Selbstbestimmung einer Szene/Self-defining a scene (Berlin 1995–2010)
Burkhard Beins, Christian Kesten, Gisela Nauck and Andrea Neumann (editors)
Wolke Books

Probably the most talked about, written about and analyzed improvised music scene since the original New Thing explosion in mid-1960s New York, Berlin’s Echtzeitmusik or real-time music, practitioners have directed an international sound focus towards the German capital since the early 1990s.

Rejecting the bluster of Free Jazz, influenced by so-called New music and some Pop, in-the-main Echtzeitmusikians concentrate on hushed, so-called lower-case sounds. Moreover, the cumulative effect of that many like-minded players from inside Germany and abroad convening on a single geographic spot, and nurtured by a group of musician-run performance spaces, has created an unprecedented sense of solidarity. Some players, such as trumpeter Axel Dörner and laptop/software specialist Christof Kurzmann, have gained a measure of international acclaim, at least in this tiny slice of the music scene.

Notwithstanding that, many musicians involved with Echtzeitmusik consider that the situation should be better defined. This over 400-page volume, published in both English and German, is designed to come to terms with what Echtzeitmusik is, rather than what it isn’t. Like many such projects though, the results are mixed. Although it’s evident that the editors – percussionist/composer Burkhard Beins, vocalist/composer Christian Kesten, journalist/academic Gisela Nauck and inside-piano innovator Andrea Neumann – allowed the book to grow in order to include as many points of view as possible, the very range of opinions make the subsequent material less than authoritative.

For a start some of the 58 contributors treat their contributions as exercises in hagiography. Their nostalgia-tinged tales are about the time just after Berlin Wall fell, where cheap rents and a general state of Teutonic euphoria appeared to encourage all manner of sonic experimentation, not unlike New York’s Loft era of the 1970s.

Added to these exercises in reminiscences are many of the illustrations themselves, which are sometimes put together in scrap box fashion. They show improvisers posing as part of different, often overlapping groups; offer snapshots of formerly important, now shuttered, music spaces; as well as plus full-color reproductions of the covers of representative CDs.

Other chapters, such as those by Neumann, turntablist Ignaz Schick and tubaist Robin Hayward go into technical detail about the challenges of creating novel improvising techniques and provide blueprints and diagrams for their dissemination.

Academics and theorists take space as well in attempts to classify Echtzeitmusik in some way, an idea which seemed to have its origin in the “27 Questions for a Start” asked of other musicians and participants in the scene in 2007 by the members of Trio Sowari: tenor saxophonist Bertrand Denzler, Beins and electronics manipulator Jim Denley. Unfortunately a multiplicity of answers from different players, plus a group of near-dissertations clogged with more academic terms and footnotes than a teenager has acne, prove inconclusive.

Meanwhile Diego Chamy, who relocated from Buenos Aires to Berlin in 2007 and migrated from playing percussion to becoming a self-defined performance artist, provide contributions that make him the volume’s sole gadfly. Besides questioning the purity of improvised music in general, he also devotes an entire article to questioning how one 2009 festival could offer a €1,000 prize for the performance by the “best” improv duo. His thesis is that rankling concepts like this destroy the non-hierarchal ethic which characterizes “in the moment” music.

Overall, the book’s most instructive material involves discussion/interviews with those players active during those years, which bring an international perspective to the scene: Dörner, Kurzmann, trombonist Johannes Bauer and bassist Werner Dafeldecker. In truth, like participants in similar self-defined musical movements and collectives such as the Brooklyn Underground Movement or the London Music Collective, more questions are raised than answers supplied. In a way, it appears, defining Echtzeitmusik undisputedly may be as futile as trying to classify “Jazz”.

Still Echtzeitmusik: Selbstbestimmung einer szene /Self-defining a scene provides a thoughtful and, at times, entrancing introduction to, and elaboration on, what developed and is still developing on the Berlin improv music scene. As importantly, the volume can provide a guidebook, warning light and/or basis for discussion to those players involved with or contemplating creating similar collective situations in other locations.

—Ken Waxman