On Berlin’s beat: An interview with Berlin Atonal organiser Laurens Von Oswald

Marcus Barnes

BA 21 On Berlins beat: An interview with Berlin Atonal organiser Laurens Von Oswald Berlin Atonal is a forward-thinking music event that takes place in the German capital this week. It’s an event that takes music very seriously and is held in the mighty Kraftwerk, a space inside thermal power station Berlin-Mitte. It is the perfect location for electronic music: dystopian, industrial, cold yet welcoming. Ahead of the event I spoke with one of the organisers, Laurens Von Oswald, who recently stepped in to revive the event after the previous owner Dimitri Hegemann called it a day…

Tell me about your involvement with Atonal? How did you first become involved with the event and what does it mean to you to now be working on it?

I became involved in the event shortly after meeting Dimitri Hegemann. We got along very well and he introduced the idea of restarting the festival – so together with Harry Glass and Paulo Reachi (my two colleagues and fellow directors) I started relatively quickly. I think for him it was a chance to see one of his projects be passed down and continued by a new generation. He’s still very much active as a sort of mentor and guide.

Were you already familiar with it and Dimitri’s work?

I think being involved in this music it’s almost impossible not to be. Tresor, Tresor Records and many of Dimitri’s other projects have become immortalised as institutions. We met while I was working on a project for Tresor Records.

How many years has Berlin Atonal been going? What do you think makes it stand out from other festivals?

The festival began in 1982 in West Berlin. It became very influential throughout the next decade both within Germany and internationally.  Back then – and still today – it’s a festival that aims to seek out new methods in sight and sound. There were quite a few memorable performances that people still talk about now – including Einstürzende Neubauten using a jackhammer to take down walls inside the venue during a show at SO36 in Kreuzberg.

The festival hosted many influential acts that ended up playing a part in the segue from rock, industrial, punk and EBM to what we now know as techno and electronic music. Malaria!, Psychic TV, Clock DVA, 808 State and Final Cut (a band founded by Detroiters Anthony Srock and Jeff Mills) all played at the festival between 1982 and 1990.

By 1991 techno was the main language in Berlin – and Hegemann shifted his focus to Tresor – what would become one of the most legendary techno clubs in the world – housed in the Tresor (Vault in German) rooms of a pre-WWII department store at Potsdamer Platz. In 1991 the area was largely a no-mans land between East and West Berlin – but by 2005 it had been largely redeveloped as a central business district. Funnily, it remains quite empty and barren to this day.

The club shut its doors in 2005 and re-opened 2 years later in the basement of a former powerplant in central Berlin. Kraftwerk Berlin. The huge 20,000m2 building now not only plays host to the club in the basement – but its main halls are also the venue for the festival since last years re-birth.

How are your plans for this year’s event coming along? What exciting acts do you have lined up?

Well there are two very special performances set for this years festival which we have been working on– Cabaret Voltaire’s first performance in over 2 decades and the Opening Concert with Ensemble Modern and Synergy Vocals performing one of the most interesting and striking compositions of the last part of the 20th Century: Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians. Opening for Cabaret Voltaire will be Bleed Turquoise – the new project of one half of Emptyset -  James Ginzburg -  who will be debuting his project with visuals by Marcel Weber (MFO).

Outside of that we’re really looking forward to Ike Yard’s (of Factory Records fame) first Berlin show and the debut of New Zealander Fis’ AV show. Also all of the performances on the revolutionary 4D system will no doubt be very special – Murcof (who left the entire festival awestruck last year with his performance), Biosphere, Senking and a specially commissioned sound installation by sound designer Thomas Vaquiè.

What do you think about the large number of music events that are appearing all over Europe (and the world) at the moment?

Its very easy to call concerts or events that happen in succession a festival – and I feel this is almost a trend at the moment – many will happen once and never again, but its not an easy thing to pull off. I think those that stick around will have carved out their own niche in some way. That said I’m by no means an industry expert.

The electronic music industry as a whole is exploding. I don’t think what we do could be seen as a part of that – and I’m glad. Most of it is really quite poor.

Which other festivals have you experienced and enjoyed, apart from Atonal?

Many – only some of which I’d visit again as a guest. MUTEK in Montreal, Unsound in Krakow and Homebake are definite highlights.

Tell us a little about yourself as you’re related to the famous Moritz von Oswald – was a career in music always going to be your destiny?

Apart from doing the festival, I’m a music producer & engineer. I grew up in Australia so didn’t start working with my uncle Moritz until I was 21 or so – but we get a long very well and work together quite extensively a lot in a few different capacities.  He’s been a big part of my life since then and has been a big influence on me musically and personally. Music came before that though. Its something I’ve always enjoyed more than most other things I guess.

What’s been the most difficult aspect of putting Atonal together?

Funding: by no means does a music festival like this have any great commercial viability, especially in a venue like Kraftwerk, which is an absolutely vital part of the festival yet a very demanding entity.  We’ve been fortunate enough to have some helpful and generous support from the Kulturstiftung des Bundes  (German National Culture Foundation) as well as Berlin’s MusicBoard – who are very supportive of our projects and have made things much more realistic for us.

What have you enjoyed most about the process of organising it?

It’s a long-term project, so developing it through the many planning and preparation stages is interesting and motivating. Obviously the closer it gets to the actual date the more and more concrete and real it becomes. We’re a small and modest festival – yet the ideas that get realised within the frameworks we try to provide are ambitious and impressive.

For more information on Berlin Atonal click here

  • Ronnie Rocket

    Incredibly, I performed at Atonal with our band Grønvirke in the eighties. Same festival as Psychic TV. There is a VHS video of that.

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