In Berghain with Joshua Fineberg
The bar exuded a greenish, fluorescent light. Joshua Fineberg stood outside smoking a cigarette. Recently, two people had told me that Fineberg, one of the most important living Spectralist composers alongside Tristan Murail, and a tenured professor at Boston University, had moved to Berlin and begun frequenting the city’s famous clubs. They suggested to me that something big had changed. I’d known Fineberg’s sophisticated compositions for a while, and wanted to find out what exactly that was.
On a warm night, we met up with the intention of going to a club together. We had a drink first at a Kreuzberg spot called Möbel Olfe. Fineberg wore a black sweater and black jeans. We shook hands and entered. “What would you like to drink?” I asked. “A vodka apple,” he said. I went to the bar, ordered his drink and a vodka tonic for me, and joined him where he was standing, next to the women’s bathroom. We sipped our drinks through our straws.
From the moment we began emailing, it was clear that we would end up in Berghain, the most imposing icon of Berlin’s nightlife, at some point that early morning. Because Berghain is traditionally a gay club, I was curious to find out if Fineberg had come out. He hasn’t: he’s straight, but realizes that to many outside of his scene in Berlin, his whole lifestyle could seem influenced by queerness. Soon, we moved onto another topic: the effect of the club itself. “The light, the color, the people, the drugs, the environment…no Wagner opera has that impact,” Fineberg said. The dramaturgy of Berghain is unparalleled “if you view an art experience as a sort of consensual manipulation, where you allow another group of people to manipulate your senses.”
It was loud, and we decided that we would leave the bar early, to arrive in time for the opening act at Berghain, at midnight. We stepped outside onto the street. After struggling a bit with the breeze, Fineberg lit another cigarette, and began to talk about the musical issues that had been on his mind since coming here, in the summer of 2015. “What we do in music classes is like if in literature we talked about grammar all day…What you’re going for in music isn’t expression, it’s evocation. Music draws powerful things out of you; it doesn’t transmit powerful things to you. It’s too abstract for that.”
The subway rattled above us. I asked Fineberg whether these thoughts indicated a change to his aesthetic that had happened since he moved to Berlin. But the process had started earlier. His opera “Lolita” (2005-2008) was a first attempt to “think of art as an explicitly fictional space, and use that fictionality to make it more resonant,” he said. In Nabokov’s novel, the character of Humbert Humbert manipulates readers, who become aware of their identification with a monster. Nabokov goes on to taunt the readers by having his narrator acknowledge how manipulated they’re feeling. In Fineberg’s opera, he adds another layer: a video of an actor reciting some of Humbert’s lines is displayed as the middle of three screens, which puts his psychology up for perusal like a painting in a gallery. The other screens show images such as swamp and mountain landscapes, a highway, a large house with fences, greenish fluorescent lights, as the music almost bounces.
A second transitional influence was an exhibition of paintings by Pierre Bonnard that Fineberg saw at the Metropolitan Museum, in New York. For Fineberg, Bonnard’s late work, which includes tables or other realistic objects, puts perspective on his usual flat and colorful style, giving it a new, melancholy force. “That flatness,” he said, was really “an inability to engage with people.” In “Still Life with Flowers or the Venus of Cyrene” (1930), for example, a table juts jarringly into the rest of the image. It conveys what Dita Amory called “the disquiet aspect: the human presence or absence,” a visceral sense of disconnect.
In 2012, Fineberg wrote a piece for the Arditti String Quartet, with electronics, called “La Quintina.” Based on an ancient form of Sardinian polyphony, he views it as his most successful attempt at “fictionalization” to date. The 20-minute work moves in parallel, Spectral harmonies and tentative lines. The quartet plays with its back to the audience; its sounds are amplified. Similarly, Sardinian vocal groups put their arms around each others’ shoulders, creating overtone-based harmonies that are intimate to them; the result then echoes clearly in the resonant churches in which they sing. The piece was an attempt to translate an abstract sense of that intimacy and resonance to the concert hall.
“La Quintina” was performed in Berlin, a concert which Fineberg attended. “If I’m being honest, I can’t say I realized how important it was going to be at the time,” he said. “But it was a place where I felt the conversations were about real things. Not only about art. But there was a level of humanity to the interactions that I hadn’t realized how much I missed.” In Boston, “you find yourself becoming more of a careerist asshole. Your CV engages with someone else’s CV there,” he went on, as we continued along the dark Skalitzer Straße, a broad avenue in Kreuzberg.
Perhaps because he was missing honest human contact, Fineberg began searching for ecstatic group experiences, ostensibly as research for his art. In early 2015, while visiting family in Birmingham, Alabama, he decided to check out a snake church. He drove up to a small town and asked the pastor for permission to observe the ceremony. During the service, the preacher passed around a real poisonous snake from which members of the congregation were supposed to be protected (Mark 16:18 claims that true believers “will pick up snakes with their hands; and when they drink deadly poison, it will not harm them”).
What struck him more than the novelty, though, was the guided nature of the communal experience. “It was really interesting watching how they took people in a normal state and brought them, over the course of two or three hours, into this powerful ecstatic thing. It was not a perfect experience: it was a little church, with a crappy sound system and no money. But you could see things about it. When they [first] started speaking in tongues, they were doing a rote thing that they did every time. But by the end, there were people who were really overwhelmed. It was amazing to watch this sort of manipulation of the group.”
Before arriving in Berlin, Fineberg knew clubs by what they are associated with nearly everywhere in the world except here: ostentatious consumption; a reinforced version of the normal social hierarchy where status revolves around youth and money; music that is ear-splittingly loud and pointless. When friends who knew his recent work encouraged him to check out a few places in Berlin, he thought he was going solely to do further artistic research for his compositions, and that he’d hate them. Then, on New Years Eve of 2016, he attended a party at a labyrinthine, DIY location called Wilde Renate. “I felt real joy for music,” he said. “I discovered this place where it was crazy powerful.” Soon after, he went to Berghain for the first time. Now, he tries to go at least once a month. For some stretches, he’s there every Sunday.
We crossed the river Spree, walked past the orange brick turrets of the Oberbaumbrücke, and turned into a quiet side street, passing large groups of partygoers. A common part of the Berghain experience for many people is drugs. “It’s clear to me from experiences I and my friends have had that drugs can really alter the way you engage with music profoundly,” Fineberg said. “In a sense they can allow you to turn off all of the analytical mediation that formal training creates and engage with music on a deeper physical and emotional level. This was a way of feeling a musical experience that I had been deeply missing.” He added that at Berghain, it can feel like “the techno gets imprinted on your nervous system.”
We arrived at the end of the long Berghain line and grabbed two beers. “Drei Euro pro Nase,” the vender said. As we came closer to the entrance, Fineberg’s voice grew hushed, almost reverent. “When I first got here, I was in a really dark place in my personal life,” he told me. (He and his second wife recently divorced.) But he got “the sense that art and techno heal.” He said, “I call Berlin the ‘Island of Broken Toys.’ So many people I know ended up here in the wake of some sort of personal trauma, but somehow here we all feel better together.” We were silent. The bouncers waved us in.
On June 3, 2017, Ensemble Dal Niente will perform Fineberg’s latest piece, “take my hand,” for two sopranos, flute, clarinet, horn, percussion, piano, harp, electric guitar, and three strings. The next subject for Fineberg’s work of “fictionalizing” is the kind of communal, transcendental experience of the snake church or Berghain itself. In a way, the new piece is his first attempt to wrestle with the implications of these two experiences, to “plug into the same kind of mechanisms that allow you to get outside yourself.” He is not hoping to achieve a similar effect, exactly: rather, he wants to find a “sweet spot” between the unifying simplicity of techno, and the concert hall, which by design encourages each audience member to have their own disparate experience of listening.
Fineberg allowed me to take a look at the finished score for his new piece. “take my hand” will start with the participants gathering in a bar area to drink colored shots, so that they “hopefully get a little tipsy.” Berghain also starts by putting you in an unusual state: everybody pre-games; the famously difficult door policy caused my heart, at least, to race. Next in Fineberg’s composition, the listeners are blindfolded. “They will be individually led into a big dark room filled with smoke from smoke machines and with irregular strobe lights”—like the purple ones that night in Berghain—by guides, quiet presences who accompany the audience throughout the entire performance. “You perceive everything, and everything you perceive affects everything else you perceive,” Fineberg told me, which is why he has worked through the architecture and setting for his new work so carefully. The introduction to the score includes language for a consent statement: the idea of “consensual manipulation” put into practice.
The texture at the beginning of the composition is soft, indeterminate, breathy, “rustling.” The strings play high flautando pitches, the timbre of high partials. The flute, clarinet, horn, and electric guitar have legato lines with quarter tone intervals and soft leaps. After a time, the instruments separate out into choirs that make more intricate music, in different speeds to one another like, say, “Central Park in the Dark” by Charles Ives. There are two sopranos and violin, at quarter note = 68; flute, clarinet, viola, at quarter note = 94; cello; piano; both at quarter note = 60.
At Berghain during the opening act, Fineberg pointed out to me how the DJ was slowly increasing the tempo: “He started at quarter note = 80, he sped up to quarter note = 90 now, and he’ll gradually increase it to 120.” But the multiple choirs section of “take my hand” has less to do with increasing intensity and more to do with the design of Berghain’s space. It has several rooms with different music and different brands of decadence, which this section of “take my hand,” on an abstract level, attempts to replicate. As the evening wore on and Fineberg’s friends joined him, we separated out between the Panorama Bar, the resting areas, and the main dance floor. Meeting up, then going our own ways again, we looked to shape our own experiences.
During the section with the independent choirs, the blindfolded participants play simple heartbeat rhythms. In Berghain, Fineberg danced with his eyes open, but seemed intensely focused on the music. He wants his listeners to participate, so that “they can’t sit there and try to analyze” his composition. But he knew that trying to force people to dance in a new music concert would only be awkward and ridiculous. He hopes that simple exercises will allow the participants to become sufficiently involved in the artwork to enter a state where they can process increasingly complex sonic textures.
After the various instrumental choirs meet up again in the same tempo, the music reaches a climactic point. The whole ensemble plays loud, brief, staggered microtonal motives of two and three pitches, and single, stabbing attacks. The guides bring the participants to make fortissimo hits on drums. The texture becomes dense with buzzing flutter-tongue and fast runs. The participants are coaxed into finding one another’s rhythms and hitting their drums in unison. The search for communion among listeners derives, too, from Fineberg’s experience at Berghain. The first time he went, he went alone, gradually making friends with whom he would become extremely close. When we were there together, I saw and felt that process: we danced and sweated, smiling at other sweating strangers.
As “take my hand” continues, the density of the texture ebbs and flows. The participants stay involved by making regular phrases in the tempi of their own pulses. Piano and harp pulsate in what I imagine to be pretty, dissonant chords. (A particularly beautiful one is built with a bass B and treble E, G#, A#, and C. I tried it on my keyboard.) “When not playing, engage in occasional rhythmic breathing,” Fineberg tells the woodwinds and the strings, a subtle performance indication to remain engaged. The texture thins out again, pitches are held for longer. There will still be a surprise or two.
“take my hand” ends quietly. The participants are guided from the stage and brought back to the bar. They are given time to recover. Then they stumble out into the night.
Around 6 a.m., Fineberg texted me that he and his friend were outside Berghain. I stumbled out into the bright sunlight. We sat on some rocks and he smoked a final cigarette. We talked a little bit more about “take my hand,” his hopes for and doubts about the piece. We separated, and Fineberg and his friend grabbed a cab. They returned later that evening and ended up staying until Monday morning at 10 a.m.
It made sense why he’d want to leave and return. To me, Fineberg repeatedly mentioned the dramatic design of Berghain’s space. He praised the architects and the light designers, saying they were artists as important as the DJs. He talked about the club’s main staircase, which is metal, narrow and quite high, and which magnifies the wide, high-ceilinged grandeur of the dance floor. Earlier, Fineberg had said that in his art he wants to manipulate people’s “internal states.” I think that night, like most nights, that’s what Berghain did to him. Arriving at the club and ascending to the main dance area, “people become different than they were two floors down,” he told me.
Another thing Fineberg mentioned repeatedly was how he felt an almost physical distance between the way he is now and the way he was before he moved to Berlin. Success in his career and teaching have become less important to him; making art and having arts experiences have become more essential. If that means he’s having a midlife crisis, he comes by it honestly. Now 47, he’s been teaching composition and working in musical academia since his late 20s, with all the cynicism that can imply.
The final thing that kept coming up that night and morning was a phrase. Fineberg used the formulation that, when going from “narrow dark transition spaces” into the wider, higher ones in the Berghain architecture, he had been “born out” or “born up” into the open. He meant that language as a specific depiction of the club’s dramaturgical design. It called to mind something deeper: an expression Fineberg didn’t use, but that seemed apt. Maybe he was born again. ¶