Last January, a group of students under the TIMARA department flew to Berlin to explore electronic music at the Catalyst Institute for Creative Arts and Technology, located in the famous Funkhaus Berlin. Participants attended workshops during the day and explored concerts and clubs in the city at night. TIMARA Department Chair and Professor of Computer Music and Digital Arts Tom Lopez, OC ’89, co-chaired the program with TIMARA alum Benjamin Bacon, OC ’11. Each student developed a project during their time in Berlin, and the trip culminated in a performance that showcased these creative efforts. Blending newly learned skills with their own personal music-making process, the students in Berlin engaged in a cross-cultural investigation of sound.
A building complex in the Treptow-Köpenick district of Berlin, the Funkhaus was once the largest radio station in East Berlin. Built in 1951, the building previously housed a supermarket, doctor’s office and spa due to its non-stop operating hours. The Funkhaus was abandoned after the fall of the Berlin Wall, but has since been renovated. Now, Funkhaus holds a legendary status among studios. With countless performance venues and recording studios designed to suit every acoustic specification, performers, students and artists all flock to this behemoth. Catalyst, the Funkhaus-based institute, welcomed TIMARA students to sit in on classes and participate in showcases.
Students were given full access to state-of-the-art recording studios and speaker systems to prepare for their final concert. While they weren’t working on personal projects, they attended workshops on topics ranging from scoring to field recordings.
“It felt more like an artist residency than a course,” said third-year double major Hannah Stone. “My personal favorite was actually with an Oberlin alum, Peter Blasser, [OC ’02]. He builds synths, and frankly the synths are really cool, but I’m not that into circuit building. However, the connections he made when he talked about it were so unusual that it felt very special just to hear him talk about what he does.”
Sophomore dual major Fae Ordaz echoed Stone’s sentiments.
“He’s a really interesting character,” Ordaz said. “He basically just talked to us the whole time, but he’s very wise. He’s almost like a magician.”
This journey combined personal musical development with enjoyment as an audience member. Exposure to a wide range of music on this trip gave the students insight into the elements they wanted to emulate and those they hoped to avoid.
“We saw a ton of music,” Ordaz said. “Which was really great, but it also meant we got to see a lot of good music and some really not-so-good music, which I think was really informative and helped me figure out what I liked and what I didn’t like.”
Stone’s experience was similar. “It was really validating the things that are happening at Oberlin,” Stone said. “Some things I wasn’t so excited about and I was like, ‘Cool, I love what we’re doing here.’ But I also heard a lot that was really inspiring.”
Although he had previously visited the city on numerous occasions, fourth-year graduate Orson Abram struggled to balance Berlin exploration with composition. “I found it especially challenging because it’s such a big place,” Abram said. “There’s a lot going on and I’m someone who always likes to try and do everything.”
This is not easy to accomplish in Berlin, a mecca for electronic music. This commitment to experimental dance music can be attributed to Germany’s authoritarian history. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, once illegal rampages took over the abandoned infrastructure. A wave of human connection flooded the city, symbolized by techno parties promoting freedom and hedonism. The skeletons of Soviet-era industrial buildings now await remedial debauchery. There was a strict curfew on both sides of the wall. Now the clubs never close.
Ultimately, everyone on this trip found inspiration within the vibrant and restless city of Berlin. Without noticing, the sounds and techniques of the Berlin music scene entered Abram’s psyche.
“This may sound strange in memory, but I don’t think I would have been so inspired by the city, in such a simultaneous and subconscious way.[ly] as well,” Abram said. “Everyone had their own way of being influenced by the city.”