Today club, tomorrow opera: musician and composer Beni Brachtel loves new sounds - and old devices.
Excess has its own peculiar smell that's apparent only the morning after. Stale smoke, spilled drinks, the lingering remains of sweat and perfume. This stench of the night before hangs in the air in a low-rise building in Obersendling that has little in common with the clean image of modern Munich. There are tyres piled up in the back yard, opposite is an old factory building, and at street level is a car repair workshop. On the first floor, accessed via a wobbly external staircase, is Benedikt "Beni" Brachtel's music studio. The space is heavy with what is left of a recent party held here. There's no denying: it was a total rave. "A real one," says Brachtel. He bangs on colossal black speakers: Funktion-One sets legendary for their sound output, and with the capacity to fire up a festival. "Friends of mine who organise a summer techno festival in France celebrated a birthday here," says Brachtel. "I was there, but not until the end. It was pretty long... they are the real party animals."
Brachtel, 34, is also a party animal, sometimes anyway. But mostly he provides the raw materials for such events. As Bartellow, and with several other projects on the go, he is one of Munich's most interesting electronic musicians. He releases his highly individual sound on German, British and US American labels. But what makes Brachtel a national exception is that in his studio, he not only plays around with the drum meanderings he is known for, but also with his compositions for orchestras and choirs. Brachtel is one of the very few musician that dances to both tunes: from club to opera.
Right now, he's working on something that's totally new to him: twelve-tone music. He's collaborating on the music for a theatre piece by the director and young theatre star Ersan Mondtag. He's bringing a dramatised version of Visconti's "The Damned" to the stage in Cologne. "Visconti's film is about the demise of a large German industrial family during the Third Reich. It was clear to me that I wanted to approach the times in terms of music history: in the middle of the 20th century, twelve-tone music has long since become indispensable - but for me it is new territory, my background is the harmony of jazz and tonal music." But Brachtel knew where to seek help.
Brachtel is one of the very few musician that dances to both tunes: from club to opera.
His gigantic mixing desk at first glance looks like any other mixing desk in any other music studio. But this heavyweight sound device is a Studer 900, a former TV studio mixing desk. "Swiss radio technology from the early 1980s," explains Brachtel with obvious pride. Next to it are two monsters that look like the sort of linen cupboards your grandma might have had: two old speakers from the Bayerischer Rundfunk (Bavarian public radio and television broadcaster) studio that were built in the early 1960s. Here works a man who loves to tinkers with sounds. A man who doesn't simply produce canned electronic music, but who creates his own alchemistic arrangements.
Brachtel's musical genesis is partly typical: His father was a cellist with the Bayerischer Rundfunk radio orchestra; and the cello was the first instrument Brachtel learned to play. Even as a child, he regularly played in chamber music. He then learned to play the piano, but most importantly: the guitar. "I learned the classical repertoire from the cradle up. From there, it was only a tiny step up to jazz," he says. He studied jazz guitar first in Munich, then at the renowned Bruckner Conservatory in Linz. Improvisation, which he learned through jazz, remains one of his musical anchors today. But by his mid-20s, Brachtel had suddenly had enough of the sounds jazz improvisation. "It would always be my musical heritage, but I'd somehow had enough of the grey beards that defined the audience," he says. So he explored the field that was increasingly defining his private life: clubs.
Here works a man who loves to tinkers with sounds. A man who doesn't simply produce canned electronic music, but who creates his own alchemistic arrangements.
"The beauty of electronic dance music is that it has to work," says Brachtel. "There's no half-way house. You have to nail it in a club." But the high functional expectations mean that club music always sounds more monotone, so once a pattern is successful it's constantly copied. But Brachtel is too much of an compositional individualist to ever be satisfied with that. For example the beats, the backbone of all dance music. These days, they are mostly generated by special synthesisers such as the famous Drum Machine Roland TR 909, or from virtual machines that copy these devices. "I much prefer creating beats and sounds with different synthesisers that weren't specifically designed for the purpose. Or bringing in real drums or to tinker with everyday noises."
That's what Brachtel is working towards - it's standard in electronic dance music, with samples, or using sound material that already exists. But here too, he's unique. He produced one of his biggest scene hits with his project 'Tambien' on which he collaborated with the two Munich artists Valentino Betz and Marvin Schumann: 'Compagnia'. Over a driving, highly monotonous and yet bouncing beat, you can hear the droning, aggressive song of South Italian washer women that the musicians found on an obscure old record. It sounds so crazy, so eerily excessive, that the track immediately sounds like a sonic exclamation mark in every club it's played in. Mechanical, repetitive and yet vibrant: such is the stamp of Brachtel's club music – which is played at clubs from Tokyo to L.A.
But just as he once felt restricted by jazz, he reached a point where it was no longer enough for him. So a few years ago he returned to the field that he'd left at the age of 12 when household chamber concerts had become boring: classical music. "The name in itself is a problem," he says. "Classical is a historical era, but 'new music' is clearly defined too. And you really don't want to use the term 'serious music'. He deals with it by saying he composes "for classical musicians."
"The beauty of electronic dance music is that it has to work."
Amongst others he composed four music theatre productions for the Bayerische Staatsoper (opera). Three of these pieces formed part of a cycle: together with the director Jessica Glause, Brachtel worked with young refugees, getting them to tell their own version of Genesis, which occurs in Judaism, Islam and Christianity. The music he created for it was linked to existing works of the classical repertoire, such as Haydn's "Creation". The result was a thickly woven carpet of sound, in part classical and harmonious, yet consistently transitioning into suspended atmospheres and atonal banging. The critics were impressed, even the “New York Times“ reported. In other pieces, Brachtel explored the possibilities of orchestral music today.
He took his biggest step into uncharted territory to-date with his piece 'Catarsi', a transcription of Beethoven's Fidelio, also written for the Bayerische Staatsoper. For this piece, he arranged 50 speakers and 9 bass loudspeakers in the rooms of the Postpalast at the Hackerbrücke. Visitors wandered though a vibrant, continually morphing sound labyrinth – a 'spatial composition' as this relatively new genre is known. That's typical of Brachtel's approach. "I want to hear something new, whether on the dance floor or from an orchestra," he says.
"I want to hear something new, whether on the dance floor or from an orchestra."
Which for his piece in Cologne meant twelve-tone music: Melodic sequences, that are a long way from any harmony that can we simply whistle to ourselves. Brachtel sits at his Studer, an enormous Swiss mixing desk, and opens a program on the computer. "My cousin is good at coding music programs," he explains. "I asked him to write an algorithm for me to translate conventional sound sequences into twelve-tone music. He replaces sounds that would be repeated in a melody with different sounds." Brachtel spent the last year ploughing through music theory and reading the definitive works of Schönberg, Berg and Webern.
And now the moment has arrived: he's trying out the algorithm for the first time. It won't do the composing for him, but rather churn out twelve-tone material that Brachtel then works further on. For his first trial, he chooses something conceivably pleasing: Mozart's 'Eine Kleine Nachtmusik'. While he is putting the data for this in his computer, guests from the weekend come into the studio and dismantle the huge set. A quick hello – the party animals are used to seeing Brachtel sitting at his mixing desk among his 24 keyboards.
And then it's time. Brachtel first sets 'Eine Kleine Nachtmusik' tootling along. Then the algorithm gets to work and suddenly, a piece can be heard from the speakers that has the same rhythm, the same speed and the same temperature of tone as Mozart's popular tune – but which relates to the original in the same way as Mr Hyde to Dr Jeckyll. Somehow misshapen, weird and one thing for certain: completely different and new. Brachtel is as thrilled as a researcher at the end of a successful experiment. Or rather: as happy as a youngster whose magic trick has worked. And then he plays the passage again, this time at full volume on his 60-year-old monster speakers.