Space and Sound: Berlin’s Abandoned Spaces

By Will Entwistle

Most of us, when listening to music, are unaware of the meaning of the sounds and what they represent. Fewer of us appreciate the origins of the sounds. Knowing how and why music is made is not a prerequisite for our enjoyment. However, it helps. Contextualising music offers insight into the uniqueness of certain genres and the places that inspired them. Both the consumption and practice of music forms the narrativisation of a place. In this sense, music is more than sound; it is a translation or articulation of subcultural experiences. Where, then, can we see space’s influence on sound? Moreover, is space indispensable to music’s existence?

Contextualising music offers insight into the uniqueness of certain genres and the places that inspired them

Industrial decline marked a socio-economic shift that left workers and buildings behind. Despite this, post-industrialism was, paradoxically, responsible for the industrialisation of electronic music. Techno’s association with warehouses embodies the impression of place on sound. For instance, industrial techno’s routinized thumping in 4/4 time resembled working factory machines. In this sense, the beating heart of industry was immortalised in music.

The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 was vital in the development of techno. Image: Raphaël Thiémard via Wikimedia and Creative Commons.

Berlin’s abandoned buildings exchanged socialism with sound

Berlin’s techno scene derived from the collapse of the Berlin Wall. Tobias Rapp claimed that 30% of buildings in East Berlin after the collapse were left empty. Techno accepted the opportunity to re-identify these abandoned socialist relics. For instance, Tresor nightclub was founded within a year of the Berlin Wall’s collapse and was originally the vault of a bank in a department store located in the central district of East Berlin, Mitte. Elsewhere, Planet nightclub was an abandoned warehouse. The Vault’s low ceilings and untreated, fortress-like concrete walls offer listeners with security yet vulnerability.

Techno sounds reflect these structures with firm beats providing listeners with rhythmic certainty alongside distorted and unpredictable synths counteracting the rigid bassline the DJ prescribes.  Yet, space is also capable of enhancing sounds. Tresor’s 1-meter-thick concrete walls, encasing the Vault, help improve the depth of the bass while retaining the clarity of accompanying sounds. In this sense, space furthers our interaction with sounds both atmospherically and acoustically.

Abandoned spaces gave techno an identity beyond sound. Uniquely, the socialism previously attached to these spaces made techno both a form of liberation and rebellion. Felix Denk and Sven von Thülen, in their book, interviewed DJ Robert Hood on Berlin’s influence on techno. Hood says that the “dark and murky” clubs, like Tresor, changed techno because the brutal socialist structures transformed techno from “fantasy-based electronic sounds” to a “reality-based” sounds. Techno industrialised making beats faster and heavier while retaining the freedom of unpredictable synthesisers. Importantly, Hood’s emphasis on techno’s reality demonstrates that space defined the music’s change. Comparably, DJs performing in these Cold-War era structures soon after 1990 personified freedom from, but also and rebellion against the GDR’s restriction on the arts. Berlin’s abandoned buildings exchanged socialism with sound.

Image: MichaelBrossmann via Wikimedia and Creative Commons

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