Michelberger Funkhaus Festival – Two Days of Spectacular Performances

Funkhaus Michelberger Music Festival by indieberlin photo Mia Morris

Okay well my review of the Michelberger Funkhaus extravaganza that took place this last weekend is going to come in three sections. Section I is where I splurge my thankful loved-up dollops of oozy gratitude and ecstatic gibberishness onto the page for an event that was on the organisational level bold, optimistic and done with heart, and on a musical level gave me moments that I’d needed to have for let’s say a long while now, and which will carry me through for a long while to come.

Section II we asked a bunch of people in the looong queue for the studios how they were finding the whole experience.

Section III will address some issues, teething problems and a couple of complaints that I heard and saw on the event’s facebook page. So you have something to look forward to. I’m just like that.

I – An event that wouldn’t be like other events

When Michelberger first emailed us about what they were planning, as you can imagine we were pretty blown away. Closing the hotel for a week for artists to stay, chat and chill; having the Funkhaus complex available for all that time as well to rehearse and jam; and then the weekend at the end which would be open to the public. An event that wouldn’t be like other events. Where the public could come and see and hear all these various artists in new settings, playing in different combinations, listen to the fruits of their week of trying stuff out.

Well, they thought of everything

But could it be pulled off? I mean, what a huge undertaking. Just how do you organise an event with random performances happening in various studio rooms, gigs constantly going on in the huge auditorium at one end, plus regular scheduled shows in the recording halls at the other end.

bon iver at michelberger hotel indieberlin

Bon Iver performs new album at Michelberger Hotel in lead-up to Michelberger Funkhaus Festival copyright Sarie Cruz (Seabiscuit Films)

Well, they thought of everything. Different coloured wristbands would give you a differently timed flow through the place. The large hall would have performances going on throughout the day, the smaller studios would be open on a first-come-first-serve basis to the public. There were one-way systems that meant that no one was fighting to get in while other people were fighting to get out.
– And also the eco toilets: No smell, no waste, no plastic.
– Food was organic and locally sourced wherever possible.
– Even the serviettes at the Bratwurst stand were 100% recycled paper.
– And there were enough assistants all over the place to assist, suggest, assuage, smooth the way. Plus the security were pleasant and professional, always wishing you lots of fun after politely helping with your enquiries.

But that’s not the most important bit about a musical event. The music of course, that is the most important bit about the music event

With around 80 artists of a very high calibre, you were guaranteed a lot of seriously good performances. In keeping with the idea of the thing, band names were generally not given; if asked who was playing in a particular studio only normal individual names were used. Plus there were so many collaborations where you got two members of one band jamming with a singer from another one and yet more musicians from various other outfits. Let’s face it, we so often only know the face of the singer. And so one thing that this meant was that you got a lot of people whispering to each other, “Er, who’s that again?” followed by bewildered head-shaking.

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[aesop_quote type=”block” background=”#282828″ text=”#ffffff” width=”90%” align=”left” size=”1″ quote=”But that was the point. It wasn’t about the same bands performing the same material in the same line-ups. It wasn’t about having a bunch of standard performances from your favourite artists. That simply wasn’t the point.” parallax=”off” direction=”left”]

 

From acoustic Peruvian music to a noise ensemble made of the National’s Dessner brothers together with four drummers and a host of others, from Damien Rice singing his heart out on his knees with a choir, to rappers and soloists and collaborative groups to DJs and electro artists.

But

But the moment that moved me the most was on Sunday night, the final performance in the big recording room, where Bon Iver played accompanied by the Staves and the same choir that had accompanied Damien Rice. Very, very occasionally you find yourself sharing in a communal musical experience that touches the sublime, that gives you that sense of the magical that music at its finest is about.

As I say, it was done in a hopeful, optimistic and open-hearted way, and on the whole was accepted in the same spirit. People we talked to were incredibly patient, good-hearted and accepting of having to stand in line at some points. It was a bold experiment, and they pulled it off.

Everyone involved is involved for love

funkhaus michelberger music festival indieberlin

One of the rooms at the Funkhaus Berlin recording complex ready for the Michelberger Music Festival, photo by indieBerlin copyright Mia Morris

But more than that, what again really impressed me with the Michelbergers was the way in which they approached the whole thing: it’s the same vibe at the Michelberger hotel – they’re doing it because they think it’s just a good thing to do. There’s a sense that everyone involved is involved for love. Everyone working there is good-hearted and friendly. Everyone has a smile on their face. Not a superficial, beatific smile: a smile that was more kind of “Isn’t this cool?” – inviting you to share in their obvious enthusiasm for the whole thing.

There was of course a good long queue for the smaller studios. The good thing with the queue is that we managed to ask some people some questions about their take on it all:

II – The performances are wonderful, the rooms are unbelievable

Hannah and Sierra from London/Berlin: Amazing: we saw an all-female choir including the Staves and Lisa Hannigan, so yeah all in all it’s incredible.

Felix and Spex: We’ve seen…we don’t know. It was one of the Dessner brothers in one of the studios, performing with four other musicians…
indieBerlin: Is it good not knowing who it is?
Felix: Yeah, the funny thing is they were sitting in the room with everyone else, then they got up and grabbed the instruments and started playing, before that you thought they were part of the crowd. Extremely special. And we were in a room with 30 other people watching the guitarist from the National, so…
indieBerlin: So it’s worth queueing.
Spex: Yeah, it doesn’t take too long, it moves quite fast.

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indieBerlin: What have you seen so far_
Nico: Er, we don’t really know…Alt J, these ten girls…
indieBerlin: Do you like that you don’t know?
Nico: No, to be honest, I’d like to know…maybe you want to listen to it afterwards…

Mike: We were in the Saal, and now we’re going to the studios. We saw Captain Peng, and some other guys…he was a crazy guy, but really great…it’s a little complicated..
Jenny: Because no one knows where to go, because no one knows who’s playing where.
Miriam: And two of us have different coloured wristbands, and so they have to go and see things that we don’t, it would have been better to see things together.
indieBerlin: So the organisation is a bit tricky?
Jenny: Yes – but it’s very interesting.
indieBerlin: The queueing for the experience?
Mike: The performances are wonderful, it’s perfect, the rooms are unbelievable, it’s worth it.
indieBerlin: Where are you from?
Jenny: We’re from Munich.

Bon Iver at Michelberger Hotel in lead-up to Michelberger Funkhaus Festival

Bon Iver at Michelberger Hotel in lead-up to Michelberger Funkhaus Festival copyright Sarie Cruz (Seabiscuit Films)

Jacob: We were just in Saal 1, it was great. A cool place. The acoustics are absolutely amazing.
Millie: We just saw Bon Iver and the Indonesian punks…it’s hardcore.
Kyle: We’ve seen him twice.
Jacob: We also saw the Stargaze guys, Woodkid…then we were waiting in this queue again (where they’re standing now), and they said hey, there’s a set going on if you run, so we ran, he and I caught Stargaze and they were really nice. Then…we were in this queue again (laughs) and…we didn’t know who it was going to be – and then we were sitting five metres away from Justin Vernon…
Millie: We saw the Staves this morning, with Lisa Hannigan, and the room worked really well with that, the acoustics of it.
Kyle: But yeah we don’t know where anything’s going on or when, and…I mean I know it’s part of the mystery, but sometimes it’s good having some idea.

Alt J at Michelberger Funkhaus Music Festival

Alt J at Michelberger Funkhaus Music Festival

Annie from Stuttgart: We were in a session with Kings of Convenience, it was really really nice, with the Staves, and then Damien Rice came, and that was even better in a way…he sung with the audience, and then this huge choir came and he sang with them. Now we’re trying to get in here…As long as I can see Bon Iver, then I can die happy.
indieBerlin: And you’re from Stuttgart?
Annie: Yeah, it was a birthday present for my boyfriend, we came up to Berlin just for this.

III – You put heart and soul into it and hope for the best

The people who had the idea and the team that organised and carried through the festival were attempting to do an event – something that they didn’t choose to call a festival – that has rarely if ever been attempted in such a way with that sort of line-up of people. It was an experimental festival: because they didn’t want to do the same old same old, they had a vision, and they wanted to follow it.

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There are of course reasons why most people just organise a musical gathering along the same lines all the time, and one of those reasons is because the method is tried and tested – the problems have been ironed out, the good bits developed, the bad bits got rid of. Plus of course the punters know what to expect – they know what they’re going to get, they know how it’s going to be presented, and they can follow a dotted line from expectation A to satisfying conclusion B. Because it’s always that way, so it’s easy.

Manuelcha Prado rehearsals Michelberger Funkhaus

Manuelcha Prado rehearsals Michelberger Funkhaus

That’s why you need courage to try to do things completely differently. You can plan as best you can, you can try to foresee where things might go wrong, you can bring in professional help for the parts where professional outside help is needed, and you can put heart and soul into it and hope for the best. And what you can also do, is keep the channel of communication with the public as open as possible, and do your best to communicate to the people that will come just what you’re doing; how it is and is not intended; and that everyone should be patient, hopeful and open for what might transpire.

 

Manuelcha Prado in rehearsal for Michelberger Funkhaus Festival

Manuelcha Prado in rehearsal for Michelberger Funkhaus Festival

 

The only complaint I heard was about the queues. Especially since it was raining on and off, and if you’ve just come into this intended weekend of musical splendidness and then you stand in a queue in the rain for half an hour to get a bratwurst before going to another queue where you stand for half an hour to get into the studios to see some music, you’re going to be a bit teed off.

Stargaze rehearsing at Michelberger Funkhaus Festival

Stargaze rehearsing at Michelberger Funkhaus Festival

Again, we were impressed by the Michaelbergers. After the first day with its attendant problems, we woke up on Sunday ready to go back for another day, to find an email sent at 8:30am from the organisational team. They’d seen the problems, heard the complaints, and fixed and changed things around to improve the experience: The studios would be scheduled, the problems with the catering would be fixed, there would be more things going on outside so that the queueing people had the chance to do something else, and so on.

Which meant that after that first full-on day of making the show happen, they didn’t go home and sleep like normal people, but sat down and looked at what could be improved, then implemented it: talked to the teams, talked to the caterers, set up plans to improve everything. That’s what you call agile event management.

Impressive indeed

In short – for those of you still reading after what has ended up as an incredibly long piece of writing, sorry about that – in short, it was an amazing weekend, and one in which people got to hear musicians that they loved in intimate surroundings, performing their material in a different way, as well as be introduced to a lot of new musicians they might not have known.

Let me be the first to extend my gratitude to a. The musicians themselves for giving of their time (there were no artist fees at all), for being so open to the experience; and b. To everyone involved in the event and organisational team, from Tom Michelberger and Nadine May on down. Everyone was highly professional, helpful and generally great.

Noel Maurice is one of the founders of indieberlin. Originally from the UK via a childhood in Johannesburg, he has been resident in Berlin since 1991. Describing himself as a ‘recovering musician’, he is the author of The Berlin Diaires, a trilogy detailing the East Berlin art and squat scene of the early 90s, available on Amazon and through this site.

Noel Maurice is one of the founders of indieberlin. Originally from the UK via a childhood in Johannesburg, he has been resident in Berlin since 1991. Describing himself as a 'recovering musician', he is the author of The Berlin Diaires, a trilogy detailing the East Berlin art and squat scene of the early 90s, available on Amazon and through this site.

1 Comment

  • Reply October 3, 2016

    Claire C

    Completely agree that it the organizers pulled off a brave new idea. I loved the concept and the motivation of the performers and organizers, I totally dug not knowing the lineup and learning to embrace whatever I was offered at each gig, and even though I only saw three of the seven or eight performers I had hoped to catch I found four or five brilliant new acts I never would have discovered otherwise.

    The big problem for me was the waiting vs listening time, which is mentioned in this article but not really captured adequately. I definitely spent less than half of the day listening to music, and more than half of the day waiting to be let in to a studio or for a sound check to be completed and so on. As such, I was astounded when one of the Dressner brothers in the second last set of the festival made a comment like “We’ve all played 20 or 30 sets today, and you’ve all probably seen 20 or 30 shows.” 20 or 30 shows?! More like 5 or 6 short sets if we’re lucky.

    It would have been great for the main space in the shed hall to have had two stages, so that a performance could take place on one while the other was being set up for the next set. That way, the main performance space could have been filled with music constantly and those who didn’t want to spend the day in queues for the coveted intimate performances could have done what the organizers and performers probably intended: overdose on the excellent music that was on offer.

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