The Weapon: Berlin’s À l’Arme Festival
text and photographs

Gérard Rouy

Louis Rastig, Peter Evans + Johannes Bauer, À l’Arme Festival                                     © Gérard Rouy 2013

Visitors to Berlin last summer were constantly reminded of a recurring theme by posters put up throughout the city: “Zerstörte Vielfalt”, which translates into English as “Diversity Destroyed. Berlin 1933-1938-1945. A City Remembers.” This year marks the 80th anniversary of the Nazis rise to power and the 75th of the pogroms that ensued. Beginning in 1933, modern artists – as well as composers, musicians, writers, actors, directors and producers – were targeted by the Nazi regime for their entartete Kunst (degenerate art). Doctors, lawyers and teachers were also initially marginalized and persecuted. Ultimately, their very existence was deemed incompatible to the Nazi’s racist and anti-Semitic ideology; subsequently, countless numbers of them were murdered.

These anniversaries were marked by numerous exhibits spread across the city’s center that detailed different aspects of these atrocities. Jazz was among the subjects of an exhibit mounted in saxophonist Thomas Borgmann’s neighborhood, the Frankfurter Tor. Many of the exhibit’s pictures and texts were about artists – a number of whom were jazz musicians – considered to be non-conformists and castigated as “degenerates.” The right-wing press demonized jazz as being “a transfusion of Negro blood” and “an obscene bacteria.” The infamous Brown Shirts disrupted jazz concerts, sometimes throwing stink bombs in the audience.

In 1949, a decade and a half after these tragedies began and a decade after the beginning of the war – which ended with the city in rubble and carved into sectors by the Allies – East Berlin became the capital of the GDR (German Democratic Republic), while West Berlin became a zone of concentrated intellectual and artistic energies. An organization of profound historical significance, Free Music Productions (FMP), was founded by Jost Gebers in West Berlin in the late 1960s to promote “Living Music,” a term that became the title of a defining septet record by pianist Alexander von Schlippenbach. With Peter Brötzmann and Jost Gebers, FMP produced several festivals, including Total Music Meeting between 1968 and 1999, Workshop Freie Musik from 1969 to 1998, a summer series between 1980 and 1995, free concerts at the Charlottenburg City Hall from 1970 to 1995, as well as hundreds of concerts held in different venues. Particularly during the Cold War years, FMP played an important role in West Berlin’s cultural life.

With its recordings, however, FMP had a global impact, releasing 190 LPs on its label (some were issued on its S series and two subsidiaries: SAJ and OWN), eight 45rpm singles, 155 CDs (some on OWN), and several box sets, including the monumental 11-CD Cecil Taylor in Berlin ‘88 and, more recently, the 12-CD FMP – Im Rückblick / In Retrospect – 1969-2010. Like earlier iconic labels like Blue Note and Impulse, FMP was synonymous with an aesthetic – Free Music in FMP’s case. As Schlippenbach recounted in a conversation with me in 1975: “The special thing about FMP and its music is that all the groups in this organization were there [at] the beginning of free playing. It’s an idea of the music [that’s] behind the whole thing, the main idea I would say.”

Conrad Bauer, À l’Arme Festival                                                                                © Gérard Rouy 2013

The list of musicians associated with FMP and now residing in Berlin since reunification is a very long one. Some were part of the first wave of European free improvisers: Schlippenbach, Sven-Åke Johansson, Conrad Bauer, and Rüdiger Carl. Many others have been veterans of the Berlin scene for decades: Johannes Bauer, Wolfgang Fuchs, Thomas Borgmann, Aki Takase, Frank Gratkowski, and Christoph Winckel. Berlin also has a growing expat community, as musicians like Tony Buck, Clayton Thomas, Tobias Delius and Tristan Honsinger have been drawn to the city for its affordable rents and thriving club scene. In the mid-1990s, Berlin helped spawn a new esthetic of experimentation that was emerging concurrently in London, Vienna and Tokyo, its emphasis now on silence, microtonality and noise rather than notes and phrases. Different labels were created for this music in each city where it emerged, but it was an international movement, as musicians like Axel Dörner, Radu Malfatti, Keith Rowe and Sachiko M. focused on textural effects, breath sounds and noises both white and granular. In Berlin, the term “Echtzeitmusik” (music in real time) was coined to describe the work of this new wave of improvisers and composers. While this music community has always included many Germans – including Andrea Neumann, Annette Krebs, Burkhard Beins, Sabine Vogel, Ignaz Schick, and Ute Wassermann – transplants like Hilary Jeffery, Werner Dafeldecker and Lucio Capece have made important contributions to the Echtzeitmusik scene. In 2010, Australians Clare Cooper and Clayton Thomas co-founded the 24-piece Splitter Orchester as a flagship for the varied approaches of musical experimentation occurring in the Echtzeitmusik scene.

Els Vandeweyer, À l’Arme Festival                                                                               © Gérard Rouy 2013

The complicated history of Berlin and the cooperative nature of both the FMP and the Echtzeitmusik communities was reflected in the second edition of the À l’Arme festival in August, staged in all three rooms of the Radialsystem V, a former pumping station along the Spree River. “À l’Arme” translates into English as “the weapon,” making the festival something of a descendant of Brötzmann’s Machine Gun. Peculiar to this event was the organizers’ insistence to pay all participants the same fee, both newcomers and established ones. “Even [Anthony] Braxton agreed,” noted the event’s artistic director, pianist Louis Rastig, “because he happened to be on tour at the time.” While the festival line-up was thoroughly international, it mirrored the diversity of music being created in Berlin. At one end of the spectrum was percussionist Els Vandeweyer, a new face who opened the festival with a limpid solo reading of Xenakis’ Rebonds B, after which Vandeweyer performed a brief improvisation as an encore, which was equally fresh and vital. At the other was the trio Steamboat Switzerland, and its dominant voice Dominik Blum on Hammond B-3, who unleashed the loudest sound barrage of the event, one that lacked any nuance. Nearly as frenetic, though more visual, the duo of FM Einheit and noise rock bassist Massimo Pupillo was also arresting, especially when the former would smash bricks with a hammer and let the pieces fall on a kind of amplified metal grid. In comparison, the duo of Mats Gustaffson and Thurston Moore seemed more human in their equally impassioned explorations, cross-cutting spectral drones and effusive fireworks.

Jason Adasiewicz, À l’Arme Festival                                                                            © Gérard Rouy 2013

The old guard was well represented. Peter Brötzmann’s British trio suits him to a tee, with John Edwards being acutely sensitive to both Brötzmann’s every move and Steve Noble’s melodic sense and striking touch. Vibraphonist Jason Adasiewicz joined the fray midway and asserted himself, banging away full tilt, the instrument ringing in quasi dissonant waves. Very much at ease in these surroundings, Brötzmann alternated between melodic interludes on clarinet and high octane tenor crescendos, strewn with occasional jazzy inflections. While Braxton’s Falling River Music uses graphic scores, notated in a calligraphy of dense circular motives, his musicians do contribute to a large extent to the intensity. Mary Halvorson’s guitar is luminous, whereas saxophonist Ingrid Laubrock is gruff, and brass instrumentalist Taylor Ho Bynum offers an exuberant sound palette. At times the musicians’ sounds were electronically channeled into a computer system, creating another layer of sound. Braxton is also impressive for his inexhaustible energy on alto, soprano and sopranino saxophones. Braxton’s Falling River Music is unique, at times airy and lyrical, elsewhere simply ecstatic.

All of 70, Conrad Bauer is very much alive and well in Berlin; the contemporary trombone master’s set with the African-American rhythmic team of William Parker and Hamid Drake was a jewel of classic improvisation, rich in textures and tone colors with occasional grooves thrown into the proceedings. Solo piano concerts by Fred Van Hove are always quite an event, for he explores the piano’s extreme registers in a stream-of-conscious flow. Not only is he in total command of the dynamics and the smallest sonic details, but there is a keen sense of structure in his playing. On this occasion, however, he was melodically much more introspective than usual, his playing quite refined.

Michiyo Yagi, À l’Arme Festival                                                                                   © Gérard Rouy 2013

Another veteran of the 1970s is the boisterous Japanese saxophonist Akira Sakata, member of the once famous Yamashita trio. At the festival, he shared the stage with Michiyo Yagi, the priestess of the koto, a delicate instrument that has rare force under her fingers, and drummer and vocalist Tamaya Honda, at times moaning or evoking traditional music, elsewhere wielding savage outbursts. The Clayton Thomas and Chris Corsano duo turned out to be one of the real surprises of the festival. Their set was an unbridled one, with musical ideas, sounds and rhythms hurled around nonstop, and never flagging due to their constant playfulness. I did not make it to the performance by the Ignaz Schick Electronic Ensemble; instead I caught two sets of the quartet of Peter Evans, Johannes Bauer, Louis Rastig (Conrad Bauer’s son) and Paal Nilssen-Love. Once more there was a total sense of empathy between the horn players, each one feeding off each other’s playful streak. Though still a little green, pianist Rastig offered some energetic forays, likewise for the drummer. Cheered on by an enthusiastic crowd, the quartet delivered a thoroughly compelling performance.

More photos from À l’Arme Festival

Text and photographs © Gérard Rouy 2013
English translation by Marc Chénard

The original French text can be read at:

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