAL. Indeed, our appearance there hardly counted as a concert in the usual sense. There are no introductions, no program, no need or desire for knowledge or understanding. Maximum effect, mostly physical, is what is wanted. Perhaps the absent socialist workers of yore—or at least their comrades at the control panels of the plant—would have been gratified that nothing so bourgeois as a discreet piece of music is recognized in the conventional sense, never mind granted a modicum of reverence. That we actually play from written notes printed on a page must be taken by large sections of the audience as an irrelevant oddity or simply an affectation.

At its best, Borden’s music is a virtuosic jamboree of constantly shifting metrical alignments that in their exactitude create aural tableaux vivants of ever-changing rhythms and colors. Nowhere is this to be celebrated more ecstatically than in the fifth installment of his finest collection, the twelve-part Continuing Story of Counterpoint composed between 1976 and 1987. As we presented it in Berlin to close our show, this Counterpoint is like playing three polyrhythmic Scarlatti sonatas simultaneously on three separates keyboards, the musicians’ hands vaulting over each other in athletic perpetual motion, as the guitar of Borden’s son Gabriel snatches flaming branches of melody and figure from the blazing backdrop.

Some of Borden’s youthful devotees have recently re-released his 1981 album Music for Amplified Keyboard Instruments, though on CD rather than the trendier vinyl.  In conjunction with this re-issue, we played the most demanding track from that record in Berlin: the ninth Counterpoint is a fifteen minute marathon of unrelenting cross-rhythms and tendon-fraying repetitions, to be heard and seen here on LP courtesy of YouTube.

In spite of the insane all-night hours of our rehearsal and the rowdiness of the festival hotel where electro-slackers commence their after-parties at the break of day, Mother Mallard was in outstanding collective form through this endurance test.

As we rounded the home stretch, I noticed that, while my fingers were still moving at high speeds, they weren’t producing any sound. I looked at my keyboard display and then to my laptop. Both were black. What could I do but keep on playing, finger-synching my way towards the finish. After a few minutes of this fakery, all six hands of our trio landed on the final note precisely together and raised up in unison from their respective keyboards. I looked below my control table to see the prongs of the American Mac plug lying naked and forlorn next to the over-clogged power-strip. The subwoofers had shaken the plug loose from its tenuous hold in the European adaptor.

What was the response to this Emperor’s-New-Clothes finish to one of Borden’s best compositions? No one noticed. Not even in the band. No one cared. Not even me.

DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His latest book is Sex, Death, and Minuets: Anna Magdalena Bach and Her Musical NotebooksHe can be reached at  dgyearsley@gmail.com