It’s so loud that you can’t hear your thoughts. So big that you don’t see the confines of the empty powerplant. The flashlights bounce off the fractured walls. In front, some are dancing – moving as though it were dependent on life and death, whilst others are sitting, standing, listening and nodding. Besides the fact that the vast majority are in black, almost a brutal heavy goth fashion reminiscent of the punk and pop movements of the 80s and 90s, there exists a complex variety amongst the Atonal crowd.
Emilie Engbirk looks back at this year’s Atonal in a conversation with founder Dimitri Hegemann:
Atonal – both an experimental music festival, and a five-day techno marathon. This categorization may not necessarily be wrong, nevertheless it’s hard to label an event of such scale that has constantly reinvented and evolved perceptions of sound, visual art, history and the notions of space, elements that fuse together to extend the established boundaries of performance.
It was some 35 years ago (1982) that Atonal first took place at SO36 in Kreuzberg, Berlin. Already in the first year the standard was set high with Einstürzenden Neubauten, Jeff Mills, Psychic TV and 808 State on the bill.
Dimitri Hegemann, its founder and a pioneer of Berlin’s techno scene – having brought Tresor to the forefront of the electronic forum in the 90s and early 00s – attended the festival each of the 5 days. You may have caught a glimpse of him in the middle of the night in Tresor’s ‘techno dungeon’. His primary objective to change the listening habits of participants – something that seems to have worked when observing the different behavioural patterns of the crowd. “Atonal takes place in an incredible space; even entering the power station is an experience in itself, you don’t expect the luxury of space before you, and the voyage of discovery that you are about to embark upon. The music program is designed to fit and work with the space. And the artists are forced to work with this space (shadows included) – it’s a work of art. All further enhanced by the opportunity for a serious dance at Ohm and Tresor.”
The Main Stage occupies the entire first level of the powerplant – by far the most impressive, overwhelming space, cultivating an all-round sensual experience. This year saw the installation of the ‘Control Center’ where hardware, in the form of analogue sound, was set up amidst the machines that once served the purpose of the plant, while interspersed with an array of night flowers and duvets!
“Thinking back to 1982, Berlin was the city of the Genius Dilettantes. Bands like Einstürzende Neubauten were developing sounds that encapsulated the spirit of West Berlin. Test Dept and Psychic TV followed. All analog. Me and my team of curators (Laurens von Oswald, Harry Glass, Paulo Reach) struggled to realize ATONAL 82, despite this direction being able to develop the Berlin underground in a most authentic fashion. It was a question of assembling the protagonists of a then independent scene. What particularly fascinated me was the idea of bringing together almost all of the important formations of Berlin, on one stage. It was a counterbalance to the then-mainstream new wave pop influences. The beginning of a new condensed scene, partly the spirit of the punk movement, all the while industrial. And West Berlin provided the unusual setting. These artists developed their own style, their own music and expressions, in turn developed by other like-minded artists from all over the world (Hackney, Sheffield, New York to name but a few locations). So whilst in the first year, we presented mostly Berlin-rooted artists, Atonal soon grew beyond the borders of the city. Locations got bigger as the attendees grew in number. Atonal established itself – becoming an influencer in the musical landscape of that time and the resulting techno movements.”
This year Atonal presented the likes of Moritz von Oswald, Demdike Stare, Regis/Main, Stingray, Apeiron Crew, Belief Defect, Puce Mary, Shed/ Pinch, Anastasia, Trevor Jackson and others.
It’s a historic event in Berlin, across the 5-day programme you’ll find something that you like, and you’ll discover something new across the showcase of performances from established and up and coming artists. The image of Atonal is one that is raw – with a focus to develop and enhance the listening experience, all the while pushing the limits for performance and thus perception.
“Atonal will always serve as a refreshment between the mainstream of daily life, bringing us together as a community (like all music). I see those images of men and women marching in North Korea, who would actually prefer to just dance no.”