|Burkhard Beins. (c) Cristina Marx/Photomusix|
FJB: Is there something material - like demographics, affordability, or cultural practices - about Berlin that you think makes such a scene possible?
In what ways do you think the scene has changed since your involvement and what might have caused these changes?
What is echtzeitmusik to you? Is what might be considered echtzeitmusik connected through any approach, process, or sound result?
Burkhard Beins: Political and economic disruption occasionally opens up windows of possibilities in history, temporary zones for social, cultural and artistic experimentation. Due to its history Berlin has seen those phases multiple times. During its time as a divided city as one of the birth places of Krautrock (e.g. the Zodiak Free Arts Lab in 1969) for example, and ten years later the post-punk/industrial underground (with bands like Tödliche Doris or Einstürzende Neubauten) in it's grey under-developed areas Kreuzberg and Schöneberg close to the wall. Also it's no coincidence that next to Detroit the suddenly half-deserted east center of post-wall Berlin was one of the key places for the up and coming Techno scene. In the mid-1990's the Echtzeitmusik scene was one of many obscure subcultures thriving in just the same squatted - or formerly squatted but then turned legal - blocks of houses in Prenzlauer Berg and Mitte as the Techno or Drum'n'Bass underground. After the end of the communist regime it was unclear for many of the buildings who actually owned them, and the Berlin Senate unofficially appreciated to have young artists making use of them rather than having them all just left abandoned. Meanwhile this window closed again, Berlin's east center is long refurbished and gentrified, the musicians and artists which made the area culturally hip and vibrant were at some point not able to afford their rent in those quarters anymore and became replaced by more wealthy young families - but still, 30 years on you can sense a certain DIY community mentality within the Echtzeitmusik scene which has its roots in this adventurous period. The echtzeitmusik calender for example is still run by seven volunteers taking care of all incoming postings every week until today, all of them protagonists of the scene themselves. Also our book on Echtzeitmusik had been an effort from within the scene itself, only supported by our publisher who believed in us and was lucky enough to break even in the end. Furthermore musicians/artists from the scene always took and still take the initiative to organize concert series as well as small and sometimes also larger festivals.
Although the gentrification process was already massively on a rise those cultural offsprings from the 90's and a hype about the liberal and - compared to other metropoles - still affordable lifestyle increasingly attracted not only masses of young party-goers over the last two decades, but also a lot of artists and musicians from all over the world to Berlin. When we worked on our book on Echtzeitmusik in 2009/10, we still felt able to give an overview of what happened the past 20 years. To describe the diverse aesthetic agenda of the venues and sub-scenes from the early Anorak's meshes of Art Rock and Free Jazz via the 'New Improvised Music' of the 2:13 Club and what became dubbed 'Berlin Reductionism' around 2000 to the deliberate attempt of presenting a wider aesthetic variety at the Ausland venue and within the Labor Sonor series. Now, only a good ten years later, I couldn't imagine to approach such a project anymore, not least because there are many more musicians involved now and the fact that it's sometimes even not easy to tell if they are only regularly visiting or if they are permanently based here. The flux and musical spectrum is quite varied, spanning minimalist, noise, (free) jazz, krautrock or psychedelic influences, installational or performative approaches, acoustic via electro-acoustic to electronic instrumentation, and involves improvisation, concepts and/or (semi-) composed structures. The term 'Echtzeitmusik' was actually never meant to represent a specific musical genre or style, but being an umbrella term for a whole scene of somehow experimental music with a certain shared DIY and community ethos. But it nevertheless seems that there's a certain ongoing confusion about the term and different meanings of it seem to be in use. From the start some people argued that it's “just another word for free improvisation.” Then, during the first ten years of the 2000's, what was called 'Berlin Reductionism' gained a certain dominance within the scene for a while, but I'm always surprised when younger musicians arriving in Berlin now tell me for them 'Echtzeitmusik' is a synonym for the “reductionist style of improvisation.” I think it's still possible to hear the impact this particular musical phase had on many players, but meanwhile it luckily seems to be more an enrichment to the range of some musician's possibilities rather than being an artistic constraint.
The inflow of new people almost came to a hold now. Also in Berlin it's pretty difficult meanwhile to find a flat, not to mention an affordable one. And it's also much more difficult to start a new venue, since there are no abandoned and not many unrefurbished houses anymore. It used to be an adventure playground with endless space for artists to explore. Meanwhile we have arrived in a defensive situation, trying to maintain what was once achieved. But I have to say that I can see some political will too, from the city and also the state, to let the “free scene” not die during Corona. I'm very aware that this is by far not the case everywhere. And there are also certain political ambitions not to allow the Berlin center to become totally unaffordable and culturally sterile. The Berlin rent cap had recently been annulled by the constitutional court, but just now we made a successful public vote here for the expropriation of big housing companies. I'm not totally sure if this is really the right means - the city buys back thousands of flats for ten times the price they sold them for during the neo-liberal deregulation surge in the 1990's - but it's at least a strong political signal.
What is the most satisfying arrangement you've participated in that baffles or redistributes the hierarchies associated with through-composed music and the hierarchies that might arise in free play?
Small groups - most notably trios - seem to work best that way. If there's a certain group chemistry it can be great to explore specific musical grounds together, sometimes over a long period of time, with everyone similarly dedicated and involved. When it comes to larger groups you might need to invent - or experiment with - specific strategies in order to maintain a non-hierarchical structure. With the Splitter Orchester, a 20-piece Berlin ensemble with no artistic leader nor a conductor, we went through all sorts of struggle in this respect throughout the past 10 years of its existence. It's an ongoing musical and social experiment that offers a lot of things to learn, not always easy, but we are still ready to keep on trying the impossible.
In what ways has the scene changed you and your musical practice?
It's a feedback system, both ways to a certain extent.
- Q&A conducted by Keith Prosk