Bold Risks at Jazzfest Berlin


Anthony Braxton performs Nov. 3 with his Zim Music ensemble during Jazzfest Berlin.

(Photo: Monika Karczmarczyk)

Halfway through composer and multi-instrumentalist Anthony Braxton’s six-hour opening performance at Jazzfest Berlin, I saw a guy who looked a little lost, and asked him how he was feeling.

“I’m not bored but not entirely engaged either,” he said. “All I can do is keep finding ways to experience it.”

He disappeared like a nomad into the wilderness of Braxton’s Sonic Genome event at Berlin’s Gropius Bau museum—the project’s third performance after Vancouver in 2010 and Turin in 2015. Sonic Genome involved 60 international musicians playing 500 of Braxton’s compositions as they formed, dispersed and reformed into fresh ensembles and traveled throughout the museum. For the listener, this created a cabinet of mirrors, with spectators themselves moving around the space, choosing where to listen and look, and what to listen and look for. Music came from behind and above, below and beside. The breakdown of any unified perspective or ensemble and the necessity of joining manifold transient communities in the performance was meant to act as an antidote to tribalism and present a utopian model for an ideal society. Yes, it was that deep.

In a public talk, Braxton described Sonic Genome as an avant-garde theme park a la Walt Disney, aimed at the “friendly experiencer” who might be uninitiated but curious. Braxton also called 42-year-old Jazzfest Berlin Artistic Director Nadin Deventer a “visionary and an activist”—and his Sonic Genome concept put forces in motion that carried throughout the entire festival. In 2018, Deventer’s initial year as the festival’s first woman director, she programmed music in unfamiliar spaces, shaking up expectations. In this 2019 edition, which ran Oct. 31–Nov. 3, Deventer took the radical next step of interrogating how artists create utopian and practical spaces for themselves, and crafted a related program of immersion and collectivity that extended from audience placement to the music itself.

That involved some bold risks. Experimental seating in the Haus der Berliner Festspiele’s main space broke with the convention of strict audience and artist separation. Onstage seating beside and behind performers, along with lounging floor pads in place of the traditional front-row seats, gave the audience unusual angles and proximity that threw spectatorship and listening into question. This audience immersion also resulted in some sound issues and sightline trouble—my view was dominated by the grand piano’s raised lid one night—reminding us that conventional concert halls were designed as distraction-free spaces where the most wholly absorbed listening is possible. Still, the seating experiment was worth minor hassles, because it put us in conversation with abstract improvisation or at least brought us closer to it.

Deventer’s merging of audience and performers felt like a nod to the concurrent 30th anniversary of the Berlin Wall’s fall. Echoes of Berlin’s storied permissiveness of the Weimar cabaret era and late 20th-century club culture were heard and seen in the festival’s wild mainstage Late Night Labs and Quasimodo club shows like James Brandon Lewis’ Unruly Quintet. Deventer’s festival-defining collective theme similarly harked back to the Berlin Wall era, when communes and artist collectives proliferated. Artists explored this theme in a festival discussion led by Emma Warren, who commented on the importance of London’s homespun Total Refreshment Centre venue to the city’s improvised music scene. Angel Bat Dawid spoke about the AACM’s influence on her own Chicago-based Participatory Music Coalition—and when she gave some powerfully emotional testimony on her uniqueness as a black woman in the room, it might have been the most profound performance of the festival.

But I’m still mulling Deventer’s love for Berlin performance art troupe KIM Collective. Programmed in the Haus der Berliner’s basement in 2018, this year the KIM Collective graduated to the upper lobby for an ongoing “fungus” installation, which culminated in a main-stage multimedia “opera” on the festival’s final night. (Presumably next year KIM will metastasize to the festival entrance itself—loitering there like Hare Krishnas at airports—demanding collective dues for Jazzfest Berlin admittance). In the opera, there was weakness in numbers: Individually these artists produce consequential work, but for me the collective’s hammy multimedia stampede of film footage, theater and music suggested a Portlandia skit. To adapt Braxton’s phrase, here I became an unfriendly experiencer, and I wasn’t alone. Yet the festival’s participatory construct had so radicalized spectatorship that even annoyance with the KIM Collective’s willful juvenilia felt like a minor character in the performance, with viewer cynicism and aversion performing their own roles in the production. Anyway, there was a chorus of audience enthusiasm to balance us skeptical characters.

Of course jazz is itself a collective art form, and Deventer carefully programmed groups whose music interrogated notions of utopia and collectivism. The most successful of these included a performance of Ambrose Akinmusire’s celebrated Origami Harvest album, which combined a string quartet, small group jazz improv and hip-hop in an ever-shifting blend that progressed beyond third stream jazz into a fourth stream of styles that reached the mind, body, heart and soul. German drummer Christian Lillinger enlisted nine musicians—his drums, three pianists/keyboardists, two vibraphonists, two bassists and one cello—in his Open Form for Society, which used collective improvisation to remake his dense compositions with elegant persistence. Presenting another dynamic vision of cooperation was the Australian Art Orchestra, which works deeply with indigenous conceptions of landscape. Solos here were like songlines, not paving superhighways through a compositional infrastructure but leaving faint footprints in a soundscape that evolved as organically as an ecosystem. And Braxton’s second performance, Zim Music, presented a one-hour septet chamber improvisation of ordered freedom that churned abstract phrases with warmth and humor, especially in his own multi-instrumental playing.

Most of this music wasn’t easy listening—my audience scan showed Braxton’s Zim music producing many furrowed brows. On the other hand, the HR-Big Band’s Ornette Coleman tribute featuring pianist Joachim Kühn and clarinetist Michel Portal received fulsome applause, which may have had as much to do with the show’s familiarity as its quality. After so much demanding abstraction and unchartered territory, this user-friendly big band program—an irony, given Ornette Coleman’s one-time agitation of the jazz order—treated the older festival audience to the rare nostalgia of relatively traditional instrumentation, virtuosic solo passages and passive spectatorship that required only clapping at customary moments.

During my own wayfaring at the six-hour Sonic Genome event, a seat in one of the museum’s dark video rooms proved fatal to my jet lag. I woke 10 minutes later when two attendees raised their voices in an argument about whether you can call Braxton’s music “jazz.” That hoary old chestnut of a debate missed the point, though having dreamt through a few minutes of the utopian experiment felt just right. I went back to the musical action refreshed and ready to help build Braxton and Jazzfest Berlin’s waking dream. That was really the only choice—this year, a festivalgoer had to find the integrity to create her own place in events. DB

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