Over the Easter weekend, Kammerensemble Neue Musik Berlin ran an event for two nights at the Radialsystem V venue in Berlin. While you may have been to a lot of concerts in your time, I doubt you ever had an evening along the lines of the KNM New Music Spa. And kudos to it for that reason.
Overlooking the Spree near Ostbahnhof, Radialsystem V is a massive building which these days houses music concerts, contemporary dance, theatre, exhibitions, workshops and other events. It only recently opened for this purpose, having formerly been the main pumping station for the city. Spaciously decked out across many rooms and many floors, with occasionally labyrinthine passages and concrete stairwells, it was the perfect setting for KNM's event, which felt like something of a surreal adventure from start to finish.
Rather than merely being a concert, this was a music spa, with performances and other activities offered for relaxation and comfort. What was offered by way of spa treatment? Well, attendees could pick between a number of different things: Cromorelax, a sound- and light-based massage; a head and neck massage; a yoga session; sound installations; and a blindfolded walking tour, whereby one was led around the environs and encouraged to open up one's acoustical awareness in the temporary shutting down of the visual.
I attended Saturday's session, which ran from half five until half eleven. The opening event was a prologue entitled 'Gehörte Stadt', which was followed by the first concert performance, Eliav Brand's Book of Wellness: your guide to better life I. Most of the music events were multimedia in nature, and this was true of these as well as the next work on the programme, Pierre Jodlowski's Respire.
To a more or less full hall, the Kammerensemble took to the stage led by conductor Michael Wendeberg. Behind them was a large white screen onto which video was projected for the duration of the work. As indicated by the title, Respire took as theme the respiratory system of the human body. So for the first of the work's two movements we saw video of myriad torsos folding inwards and pumping outwards in breath, the action accompanied by blustering and wheezing on flute and other winds. Initially calm, over the course of the movement the action becomes more intense, the ventilation quicker. Bellybuttons stared out from the screen like hollowed-out eyes.
For the second movement the music is more propulsive, a regular beat on the electronic part making it reminiscent of minimalism or electronic dance music. The KNM throbbed along through it, Wendeberg leading them with sureness through the sudden pauses in the music. All the while the backdrop projected full bodies, men and women scantily clad in fitness gear gesturing and skipping, contorting and jumping.
After, I attended a sound installation upstairs. inside ciacona by Folkert Uhde sought to explode the internal architecture of a partita for solo violin by J.S. Bach. Four speakers were set up which audience members were invited to position themselves between. Slight spatialisation and panning was used to break up the internal polyphony of the violin into different locations in space.
Back on the ground floor, in the large bar area near the main concert hall, people with blindfolds on drifted past, each guided by a helping hand leading them around the premises. I moved outside onto the terrace facing the river. The sun had set, and as the blindfolded figures wandered slowly along the river in the dusk, a drum echoed over and back across the river, opening up the acoustic space.
Upstairs I sat on a white sofa in a dark closed room for a sound and light display. Another sofa faced me and across the room were two likewise positioned sofas, giving the aspect of a bizarre 1950s nuclear family lounge. Lights flickered on and off, projections hit all the surfaces of the room, electronic sounds buzzed, a group of strange lamps in the middle of the room flared on and off with orange lights and white. Then it ended. A discrete door opened in the far end of the room in what had looked like a wall, a person beckoned and I walked on through into a dim-lit room laid out with massage stools. I was given a quick massage to the soundtrack of drones and sine tones, and was then sent on my way.
Back downstairs, a couple of levels down through the spiralling concrete stairwell, we came to the last event of the night, KNM performing Feldman's For Samuel Beckett. I had never witnessed this work before in concert, and it didn't disappoint. The ensemble has previously recorded the work for CPO, and was excellent throughout, always displaying the concentration needed to play through the long, dark, monotonous work. For those who like Feldman it was a real treat; for others it was not so palatable, with quite a few noisy walkouts occurring.
A key feature of the piece is its constancy of pose, its immovable stance. By contrast, my reaction to it kept altering, from being hypnotised to being annoyed, from being satisfied to dissatisfied, round and round. It is music that challenges your ability to say anything about it. Its 'utterness' unutterable, it is here that it follows Beckett's later prose voice most closely and strangely. A critic at the time of the English premiere of Waiting for Godot famously described the play as being one where nothing happens, twice. For Samuel Beckett is like a musical event where nothing happens, and doesn't happen even once.
By Liam Cagney
Photo credits: Radialsystem by Reinhard Görner; Kammerensemble Neue Musik Berlin
Concert review: Grisey's Les Espaces Acoustiques given its UK premiere at the RFH
CD review: Feldman's Triadic Memories on DG
Concert review: Works by Francesconi and others at IRCAM Paris's Agora festival 2009
CD review: Feldman's For Bunita Marcus on DG