If Berlin is the electronic Vatican, Berghain is its Basilica. Clubs wander in and out of favour, but Berghain remains the epicentre of techno; the point around which the rest of the community rotates.
Housed in an old power plant close to the centre of Berlin, Berghain is defined, from the outside at least, by its striking proportions. Like a Stalinist factory hewn from grey stone, and with slim, towering windows inserted on four sides, it is a building austere enough to startle even in a city defined by its architectural asceticism.
Entry can be difficult. Berghain’s door policy is legendary; the sort of topic about which everyone has their own cautionary tale, and their own strategy for success. It is notoriously tough for English visitors. The first time I visited, in the middle of December and with two feet of snow on the ground, the groups in front of and behind me were both turned away with a simple shake of the head. Nobody argues; you just leave, hopeful that next time you will look more sober, or the balance of genders inside will be more in your favour, or simply that your luck will be better.
Berghain is a holy site for electronic music; a place in which the liturgy of techno can be recited in surroundings designed to awe. It is a fitting location, then, for Soundcloud co-founder Eric Wahlforss to launch his new project Ecclesia.
A nine-track album accompanied by an interactive iPad app and released under Wahlforss’ Forss moniker, Ecclesia explores the shifting life of religious buildings. The record is constructed entirely from samples made in churches, with the melodic elements made up of processed recordings of choirs and organs and the percussive parts consisting of the sounds of the buildings themselves; wood clacks, stick on stone, and pew creaks. It is a cavernous, imposing record. To listen in one sitting is to feel as if you are standing, motionless, while a gargantuan, sandblasted cathedral rotates around you. As with a 3D computer model it feels as if the structure flips, zooms, and shifts, continually repositioning the listener in a new space – a yawning nave, or a hushed vestry.
The music, though, is only part of the story. The iPad app, which was conceived and built by graphic designer Leo Lass and CGI artist Marcel Schoebel, allows the user to navigate a series of artworks based on the music and on the architecture of the church. The user’s actions alter the experience, giving a subtly interactive element to Ecclesia.
Live, it is these visuals that provide the focus. Continually shifting, sculptural patterns are projected onto the back wall of the stage, and overlaid with geometric constructions that mirror or reference ecclesiastical architectural. They are reminiscent of the work of Pfadfinderei, the VJ collective responsible for Moderat’s extraordinary artwork. There is also something of Moderat about Wahlforss’s arrangements, with spacious, often elegiac textures offset against hollow percussion. It is this percussion, with its shuffling, 2-step tendency, that provides the most obvious link between Ecclesia and the world of contemporary electronic music – and, indeed, between the performance and its location.
But perhaps the most interesting part of Ecclesia is its profession to be an emblem of “post-religion”. The promotional material speaks of attempts to reposition the church; to reinvigorate its essence in a world in which religion has fallen out of favour. The day after the Berghain performance I meet Wahlforss, Lass, and Schoebel, and I ask whether they really believe that we really have jettisoned the ecclesiastical.
“We all share that feeling of a certain kind of nostalgia,” Wahlforss says. “Churches are these big empty spaces that have this ancient tradition that isn’t quite respected anymore in society. Some churches have been converted, which is a positive development. My mother conducts a choir and plays the organ, and when I go to her concerts these days it’s mostly old people. It doesn’t really connect with our generation. This is a little bit of an attempt to bring back some of the traits of that tradition. It’s not about religion so much; it’s about the fact that these spaces are all around us.”
Lass agrees: “The Catholic church isn’t so important in Europe anymore, but religion is still everywhere. Religion is a very difficult thing for us. It pervades our culture. It was a huge power factor, a huge political factor – it still is.
“I don’t agree at all with the Catholic church’s dogmas. Everything that is dogmatic is problematic. Religion in itself is problematic, but it has given us these huge art forms, and these huge references in literature. It’s what we are based on, and what we rely on, and something that everyone knows. I think what’s interesting here is that we use all the usual references, but we put them in a new context.”
That recontextualising is Ecclesia’s signal quality. But, even if we are no longer in thrall to religion, is it possible to truly divorce the artistic elements of the church from their original meaning? Wahlforss is unsure. “My interpretation is in a sense superficial, and intuitive. It’s not an intellectual work. It’s not trying to provide a deeper meaning, or reconnect with the Christian liturgy, or anything like that. It’s more about the form than the content. It’s more about emotion; it’s a personal thing for me.”
The grand gestures of Western religion ring hollow today. But in Ecclesia Wahlforss, Lass, and Schoebel have begun to adapt the aesthetic elements of the church, reinvigorating them for a generation that worships not in centuries-old cathedrals, but in pseudo-Stalinist factory buildings in central Berlin.