Saturday, May 06, 2006

Bethanien Lied

It started like this: a friend in Arizona told me that the son of some friends of his was here in Berlin, working for a composer I'd never heard of, and suggested I get in touch. I did, and he turned out to be a smart guy, and he told me he was working on some concerts. I asked him to keep me in the loop.

Well, the first one was last night, so the dancer and I went. It was a nice evening, so we walked there. Always nice to get some exercise.

I knew in advance it wasn't going to be any normal thing. For one thing, it was being held in a squat, New Yorck Reloaded. For another, it was a concert of music by Cornelius Cardew, one of those composers who sounds a lot more interesting on paper than I had any reason to believe he'd sound in person.

Some background is in order here. First, Cardew. Cardew (1936-1981) was one of the leading British avant-gardists of his generation, and was an assistant to Karlheinz Stockhausen for several years. At some point, he became seriously politically radicalized, espousing Maoist principles. In the mid-70s, he was awarded a DAAD grant and came to West Berlin. One of the causes he became involved with here was that of the Bethanien Hospital, a children's hospital in the Kreuzberg district which the city had decided to close and turn into an arts center. The surrounding community was alarmed because they figured they needed a hospital nearby, and Cardew, not unexpectedly, took their side. It was, after all, the side of The People. DAAD, being a government-funded organization, was not amused.

The Bethanien Hospital, and the part of Kreuzberg it inhabited, was in a sort of pocket in the East-West line, a bulge surrounded on many sides by the Berlin Wall. Thus, the real estate wasn't particularly valuable, and there may well have been good reasons for moving the hospital facility to a more central location. At any rate, an arts center it became, Kunstlerhaus Bethanien, and it was a prime venue for avant-garde artists in all media.

Now, the other half of this story is Yorck 59. This was a squat at Yorckstr. 59, also in Kreuzberg, albeit a different part of it. (Back in the old days, Kreuzberg was a large Bezirk -- borough -- and was divided into two postal zones, Kreuzberg 36, the part nearest the Wall and where Bethanien stands, largely Turkish and radical young Germans, and Kreuzberg 61, closer to Tempelhof Airport and a good deal more gentrified. I used to say that people paired off in K36 and when the first kid came, moved to K61. Yorck 59 was in K61).

Now, as I understand it, there is a thing known as the Berlin Plan, which was successfully used in K 36, among other places in the city, and imitated and reproduced elsewhere, most notably Amsterdam. This was a situation where the city attempted to locate the owners of abandoned buildings which had been squatted, and, once they'd accomplished this, ordered them to make improvements by a certain deadline or lose the buildings. Many of K 36's buildings had been abandoned for years, and the owners were either unable or unwilling to maintain them. Once the buildings came into the city's possession, they worked with the squatters. The squatters had to make improvements themselves, which they were often highly motivated to do because they were living in the buildings. The city, which was rolling in money in those days, gave them grants for these improvements, and then helped them buy the buildings on ridiculously easy credit terms. Some of these former squats are model residences today, pioneering green building technologies like passive solar electricity and the like.

But for some reason, the Yorck 59ers didn't buy into this. Maybe they were ideologically opposed, or maybe their landlord decided to play ball with the city. At any rate, last summer they were forceably evicted by the police, and so they relocated to the empty buildings of the Bethanien. The walls of Berlin bloomed with posters about this, screaming about the fascist lackeys of the state and the like, and some enterprising anarchists printed up signs in an identical typeface to that used on the street signs of Berlin and overnight loads of streets became Yorckstr. (Of course, if you were lost, this was annoying, but these people seldom think about details like that).

And now, ironically enough, the cash-strapped city has decided to sell the Bethanien complex to a private developer, who wants to turn it into a multi-use, for-profit development with offices and small companies renting renovated space in the old brick buildings. Thus, the arts center -- and the Yorckers -- have to go.

So what we had last night was a "solidarity concert" in which the members of the Zwischentöne Ensemble, joined by pianist John Tilbury, one of Cardew's old pals, and Aleks Kolkowski, a violinist who also acts and plays around the improv scene, performed a number of Cardew's pieces on the premises of the Yorck squat in the Bethanien. Me, I was there because I was in solidarity with Bill the composer, and that's about it.

Once we finally found the place (no longer in its Wall-bubble, this part of town has become incredibly central, and is being developed like crazy, so all the landmarks I'd had from visits a few years ago had been either removed or changed beyond recognition) it was just as I feared it would be. Political slogans were scrawled on every flat surface, and although some were the expected support-for-Yorck variety, there were also loads of anti-racist, anti-sexist, anti-fascist, anti-imperialist, anti-globalization ones. You weren't even safe in the bathroom from being reminded of the struggle in Chiapas and the imminent fascist threat, although I saw no one in black ski masks or brown shirts during my brief stay there.

The concert venue was very much a hospital corridor, narrow, with windows lining one side, and numerous small rooms. A couple had been blocked off for use by the bar, which was by donation only (I gave them five Euros for a beer, figuring to make a little contribution to the cause; I got three back), and in the one on the left of it, a cello, a marimba, and some music stands were set up. A guy with an accordion and a woman with a harmonica strolled around, making random bursts of dissonant sound. Kolkowski set up a music stand in the corridor and played a Cardew composition for solo violin. Then, some musicians filed into the left-hand room, and for a few minutes, improvised blasts of sound came out. (I was sitting down, tired from the long walk and not wanting to cram into the room with the majority of the crowd). After about ten minutes, a guy gave a hand signal to someone standing outside the door of the room to the right of the bar, and a piano-violin duet started up. This was followed by some more consonant music, which I would have recognized, had I been Chinese, as "The East Is Red." A couple of similar pieces followed, and another piano-violin duet, then the focus switched back to the other room for some more improv. Finally, all the musicians filed into the corridor and sang a revised version of Cardew's "Bethanien Lied," one of the kind of compositions that got him into trouble with the classical establishment of his time.

It was a catchy melody, ingeniously structured, and this, more than its content, was what pissed his contemporaries off: he was writing what amounted to popular music, protest folk music, instead of using his acknowledged virtuosity and the knowledge the Great God Stockhausen must have imparted to him. But I heard something else. Not only did I hear the word "gegen" (against) far more than I wanted to without ever hearing a balancing "für" (for), but, both in the words Cardew had written and the new words which, half-way through, turned from supporting a hospital over an arts center to supporting an arts center over an office building, I heard a naked attempt to link what is clearly (to me) a local issue to the international anti-this-and-that movement. As I listened, my eyes scanned the photos of Chiapas, Rwanda, Afghanistan, and other trouble spots on the wall and then I looked at the Yorckers, children of one of Europe's fattest economies who could choose to live in the squalor they were living in because there was a social support system in place that really reduced the risk of doing so, looking righteous and self-satisfied, and I decided that when they stopped singing, I'd get out of there as fast as I decently could. The young composer was going to lead a discussion with Tilbury and Kolkowski, and another guy I knew was going to translate (Berlin really is a village sometimes), but I hope neither was insulted. I'd just had enough of radical politics, K 36 style, for one evening.

For the record, from what I know, I think it's both cynical and short-sighted for the city to abandon the Bethanien arts complex. Cynical because it's being done for the cash, short-sighted because it's yet another blow to the dying Berlin arts scene, where the opera companies get the money and the rest of the more innovative artists can fend for themselves. I'm less inclined to be supportive of the Yorck 59 movement, (again, from what I know) because there seems to be an element of "we're righteous so you owe us" to their situation, in common with a couple of other similar institutions around town which, unsurprisingly, are united in solidarity with them. I think it would be a great idea if these people could focus on the strictly local issues involved in the Bethanien problem because then, and only then, can a decent solution come out of it. Save Bethanien, and then worry about Chiapas, because -- and this time it's only a surmise -- I don't think the Chiapas Indians are much concerned about Bethanien?

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