Berlin, Life in Berlin, music

Friedenskirche: A journey through space and time with the Berlin Soundpainting Orchestra

Friedenskirche is a Baptist church in Charlottenburg with a history stretching back to 1897.

Berlin Soundpainting Orchestra at Friedenskirche

The red-brick building feels solid. Inside it is stark, modern. The only vibrant feature is an 80 square metre painting depicting the Berlin cityscape – with a donkey walking through Brandenburg Gate, making it sway, analogous to Jesus’s entry into Jerusalem.

The Berlin Soundpainting Orchestra started their concert at Friedenskirche on Sunday evening with a modern, relaxed groove. A pulsing sound that brought out the warm colours of the painting on the wall behind them. The mood matched the church – but then stopped. The church became dark and creepy.

Between 1897 and 1908, this space was a Catholic Apostolic Church, with ideas of renunciation and temptation, prohibition and sin, prayer and redemption. The orchestra recreated the mood of this time with ghostly wails and groans, chants, violins tight and high-pitched with anxiety, transporting us back to another time. Like the donkey walking through Brandenburg Gate, the orchestra made time and space sway.

From 1908 to 1918, the building served as a synagogue. The lights in the church glowed a little warmer, and the music became more unified with the sound of brass instruments, zingy violins, and rhythmic clanging, reminiscent of the Bronze Age. Time and space had shifted around us once again.

After a short intermission, the lights were fully on. Violinists and saxophonists walked around by themselves playing their own tunes. The church turned into the Baptist church, dating back to 1920, that it is today – enlightened, with a respect for inner individuality.

In 1943, during World War II, heavy bombing destroyed the church. The music became discordant, panicky, with disturbing squeals and screeches. The violins, high-pitched and frenetic, punctured by the sound of drums, produced a rising anxiety. The foreboding sound of the organ filled the church. We could hear propellers churning low above us, a bomb siren, symbols clanging, a saxophone bleating, and then it happened; chaos, destruction, screams, a voice singing out in agony. The music assaulted our bodies.

Then, quiet. A lone violin played like the wind, whistling through ruins.

Reconstruction began after the war. Somewhere amid the hard sounds and discordance, a few hopeful notes rose. The orchestra assembled in front of us, became jazzy, and brought us back to solid ground.

The Berlin Soundpainting Orchestra is conducting a free workshop about soundpainting this Sunday, 14th January at 12.30 at Friedenskirche, or follow them on Facebook for details of future concerts.

art, Berlin, Life in Berlin, music

Soundpainting in Neukoelln

“Where are we going?” asks The Bavarian for the hundredth time.

He does that sometimes. Repeats things. Last week, he came home perplexed because two people, independently of each other, said he had autistic traits.

“Soundpainting,” I say.

“Aha,” he says, eyebrows creased, nodding gravely.

I know what the next question is going to be.

Soundpainting is a live-composing sign language. The soundpainter (composer / conductor) uses gestures to direct a musicians, actors, dancers and artists in an improvised performance. It’s a thing.

soundpainting in berlinLast night, the Berlin Soundpainting Orchestra teamed up with the Swedish Soundpainting Orchestra for a performance at NK in Neukölln. The performance was supposed to start at 8.30. At 8.30 a couple of old-timers from Afro-American jazz collective The Pyramids were talking about how 1968 was an interesting year; Martin Luther King, Kennedy, the Vietnam War. That’s what you get when you go out in Neukölln.

Thankfully, you’re also never far from a beer in Neukölln. Another couple of beers got us to 1972, Besançon,1974, San Francisco – the moderator was not doing his job. I had never heard of The Pyramids, but now I’m an expert. If you ever see them, don’t give them a microphone.

Finally, it was time for soundpainting. The performance began in the courtyard. At least, I think it began. It was hard to tell whether the musicians were just warming up. A guy made sounds crushing a plastic water bottle; another shook a colander.

The performance moved upstairs, where two soundpainters directed two different groups in different areas of the hall. Each one seemed to make sense on its own, but clashed with the other. You could walk between them, and grab a beer on the way.

Finally, we moved into a space where the orchestra arranged itself in front of the audience. There were seats. One sound-painter took charge, and something happened. It started working. The soundpainter made gestures, the orchestra followed, performers moved, stories formed from sounds.

It became clear that the musicians could play and the singers could sing. They knew what they were doing, but they were doing it with abandon – playing, plucking, banging their instruments in unusual ways, using their voices to sing, shout, whisper, murmur and make animal sounds. Everyday noises and props were brought into the composition.

Out of cacophony, emerged music. It was like walking down a busy street, and hearing a symphony drift down to you from an open window, or like listening to a radio being tuned. What was happening? And what surprising thing were we going to hear or see next?

It was engaging, funny, weird, and weirdly satisfying.

Also, it was educational. I picked up the soundpainting gesture for ‘be quiet’ – maybe I’ll start using it on The Bavarian.

The Berlin Soundpainting Orchestra will be performing with The Swedish Soundpainting Orchestra in what promises to be a special performance tonight at 18.30, at Urban Spree.