This fall, a creative buzz spurred Berlin’s East side and all roads seemed to lead to a particular place—if you were in town, you know exactly what we’re talking about. The city’s iconic Funkhaus was home to Red Bull Music Academy 2018, and, quite frankly, it was something else. RBMA has circumvented the globe and spread the love for unconventional music from São Paolo and New York City to Johannesburg and Tokyo, but for its 20thedition, the famed Academy couldn’t help but go back to its roots, to where it all started some two decades ago—Berlin. And although the 20thedition may have formally ended a week ago, the transformative spark it generated has no plan of losing its kinetic energy any time soon. Kindly invited to witness the off-centre talent celebration first-hand, Glamcult spent some time in East Berlin with the Academy’s participants, lecturers and mentors, and we’re still high on the experience. Here’s why.
The moment our ride stops amidst the calmness that engulfs the Funkhaus, we realize that what we’ve signed up for will, for sure, be more extraordinary than we naturally assumed. Perhaps it’s the building’s raw brick walls that echo the birdsong of the trees nearby; or maybe the harmonious balance that emerges everywhere we look—from the immensity of the building to the still waters of river Spree, we sense we’re breathing some kind of special morning air. And as we make a turn beneath a curvy alee of columns to be let in through the entrance doors, the build-up of anticipation swiftly makes way for the excitement of the music hub inside.
Once in, we’re struck by the way in which the surroundings’ synch between vast and minute, loud and silent, translates into a meticulous harmony of contrasts on the inside as well. The Academy’s restless devotion to fostering creativity is soaked in each wall, corner and tiny detail of the space itself. Extensively renovated in preparation for RBMA, the Funkhaus—a former GDR radio broadcasting station—has gained a flair of sleek modernism, with a mesh of opulence and minimalism, classic and off-beat, that embodies the Academy’s mission to bring together and transform. The 1951-built Bauhaus masterpiece was met with the sharp, contemporary vision of Berlin design studio NEW TENDENCY, we’re told as we hop between the building’s eight recording studios, its gigantic lounges and winding corridors. Each splash of paint, miniature ceiling detail or art deco furniture piece plays a vital role in the decadent yet functional atmosphere that permeates, and is the result of vigorous renovation on the side of Red Bull, NEW TENDENCY and interior designer Stephan Schilgen. But renovation only for the sake of the Academy’s occurrence has never been on RBMA’s mind; here, creativity is geared towards lasting impact, and the inimitable physical space remains intact after the Academy’s 20thedition has come to an end. So enthralling it is to roam and admire the Funkhaus that we almost forget what brought us there in the first place. The occasional eavesdrop on a passionate conversation and the bits of sound heard here and there, however, remind us of the reason why we all woke up with a spark in our eyes that day. Music.
Because at the Academy, the power of sound takes off your guard [to face you] and fill you up with unfamiliar sounds—and then, well, you simply can’t be or hear the same. Raw strums of guitars mesh with flute-like vocals, laughter aids an electronic beat with its travels down the corridor, and we identify creative exploration and collaboration happening, quite literally, everywhere around the Funkhaus. Participants, lecturers and mentors might be sharing a bite in the lounge or diving deep into a recording session, but at the core of it all is a sense of everyone coming together under music’s dome. RMBA has soaked everything in its belief that letting go of comfort, uniting with the unknown—and doing it with like-minded music lovers —is the transformative path to the future of sound.
To get an idea of how that works, hear this. On day one, the Academy put together six groups of five participants through random selection. Each group was given a three-word sequence—ranging from Dripping Disturbed Fountain to some similarly nonsensical phantasmagoria—and a couple of hours in the studio. Mind you, everyone had met each other the day before, and all don’t simply have varying cultural backgrounds—one’s entire conceptualization of musicality could be in stark contrast with the person sitting next to them in the studio. And against all odds, magic happens as the snippets spill out from the speakers in the lecture hall where the groups present their results and where we, sat in the back, oscillate between goose bumps and bewilderment. How in the world can each sound fragment be: a) so perfectly executed within this time frame, and, b) uniquely distinctive yet drawing from every person’s background and vision on music…
Sadly, those snippets won’t see light; hidden in the depth of the Academy’s archive, no fragment from the studio sessions is available to the public after the hearing. But eager to make sense of it all, we reach out to studio mentor Erika Michelle Anderson, better known as EMA, and have a brief sit down with her just after her group’s presentation. Our choice is not as random as the grouping of the participants, however. The Oregon-based musician and multimedia artist was studio mentor of a group that particularly caught our attention because of a vocal approach that added transcendental softness to their sound. The group’s snippet nevertheless hit hard on the dark side of electronic music, escaping any genre we could think of. EMA is quick to note that the vocal approach was “a result of careful observation of each participant’s interest”. In her group’s case, that interest happened to be voice.
“We started in a very disarming manner, it was all improvised singing. Just tones together —a very intimate and non-defensive way to create”. With everyone willing to take their guard down, experimental cooperation ended up being the key to produce something so distinct but still in touch with everyone’s story. Personally, EMA sees this process as a way for participants, and everyone in that matter, to grow by seeing how other do things, and then pick up selectively what works best for them. “One of the participants in my group was a woman from Russia, who was a vocal therapist. So, we had someone who comes from a very emotional, holistic background, but also others who are fast at slicing, production, etc. It’s really about realizing what your strengths are while honouring others’ skills as well.” Unique to the Academy experience seems to also be a strip-down of the artists’ ego. “You see a picture on which some musician looks all cool, or whatever. The you meet them here in the studio and immediately realize they’re a really just a super sweet person…” This fosters collective creativity through which musicians are eager to join forces instead of always comparing themselves to others.
We can’t agree more and could talk to EMA all things creative, collaborative and experimental for hours. But taking a swift look at her watch and at the participants who eagerly walk direction studio floor, we both quickly realize that our chat has come to an untimely end. A brief pack-up and goodbye follows, but every time EMA and we cross paths or share a glimpse around the corridors and halls of the building, we know we’re part of something much larger that the couple of days spent at the Funkhaus. RBMA truly instills a sense of togetherness and energy to create in every single one of us that found their way to East Berlin in early October. And if there’s one thing we’d like to buckle up and store for hard times to come, it’d be to amplify each other—at all times, at whatever cost.