CTM Festival 2016: A Sense of Hope

CTM Festival 2016: A Sense of Hope

February 24, 2016

Written by:

Dragoș Rusu

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From the comfortable chair of a night bus that is heading to Dortmund, an Asian young girl plays a shooting game on her smartphone. She’s so attached to it. I am thinking about the crucial moment when the phone’s battery would be completely gone. I can’t really see her face. I walked three times to the driver and his co-pilot and each time I was trying to address a basic question to the assistant, he would pass me to the driver, a calm English speaker. Two times I asked for Snickers bars and the third time I asked for indications from the bus station to the airport of Dortmund. On the way back to my chair, I would discretely pick a fugitive eye on the girl playing on her phone.

In the back seats I could see some Italians, some Turkish lads and, unsurprisingly, two Romanian fellows. One of them was snoring loudly. The Moon was shining on my left and the window was reflecting the red lights of the German windmills, offering a hypnotic visual feast for an eye that didn’t get much sleep in the past few days. Without even noticing, this bus was turning into a multicultural machine providing typical global needs to whomever found himself in that certain place, moment and context.

While trying to write something about the 17th edition of CTM, the festival that I've just experienced in Berlin, for an entire week, I keep thinking about our paradoxically insignificant - and at the same time - important role in this prevailing society. Obvious thoughts, which can be actually facts, are crossing through my mind: if there is one thing that can unite all the nations in the world, that can build interconnections on totally different levels and that can get things under a common idea about the world, that can help humans communicate - that thing is, undeniably, music.

With a history deeply rooted in the avant-garde music scene in Berlin, CTM is a festival that you have high expectations from. Dedicated to contemporary electronic, digital and experimental music, as well as the diverse range of artistic activities in the context of sound and club cultures, CTM started in 1999 in partnership with transmediale - international festival for art and digital culture in Berlin. CTM (Club Transmediale)’s main purpose was to cover a wider spectrum of music and to offer a more structured music program of transmediale.

Since its beginnings, CTM was centered on a festival theme. Oliver Baurhenn, one of the organizers, talks in an interview for Shape platform about these thematic issues. ‘’When we started, we were taking over the themes of transmediale, but we were also convinced that it’s not about presenting the latest developments, but also the way they mirror societal changes. And we began to develop our own themes. In 2003, we did a huge overview of Eastern and South Eastern European electronic music, and we continued that in 2004. From 2003 onwards we started to have a discourse programme with panel discussions and film screenings, which became increasingly more important as a contextual backdrop to our programming. Music is an interesting seismograph of societal changes, politics, and how we as societies deal with these changes. That’s why these themes are quite important to us.’’

This year’s theme of the festival was New Geographies, in a successful attempt to analyze the present collapsing borders and emerging new topographies. The program was overwhelmingly rich in concerts, performance art pieces, workshops, lectures and installations. As Rabih Beaini put it in an interview we did a few days after the festival ended, the thematic ideas collided and it became all about politics; tensions between globalization and physically bound cultural individualities, online worlds that renege the connections of locality, clouding the traditional notions of gender and ethnicity and increasing feedback between natural and artificial.

With no intention of posing as a trendsetter for avant-garde multimedia festivals in Europe, CTM definitely acts as a landmark and after this year's edition, it is clear that their story will continue to develop in the most courageous ways in the future.
Rabih Beaini
Rabih Beaini


I can only write about things that I've seen and due to the huge amount of things happening everywhere during the CTM week, I sadly missed a few concerts (including the opening concert ‘For the Red Right Hand’) and panels. We arrived in the rainy Berlin on Saturday noon. Since my last visit there, around 5 years ago, I completely forgot about the madly elaborated and complex infrastructure of city transport, whether it’s bus, train, metro or white horses.

In the first night, we headed for Polynodes 1 to Werkstatt der Kulturen, a beautiful building located in Neukölln. The space was divided into a concert room located upstairs (where I saw a few great concerts, including Praed and Maurice Louca - one of the most exciting artists in the Arab world's alternative music scene), a foyer (where Sublime Frequencies’ legendary Alan Bishop was playing sick music) on the ground level and a clubroom in the basement (a perfect incubator for Jersey club, grime, techno, baile, ballroom, rap and R&B mutations, played by DJ and producer Dis Fig, Paul Marmota and Zutzut, and lastly, the duo Renaissance Man, consisting in Martti Kalliala and Ville Haimala). For a night with zero expectations, this proved to be an amazing and energetic first contact with the festival. After hearing the crazy and repetitive grooves and harmonies of Praed, or the hypnotically vivid live show of Maurice Louca, or some of the most fabulous music pieces collected from the Middle East, Asia and beyond played by Alan Bishop, it felt kind of easy and adequate to hear a Britney Spears grime remix with distorted electro and blazing far out beats, interfering with Beyoncé vocals (or was it a dog barking?) over monstrous bricks of noise and electronic distortion in the basement. On top of that, an Italian guy was rolling on the dance floor like a worm at 5 AM, while another companion was struggling to roll himself a joint.

Now, while I write this, it doesn’t take me more than a few minutes to realize that the overall vibe in the basement was just great, even if I was confusingly blaming the youngsters for not being present on the foyer, where Alan was playing far out songs. Later on, while discussing this issue with Rabih Beaini, I realized once again that the concept of recreational entertainment is very wide and includes so many different cultural and social aspects.

The next evening, on Sunday, January 31, I checked the second part of the Polynodes, which also took place at Werkstatt der Kulturen, and I constantly felt completely out of time. After roaming around the numerous small streets, I finally arrived, all sweaty, and missed just the first few minutes of the mind-blowing concert of Dwarfs of East Agouza, a music project that you’ll hear plenty of things about this year. It consists of Cairo-based trio of Alan Bishop, Maurice Louca and Sam Shalabi. They will release their debut album on Nawa Recordings. Even if it might sound a bit shallow, this commissioned project was probably one of the highlights of the entire festival for me, and, alongside the opening concert conducted by Rabih Beaini (‘’For the Red Right Hand’’), I find this astonishing performance quintessential for the festival’s theme. It fitted very well in terms of sound aesthetics and music approach. The room was full; everybody was sitting or standing mesmerized by the music, which really took you far away. For several moments, it felt like time just stopped. Nothing else could make more sense than what those guys were doing on stage. It felt like a moment of pure music revelation. It felt like returning back home from a long trip, when you feel safe and good energies take over your being, filling it with hope, substance and power. This concert was powerful, deep, insightful and memorable.

The next day I went to check ‘Rituals’, a mixed media installation made by the French musicologist and inspirational music traveller Vincent Moon, held at HAU2. On my way to Hallesches Ufer, in the U-Bahn, I wanted to tell everybody about how excited I was to be there, but nobody could hear me or care about me, as they were all lost in the daily routines of their lives, absorbed in their small, medium or even larger phone screens. This is why the tourist condition is on one hand, perfect, in a town where you can really contemplate at this crazy lifestyle. It deals with a certain feeling of freedom, of independence, of clarity and adventure that you really lost it or you completely forgot about in your hometown. While sitting alone and confortable on two white pillows (with no shoes on) and watching the audio/video collages that Vincent Moon compiled and turned into a 3 screens installation, I got stricken by the terrifying and - in the same time - revelatory idea about how big this world that we live in actually is and how little we, Europeans, know about it and about life. It’s overwhelming.

If we take away this ravenous curtain of technology, which mutated most of our own ethnic rituals, habits and manners, and altered our life into a ‘modern’ one, we actually don’t know shit about the world, about who we are, about other nations and the way they live and see life. Sufism in Chechnya or Ethiopia, Ayahuasca rituals in Peru, trance in Brazil, Jathilan in Indonesia and Len Dong in Vietnam - the broadness of Moon’s work has relied for decades on his own travels and experiences rather than on academics, and consents for thematic associations across times and worlds.

Jerusalem in my Heart
Jerusalem in my Heart


On Monday afternoon we headed to Kunstquartier Studio 1 to check the panel ‘Current Voices from the Middle East’, with outernational experts Alan Bishop, Maurice Louca, Raed Yassin from Praed), Sam Shalabi and the young and restless Tunisian girl Deena Abdelwahed. Even if she was kind of monopolizing the discussion now and then with frivolous topics such as mainstream versus underground versus alternative music, the overall panel surfaced some interesting ideas and subjects to think of, like musical identity and in what way this idea concerns the actual musician, or the problematic issues of cultural curatorship in the East, or what counts as Middle Eastern music in today’s scene.

Our rapid pilgrimage through the festival continued the next evening at HAU2, with an intriguing performance from Jerusalem In My Heart, a project developed 3 years ago by Lebanese-born Canadian producer and musician Radwan Ghazi Moumneh and filmmaker Charles­ André Coderre. With a special mention on their collaborative album with Suuns, it is actually their latest album ‘If He Dies, If If If If If If’ that really created a buzz around them and that could also be partly heard on different interpretations during their - quite short - live show. A very nice surprise was the project that followed, gamut inc., with a special commissioned work, ‘dreaming of electric sheep again’, including a noise generator built of multiplied cabasas, pitch-shifting timpani with multiple solenoid beaters and a miniature carillon, and a glockenspiel-like instrument in which metal bars are hit on different positions by computer-controlled solenoids.

The following night, Tuesday, February 2nd at Berghain, I tried to set up the club mood for the festival’s attendance, with an interesting offer: Marija Bozinovska Jones aka MBJ Wetware with J.G. Biberkopf, presenting "GAD Technologies", a commissioned project exploring fictional geographies by gathering the overflowing streams of collective imagery. The emerging polish sound artist Marcin Pietruszewski followed in the program, with the project ‘’(dia)grammatology of Space", evolving into a series of experimental enunciations between trilingual libretto, procedures for machine speech analysis/ re-synthesis and computer music. The young American producer Ryan McRyhew aka Thug Entrancer was next on the bill, setting up a dance mood and delivering good contemporary and cross-genre dance music, but it was the kind of music that you completely forget about once it stops playing. The night was closed by South London’s Visionist, a leader in the second wave of a UK sound system culture who took the stage together with AV artist Kevin Bray. The show didn’t impress that much and by that time I was already immersed in a violent exchange of ideas with some fellows down the ground floor, watching the video work “The Great Puddle” of the duo Graw Böckler. In this piece, Berlin based artists Ursula Böckler and Georg Graw invited friends and acquaintances from different cities such as Novosibirsk, Valencia, Gotland, London, Berlin or Buenos Aires to take a swim in these transient pools, creating an urban recreational activity that also brings back childhood memories of playing in the rain

Wednesday was a heavy evening for experimentation. First, at HAU2, an off-the-hook concert happened, involving the efforts of Southeast Asian musicians Keiji Haino, Kazuhisa Uchihashi and Rully Shabara & Wukir Suryadi of Senyawa. The concert was perfect and it delivered really special moments of high intensity, putting in balance different voices, minds and spheres of current sounds and practices from Southeast Asia.

In the same night, Romanian spectralist legend Iancu Dumitrescu and his wife Ana-Maria Avram, alongside the Hyperion Ensemble (consisting of 13 musicians from Romania, Israel, U.K., U.S., France and Germany) and American guitarist Stephen O’Malley conveyed a splendid two parts concert. Both parts of the concert were very different of each-other in terms of sound structure and atmosphere; carefully selected, the compositions that were played formed altogether a very special musical trip, which grew a lot in intensity in the second part. Not only because I am Romanian, but also because it was awfully funny, I consider it a to be a special moment when Ana-Maria Avram asked the people who were at the bar of Berghain to be silent, as ‘they still have a concert going. As for the solo of Stephen O’Malley that followed after, that was a really wild one-hour voyage of huge intensity and volume, whipping the audience with waves of noise, bass and distortion.

I luckily managed to attend both Pauline Oliveros concerts (the one on Thursday at HAU2, with Mazen Kerbaj and Karen Power, and the one on Friday at HAU1, with Ione), but I desolately missed Anna Homler’s performance with Heatsick (Steve Warwick) and Natsuko Kono. It was a really nice thing to see the legend that is Oliveros playing weird sampled sounds on the accordion, while the inspirational musician Mazen Kerbaj was improvising using a suite of instruments, most of 2hich based on reeds. Pauline Oliveros' second performance was a hypnotic session, provoking the audience to indulge themselves in an ecstatic state of meditation and introspection. This concert felt like being in a temple and experiencing a deep process of purification. The music and the trance-like monologue of Ione made the entire performance unique; it was beyond any exploratory patterns that I could possibly imagine.

Audio recordings below, via NTS Radio:


The exuberant character Aisha Devi, who set up an impressive show, together with the kitschy, neon grotesquerie of Chinese artist Tianzhuo Chen and Beio, engrossed the night that followed at Berghain. Examining identity, sexuality, spirituality and sound seemed to be the main concern of most of the artists who performed during CTM, but Aisha Devi managed to take these pieces to another level. Another personal highlight was Lena Willikens, who transported the left overs of the audience in a magical music trip that lasted for about 4 hours. She wasn’t playing on stage and, in the beginning, the vibe looked a bit like a post-concert pause of recreation, since you couldn’t really see the DJ if you were not in the first line of the dance floor. Nevertheless, Lena played an amazing set. Together with Alienata (who played the night that followed), these two acts were some of the most coherent, serious, energetic and far out DJ sets I recently experienced. On top of that, it was happening at Berghain, a place known for its very powerful sound system - as they call it, one of the finest sound systems in the world.

Friday was the most massive night of the festival, as expected. On the bill was Opium Hum, who elegantly opened the night with slow bpm electronics, switching soon to other incomprehensible musical hybrids, followed by T'ien Lai (that I missed, as I was raving upstairs in Panorama Bar, on the enthralling heavy grooves of sister Borusiade). The live performance of Esplendor Geométrico was really something to experience. Arturo Lanz, one of the founding fathers of the band, was completely out of control on the microphone, while his partner Saverio was pushing the sickest grooves from the machines. Kassem Mosse's live set was great, a really nice surprise and excellent dance floor action. I would say that another highlight was Gesloten Cirkel's live set, probably one of the best electronic music live performances that I've heard in the past year or so, if we take in consideration the international techno scene nowadays. Alienata closed the night with a magnificent DJ set, playing all the crazy electro and techno tracks that you couldn’t imagine exist. It was all compressed into an exquisite session, technically crafted in a perfect method. Upstairs at Panorama Bar, I found out about the funny replacement of Bariș K with Nina Kraviz, as Bariș couldn’t play, due to health issues. The vibe was amazing everywhere; you could feel a festive scent in the air, because of the high quality condensed acts. You had to run down, and then go up again, and then go down again, hoping that you won’t loose so much of the offered music.

Still Be Here, a performance installation with Hatsune Miku, was initiated by Mari Matsutoya in collaboration with Laurel Halo, Darren Johnston, LaTurbo Avedon and Martin Sulzer and presented on Saturday evening at Haus Der Kulturen Der Welt (House of World Cultures). Since her 2007 launch in Japan, Hatsune Miku (whose name means "first sound of the future") has become an ultimate pop star, developed from a vocal synthesizer product into a globally adored cyber celebrity with a growing user community, countless stadium performances as a virtual 3D projection and more than 100 000 songs released worldwide. The festival culminated with an after-hours event on Sunday at Astra and Watergate - Whatever is after - split in two parts: first with Floating Points live, Pole & MFO and Ah! Kosmos, and the second one with Rabih Beaini, Beatrice Dillon, Love Cult and Nan Kole. A part of Rabih Beaini's performance was recorded and published on RBMA.

My first CTM experience was condensed. It felt like a year split into four different seasons. When I came to Berlin it was winter, then the seasons started to develop, but backwards (autumn, then summer, and - finally - spring). I could think of all these amazing concerts that I've seen and heard, all these amazing musicians that played in various contexts and combinations, all these commissioned projects that were premiered or the installations and panels at Kunstquartier Bethanien. I am trying to train my subjectivity and not to fall in the presumed trap of a labile music lover, but it’s really hard, with such an overwhelming program proposed by CTM this year. It’s as if they opened a Pandora box of music and projects, which will spread over other European forward thinking music festivals in the near future. With no intention of posing as a trendsetter for avant-garde multimedia festivals in Europe, CTM definitely acts as a landmark and after this year's edition, it is clear that their story will continue to develop in the most courageous ways in the future.

We've done interviews with Rabih Beaini, Mazen Kerbaj, Anna Homler, Robert Henke and Esplendor Geometrico. Watch out the website for future updates!

*photo credits: Camille Blake

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