Saturday, 19 September 2009

Wall of Sound

Berlin's Netaudio Festival kicks off on the 8th of October, bringing with it a wall of sound: a sonic map of the Berlin Wall, composed of field recordings taken all along its length. I asked J-Lab, musician and techno producer, about the genesis and development of the project, and the live performance, by TRIoon, which will grow from it.


"It all goes back to last January when we started talking about the Netaudio Berlin festival for this year. 2009 is the twentieth anniversary of the fall of the Wall, and we were talking about different things, about how netaudio and creative commons are breaking down barriers in the music industry, breaking down walls ... last winter I was living in the Lohmüle trailer-park, which sits on the former death strip, the no man's land between the two walls, so it was very much in my mind. I thought about all the different commemorations of the Wall, the chunks that are left remaining, the way the route has been marked through the city, and now the Mauerweg path that follows the Wall all the way round. And I thought, no one's done a sound map of it.

I put the idea around a couple of people and they liked it, so the thing then was finding a way of doing it technically. Actually going out and making a field recording is so easy these days - we use a digital Zoom recorder, running off SD cards, you get great quality recordings out of it. But the organization of it, trying to find a partner to host it, that was a bit difficult. Then we got in touch with Udo from Radio Aporee, which is a global field recording website. He was really keen, keener than some of the other people we spoke to, so we set it up. Me and [musical collaborator] Bogdan decided to go out and do chunks of it. Bogdan's a native Berliner, he grew up very close to the Wall in West Berlin, it was part of his life. We do a collaborative project, TRIoon, together with a visual artist called Servando Barreiro. We got asked to play at the festival, so we decided to create a musical performance that uses a lot of elements from these field recordings, cut up and spliced, looped, sequenced, whatever. That's basically the project in a nutshell. It's an open source project, it works on a creative commons basis, so anyone can load stuff up. We've had a few other contributors so far but mainly it's been me, Bogdan and Servando running round different chunks of the Wall.

- How much of it have you covered so far?

There's about 25km out of 163 which haven't been done yet.

- Do you do it absolutely systematically, every certain number of metres, or what?

No, not really, we decided to do it by feel. There was this idea that we could do it at every significant spot, make a recording where every person was killed trying to cross, for instance, where every checkpoint was or every watchtower, but that's just too much of a headfuck. The thing about it is to capture the essence of what has been left behind. Has that scar disappeared? Where is that scar? Because in some places of the city you'd never know the Wall was ever there. Then in other places, on the edge of the city for instance where the Brandenburg and Berlin boundary is, there's a huge scar in the forest 150 metres wide. Some of it's grown back, some of it hasn't, the ground was so screwed up with pesticide spraying that nothing's grown back. Then there's other areas where people are building yuppie houses on the site, you've got Club der Visionäre, a trailer-park, there's many interesting different environments that it passes through.

- Do you record at night as well or just in the daytime?

We do want to make some night recordings, the city centre's the ideal thing to record at night, places like Club der Visionäre, Yaam, Maria's ... you get a different acoustic environment.

- And what's the most bizarre sound you've encountered?

Where the Wall crosses Elsenstrasse, it's quite a famous spot because a tunnel was dug underneath it back in the 60s. There was some extreme South American death metal coming out of someone's stereo. Normally you get bicycles and stuff like that, fragments of people's conversations, a lot of traffic noises, a couple of drunks popped into the background of one recording ... nothing so out of the ordinary. But when you start processing it, chopping it up, getting it ready for the live set, listening to it closely and picking things out, then you start getting interesting sounds.

- So that's a spinoff project right? You take bits that you've done on the map and what do you do with them?

You just process them really, it's the same as grabbing any other sample. That sounds a bit simplistic ... the great thing about digital music technology is the fact that you can take field recordings, samples and stuff, and completely destroy their original reference and context, move things. It's like painting an impression in sound of what is now at the Wall, where the Wall stood. Some of it I've chopped up, detuned, turned into basses and things like that. But there's a few really powerful percussion sounds I've managed to pick out from background industrial and construction noise. You don't have to do anything with them, just clean the air and noise off the recording a little bit and you're ready to go. I've been jamming around with it, you can make complete industrial noisescapes and stuff like that, or you can use those loops to add a narrative or context to another recording or a song. I've put some musical motifs in and really all I do is select a sound which I think is apposite - just playing some field recordings, you get an emotional response to what you're hearing, colouring it, putting the recording in a kind of frame.

- I saw on the Berliner Fenster today that, according to a recent opinion poll, 15% of Berliners want the Wall back.

I've often said that, in light of what's happening to some areas, parts of the city that we know and love, maybe it would be a good idea to build a new wall, but this time around the entire city, not just through the middle, and make it out of dogshit. It'll keep the investors out for a few years.

- That wall is already well in progress in Neukölln and Friedrichshain.

It is, yeah, it's just not distributed in the right place in the city."