Since the wall fell, Berlin has experienced a waxing influx of artists from across the world. Within Germany they soon arrived from Cologne, Frankfurt, Düsseldorf and elsewhere in the West, all hoping to gain contact with the still-steaming wildness that was the aftermath of the country’s defining ideological and political divide. Meanwhile, since the late nineties, Berlin has taken in several “waves” of artistic talent from overseas, those arriving first benefiting from having their pick of empty high-ceilinged apartments at bottom-of-the-barrel prices.
The Hauptstadt has since become the country’s, if not the continent’s, capital of culture, with a plethora of professional orchestras and opera houses, a bustling art world, stylishly thankless architecture, and warm, humble acceptance of experimentation with a refreshing lack of expectation. The path has been paved; the techno clubs have been staked out, the “third wave” coffee shops are in place, and the apartment hunt resembles that in New York or Paris.
Berlin is certain now on every tourist’s to-do list, but what is it like for people who actually live there? Is it still proud to be “poor but sexy”? Considering the city’s open-mindedness, relative affordability, and outrageously rich and vast cultural smorgasbord, it is unsurprisingly a gathering point for many LUCERNE FESTIVAL ALUMNI – at least for now. We spoke with some of them about their evolving relationships with Berlin.
Caleb Salgado (LUCERNE FESTIVAL ACADEMY member in 2010-14) is a double bass player and writer who lives and works in both Berlin and Paris. Matthew Conley (2010/12/13) is a trumpet player. He has been freelancing with new music ensembles across Europe and moved to Berlin in 2011 following the Ensemble Moderne Akademie in Frankfurt. AJ Nilles (2013) has lived in the city since the beginning of 2015, and is currently on trial as tutti violist with the Berlin Philharmonic. Violinist Anne Schinz (2011/13) grew up in Berlin and now holds the position of principal second violin in the Deutsche Oper. Stijn Berkouwer (2013) is a conductor who lived in Berlin for two years whilst studying at the Hochschule für Musik “Hanns Eisler” before moving back to his home town of Amsterdam.
Describe your musical life here.
Caleb Salgedo (CS): Because I don’t actually play in fixed groups here and don’t play in orchestras, most of my time is spent outside of Berlin on tour with one of my main groups (Manufaktur für aktuelle Musik, Ensemble Proton, Ensemble Garage, soundinitiative). When I’m not traveling to play shows, I’m writing and recording material for my other bands: perfect deleted futures, Son Of Dad, and DON. I play mostly amplified upright and electric bass for those groups.
Matthew Conley (MC): My anchor is really in Berlin, but I travel quite a lot, playing with groups like musikFabrik, Klangforum Wien, and Ensemble Modern. Contemporary music in Berlin is much less institutionally concentrated, so the projects I end up doing here are usually younger groups trying to do something different than the now kind of traditional new music ensemble.
What do you make of musical life in Berlin?
AJ Nilles (AN): I don’t think there’s a better city to live in as a musician. Whether you’re interested in 17th century, 19th century or 21st century music – anything really – there is an audience for it! Even compared to New York, the variety of music being presented in Berlin is unparalleled.
Stijn Berkouwer (SB): There’s certainly something of an aura to it; this mixture between a heavy history and a thriving present. It’s a city where you can hear Brahms and Mozart played to perfection, but where you can also find small opera companies working on the edge of modern music and innovative theatre. The large new music scene is not only very present in the city, but there is sense of innovation and breaking new grounds. The alternative atmosphere in the city, created by the relative large amount of artists working there, allowed for innovation and almost even demanded pushing boundaries.
Anne Schinz (AS): Vibrant, amazing artists, and nearly too much choice when it comes to choosing an event to go and listen to.
Why do you think so many LUCERNE FESTIVAL ALUMNI end up in Berlin?
MC: All those I know came here for very different reasons. I suppose that those who are attracted to a program like the LUCERNE FESTIVAL ACADEMY are musicians who are looking for a different path than your typical conservatory-to-orchestra career trajectory. Berlin has really allowed me to pursue a career in contemporary music performance, but also offers me a space to explore new ideas surrounded by like-minded musicians.
AN: Berlin is a city that would never reject anything for being too new or too experimental, or even too old or traditional. And since the LUCERNE FESTIVAL ALUMNI consist of such an eclectic band of musicians, it’s only natural that so many would end up in Berlin.
Does your life in Berlin bear any relationship to your experience in Lucerne? Do you still work with many other alumni?
CS: Not particularly. Lucerne gave me the opportunity to play under Pierre Boulez in a classical orchestra playing the biggest pieces from the 20th century in a sublime acoustic. For five years, it was a kind of fantasy orchestra dream vacation where I could do everything I chose not to do the rest of year. Normally when I’m in Berlin I’m totally focused on writing and recording. That process can be brutal, so it was essential to have those weeks in Lucerne to relax and enjoy playing classical music.
SB: In Lucerne I was part of a huge international mix of students, so I was not surprised to find a few of them also living in a city which also is so full of talented musicians from all over the globe. You can find LUCERNE FESTIVAL ALUMNI in every modern music ensemble, at every innovative theater group and in every conservatory, and I still remember feeling such a pulsating atmosphere in Berlin. It has a unique musical scene that definitely carries a Lucerne mark.
MC: Very much so. As soon as I arrived I started an ensemble for contemporary brass music with another former academy member, and my social circle is full of people I met in Lucerne.
What does the future hold for Berlin? Can you picture being here for years to come?
CS: It’s hard to say, and it’s something I think about a lot. I like the idea of Berlin, but not necessarily what it’s becoming as it dies a slow death at the hands of late capitalism. I want to stick around to see what happens to it, how it handles that transformation, but I think if someday I’m no longer inspired to stay here, I’ll move on.
AS: Yes I can, as I have a permanent post as a violinist at the opera, so I might well be around here for another while – besides that, it’s my home town! And I am in love with Berlin’s energy and mixture of exciting prospects on the one hand and the possibility to live a relaxed life on the other.
MC: That’s a difficult question. Young musicians have to be open to change as it can often come suddenly and unexpectedly. My musical life has become progressively less Berlin-focused because, frankly, it has to be for me to survive. The nice part about living here, however, is that I’m able to work around Europe and still have some time to devote to pet projects in Berlin. With the city changing rapidly (rents going up, former bohemian neighborhoods becoming rapidly gentrified – you know, standard urban development stuff), it’s difficult to see how sustainable that will be moving forward.
What are your favorite Berlin venues and ensembles?
CS: Loophole has great African DJ sets. Clärchens Ballhaus is a classic venue for dancing and listening to the occasional piano trio or quartet. The kitchen also makes solid pizza. Aufsturz has serious basement jazz. Ausland has a great acoustic for free improv shows. There’s no equivalent to Solistenensemble Kaleidoskop anywhere. It’s not new music, or new barock, or new theater, it’s just weird. Deutsche Oper means business. I saw them perform Das Mädchen mit den Schwefelhölzern three years ago, and it felt like the aural transcription of the second coming stretched out over two hours. Andromeda Mega Express Orchestra is freak jazz.
Berlin in one word or phrase?
AS: Diverse. I often can’t get my head round the fact that all this is happening in only ONE city. I’m really grateful for living here.
MC: A city for all the kids who sat at the back of the bus.
Jack Adler-McKean & Annie Gårlid | LUCERNE FESTIVAL ALUMNI Content Manager