Review: CTM is the inspiring festival dance music needs
Berlin's CTM Festival celebrated its 20th anniversary in exhilarating and energising form
CTM was in turmoil last year. For its 2018 theme the festival held up a mirror to the world, and refracted the tumult through a radical programme that brought cathartic release and critical understanding to the chaos. We’re still living in troubled times 12 months down the line, which, for better or for worse, we persist through. CTM is an event that makes us feel better.
Persistence is the fitting theme chosen for CTM’s landmark 20th anniversary edition. Launching before the turn of the millennium, the festival set out with much the same aims it strives for now: to unite varying strands of art and academia in a positively-charged experience. It has learned and evolved through following these principles year and after year, and two decades in, its persistence is paying off. CTM is thriving.
Spread across 10 days and all manner of venues in Berlin, from the debauched bowels of Berghain to the grand cultural arts hub Kunstquartier Bethanien, CTM is a sprawling ride. But it never feels unwieldy. The level of thought put into the programme brings cohesion to the experience — even when the curators are being deliberately confrontational.
On Wednesday evening in Berghain, DJ Haram and Moor Mother perform skeletal club beats and protest poetry as their collaborative 700 Bliss project, before Belgian punk outfit Cocaïne Piss take to the stage to unleash a slew of rapid-fire, nihilistic anthems. “We almost giggled [when deciding to put Cocaïne Piss after 700 Bliss] because the idea of confronting the audience and the venue with this seemed like a mini coup d’etat,” says co-curator James Grabsch. Mini coup d’etats are needed to disrupt hegemony within the music industry.
Downstairs in Säule the afterparty kicks off with German DJ collective 100% Halal launching into incendiary club bangers like Dinamarca’s ‘Holy’ and D Malice’s UK funky classic ‘Gabryelle Refix’. They add signature touches to their selections, utilising CDJ manipulation techniques and drawing for playful edits of Lil Pump’s ‘Gucci Gang’ and Benny Benassi’s ‘Satisfaction’. By the close of their set the room is packed and smoke from machines and cigarettes hangs thick in the air, doused in cold blue lights and penetrated by sharp red lasers.
Into this heady atmosphere steps Kilo Vee, co-founder of Shanghai collective Genome 6.66 Mbp. His tall frame looks imposing behind the decks with a bandana obscuring his face, and he assertively announces his presence with a cascade of propulsive club beats, before these melt away in a blissful haze. Through the set Kilo Vee pulls off aural somersaults with masterful flair. Frenzied bass collapses into woozy experimentalism; vocals railing against “society, the cops, the system” rise assertively from the murk before breaking down into ferocious white noise; SOPHIE’s ‘Faceshopping’ sits alongside a clubby remix of t.A.T.u.’s ‘Not Gonna Get Us'. Slick dressers in designer turnout dance alongside experimental heads repping Amnesia Scanner merch; one man is wearing a pink fluffy pyjama onesie. But while sartorial choices differ across the dancefloor, its occupants’ expressions share the same screwface appreciation, eyes ablaze with excitement. Wednesdays are rarely so exhilarating.
At CTM you learn to open yourself up to whatever the festival has to offer, and the effect is stimulating. In the day time programme, experts with knowledge and lived experience on topics spanning the emotional vacuum of streaming platforms to resisting forces of oppression are flown in from across the world to speak.
UNC Charlotte professor Robin James investigates how terms and behaviours like “strength” and “resilience” that were once considered constructive in fighting inequality have been co-opted and lost their positive connotations, and spotlights artists pursuing more effective modes of resistance like Paula Temple.
A panel comprising Nyege Nyege co-founder Derek Debru, Bassiani operations manager Giorgi Ujmajuridze and Russian self-described “audio-visual terrorists” IC3PEAK discusses endeavouring with musical activities in the the face of intense government crackdowns and arrest by the KGB. The speakers are both illuminating and entertaining to listen to. Debru cuts through some of the scathing reporting Uganda faces from Western media, reminding us many of the country’s problems arise from laws imposed by British colonialism. When the topic of undercover police attempting to infiltrate IC3PEAK’s illegal parties comes up, the pair comprising Nick Kostylev and Nastya Kreslina laugh and defiantly mock the 50something officers for failing to act “young and normal” and pronouncing IC3PEAK wrongly on the door. “The cops had to buy tickets. Thanks to them,” says Kostylev.
The more academic and alarming subject matter is also presented with engaging, and at times humorous, commentary. During a talk on the worrying rise of populism in European mainstream music, a music video by Italian singer Giuseppe Povia filled with anti-Semitic imagery and hot take lyrics like “politicians now are worse than any Nazis” is looked at as a case study. “This probably wins the award for worst music to played at this festival,” quips the presentation’s co-host Professor Mario Dunkel.
Across the lectures, audience members with bright stickers on their phone cameras - a tell-tale sign they were partying in Berghain the night before - raise thoughtful questions and spark compelling debates. A reminder that intellectual thinking and hedonism are not segregated notions in the music sphere.
Coexistence of ideas and interaction are an integral facet of CTM. Despite the erudite discussions, the festival doesn't feel clinically pedagogical or like it’s forcing prescribed beliefs down your throat. You are invited to think for yourself. And this translates into the artist performances, which can be just as exploratory and deeply considered as the lectures.
Dasha Rush discussed collaborating with dancer Valentin Tszin for a year before they got to work with visual artist Stanislav Glazov on a pieced titled Les Territoires Éphémères (translates as “Ephemeral Territories”) which they perform at HAU2. “The idea of the performance is to combine several artistic disciplines into one piece,” explains Rush of the audio-visual show which conceptually explores memory and the fragility of human nature in a striking blend of movement, light, music and spoken word. Atmospheric music swells as Rush repeats robotic vocals, Glazov projects glowing amoeba-like patterns on Tszin's naked torso as he angularly twists his body. Each element gradually gets more intense and agitated, including a fully improvised section where Rush and Tszin swap roles. When we speak to Rush she’s able to explain the concept in fine detail; as we leave the venue, crowd members mull over varying personal interpretations.
Rush appreciates the platform CTM provides for a wide spread of performance styles. “Electronic music, to me, has grown beyond club oriented frame,” she says. “It feels good to have a good techno club night and it can be very liberating. But it’s important for my creative process to engage with a wider frame of electronic music and beyond.”
The variety CTM brings to Berlin beyond club fare is highlighted as we walk past house and techno haven Club der Visionaere, which is padlocked and vacant, and into Kreuzberg venue Festsaal where IC3PEAK are unleashing their ferocious blend of earth-shaking bassweight and screaming vocals. As discussed in their panel appearance, the Russian duo are tracked by the KGB and forced to perform in secret in their homeland because they make music that dares to express political frustration. They channel this into an animated, raw performance. Visuals of a beating heart pulsate behind them as hooded producer Nick Kostylev lays a thunderous foundation which Nastya Kreslina intensifies with wild vocal delivery, whipping her plaited hair with abandon.
“I’m screaming because I want to be heard. I think my voice matters as much as anyone else's,” says Kreslina. “I’m screaming for those who are afraid to speak out too. It’s a universal language: people can feel what I say even if they don’t understand it.”
“During our live sets my main goal is to make people physically feel what we are doing on the stage,” adds Kostylev. The rapturous applause IC3PEAK receive, and delight with with the front row takes a soaking from Kostylev spraying a water bottle during a climactic moment in the set, indicates a mission accomplished.
For the debut performance of Yung Lean and Gud’s punk project Död Mark, the Swedish rapper embraces his inner David Byrne. Lamps cover the stage, bringing a Talking Heads ‘Stop Making Sense’ vibe to the occasion, and Yung Lean eschews his usual loose and vibrant clothing for a smart tweed jacket. While his raps are often introspective and melancholic, as a punk vocalist he’s in full throttle, rock out form, even launching a stage dive — more rad boy than sad boy.
“We invited Yung Lean back in 2015 with the Sad Boys and they played one of their first ever live shows for us. It’s exciting to see artists grow and also try out different modes of expression,” says James Grabsch. “Sometimes they reach out to us with a new idea and I think it’s one of our goals to give artists a field to experiment and try out things they had wanted to try for a while.”
Actress approached CTM with an idea for the 2019 edition, which was commissioned in collaboration with transmediale. The world premiere of his performance with an AI called Young Paint takes place on Friday evening at HKW, or "House of the World's Cultures", a beautiful contemporary arts building that’s lit from the outside by a glowing red curve that resembles the Wembley Stadium arch. Had Darren Cunningham’s life panned out as once planned, he might have found himself playing at Wembley. He was a footballer on the books of West Bromwich Albion until stricken with a career-ending injury in his late teens. The fact that sporting setback set him down a path to becoming one of the most celebrated artists in British electronic music is quite something, and feels relevant to the hopeful atmosphere CTM cultivates.
Tonight’s show affirms his status as a pioneer. A visual representation of Young Paint, a blank humanoid body wearing a monochrome Union Jack bucket hat, gyrates its limbs on a projected screen while Actress moves studiously across an array of gear. The room is filled with rich soundscapes that buzz with static, elevate to ethereal vocal territory and erupt into driving EBM. It’s not easy to follow exactly how the interaction with Young Paint is playing out in the performance, but the show is a spectacle that draws us in. And for those seeking more conventional club thrills, these are waiting just around the corner at Panorama Bar. Badsista steals the show with a pacey set of bass-loaded percussive workouts, and Saoirse masters the sunrise set on her first appearance in the club, hitting those shutters-opening notes with selections spanning Warren Clarke to Dusty Springfield.
As Saturday rolls around the weariness of the night, and days, before hits but we persist onwards to SchwuZ. Once inside the next-level music has us feeling brand new. Deena Abdelwahed’s live show transfixes the cavernous main room with foundations that rumble like the sound of an approaching army below haunting vocals and jittering club rhythms. DJ Marcelle blows minds as she slams raucous hip hop into hype eurodance, bridging BPM gaps only she is capable of pulling off. In the Bunker room, local collective Lecken host one of the funnest party rooms we encounter across the festival. S Ruston moves through adrenaline-charged bangers, pulling backspins to chop from thumping bass into ravey breakbeat and packing out the dancefloor in the process. Killa follows and her energy behind the decks is infectious, cutting shapes and drawing equivalent movement from the crowd with dynamic selections. Bumping percussion rolls into throbbing acid into DJ Rush’s raunchy ghetto house anthem ‘Freaks On Hubbard’ as the room erupts.
“A music festival creates a kind of Utopian space, and we try to create them according to our theme,” says James Grabsch. CTM achieves a rare quality where every inch of the festival feels essential, and in the midst of each event you can’t imagine having missed it. The extent of the programme means it's impossible to hit it all. But rather than sweating over schedules paralysed by potential FOMO, you traverse through the festival taking in as much as you can, energised by the knowledge that wherever you land will bring an experience that fills you with inspiration. And when we are inspired, we persist.
Patrick Hinton is Mixmag's Digital Features Editor, follow him on Twitter
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