Loud, louder, loudest…
This building, for those who don’t already know it, is Berghain, probably the world’s most famous techno club. It opened in 2004 in a building formerly used by East Berlin’s electricity company, now surrounded by waste ground near the Ostbahnhof station. Its sound system is said to be the best of its kind in the world, and it was put to good use this week at the opening night of a four-day festival called A l’Arme!, which is billed by its curator, Louis Rastig, as an “international jazz and sound-art meeting”.
The first highlight was the opening DJ set by Mieko Suzuki, who spent an hour making a simple drone evolve into something rich and strange, with mesmerising subtlety. Then came a duo performance by the saxophonist Colin Stetson and the bass guitarist Bill Laswell, who exploited that legendary sound system to the full.
In my time I’ve stood next to a nitro-burning Top Fuel dragster as it warmed up for a four-second, 300mph quarter-mile run, underneath a Vulcan bomber as a combined 80,000lb of thrust propelled it in a steep climb from low level, and within spitting distance of the Who’s PA. All of those would be in the range of 120-150 decibels. Stetson and Laswell were louder than any of them.
For the best part of an hour they made great waves of noise in which pulse and pitch were subordinate to the overall intention of filling every cranny of the concrete and steel space. The muscular, athletic Stetson made his bass saxophone howl and groan, using effects to produce many simultaneous sound-layers. The expressionless Laswell prodded at his pedal-board and picked at his strings with a deceptively delicate touch while filling the room with stomach-loosening lines. If you were standing a few feet from one of the speaker stacks, the volume generated a breeze that ruffled your hair and made the fabric of your clothes ripple. Ear plugs were available.
It was brutally exhausting, but somehow magnificent. Goodness knows what Adolphe Sax and Leo Fender, creators of the instruments that Stetson and Laswell were taking to the limits and beyond, would have made of it.