It’s a European Austin. A frequent proclamation, found in numerous pieces of promotional literature and newspaper articles touting the reunified German capital’s virtues – sometimes as a musical mecca, other times as a technology hub – the comparison is an annoying one. Not because there aren’t parallel arts and technology communities in the city. Rather, because it’s inaccurate.
Similarly, Austin is not Berlin. It shares neither the history nor the culture, obviously. To Austin’s credit, however, it plays host to a far more moneyed tech scene, one which has decades on its German counterpart. If the authorities are comparing the cities, it’s more about wish fulfillment than anything else.
Certainly the talent is there, in both sectors, particularly in reference to digital music software, such as Ableton Live, the ProTools of its era, as well as the online audio hosting service, Soundcloud. However, no one has been able to replicate their success. The business side, many local tech startups will tell you, still has a long way to go. Berlin remains a poor city, struggling to find its economic place in post-Cold War Germany.
The Austin comparison only sticks when it comes to music. Berlin is overflowing with gifted artists. Live shows are a constant, as are festivals, and for a while, industry trade fairs (the late Popkomm.) Considered ground zero for modern German electronica (Ellen Allien, Ricardo Villalobos, Modeselektor, etc) local producers, together with their labels, have been inordinately influential on the pop genre du jour, EDM (Electronic Dance Music.)
Indeed, few scenes exercise as important a shadow over contemporary pop as the experimental, house and minimal techno produced in Berlin over the last two decades. So much so, that in some respects, local music isn’t quite as distinct as it used to be. If you don’t have a sense of the greater genre’s history, it can be hard picking out the innovators, from its copyists. It’s not an unusual situation. Nonetheless, it makes it difficult to argue that the kind of music made in town is what marks it as different. Different from Austin, certainly, considering the city’s association with rock and country. But, New York or London? Not as much.
Nonetheless, sound matters. Every place has its own audio signature, that helps make it distinct. While we’re used to associating that with music, and regional scenes, local signifiers also inhere in the everyday noises we encounter wherever we are – at home, walking on the street, in department stores. Sound is everywhere, and it varies according to its location. As someone who has worked as a producer, of sorts, for over twenty years, I find myself especially attuned to such details. Particularly because the sort of work I do, like most electronic musicians, relies on samples. So, wherever I go, I carry a digital recorder in my bag, together with the cameras I use for my day job, as a journalist.
I’m not so enamored with the idea of capturing something that sounds unique, though. Like photography, field recording is always about place. The impetus behind much of what I record is to learn about where I am, perhaps even more than finding something that might be repurposed artistically, in a montage, or a song. As one could imagine, cities like Berlin are especially rich in this regard. I’ve often found it to be as distinct to listen to, just walking around my neighborhood, as it is familiarizing myself with the artists that have called the city home in recent years.
One such place is the discount store around the corner from my flat, on Karl-Marx-Straße. Full of Turkish household items, like two-part teapots, and mirrors with passages from the Koran printed on them, it’s an especially rich place to visit. No store, in my experience, conveys the spirit of where I live quite like this. Burnt out from editing, I’ll often walk over there on a weekday afternoon, and peruse the offerings. It’s as much a tourist endeavor, taking me away from Berlin, as it is a place to get to know it better. It wasn’t until last summer, however, that I noticed the sounds being broadcast inside the place.
Perhaps it was that the stereo was on, playing the Anatolian equivalent of elevator music. Perhaps it was the bird sounds being made by children’s toys, near the cashier. For some reason, it all hit me at once, and I had something of an epiphany. This was Berlin, in its most un-pretentious, goofy glory. It isn’t exactly musical, though there is music in it. It’s not much of a robust mix, either, that is, in a producer’s sense. Yet, there is a mix to be heard, as the store plays itself, so to speak, that yells out HERE. Think of it as a picture, of a part of a neighborhood that resists being caught on camera. Clearly, it’s impossible to mistake for Austin.
- Joel Schalit. Recording and photograph courtesy of the author.