Dissecting the prescriptive posture of experimental gigs



Like most 20-somethings moving to Berlin for the first time, I reckoned I was on the right wavelength to thrive in a city closely associated with musical weirdness. For a start, Lennon was my favourite Beatle. I had a Trout Mask Replica avatar on Twitter. I owned several entirely improvised albums. The list goes on.

So, having my avant-garde credentials unravelled in such a way by a friend of a friend, upstairs in Madame Claude’s after one of their famous “Experimontag” sessions, felt brutal.

He was right, however, that it was probably unfair of me to describe the performance – a woman at a table of oblique synths, drum machines, and DIY oddities, simultaneously layering noises which recalled the ticking of a gas stove being ignited and a rat falling down a drainpipe – as a “bag of shite.” Experimontag does exactly what it says on the tin, and from one week to the next, you might encounter anything from the beating of amplified sheet metal to primitive bellowing into a spittle-flecked conch shell (also amplified).

It is no surprise that boundary-breaking music blossoms in a city whose tumultuous history has often forced its people to negotiate the idea of freedom, or the lack thereof. Berlin’s current reputation for musical experimentation can be traced, in part, to the Echtzeitmusik scene of the east side squats that took root after the wall fell; the resourceful generation of musicians and artists who made use of the abundant empty space and cheap living. While these factors are no longer part of Berlin’s current reality, they have been vital in establishing the city’s attractiveness for practitioners of non-commercial music, and those who, like me, sit in darkened backrooms trying to work out what they’re up to.

But something this particular night, four or five Augustiners deep, had rattled my cage. I was into the avant-garde, wasn’t I? You know, experimental stuff? I’d always been drawn to the weird, so why was I getting so wound up and feeling so out of place?

Insecurities around music are, on the whole, completely fucking childish. They say there is no accounting for taste, nor should there be, and most of us shed a good deal of scene-related neuroses when we realise that many seemingly inclusive alternative scenes are usually governed by distasteful hidden hierarchies. These are usually dominated by one or two long-in-the-tooth white blokes who are so jaded they have long since forgotten what they are there for (advice for teen readers: don’t spend too many years going to skate parks). But an additional, ineradicable anxiety seems to fill the air at experimental gigs above all others: the necessity to look like you get it. Among audiences, this manifests as an array of self-conscious postures, communicating everything from “This is so fucking basic, what is this, avant-garde 101?” to “My God, this screeching is speaking to me on an emotional level. Really.” Or if you’re as neurotic as I obviously am: the grumpy dismissal of the performance, while remaining blissfully ignorant of the fact that if you’re feeling uncomfortable, then the gig has probably succeeded, at least in part, in its aims. What is it about the avant-garde that still makes us act so oddly?

Unsurprisingly, a difficult cultural theorist may hold the keys to audience reactions to difficult culture. Back in the ‘60s, Theodor W. Adorno undertook a now rather dated critique of audience reactions to innovations in jazz, though at the same time he argued that fans of the genre weren’t truly the vanguard of experimentation that they supposed themselves to be. Adorno delved into Marxist criticism to describe how jazz, in its development, had been mutilated by the pressures of the capitalist music market, and many of his pronouncements concerning the genre really haven’t stood the test of time.

Adorno began to break audiences down into various categories and created a laughably elitist hierarchy of listener types that reads like a cross between a Rorschach crib sheet and a horoscope. His groupings range from the ‘expert listener’ at the top of the tree (“professional musicians”) to the frankly unthinkable ‘indifferent listener’ at the bottom (described chillingly as having a “pathological realistic mentality”). Adorno’s flawed categories nevertheless illustrate some of the reasons we are drawn to music in the first place.

His example of the listener who is a ‘culture consumer’ is perhaps the closest thing we have to an academic assessment of the music snob, someone who combines the twin middle-class needs for cultural cachet and conspicuous consumption. This is the group that prizes virtuosity and spectacle for its own sake, says Adorno, but would probably also cover those people who feel the need to film gigs on their iPhones.

His idea of an ‘emotional listener,’ meanwhile, covers people who use music as “a trigger for emotions repressed or unfulfilled in everyday life.” There is a running thread throughout Adorno’s work that unsophisticated listeners use music like a drug, and despite Adorno’s overly specific example – “tired businessmen of Anglo-Saxon countries” – we’d surely agree that this ‘use’ of music is almost all of us, at least part of the time, however supposedly refined our ear may be.

However, his description of a ‘good listener’ – the category to which most adventurous music fans on the Berlin scene would likely ascribe themselves – perhaps exposes the difficulty in trying to get to the bottom of the affectivity of much avant-garde music and our reasons for listening to it.

Adorno states that a good listener has an “unconscious mastery of music’s immanent logic.” But what logic is there to the atonal fuzz created by combing your hair with an amplified salad fork, or getting a trained musician to cook a pot of soup on stage? Is it possible to be an expert or even a good listener of experimental music if it doesn’t grow recognisably from accepted musical practices?

For Adorno, elite listeners engage in “structural hearing,” a heightened recognition and analysis of the music and its performance. For those right at the top, it must be a bit like the disorientating few weeks after taking a media studies class, in which you overanalyse all film and TV and your newfound knowledge kind of ruins everything for you. 

Clear roles for sweaty heathens at King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard

Like the music that occupies these refined ears, experimental music engages us in a task, but with the added, irresistible lure of a potential hidden meaning to unlock: a conceptual centre which doesn’t necessarily arise from familiar music logic. This is probably why the avant-garde makes us strike the ridiculous poses that we do: thoughtful chin-stroking, head nodding, or beatnik-esque knowing indifference. If there is a core thing to be ‘got,’ the impulse is to communicate that we’re psychically working our way towards it, or that we’ve already got there, way ahead of everyone else. All gigs are ritualistic, and avant-garde gigs are no different. But unlike, for example, seeing King Gizard & the Lizard Wizard, when getting kettled half to death in a fog of flying booze and sweat is central to the creation of collective euphoria, the sense of togetherness elicited among 20-30 understated artsy types listening to metallic squinks in the back room of Loophole might not be as obvious.

Offering little in the way of the nostalgia, joie de vivre, or sense of collective identity that form much of the emotional appeal of conventional gigs, the common task becomes one of intellectualisation – a room of brains together, untethered from their familiar points of reference, navigating their way towards a recognisable meaning.

So, a feeling of resentment can arise when there is no inner sanctum of meaning to access, no layer to peel back to let you feel like you’re onto something. This is why Twin Peaks and the first season of True Detective eventually come to ring so hollow: sometimes the owls are exactly as they seem. On the other hand, the absence of meaning may also be a blessing: anyone who has had the misfortune of being obsessed with the film Donnie Darko as an adolescent, and who subsequently bought the accompanying book in search of answers, might understand that imaginative space is often preferable to a constructed mythos of pseudo-intellectual gibberish.

Jochen Arbeit of Einstürzende Neubauten playing a solo show with a vibrator

But the fact is, that despite the finely-crafted manifestos and artist statements that fill the Facebook descriptions of avant-garde happenings, most experimental gigs are just as silly as they sound when friends attempt to explain what happened at a show you’ve missed. Sometimes, a man in a Maybachufer basement sucking air inwards through a saxophone for 45 minutes is just a man sucking air through a saxophone. For 45 minutes. And almost always in the retelling of such gigs, the humour seems to work its way to the forefront, despite the atmosphere at the time.

Though easily written off as pretentious – or worse, elitist – the kinds of squiggles and grunts we encounter in Berlin’s nicotine-stained backrooms and fire-hazardous basements offer us the very opposite: nightly fuck-yous to Adorno and his fictional aesthetes. There is no expert listener in the art of getting abrasive noises out of salad forks. Nor, with respect, can there be much in the way of virtuosity. And quaint though many of these experiments may be, in an age where anything we create may be repackaged and sold back to us, they remain impervious to those forces that eventually render so much of the music we love toothless and kitsch.

A couple of years ago, I dragged my untidy self and two long-suffering friends to a free concert at the swanky Collegium Hungaricum near Museum Island. The show was a collaboration between experimental noise musician, Zsolt S?rés, and members of Faust. It took place behind a white curtain which split the room in two, separating the band from the packed audience in the auditorium, leaving only the cast shadows of the musicians and their equipment visible to the audience.

The earnestly seated audience was treated to pummelling after pummelling of acerbic, abrasive percussion and defiant industrial noises so twisted you couldn’t tell – hidden as the performers were – whether they were emitting from perversely treated synths, tortured strings, or something else altogether, manipulated into emitting screams no inanimate object should ever be capable of. In short, it was bloody weird, with the only relief being an occasional passage of Can-style space noodling.

Throughout, I was aware of a static shadow of something fat and bulbous at what would be the equivalent of front stage centre of the white curtain. It only made its anti-musical appearance about half an hour into the show, when a shaggy-haired shape darted across the stage to turn it on. As it began its monotonous, grinding rotation, I finally realised it was a cement mixer, full of what must have been gravel or maybe seeds, and which was, of course, lovingly amplified.

Of all the things that are going to elicit a belly laugh, the image of a man trying to control the noises coming out of a bloody great lump of industrial machinery may not feature at the top of your list. And it might have had something to do with the sober, modernist space in which the event took place, or the nervousness that arises from looking like a scruff in a nice area of town. Or, maybe it was the silhouettes of the heads of the front row, held stock-still in the face of this mayhem projected onto this gossamer-thin curtain. But something about that frigging cement mixer forced me to break down in a fit of hysterical laughter.

Brian Eno once said: “Avant-garde music is sort of research music. You’re glad someone’s done it but you don’t necessarily want to listen to it.” I agree with this in part, but here in Berlin, where guaranteed weirdness is only ever a few U-Bahn stops away, the option to experience something new, subversive and often silly is always there, and in the face of such novelty our own reactions are unexpected, surprising, and most importantly, honest.

This puts me in mind of another quote, from the dancer Isadore Duncan, whose response to interrogative interviewers was to answer: “If I could tell you what it meant, there’d be no point in dancing it.” What we find, then, is that avant-garde performances don’t necessarily require complex or coherent thought: what we can enjoy instead is their affectivity; the squirming of our bodies and nervous systems that respond unconsciously to intentional displays of incoherence. Often the only thing you need to ‘get’ is the joke.

Samuel Flannagan is a Berlin-based freelance writer.