Atonal is not so much a music festival as it is a festival of sound. For five long nights each August, and for five years since its modern era began, a range of artists operating out of the depths of electronic music entertain a mass of sonic enthusiasts on two main stages in the mammoth surroundings of a disused power plant simply known as Kraftwerk Berlin. The two rather legendary clubs OHM and Tresor are conveniently attached to the main halls, meaning that dance parties are happening every night both after and during the festival proper, offering space for atypical DJ sets from featured artists and veterans alike.

The atmosphere inside the clubs can be simply electric as hordes of positively charged clubbers arrive from the vast open spaces of the Kraftwerk, desperate to let their hair down after hours of intense sensory experience. The shows they have witnessed range in style from industrial to ambient (and genuinely everything in between) but all will have been LOUD and all will have come with some kind of stunning light spectacle, if they weren’t witnessed in total darkness that is. If things are beginning to sound slightly opaque, it’s probably best I describe a night spent at the festival, from my own subjective experience…

It was Wednesday August 16th, the opening night of Atonal 2017 and I arrived on time to see the first performance, the world premiere of Iancu Dumitrescu’s Piano High Energy at 6:30pm on Stage NULL. As one might imagine, this work involves dramatic percussive belts and bangs and knocks and slams on the piano across a full range of keys, almost as if to sanctify our ears in order that we might be somehow prepared for what was to come. It was the perfect opening in many ways.

From there I went upstairs to check out the opening concert on the main stage, an unmanned recreation of Karlheinz Stockhausen’s octophonic set up for a presentation of OKTOPHONIE, an epic conceptual sound design meant to represent the chaotic soundfield of modern warfare – thoroughly engaging stuff, dense in atmosphere and alive with energy, despite the absence of its creator who left this earth nearly a decade ago.  I opened my eyes to find everyone rushing to the middle of the floor, standing up I find two guys who had begun to perform from a little island of a workspace. Evidently it was ENA & Rashad Becker, who respectfully proceeded to perform an extended hearing of an eight-part oscillation: seeming to vary only slightly, it opened up and built on itself patiently as the limited array of sound effects were squeezed and stretched to their fullest, but in phases small enough to miss entirely.

Curious to check out the party in there, OHM was the next destination. Chris SSG was just starting his set so I made my way to the front of the small former battery room, finding myself joyfully grooving to unfamiliar sounds. This is what I love most in a DJ; to make me dance without effort to music that feels new and interesting. I suspect this may have something to do with Chris’s devotion to Japan and the colourful world of techno therein. Up next on the decks was Demdike Stare, taking me further into my comfort zone with a mashup of jungle and techno. I considered what a contrast it was to be in there, partying, compared with upstairs getting blown away by some avant-garde eruption.

At this point a friend who had joined me on the dancefloor pointed to her watch and shouted that Carla Dal Forno was about to start over on Stage NULL, so back inside we dashed and up to the stage to find Carla and her accompaniment standing in shadows. The tension among the silent crowd was as palpable as I’d felt all night and the attention was sustained throughout a short but solid performance.

We travelled down the tunnels into Tresor which basically resembles a dungeon: pitch black in parts, the club features stone walls, prison cell like rooms and a DJ booth that looks like a furnace. We bounced around like nutters for two hours or so to the fast paced channels of who must have been Sigha, losing many calories in the process, before heading back to the relative oasis of OHM for something a little bit cooler. Equiknoxx were just finishing up and the crowd seemed fully activated as Bill Kouligas stepped up to take the reins. This gave way to much dancing and silly dancing besides – it was getting to that time in the night when the floor was opening up and anything goes. Still, the music was serious and it was sometime after six when we decided to call it a night, heading out into the bright Berlin morning and proceeding to cycle around Mitte looking for a nice breakfast spot which we did find. Not bad for the first day I thought to myself as I wallowed in the morning sun…

Over the following four nights I witnessed a feast of enigmatic live shows, many of which were collaborations with visual artists, including Powell’s show with Wolfgang Tillmans and Demdike Stare’s with Michael England. Where there was no VJ work, there was usually a powerful light show beaming down from all angles above. At times I found myself staring up into the seemingly infinite space, as clouds of haze gazed through magnificent colours passed through the hall, like nebulae appearing in distant galaxies.  

Some of the shows (Belong playing October Language) left me in a state of relaxation and deep introspection, while others left me feeling physically assaulted, in a good way (Emptyset) and in a bad way (Damien Dubrovnik present Great Many Arrows). Hypnobeat left me feeling inspired and excited about music, Varg and his Nordic Flora left me feeling queerly wholesome, while Shackleton & Anika left me with shivers down my spine. Still, no matter what show I saw, and whether or not I fully understood what I was experiencing, I felt privileged to be a part of such a moment.

These kinds of festivals are rare in the world, and Atonal must be one of the biggest of its kind. It is like a black hole of electronic music, where only those who really want to stretch their ear drums should enter. You can be lying on the floor listening to some layered ambience, and you can be squeezing your toes listening to someone scream lightning into a microphone, but you should know that the programme has been carefully curated to include something from all corners of the dark, and if it doesn’t always feel like music, then you may start to explore the hole, and your own taste, and hopefully, appreciate the sound for what it is.

At what point does sound become music? I suspect that everyone at Atonal could have different inclinations on this one, and it’s this journeying around the grey zone which makes this a festival for anyone who loves music to the point of waves; to bits quite literally. Truly there is something of the religious in Atonal, with everyone coming together in the dark megalithic hall, all dressed in black – perhaps some white or grey here and there, and all of these intense performances where witnesses stands still and gaze at the stage, sit cross legged puffing cigarettes and joints, or lye on the floor, eyes closed. Alert, absorbed, engaged, enthralled; hundreds of open minds, awash in a field of sound.

Photos courtesy of Helge Mundt and Camille Blake.

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