Last night I went to hear the Berliner Philharmonic play at the massive Hangar 2 at soon-to-be-shut-down Templehof Airport, the only airport in the industrialized world that is a short walking distance to all major tourist destinations and downtown hotels and restaurants. On the program was the massive Gruppen by Karlheinz Stockhausen (played 2 times) as well as the massive (and massively titled) Et exspecto resurrectionem mortuorum by Olivier Messiaen. It was one of those evenings that brings into focus why Berlin is Berlin, and why despite the early onset of fall, with its accompanying grayness and dampness that will span deep into April, as well as the general visual poverty of crumbling soviet-style architectural atrocities stripped of their summer foliage, Berlin can be one of the most enchanting and inspiring cities on earth. It has become a cliché to wax enthusiastic over the attributes of the musical life in this city, and I will try to refrain from contributing to platitudes such as « The scene in Berlin now is like Paris in the 20s (or Berlin in the 20s if one wants to be extra exuberant) or New York in the 70s ». One is sadly aware that if there is indeed something magical in the air here, greater than the sum of a city full of enthusiastic but underemployed artists, once this « thing » is perpetually admitted, fêted, made fashionable and subsequently marketed, it will sneak away in the middle of the night, seek out a grayer and more crumbling city farther in the east to enliven , Minsk or Bratislava, or maybe Ostrava, with its heart of steel. If there’s anything special happening in Berlin aside from a relentless self-affirmation of the artist-residents there (that make up approximately 83% of the population), then we should ignore it completely, lest it wither up and die away.
BUT, then there are those moments, and 90 percent of them happen during concerts or exhibitions, or dance-festivals or open-air alternative post-punk organically-produced state-funded festivals celebrating cultural diversity. A few spring to mind… the choreographer Xavier le Roy’s dancer-less choreographies of the music of Helmut Lachenmann (he used the playing techniques of the onstage (and at times instrument-less) musicians as an aesthetic departure point for a very subtile and ingeniously simple and direct choreography), the relocation of Claudio Abbado’s presumably last Berlin Philharmonic concert to the enormous Nazi-built Waldbühne after the lovely Philharmonie almost inexplicably burned to the ground in June (with Pollini’s touching and sensitive playing of Beethoven’s 4th that was entirely out of place in these massive surroundings, as well as the über-massive (yes an adjective that is getting a lot of play in this blog today) Te Deum of Berlioz. And then the already mentioned Stockhausen/Messiaen at Hangar 2 in Germania-funpark Tempelhof Airport. I live 5 minutes away from Templehof. I rode my bike (a Berlin imperative) to the concert, which had been sold out for several weeks, and stood outside the gates of Templehof with a hastily scribbled sign « Suche- 1 Karte ». After a few minutes, a journalist gave me his extra ticket, and I discovered on my way into the hall, that there were at least a dozen other people holding their own signs, not the usual scruffy students, but distinguished white-haired patrons who had been negligent enough to not have purchased their Stockhausen tickets several months in advance. I recognized one of these cultural pan-handlers, a doctor who organizes a competition for amateur pianists in Berlin, and offered him my scribbled sign to help him find a ticket more quickly.
The concert… the Messiaen that borders on pomposity but makes one giddy through the sheer possibilities of instrumental combinations, not to mention the Chinese gong larger than the trampoline at the Neukölln Street Fair happening simultaneously 5 minutes away, that makes your teeth shake and tremble in your mouth with its intensity and raw acousticity (I made this word up- it’s the existential confrontation with an acoustic event that rivals the intensity of the now-defunct particle-smasher in Bern). After a short break, the much too infrequently performed Gruppen for 3 orchestras by the late Karlheinz Stockhausen, conducted by Sir Simon, Michael Boder, and the wonderfully intense and youthful Daniel Harding. The last time I heard this piece was at a concert at Tanglewood Music Center in 95, and I marveled at my change in perception now, as the music sounds romantically rhapsodic to me now, whereas before it was harder and rawer than a Jane’s Addiction concert. I leave critical commentary to the experts (including my neighbor, the very kind gentleman who offered me the ticket in the first place and who writes for Die Zeit, but will summarize the experience as simply mind-altering, and life-affirming. In short, a Berlin experience.
So what is it about Berlin ? My first reading as a resident of Berlin was an excellent but sobering city-history by historian Alexandra Richie, Faust’s Metropolis :
Many have tried to capture this strange, incomplete city, this unfinished metropolis. It has been filmed and written about in hundreds of works, the subject of a thousand paintings… All these works offer tantalizing glimpses of Berlin but none can truly capture the essence of a place whose identity is based not on stability but on change. Berlin can appear solid and secure at one moment, but its history has shown the dangers of taking the image for granted. It is a volatile place, and many have found to their cost that the veneer of normality can vanish as quickly as yellow Mark Brandenburg sand slips through the fingers. Berliners themselves have rarely appreciated their own unique qualities and have spent much of their history striving to emulate – or dominate- Paris, or London or Moscow, or boasting that they have more bridges than Venice, or that they are the Athens or the Chicago on the Spree.This description presents a clear perspective into why Berlin is currently (as in many previous eras) a Mecca for artists, and why an overwhelming majority of those artists come from some place outside of Berlin, seeking their personal fulfillment in Berlin. A standing party-game at gatherings in Berlin is to identify the Berliners in the room, usually there are none, as all artists here are immigrants seeking the land of milk and honey. The lack of permanence, the perpetual temptation of possibility, constant Faustian striving, these are not just descriptions of the city of Berlin, but descriptions that artists can find a personal relevance in regard to their lives and their work. Berlin, the city of impermanence and striving matches and feeds the hopes and dreams of artists who thrive on impermanence and striving.
Berlin is a city which has never been at ease with itself. It is in its portrayal of constant striving without counting the cost that the legend of Faust can serve as a metaphor for the history of Berlin. With Mephistopheles at his side Faust embarks on a terrible journal of discovery, meeting vile witches and the griffins and sphinxes of antiquity, being thrilled by the science and art and politics of the world, and murdering and burning those who stand in his way. Berlin, too, has undertaken an extraordinary journey, and its persistent quest for change has left it either – as now- cautiously searching for a role [published in 1998], or indulging in overweening arrogance and aggression. Its chameleon tendency to follow each new great ideology or leader, or to lurch maniacally from one grand political vision to another, has left a mesmerizing but often tragic legacy.
‘So it is, when long-held hopes aspire’, Goethe’s Faust cries, ‘fulfillment’s door stands open wide when suddenly, from eternal depths inside, an overpowering flame roars to confound us’
The Berlin experience. Mind-altering and life-affirming.