Composers Find Transcendence, and Inspiration, at Berghain in Berlin

BERLIN — In 2018, after a visit to Berghain, the storied techno club here, the saxophonist and curator Ryan Muncy called the composer Ash Fure, a friend and collaborator.

“God spoke to me in the subwoofers,” Muncy told her. “‘Bring me Ash Fure.’”

Soon Fure, at the time a fellow at the American Academy in Rome, boarded a plane to Berlin. She and Muncy went straight to Berghain. “I remember so vividly every single detail,” Fure said in a video interview. She recalled watching as the other club-goers shed their coats and donned futuristic outfits. She explored the labyrinthine architecture, discovering vantage points from which to watch and listen. She got close to the famous Funktion-One sound system, which engulfed her with its volume but never hurt her ears. She stayed for 14 hours.

“It all had this wild warping effect,” Fure said.

Back in Rome, she felt the experience staying with her. “It felt really spiral,” she said, referring to Berghain. “You keep going around and around, you get deeper and deeper in this place.”

Classical musicians are no strangers to clubs. In 2001, the record label Deutsche Grammophon founded a concert series, Yellow Lounge, that included performances in places like Berghain.

Separately, classical artists have often attended Berghain’s techno Klubnächte, or club nights — a rave with queer origins that attracts locals and techno pilgrims from around the world, and often lasts from midnight Saturday to late Monday. They emerge with encouragement and inspiration.

When Fure first went to Berghain, a performance the year before of “The Force of Things: An Opera for Objects” (2017), which she created with her architect brother, Adam Fure, was fresh in her mind. That work uses subwoofers, aircraft cables, vocalists, instruments and abstract set design and choreography to dramatize the vast scale of climate change.

Fure felt at home in this genre, somewhere between abstract contemporary opera and sound art, but like many composers she had to reconcile her interests with the financial pressures of a traditional career. In 2012, Fure had started making what she described as “full-bodied, multisensory work.” But, she said, “then I would go back and try to hustle some more commissions, and I’d ultimately get a prize that gave me access to some resources. That allowed me to make another one of these weird wild things, and then I had to keep doing that cycle.”

The experience at Berghain in 2018 encouraged Fure to focus more resolutely on her immersive compositions. “In so many ways, it felt like the actualization of a lot of these more private hungers and more private desires for sound and experience and collectivity,” she said. “It felt confirming that it’s possible.”

That confirmation has been a common experience for composers who visit Berghain. In 2015, a friend of Wojtek Blecharz brought him to the club for his birthday. Like Fure, Blecharz, a 41-year-old composer, was interested in the physicality of sound and dissatisfied with the predictability of a typical classical concert. He found his time at Berghain literally hair-raising.

“I’m quite hairy,” he said in an interview. “So all the hair on my body was vibrating with this massive energy. I could dive into the sound.”

Berghain is famous for, among other things, the lines people wait on to get inside.Credit…Kay Nietfeld/picture alliance, via Getty Images

“I could almost touch it,” he added. “I could float in it. That was one of the most beautiful experiences in my life as a classically trained musician.”

Blecharz channeled the tactility of the techno music at Berghain into “Body Opera,” an opera installation, for up to 100 viewers at a time, that premiered in England at the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival in 2016. He provided each audience member with a yoga mat, a blanket and a pillow outfitted with an integrated transducer speaker. Touching the pillow sent sound waves directly into a listener’s body. “I realized,” Blecharz said, describing his visits to Berghain, “that it would be nice to create analogous ways to translate this experience, when you go there for the first time, and you hear this wave of sound that embraces you.”

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“Body Opera” includes a nod to the drugs some find essential to raving. Blecharz asked audience members to consume a white, crystal powder from a small resealable bag. It was just Pop Rocks candy, but attendees didn’t know that in advance; they were meant to become sensitized to the sound of the sugar popping, and to perceive the resonating effect of their mouths.

The composer Joshua Fineberg had long been interested in the mechanisms that encourage transcendent experiences, which he believed were rare at classical concerts. “You can only really get to that place in the concert world when your deep listening can take you out of yourself, which not everyone is ready to do every night,” he said in a telephone interview.

In 2015, Fineberg, 53, went to a snake church outside Birmingham, Ala., in search of an ecstatic experience. With the pastor’s permission, Fineberg observed a ceremony in which a poisonous snake was passed from worshiper to worshiper. But it wasn’t until a year later, after he discovered Berghain, that he found the transcendence he was looking for.

“They found this way to kind of industrialize the Gesamtkunstwerk,” or total work of art, Fineberg said. “To make, let’s say, 85 or 90 percent of the feeling of the most amazing night of your life reproducible almost every weekend.”

In “take my hand,” a 2017 piece written for Ensemble Dal Niente, Fineberg used blindfolds, smoke machines and strobe lights to evoke disorientation analogous to the winding architecture and gloomy lighting of Berghain. Fineberg’s complex timbres, including a memorable overlay of harp on a bed of rich noise, remain static for long periods, in the same way that a D.J.’s tracks might stay in a limited harmonic and rhythmic world for hours.

Partying at Berghain, Fineberg said, creates an “infusion of joy” into his regular life. But it has also encouraged a shift in the drama of his works. “Maybe my music can move more toward catharsis and release than in the past,” he said, “where it would have just been tension and angst.”

When the viol player Liam Byrne, 40, began going to Berghain, in 2017, he noticed a surprising parallel between techno dancing and stylized Baroque choreography. The steps of Baroque dance, he said in an interview, are often the most effective ways of moving at a given speed, to a specific groove.

At the club, he noticed dancers were adapting their movements to different tempos in a comparable manner. While speaking, Byrne shook his shoulders back and forth on his chair to demonstrate a step suited to the fast techno on Berghain’s main floor. Upstairs at the Panorama Bar, where the tempo is usually a little slower, dancers prefer a two-step, shuffling motion, he said.

“That’s exactly like Baroque dance,” Byrne said. “That’s your pas de bourrée, your pas de gavotte.” He added, “These types of movements are perfect expressions or perfect marriages with very specific types of rhythmic feel.”

A visitor inside one of Berghain’s cavernous spaces, where the composer Sergej Newski said he has seen many other classical musicians.Credit…Felipe Trueba/EPA, via Shutterstock

Much of the Baroque repertoire Byrne plays alludes to dance forms. The techno at Berghain helped him “understand the importance of your responsibility when playing dance music: to make somebody want to move, because it’s a way of giving the listener agency in the music, by inviting them in.”

“You create a groove that the listener gets into,” Byrne said. “Then they’re in the piece with you. Then we’ll pay more close attention to exactly the way you’re lingering on that trill.”

For other classical musicians, Berghain offers liberation from professional pressures. The violinist Ashot Sarkissjan, 46, is a member of the Arditti Quartet, which is known for its performances of thorny, avant-garde classical music. For Sarkissjan, Berghain is a refuge from the spotlight. Occasionally, he goes to the club right after a concert. “Performing is always a responsibility,” he said in a video interview. “When I’m clubbing, I don’t have it. And yet, at the same time, it’s still a musical event that I’m actively part of. It’s just me in a cocoon.”

The composer Sergej Newski, 50, discovered techno music around 1994, when he was a student at the University of the Arts in Berlin. For a few years, the Love Parade, an outdoor techno party, took place on the same day as his annual ear-training finals — right under the classroom window. Since then, he has associated the music with a certain freedom that he rediscovered at Berghain.

“Every composer walks alone, in a way,” Newski said in an interview. “Berghain gives him the possibility to feel like part of the crowd.” He added, “I’ve met many, many classical musicians there.”

After completing her fellowship in Rome, in July 2018, Fure received a scholarship from the German Academic Exchange Service and moved to Berlin, where she continued visiting Berghain. In January 2020, she integrated her club experiences into a new work, “Hive Rise,” with the artist and choreographer Lilleth. In that installation-like piece, a group of performers created sound with 3D-printed megaphones and moved in abstract patterns around the space, their choreography and their futuristic outfits recalling Berghain clubgoers.

“Hive Rise” premiered at Berghain. “It was crazy to be able to give back to that whole architecture that had been so transformative for me and for so many people I love,” Fure said. “It was such an incredible feeling to have my sound move through those speakers.”

This October, Fure will premiere a new immersive work, “Training Ground: A Listening Gym,” at the Schwarzman Center at Yale University. She is continuing to explore the pathways Berghain opened for her.

“I really think of sound as a social technology and as a somatic technology and a tool of the herd and a tool of the species,” Fure said. “Berghain activates that technology in an extremely potent way that was very formative and very singular in my life.”