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Watching A Festival, And Its Music, Take Shape

Bon Iver performs in Saal 1 at the Funkhaus in Berlin during an unnamed festival dedicated to collaboration and creation of new music. (Michelberger Hotel)closemore
Bon Iver performs in Saal 1 at the Funkhaus in Berlin during an unnamed festival dedicated to collaboration and creation of new music. (Michelberger Hotel)

This spring, The New York Times prefaced the onslaught of festival season by publishing an unusually transparent editorial memo. As music festivals are so plentiful and so often indistinguishable, they would no longer be covering the likes of Coachella and Lollapalooza by default. Instead, their attentions would turn to the smaller, stranger events, the ones that told a unique story. In the former East Berlin in the last week of September, 80-odd artists minted a new, nameless festival that figured out the story it wanted to tell as it went along. Comprising musicians, dancers, and visual artists, the group had been curated by Bon Iver's Justin Vernon, The National's Aaron and Bryce Dessner, filmmaker Vincent Moon, composer André de Ridder, Marijuana Deathsquads' Ryan Olson, tour manager Brandon Reid and the founders of Berlin's Michelberger Hotel. From Monday to Friday, they would sleep at the hotel and work in the Funkhaus, an opulent, formerly state-owned radio studio a few miles outside the city. There, they would have the run of the building to forge brand new collaborations and compositions before the doors opened to audiences that weekend (October 1-2).

My friend and fellow journalist Laura Barton and I were invited to spend the week following artists around the Funkhaus in order to produce a newspaper about the festival — a kind of ad hoc programme created in its spirit, which you can read in its original form here. Over five days, we witnessed the artists responding to the space: Kings of Convenience's Erlend Øye strumming away under a tree, Bryce Dessner and Peru's Manuelcha Prado striking up their acoustic guitars in the makeshift canteen, de Ridder's Stargaze orchestra setting up in a circle formation to make the most of their studio's acoustics. As proceedings gathered steam, the event seemed to suggest a series of questions: Can we relearn to appreciate the creative process as key to our appreciation of music? Is it possible to create an evolving, intimate experience that satisfies the creators without alienating the audience? And if we already know that the audience's presence changes the experience of performing music, what does it do when they're witnessing it in barely finished form?

 (Michelberger Hotel)
(Michelberger Hotel)

Not that any of the artists were asking these things explicitly — they were too busy exploding the Funkhaus' previous function as a monument to controlled creativity. From its construction in 1951 until German reunification in 1990, this brown-brick, Spree-side monolith served as the bespoke home for Rundfunk der DDR, the former East German radio broadcasting organisation ('funk' is the German word for 'radio'). There are few obvious driveways or entrances to the interconnected buildings, an intentional design quirk intended to make its former occupants knuckle down to their work forging the East's national and cultural identity. Once you make it inside, you find a number of opulent studios, or saals, their walls appointed in handsome cherry wood and lined with horsehair for optimum sound insulation. When the Funkhaus was first built, the largest room, Saal 1, had a 2.9-second reverb. This, its constructors decided, was too long, so they tore it down and started over. It's now 2.3 seconds.

For anyone who's seen period pieces such as The Lives of Others and Deutschland 83, it's easy to imagine suited East Germans holding clipped conversations over the white tablecloths in the complex's beautifully preserved Milchbar canteen. Not that the Funkhaus is a museum — as drafty as its paint- and cigarette-scented corridors are, many of its studios are fully functioning. Sting and The Black Eyed Peas have recorded there (as a large graffitied photo in one starkly grand foyer points out), as has British art-rock band These New Puritans, among others. In winter 2015, Bryce Dessner and Stargaze were at the Funkhaus recording the soundtrack to Alejandro G. Iñárritu's The Revenant. The Milchbar was shut, the only nearby source of sustenance an understocked gas station, so Dessner called his friends at the Michelberger to ask if they'd bring over coffee and sandwiches. When Tom Michelberger and Nadine May arrived in their van, they marveled at the edifice in front of them, and started to ponder the possibilities it suggested.

After getting the okay from the Funkhaus' private owner, they engaged a roster of co-curators to help them conceive a new kind of music festival to take place at the venue. Egalitarianism was a founding principle: There would be no traditional hierarchical line-up, no schedule. Defying any suggestion that branding is an inevitable part of running a festival in 2016, there were no sponsors, no benefactors other than the hotel, which closed to the public for a week so that the artists could live in peace (and embark on sprawling all-night jam sessions without disturbing traditional guests). Ticket sales covered the production costs, and none of the artists were paid.

As soon as the group tour of the building ended on Tuesday, the artists vanished into the Funkhaus' myriad corners like hermit crabs into rock pools. The Dessners tried to figure out how Saal 4, a live room bordered by several isolated recording booths, might function as a site of "continuous" collaboration. A newly formed choir got a lesson in dancing the Tarantella from Italian dancer Moira Cappilli, while Irish songwriter Damien Rice peered into the building's recesses in search of a space where a single "kidnapped" audience member would find themselves surrounded by musicians who would play them a song before ejecting them back into the melee. While the artists swarmed in and out of various constellations, workmen replaced the two dozen windows of the Funkhaus' cavernous concrete Shed Hall, and a team of artists painted a giant 50-foot banner reading "PEOPLE" to hang above the bar. In every respect, The Haçienda was being built.

At the start of the week, I walked around wondering what attracted the artists, from Ireland's Fionn Regan to Iceland's Gyða Valtýsdóttir, to the ephemeral: to an event that would yield no recordings or repeat performances. I soon realized that this was the wrong question. Running parallel to the week's preparations was the release of Bon Iver's new album, 22, a Million. On Wednesday night, Vernon and his band performed to a crowd of 250 people (including some invited European press) in the Michelberger's tiled courtyard. Outside the hotel's walls, the record was at the heart of a media circus in which Vernon had mostly declined to participate: 22 was his first Bon Iver release in five years, the kind of wait that gets critics and fans acting like an artist has stopped existing, or taken some extreme vow of silence.

 (Michelberger Hotel)
(Michelberger Hotel)

It makes sense that artists don't really exist to us when we can't see them. That the myth of the tortured creative means we're conditioned to think of isolation as intrinsic to creativity. That in an age where a blockbuster record could drop without notice at any time, we cling to product as a marker of stability. But that fetishization risks obscuring the importance of the communities and creative processes that forge these records in the first place — and how precarious they can be. "In January this year I kind of peacefully said to myself, 'This is it, I don't think I can finish this album and maybe that's okay'," Vernon told us. "I was kind of excited, almost: 'I'm free, I don't gotta do this'. And my friend Ryan Olson — I get choked up thinking about it sometimes — he came in and said, 'F*** you, man, you cannot do this. You cannot give up now. This is too good a thing." If this freewheeling week contributed in any way to perceptions of Vernon outside the Funkhaus' walls, it was that the communal joy he shared in finally destroyed any lingering image of him as a lonely woodsman.

Admittedly, watching musicians tease out an idea can feel like staring blankly at tea leaves: Where they hear promise, you hear a loop being repeated 40 times in a row. Aside from the rehearsals for the Stargaze orchestra and their various collaborators, there was little fully formed work to be found in the Funkhaus over the course of the week. You wondered what would be performed at the weekend — as did the artists. Every night, my bedroom ceiling rattled as the Overlook, a large room on the hotel's fourth floor, became a frenzied jam session, with members of Marijuana Deathsquads, Boys Noize, alt-J and more engaged in synth-based battle until the sun came up and they returned to the Funkhaus. Going by their visible hangovers each morning at breakfast, it was hard to imagine how they'd ever remember what they had been working on.

The weekend came, and the performances ran the gamut from pin-sharp precision to enjoyably aimless experimentation. The audience had no idea who was playing where, or in what formation; they received coded wristbands that allowed them into Saals 1 and 2 at specific times, essentially to ensure that everyone got to see at least one show by Bon Iver and one by Stargaze and their various collaborators. The rest of the time, they were funneled between the smaller saals. They sat on the floor, the doors shut and then the performers appeared. Occasionally, you could see anxiety (and the heat from the horsehair insulation) overpower their faces as they fretted about potentially missing something better than the obscure configuration unfolding in front of them, especially after having waited in some trying queues. But mostly, the surprises took flight.

On Saturday morning, the tiers of Saal 1 were filled with festival-goers staring expectantly at the horseshoe-shaped stage at the lowest point of the room, waiting for performers to appear. Instead, voices emerged from the two furthest corners of the room, as the members of the newly formed Women's Choir (including Shara Nova, Arone Dyer, Kate Stables, Rozi Plain, Pauline de Lassus and Gyða and Kristín Anna Valtýsdóttir) piped up, before descending to the stage area. The Berlin choir Cantus Dominus pulled a similar surprise appearance during Bon Iver's first full show of the weekend, while a performance in Saal 3 worked like a gentle relay race as Bryce Dessner, Mina Tindle's Pauline de Lassus, Sam Amidon, Manuelcha Prado and Czech cellists Vojtĕch and Irena Havel wandered in and out of the room, tuning each other's rhythms. There were unexpected collaborations in Saal 4, where Spank Rock's Naeem Juwan freestyled over Bryce's guitar and corroded, plosive beats programmed by Boys Noize's Alex Ridha. Even Stargaze, the weekend's most orchestrated act by nature, dabbled in the impromptu when they tried out an upcoming collaboration with Poliça that they'd barely rehearsed.

Although the festival was designed to eschew hierarchy, there were two clear MVPs on Sunday. Ben Lanz, usually a multi-instrumentalist with The National, was a quiet and constant presence in what seemed like every single performance. More obviously, Icelandic conceptual artist Ragnar Kjartansson deserved a medal for endurance alone. He spent the day in Saal 4, singing Schumann songs for eight solid hours, accompanied by pianist Ingibjörg Sigurjónsdóttir. At one point, he climbed on top of one of the iso-booths and serenaded the giggling crowd from the rafters; when I visited, he was swigging from a bottle of white wine and reclining against the piano. Later on in the Shed Hall, he got bigger cheers than the festival's most famous musicians when he appeared to sing David Bowie's ""Heroes"" with Stargaze, introducing it as "the national anthem of Berlin," then joined the Dessners' midnight 'Mixtape' session to cover The National's "Sorrow" (which he made them perform for six hours straight as part of a live art installation back in 2013). During that set, the twins flew by the skin of their teeth, reviving the collaborations they'd dabbled in throughout the week. At one point this swelled to a thrillingly dissonant 11-strong cohort that included Rone, Boys Noize, Arone Dyer and most of Bon Iver, which then shrunk again for Justin Vernon to sing a brand new song written that week, the chorus, "You wreck him and you run."

 (Courtesy of the Michelberger Hotel)
(Courtesy of the Michelberger Hotel)

As the week passed in the hotel, palpable exhaustion set in and week-long hangovers gathered moss. I left the Funkhaus at 1 a.m. on Sunday, and caught the public bus back to Ostkreuz station. On the short train ride to the Michelberger's hotel on Warschauerstrasse, I met a guy who had traveled from Brazil to the festival, specifically to see Bon Iver and Damien Rice. "Speechless," was all he could say about what he had seen, his tote bag hung from his neck like a medal. "Absolutely speechless." As I climbed into bed, techno from the Overlook above started to shake the rafters once more.

By then, the festival had unofficially became known as Nameless, Endless. For the participants, it seemed a bit like a bleak joke that referred to the non-existent bedtimes — at breakfast the Monday after the festival, a tired Aaron Dessner said he'd been up jamming until 6 a.m., despite having been playing and planning all week long. But this week also perpetuated creative relationships that will endure long after the Michelberger returns to everyday business. As the bleary-eyed artists sat down to a late breakfast that final, departing Monday, the ever-raffish Vincent Moon was out on the street, sprinting for his cab to the airport. He ran back to stick his head through the restaurant window and shouted, "A la prochaine!" There's no way it will take until September 2017 for the participants to resume what they started that week.

Copyright NPR 2016.

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