Naked bodies smeared in orange paint glide gracefully across the floor of Kreuzberg’s HAU2 theatre, then suddenly snap into maniacal body jerks, faces displaying the expressionless intensity of a Terminator android. But this isn’t some fearful vision of the future; the Christopher Winkler Company are paying tribute to legendary choreographer Ernest Berk as Japanese avant-noise duo group A provide an absorbing aural backdrop. Mixmag takes in the auditorium dotted with applauding grey-haired appreciators of high culture, finishes a glass of red wine, then heads across the river to famously debauched techno club Berghain. On this Tuesday evening, the Funktion-One system, ordinarily found pumping out muscular beats, is amplifying the subtler tones of Jessica Ekomane’s transcendent live set and the abstract pop and r’n’b stylings of South London artist Klein.
This disparate one-two run on a chilly midweek night is typical of the kaleidoscopic range on offer at CTM Festival, Berlin’s 10-day experimental extravaganza. You may find yourself racing through explosive DJ sets, academic talks on the political role of jukeboxes in Brazilian favelas, workshops and innovative live performances. Sounds chaotic, and it is to an extent, but it’s a controlled chaos, expertly pieced together to create an experience more vital than your usual by-numbers pingers and tech-house escapism.
“We are not interested in complying with any kind of canon of what is currently hot or what people might expect from a certain type of music festival,” says co-founder and artistic director Jan Rohlf. CTM 2018, the festival’s 19th edition, is organised under the theme of ‘turmoil’. It’s a word with heavy, unsettling implications, but is undoubtedly timely. And over the course of CTM’s duration, it results in an invigoratingly radical melange.
There’s no denying the tumult and flux of the programming. Hitmakerchinx and DJ Aaron’s set at YAAM, a vibrant beach venue on the banks of the Spree, is a jaw-dropping exhibition of FDM (flex dance music), a rowdy fusion of dancehall and reggae. Dancers Shellz and OG Hob Dot contort their limbs into bone-breaking positions, barely breaking stride as they whip up the crowd with playful calls to action like “When I say bumba, you say clart!”. On Friday in Panorama Bar, Bampa Pana and Makeveli of Tanzania’s Sisso Records perform an incendiary set of Singeli music, packed full of high-tempo rhythms and rapid MC delivery. At its climax a topless figure leaps onto the booth and proudly holds aloft a T-shirt of Ugandan label and Sisso affiliates Nyege Nyege Tapes, red light gleaming against his bare chest and smoke billowing at his feet in a triumphant image that incites crowd members to tear off their own clothes and swing them overhead. Later, Lakuti helms a slower but no less impactful house set that’s charged with evocative vocals and life-affirming piano lines.
The fiercest representation of turmoil occurs at the gabber showcase Adrenalin in Berghain, featuring the likes of DJ Panic, Marc Acardipane and The Darkraver. The pneumatic style of hardcore music has been widely viewed with contempt for its perceived lack of sophistication, but popularity has endured, and naturally, it’s hard to ignore. A new school of artists such as KABLAM and HAJ300, who also perform tonight, are now helping bring it back to the fore, and pulling the sound in new directions. “I think what draws me to the sound is that it channels so many different strong emotions, it’s similar to what punk music used to do for me as a teenager,” says KABLAM. Feelings are running high on the dancefloor among the most eye-catchingly eclectic crowd of the festival, with some older women going in hard and a man clad in thin strips of leather throwing his head into the weighty Funktion-One cones with reckless abandon. The music is uncompromising and at times overwhelming, but also genuinely cathartic and radical sounding. "It feels like some people are trying to make gabber and hardcore happen all over again in the same way - with the same music, the same clothes, the same parties. I am not interested in that. That happened 25 years ago. If we would do that then how would we be better than the old cranky men who believe that 'today’s music has no soul'?" adds KABLAM.
Another breathtaking sonic experience is 4DSOUND system at MONOM, Berlin’s Center for Spatial Sound. At first the room is bare and industrial, but as the system gears into life it’s transformed into a mindblowing vortex of sound, like standing at the intersection of railway tracks as trains speed past at dizzying speeds. Gaika performs an intimate live set in the centre of the room, using loops to construct vast textural soundscapes that lyrically examine urban decay through an imagined dystopian tale.
A lecture from 4DSOUND creative director John Connell the following day explores how the ceaseless noise of modern living is fundamentally changing our existence. He explains that listening attentively to one another is now a radical act as falling attention spans and the stigmatisation of silence in public spaces encourages urgency in conversation above depth.
Activating a “critical sense of seeing and listening” is a key focus of CTM, and a motivation for the wide-ranging variety on the bill, says Rohlf. Placed alongside each other, the myriad styles at CTM never jar; they feel inspiring and celebratory – an act of resistance to hegemony and isolationism. At a panel featuring artists involved in China’s musical underground a question from the audience about what it’s like to be part of an isolated scene provokes discussion about whether it is outsider attention that defines isolation, Shanghai artist GOOOOOSE noting that he has far more awareness of Western scenes than he receives in return.
CTM is filled with moments where exposure to new sounds and viewpoints encourages both openness and a more analytical outlook – not just through discourse, but via relentlessly fun club nights. Following the panel, Chinese artists Jason Hou and Hyph11E play at Panorama Bar on a bill also featuring Perera Elsewhere, Olivia, Jana Rush, Champion and MC Serious. It’s a whirlwind party of bass-loaded rhythms, pumping footwork and abrasive experimentalism, bringing together these strands for a night of collective excitement and discovery.
“Witnessing the increasing diversity of people congregating and exchanging at CTM are the greatest rewards, and leaves me with a hopeful feeling,” says Rohlf. In a time where festival line-ups look increasingly homogenous, and ticket sales are valued above compelling creative choices, CTM paves the way in presenting something thrillingly unfamiliar.
Patrick Hinton is Mixmag's Digital Staff Writer, follow him on Twitter