Monday, September 24, 2007

PopKomm Ate My Brain, and other music news

Hmpf, I thought I'd have a lot more to say about PopKomm this year, but it was almost spectacularly uneventful. The trade show was put into larger quarters, which meant there were larger stands, but except for Sony/BMG, which had a huge, almost empty area all done in sparking white, none were terribly notable. There were almost no freebies (this is usually when I recharge my cigarette-lighter supply, but no luck this year), and almost no gimmicks, although the light-up martini glasses some Swedish company was using for their drinks were cool.

Overall, it seems attendance at the conference and trade-fair was down, and a number of countries whose export agencies are usually quite visible -- most notably Ireland -- were missing. For those of you who are interested, the export agencies are, obviously, government bodies in charge of promoting goods made in a given country to potential customers in the outside world. In a number of countries, particularly in Europe, pop music is perceived to be one of these potential exports, which means that a band or performer working abroad can, at least theoretically, get some support from the export agency, since any success will mean money for live shows and/or records coming into the country. It's a good idea, and has worked well for Holland and France, to name just two.

In fact, the main event during PopKomm was one that didn't happen there: Steve Jobs came to Berlin to hold a press conference announcing the iPhone partnership with T Mobile, and to talk about iTunes' German store. (Hey, Steve, what about that Apple Store that's been supposed to be opening here for the last five or six years?) This event is such a natural to have happen at PopKomm that I can only wonder why it didn't. Has PopKomm got so little visibility in the international tech and music worlds that nobody at Apple knew about it? Is it visible but considered unimportant? It's inconceivable that an event like that would ignore SXSW, the folks I was working for at PopKomm, because events like this are where the early adopters are -- not to mention that iTunes is a music-biz behemoth.

Which brings me to yet another gripe, although not a PopKomm one, for the most part. Once again, the list of attendees with their contact information was on a CD-ROM, which is a bad idea because it's so easily scanned by spammers, and once again that CD-ROM was Windows only. So was the DVD given away in the bags, called See the Music! Berlin's Music Industry in a 3D City Model, developed for by Berlin Partner, the Berlin KommunikationsForum e.V., the Senat's Department for Economics, Technology, and Women's issues, the Senat's Department for Urban Development, and funds from the European Regional Development Fund. Any of whom could have walked around the room and noticed the disproportionate numbers of Macintosh computers in use, and most of whom, I would think, would also know that it doesn't cost any more to put together something like this in a hybrid form. A complete and total waste of money the city doesn't have. Which I'd probably also be saying if I could play the damn thing.

As always, I skipped the live music in the evenings and went home to rest up for my 7-hour shift at the SXSW stand during the day. PopKomm never brings in anything I want to see anyway (hell, I'm not interested in 90% of the stuff at SXSW, either; aging does have its up-side), and this year was certainly no different.

* * *

Meanwhile, Tesla, whose troubles I outlined earlier, has decided to fight back. Here's the latest press release from them, orthography and all intact:

call to action

in light of the current threat to t e s l a 's existence, we call upon artists, audience, and colleagues, to communicate to the state of berlin what the city risks to lose with this decision. learn more about the current situation at , write a letter or an e mail to mr andre schmitz, the state secretary for cultural affairs, and please remember to send a copy to t e s l a , as well, for our documentation. you will find the necessary addresses at the end of this mail.

rather than generic protest letters, we particularly encourage qualified statements on the meaning and importance of media art, on the need for venues for artistic production, presentation, and reflection, on support for media art in berlin, and on t e s l a 's role in both a local and international context. in the coming months, we will increase our efforts to attain support from the state of berlin for this branch of the arts, and we hope that this action will make it clear that a real need and a broad interest exists.

we thank you for your support. we hope that this campaign will reach those responsible for cultural politics and demonstrate to them the vital need for a competent center for art and media in berlin. please forward this call trough your mailing list. please address any questions to moritz von rappard (pr and press) at 030. 247 49 788 or

andreas broeckmann, detlev schneider, carsten seiffarth

Herrn Staatssekretär André Schmitz
beim Regierenden Bürgermeister von Berlin
Senatskanzlei - Kulturelle Angelegenheiten
Brunnenstraße 188 - 190
10119 Berlin

t e s l a
media > art < laboratory
podewils'sches palais
klosterstraße 68
10179 berlin

I gotta say, I wish them well, but I've been here long enough to suspect this protest will be given polite attention and then ignored.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

PreKom Krumbs

I'm sitting here waiting for the phone call that'll tell me that the SXSW crew is in town and it's time to head off to the ICC to put up the stand in the trade show for PopKomm, which opens tomorrow. So I've got a couple of very minor things to post here before that all happens, and I'll likely have an overall PopKomm post this weekend.

* * *

First, some good news. My favorite street artist, Nike, hasn't been much in my eye recently because her pieces have started disappearing at an alarming rate. Hell, if I knew how to take them down, I would have nabbed the girl with the green hair not far from my house before someone else got it. But over the weekend, I was up in Prenzlauer Berg, and found the first of her paintings I've seen dated 2007 -- the latest one I've seen til now was 2005 -- and the good news is, she's still painting babes:

Just...not that kind of babe.

* * *

Two more restaurants we won't be eating in:

Bogus Restaurant, on the corner of Choriner Str., Oderberger Str. and Schönhauser Allee. Since I've never seen anyone other than the odd service personnel in here, it may be accurately named.

Restaurant Nemesis, Haupststr. corner of Helmstr. in Schöneberg.

You gotta wonder: what are these people thinking?

* * *

Finally, a quote from the old Dame herself: David Bowie allegedly told people he liked Berlin because it was a "city full of bars with sad and disappointed people." No argument there, Dave, but I fail to see the attraction.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

The Berlin Avant-Garde Takes Another Hit

Once upon a time, the 18th Century Podewils'sches Palais, built for Count Podewil, whoever he was, was the headquarters of the FDJ, an arts-and-crafts center, and the place where East Berlin bands wanting permits to play passed their proficiency and ideology exams. Starting in 1990, however, the former "House of Young Talent" became just plain Podewil, an arts center specializing in media art, avant-garde music, and dance. The music program in particular, curated by a woman named Elke Moltrecht, who must know everything there is to know about the current "out" scene, brought some amazing shows to town, and it was there that the Transmediale Festival held its first few years. Podewil also had money from the city to provide grants to artists wishing to work in Berlin, and the city's cultural scene was enriched by this. (Or, in some cases, not. But that's how it is with the avant-garde).

Now, I don't follow this city's cultural politics too closely, but somewhere along the way, a split developed between the more visionary (Podewil) and more academic (Transmediale) factions, and the latter won. Moltrecht and her merry crew were exiled to Ballhaus Naunystr. in Kreuzberg and the other folk moved into the Palais as Tesla at Podewil. Not that they were exclusively dull, although I never really saw anything on their e-mail newsletter that would induce me to walk over there for a show, because one thing they managed was to produce Zeitkratzer's famous live concert of Lou Reed's Metal Machine Music, at which Reed famously showed up himself. But far more frequently, Tesla showed the tired old art-proceeds-from-theory symptoms which make so much artistic production in Germany so dull.

Last week, though, Tesla got some bad news: the city, after only two years of funding, had decided to pull the plug. As they put it in their latest newsletter (original orthography preserved): "kulturprojekte berlin gmbh, which commissions t e s l a with the cultural program in the podewils'sches palais, has decided, together with the senator for the arts, to reverse a previously confirmed extension of t e s l a' s contract until 2008. our yearly budget of 500.000 euros will be completely redirected towards use for a cultural education program, the details of which remain to be more clearly defined. we will lose our space and our financial support at the end of this year."

I'm not positive, but there might be a subtext lurking here. Besides the city's wanting to save money -- they've been slashing away at the cultural budget without really addressing the question of how many opera houses we really need here, and if there isn't something that can be done with the orchestras, both of which suck up a lot more money than Tesla ever did -- there were several incidents in the past when the Podewil group were threatened with eviction so that one or another branch of the federal bureaucracy could move into this nice building. (Nice facade, anyway: behind it stretches a lot of rather grim DDR addition).

As for Ms. Moltrecht, she's hanging on, and her Interface Festival, which started Friday, is more star-studded than anything Tesla's done recently, but if you check the posters hanging around town, she's also gathered together an impressive array of sponsors to help her produce it.

I've said it before, but it bears repeating: Berlin's reputation as a center for artistic innovation owes plenty to Podewil and Tesla. No amount of play-it-again-Wolfgang opera productions is going to change this. Without support from the city, this scene can easily pick up and go somewhere it's wanted, and Berlin will cease to be so hip! and edgy! and become the provincial backwater so many elements here want it to be. The avant-garde thrives on synergy, so having a city chock-full of art galleries but no venue for cutting-edge dance and music is an empty triumph.

One wonders if anyone in the Rathaus cares.

Sunday, September 09, 2007

And Of Course There Was Food, Vol 2

Because it seems I already have a post with that name.

At any rate, before the unexpected deliciousness of the food I had in Holland utterly vanishes from my memory, I thought I should mention a few of the discoveries I made during this vacation on the polders.

As I noted in the last post, one of the first things I did after landing in de Meern was to go to a bakery for some bread and a butcher's shop that also had a modest selection of cheeses (and was right next door). The bread was quite surprising: it was dark, but quite soft, and the crust had been topped with coriander, caraway, and cumin seeds along with some rolled oats and sunflower seeds. The cheeses next door were pretty standard: there's really only one kind of cheese in most Dutch cheese shops, but it gets varied by additions and aging. Thus, you can buy a medium-aged cumin Gouda or a young stinging-nettle Gouda (a prize for the first human to figure out how to use those nasty plants as food), and plain Goudas in all ages. I bought a very old one, and its salty, sharp taste was like nothing I've experienced in Germany. The cumin Gouda, young, was a big hit with the Americans.

I came to Utrecht expecting less than nothing from the food. Dutch home cooking isn't a whole lot different than German home cooking, after all, and so I was very pleasantly surprised by what we turned up. There were two major conditions to finding a place to eat. First, Brett has unaccountably become a vegetarian (a fake vegetarian, let it be noted, because he also eats fish) since last we hung out. Second, if Carole were along, the place had to be accessible, which not only lets out the several canal-side restaurants approachable only by a steep wooden staircase, but actually anyplace with a step much over an inch high. Knowing Carole has brought another dimension to the way I see the world: for many, many people, one step is one step too many. Except when we stub our toe or trip over it, most of us don't give it a second thought.

Anyway, it was just Brett and me for the first place we hit (although it's accessible), a modest joint called Opoe's Eethuys at 't Wed 3, right by the Dom. There's no getting around it; dinner in Utrecht is going to run about €25 a person, but in a place like this it's worth it. I had mussels and fries (good ones!) with two mayonnaise-based sauces, and Brett had a fish, which came with a garlic mayonnaise. Like the Belgians, the Dutch are big on mayo, but it sure is good. I don't eat dessert, but Brett does, so he ordered a concoction of vanilla mousse with a mango compote, something that's way too avant-garde for Berlin, I'm afraid. He was impressed enough with the presentation that he had me photograph it:

For our next meal, Susan and Carole joined us, and we didn't have a lot of time. We settled on a bar called 3512, Kortejansstraat 4, which didn't look like much, but had sidewalk tables and heaters which made it a good choice. When I noticed that one of the appetizers was trout mousse with red grapefruit and rye bread, I thought it might actually be interesting, and indeed it was. Nobody had that, but between the grilled salmon with teriyaki sauce (a bit too strong, Brett said), my beef carpaccio (excellent), and Carole's salad of beef filet with sesame dressing and sugar snap peas, we were extremely happy. Service was also superb, and, as with Opoe's, the selection of beers (mostly Belgian) was fine.

The next night, Brett and I were on our own again, and we picked the place next door to Opoe's, Lokaal de Reünie. This was quite inexpensive, since we avoided the steaks. He had a salad topped with huge head-on, shell-on shrimp sauteed in garlic oil that was very tasty indeed and I had a kipsate, a Dutch adaptation of the classic peanut-sauced chicken-on-skewers that was nicely spicy, accompanied by yet more fries-and-mayo and a lovely sour "koolsla," which was half carrots and half cabbage.

I'd be remiss if I didn't mention two Utrecht bars of note. The België Bar has about 100 Belgian beers in bottles and about 25 on tap, and is on the Oude Gracht. The crowd can be dodgy, and the place is packed enough at night that we never actually succeeded in drinking there, but I'd like to go back to investigate. And Le Tres Petite Café, also on the canal, was a nice place to watch crowds, incredibly atmospheric inside (and yes, it's very, very small) due to both a pair of small DWA (Dogs With Attitude) and the fact that it's been there since 1702. If the descent to the rest rooms was any more precipitous, it'd be a fireman's pole, though.

Amsterdam is another matter, of course. It's the Big City, and priced accordingly. I was determined that Brett and Carole, who've spent time on Bali (Brett plays in a gamelan orchestra back in Oregon), experience one of my favorite Indonesian restaurants in the city, Kantjil en de Tijger. (The other, Puri Mas, is up another fear-inducing staircase, and has a fairly different menu). Brett had some tofu thing, while Carole and I tucked into their biggest rijstaffel:

With a little help from Brett on the fish and veggie dishes (including a remarkable shrimp saté I didn't remember from last time), it was pretty well demolished by the time we surrendered.

The next day saw us, of course, on line at the famous Vlaamse Frites place at Voeltboogstraat 31, between the Spui and the Leidsestraat, and I'm happy to report that their samurai sauce, a deceptive pink mayonnaise, is as fiery as ever. Dinner was at a famous traditional Dutch place that's been there on Spuistraat since the 17th Century, where I had an excellent stoempot, mashed potatoes with lots of stuff mixed in, with beef stew and a sausage on the side. Carole had a hearty pea soup -- another traditional Dutch dish. Did I catch the place's name? I did not. But given that it has one entrance on Spuistraat, one in the alley, and one on the parallel street, you can probably find it fairly easily.

The Dutch have had a notable inferiority complex about their beers for some time, and it's only in recent years that they've given the Belgians any competition. For news on this, I always head to De Bierkoning, at Paleisstraat 125 in the shadow of the palace, where they have a mere 950 beers for sale, including a wall of some of the new Dutch craft beers. As seems to always happen, we ran into a customer who was eager to help, and he mentioned a bar where these beers can be sampled, a newish place called Biercafe 't Arendsnest, which has a dozen on tap and 150 in bottles, all Dutch. This was up a series of stone steps, so we didn't go in, but the card is in my file for my next visit.

Overall, the thing which surprised me about the food on this visit was the willingness to experiment with flavor (that trout-and-grapefruit thing at 3512 was worthy of Eric Gower) and not shy away from the dramatic effects which result. The Dutch, of course, were spice merchants for centuries, so it should come as no surprise that there's more spice in their cooking. But as Mike, whose grandmother lives in the southern part of Holland, remarks, there's also more of a tendency to identify with France in the traditional cooking of that part of the country (as there is in Belgium to the south), not just boiling a bunch of stuff up, but working a bit on sauces and seasonings. That the menu in a provincial city like Utrecht is as interesting as it is seems to be proof of this, and, no doubt, the more sensual approach one finds in Catholic Europe instead of the dour, self-denying approach of Protestant Europe (very noticable here in Berlin) plays a part as well. Yes, the Dutch gave the Catholics (ie, the Spanish) the boot long ago, but they cannily kept the good parts -- the music and the food, for instance. Who'da thunk it?

Thursday, September 06, 2007

The Polder and the City

Doesn't exactly look like Vacation Paradise, does it? Even disregarding the blue sky, it's exactly what it looks like: a suburb. A suburb of a suburb, in fact; a recent development on the polders outside of de Meern, which itself is one of the ring suburbs put up after World War II around Utrecht, Holland. Still, it's where I was based for most of the past week, and there was a real good reason for it. It was free.

My friends Brett (whom I hadn't seen in several years) and his wife Carole (whom I hadn't seen, she pointed out, in ten years), who live in Portland, Oregon, had done a house-exchange with the family who lives here, one of whom is a former Portlander. Complicating things was the fact that Carole lives in a motorized wheelchair with a ventilator, owing to muscular dystrophy. Making things much simpler was the fact that this Dutch-American family has a son who also has a chair, meaning that the garage in their house was converted to a bedroom with all accessible amenities. For a Dutch house, it's huge, so I had a place to sleep. And it's also not far from a bus stop whose bus will deliver you to Utrecht Centraal, the train and bus station downtown.

I arrived on Thursday evening, and wound up schlepping my luggage all over Utrecht, because another good reason to go last week was the Utrecht Early Music Festival, and Brett, who is a music critic who does a lot of classical reviewing (and is working on a much-anticipated biography of the late American composer Lou Harrison), had an extra ticket for that evening's concert by the Orchestra of the 18th Century. Unfortunately, the program was an all-Beethoven affair, and neither of us much likes Beethoven, myself in particular. But he had to go to it and he didn't have time to head back to de Meern before showtime. Beethoven's not my idea of "early music," but the orchestra did fine.

After that it was time to find something to eat, and we wandered around until it was too late, settling for some of those inimitable, indigestible Fried Things the Dutch specialize in at a bar featuring a fine selection of Belgian beers. Hey, they had onion rings, and they were good.

Carole's battery charger had blown earlier in the week, so she and her caretaker Susan were pretty much housebound until the technology could be worked out, but they were still up when we got there (Carole: "I don't do mornings.") and we sat up late talking and getting up to date. She'd also managed to bring her iPhone -- the only one in Europe, practically -- to use the Airport wireless system they'd set up in the house, and I was really eager to play with that.

The next morning, while waiting for everyone to wake up, I walked to the outskirts of de Meern to find a bakery and a butcher they'd told me about so I could buy some bread and cheese for breakfast. Dutch bread isn't like German bread -- it's far softer -- but makes better use of herbs and spices. And Dutch cheese, well, let's just say that the cumin Gouda and three-year-old aged Gouda I picked up were a hit.

Brett had tickets for a 2pm show in the Dom, the huge cathedral that dominates Utrecht's skyline. Clarino is a small ensemble of soprano, violin, cornetto, trombone, dulcian and basso continuo, and it wasn't done any favors by the Dom's huge, echo-y interior, but the program, of works by composers at the Danish court of Christian IV (Dowland, Schütz, and Weckmann), was excellent, although the way the soprano buzzed her r's was a bit annoying.

After that, Brett had a concert but no plus one, and I opted for a free concert of music by Salomon, who wrote some gorgeous Jewish liturgical music in the Renaissance. I wish I'd heard it; the church were it was being presented didn't look much like a church, unfortunately, and I wandered and wandered until it was too late. So I wandered some more. Downtown Utrecht is all old buildings, with two major canals alongside of which are some great cafes. I spent most of the 90 minutes I had to use up trying to figure out how the town was laid out, but those canals can be disorienting, and, of course, I got disoriented. I did find a few interesting spaces, and one of them was the Museum Catharijneconvent, a museum of Catholic and Protestant life in Holland, located in a former cloister, which I resolved to go back to. Next door to it was a building from the 15th Century, the "new slaughterhouse," whose entertaining mascot, which I dubbed the "Death Steer," I hope you can see in this photo:

After Brett and I met up at the Dom, I successfully talked him out of his one-ticket Freiburger Barockorchster Mozart show (again, not what I -- or he -- consider "early music") in favor of grabbing some dinner. Carole had gotten her charger fixed at long last and she and Susan were due to head in to see a performance of Debussy's "Chansons de Bilitis" at 10:30 with Brett (not of great interest to me and anyway, how on earth can you consider Debussy "early music?"), so we managed to time it so that we found a great, affordable restaurant, had a fine meal, and Brett dropped me off at the bus station while waiting for the girls. Fortunately for me, my brain kicked in just as he was disappearing into the huge mall that's part of the Utrecht train station and I got the house key.

Given that it was looking a lot like rain by the time I got to de Meern, I was shocked to see the two women waiting forlornly at the bus stop there. Apparently, only a few of the buses on the routes into town were accessible, and they were still waiting for one. One pulled up while I was talking to them, but it didn't have a ramp, so they went to another nearby bus stop for the next bus, and I wished them luck. Almost as soon as I got back to the house, the rain pounded down, but as luck would have it, they made the ramp-equipped bus before this happened and it didn't rain in Utrecht at all.

Saturday's early bit was spent shopping for food at the nearby supermarket (the Americans couldn't get it through their heads that everything really, truly, does shut down on Sunday), and mid-afternoon Brett and I met at the Jakobkerk for the concert I'd been waiting for (although I didn't know it at the time), by the Holland Baroque Society. This is one exciting group. Other than the fact that the composers represented were Muffat, Corelli, and Lully, I'm not entirely sure what was played, but then, that shouldn't make any difference. I know that the Corelli was a concerto grosso, a soloists-and-orchestra kind of piece in which various soloists and duos get to show off instead of a single soloist being featured, and led off the program. In seconds, it became apparent what was so cool about this band. Yeah, band: like a good jazz or rock band they paid attention to each other a lot. The lack of an actual conductor (there was a harpsichordist up front, who conducted a few moments of transition and started up each movement, but he could hardly be called the "leader" during much of the performance) meant that everyone had to be aware of what was going on. Particularly fascinating were the two lead violinists, a brown-haired woman and a blonde, both of whom were playing off each other like two jazz greats trading eights. Lots and lots of eye contact, and, overall, a sense of swing, which you could watch happening as the brown-haired violinist violated all classical protocol by occastionally tapping her feet, propelling the energy up into her hands and making sure that the kind of metronomic monotony so much Baroque music suffers from was a distant memory. They don't appear to have recorded, but they do appear to tour Germany every now and again, so I'm going to watch for them.

Saturday evening Brett and Carole had tickets to a staging of a Vivaldi opera by another young ensemble called B'Rock, so we met the ladies over at the "Deranged Rabbit," a sculpture I'd managed to miss over by the post office. You do have to wonder what people who commisson public art are thinking sometimes; this actually did look like a skinny rabbit with a really bizarre expression on his face. We wandered around a little and settled on an inconspicuous-looking place in a studenty neighborhood, and were surprised by yet another fantastic affordable dinner. (I'm going to do a separate post about food on this trip). Susan and I headed back to the polder after dinner, and apparently what we missed was a blood-and-guts fest with only minimal connection to the text (which was in Italian anyway). That was okay; I'd had my musical treat for the day.

Sunday was the festival's last day, and the grand finale concert, the Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra and Choir, was sold out. Brett had a ticket to the Concerto Copenhagen's peformance of Handel's Acis and Galatea at 4, but I was determined to see some of the museums that were open, including the Museum Catharijneconvent. We had cards, left by our hosts in de Meern, which got us into museums for free, so we headed off and not only got that in (some extremely nice woodcarvings that had been spared the wrath of the Reformation, and a very nicely balanced view of the whole Catholic/Protestant debacle in Holland, given that it appears the administration of the place is connected with the Catholic church) but almost had time to take in the whole National Museum of Musical Clocks and Street Organs, which is truly amazing. I headed to a concert by a mostly-Polish Baroque trio, and we had one more excellent meal before returning to de Meern to start packing.

The next day found us in Amsterdam, and here I got to play local expert, although, to be honest, I'm not really an expert. I did, however, know more of the city than Brett and Carole, and managed to bring back memories of their stay in Indonesia with a trip to the legendary Restaurant Kantjil en Tijger, one of my favorite Indonesian places in the city (the other one being up a flight of stairs that scares me, let alone Carole). Tuesday I gave them my best attempt at a city tour, as we fought to indulge Brett's insistence on finding poffertjes, which turn out to be heavy little dollar pancakes drenched in butter, and to wander through the Jordaan district, which I don't know at all. We wound up enjoying a beer in the sunshine before it vanished, and then some extremely inexpensive traditional Dutch food at a restaurant whose name I clean forgot to get, on the Spuistraat near Kantjil.

All in all, a nicely relaxing time off from Berlin, thanks to my friends' generosity in buying the train ticket and picking up tabs here and there. It reinforced my decision that Holland isn't somewhere I'd want to live, although it's nice to visit. That's the problem: it's too damn nice. There's a lack of an edge there that I think would make me nuts if I had to live with it 24/7, something I couldn't quite make Brett understand. The niceness, of course, is a byproduct of living so close together. There are no wide open spaces in Holland, and no real countryside. People are packed in, and in order to make that work, they've had to rein in some of their instincts. That's not a bad thing at all, but there's a resultant blandness that gets to you after a while, not only out on the polder, but in the cities, too.

That said, it could well be that Brett and Carole will be back in two years when the other family is ready to do a house-exchange again, and by then I hope I can sell someone on a story about the Early Music Festival. It's the biggest one in Europe, and one of the oldest, and if the less than half-week I saw is anything to go by, it's an undiscovered gem -- as is Utrecht, for that matter. I'd gladly go back. It's just that I wouldn't want to live there.