A Berlin Playlist

Wyndham Wallace presents a considered selection of Berlin-themed music…

With parks and leafy squares scattered throughout the city, broad, tree-lined streets and children’s playgrounds on every second corner, Berlin is uniquely spacious and green for a capital city. Yet it’s still a major metropolis with all the associated hustle and bustle, and sometimes it takes real effort to close the door and allow oneself to escape from the daily grind.

One thing that always helps us unwind at Slow Travel Berlin is music. The city has long been a Mecca for musicians—both resident and itinerant—and a slew of songs exist that have been inspired (directly or indirectly) by what they’ve seen and experienced here. We thought we’d throw together a few albums that might help get our readers through the darker, colder months…

Arvo Pärt: Berliner Messe

Pärt has earned something of a cult reputation over the last decade, with countless musicians from all schools offering their praise, in particular for the minimalist beauty of compositions like ‘Spiegel Und Spiegel’—written (it’s sometimes amusing to reflect) only one year after the Sex Pistols released what was pretty much its musical antithesis, Never Mind The Bollocks. Not only did the Estonian composer live here in the 1980s, he devoted this beautiful choral mass, meditative and spiritual music at its finest, to the city.

Tangerine Dream: Phaedra

Tangerine Dream’s seminal 1974 work is widely credited as having provided the cornerstone for what became known as the ‘Berlin School’—an ambient wing of the Krautrock sound. Employing what was soon to become their signature, the sound of an early sequencer—one so delicate that its tone can be heard to rise due to changes in the studio’s temperature—its four tracks might easily be dismissed as ‘hippy nonsense’ by those more accustomed to three minute pop melodies. But this album, their first for Richard Branson’s Virgin Records, helped change the face of electronic composition, inadvertently gave birth to New Age Music, and its pastoral, undulating arpeggios are soothingly hypnotic.

Thomas Fehlmann: Gute Luft

Berlin veteran and electronic music innovator Thomas Fehlmann’s soundtrack to 2009’s TV documentary 24h Berlin was here reduced to an hour for the purposes of the album format. It saw Fehlmann revisit some of his older work as well as continuing to justify his pioneer status. Full of twinkling sounds, muffled beats and hushed tones, this bright mix of minimalist techno and top-drawer ambience makes for a great night in, whilst still allowing one to feel loyal to Berlin as a home for electronic party music—even though the party sometimes sounds like it’s coming from a nearby street.

Robert Henke: Fragment Endlos

Robert Henke is a software engineer whose musical partner in Monolake, Gerhard Behles, helped found Ableton software, one of the world’s most reputable music software companies. Henke himself helped develop Ableton Live, but his work, often audio-visual, is full of primitive beauty. His working method is similar to Brian Eno’s Discreet Music, with loops drifting infinitely amongst one another like ripples on a pond. The thirty minute ‘Fragment Endlos’, recorded in Prenzlauer Berg a short time after the fall of The Wall, leans on Eno’s collaboration with Harold Budd, The Pearl, with treated piano floating amidst found sounds—1992 recordings of Berlin’s S-Bahn, for example—echoing in the background.

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Philip Glass: Symphony No. 4 Heroes

American composer Glass—whose first symphony was inspired by David Bowie’s Low—returned to Bowie in 1996 for this six-part journey through the dark heart of The Thin White Duke’s 1977 follow-up, Heroes. Though these arguably get a little lively for undisturbed contemplation, the manner in which ‘Abdulmajid’ swells and diminishes, the mini-drama at the heart of his deconstruction of ‘V2 Schneider’ and the triumph almost tangible in his rebuilt title track make this something of an, albeit disputed, modern classic. Without Bowie’s glance at Tony Visconti embracing his lover, backing vocalist Antonia Maaß, in the shadow of the Berlin Wall close to Hansa Studios, perhaps there’d be no Heroes. Berlin: you are our inspiration.

Rhythm & Sound: w/The Artists

Rhythm & Sound are legendary Berlin-based producers Mark Ernestus and Moritz von Oswald, better known as dub-techno progenitors Basic Channel. R&S is their dub project, and this album collects a string of their seminal releases featuring serious heavyweight vocal talent like Cornel Campbell, Paul St. Hilaire, Shalom, The Chosen Brothers, Love Joy, Jennifer Lara and Jah Batta—all voiced in Berlin, New York and Jamaica. Dub fans should also check out The Versions, an instrumentals / versions companion record released simultaneously. Seriously atmospheric.

To Rococo Rot: The Amateur View

Recorded by Berlin-based brothers Robert and Ronald Lippok (alongside Düsseldorf’s Stefan Schneider), partially in Hamburg and partially at Calyx’s Berlin mastering studio (arguably one of the world’s finest), this is a high point of Berlin non-club electronica. The trio’s intellectual leanings are hinted at in a palindromic name that also reflects the cyclical nature of the music: Moebius loops of simple melody underpinned by Schneider’s warm basslines and Ronald Lippok’s fragile percussion. ‘Telema’ is the sound of robots blushing, and ‘Die Dinge Des Lebens’ is so beautiful Björk sampled it (though she soon discovered To Rococo Rot themselves had lifted a crucial phrase). Simply put, this is the intimate sound of Blade Runner’s replicants discovering love.

Tracey Thorn: Love And Its Opposite 

The former Everything But The Girl singer, also a contributor to some of Massive Attack’s finest moments, recorded and mixed much of 2010’s magical and often painfully honest exploration of relationships and breakups in Prenzlauer Berg.

Her producer, Ewan Pearson, has been based in Berlin for many years, and though better known by many for his work with electronically-inclined acts and his DJ sets, here showcases Thorn’s mournful but always engaging vocals within bravely delicate acoustic settings.

Quite apart from Thorn’s own songs—and ‘Oh The Divorces’ and ‘Swimming’ are masterclasses in understatement and beauty—there’s a heartstopping take on the late Lee Hazlewood’s ‘Come On Home To Me’ with Jens Lekmann. Arguably a career highlight for both Pearson and Thorn.

Ulrich Schnauss: A Strangely Isolated Place

While definitely not always mellow, the organic nature of Berlin-based Schnauss’ solo work is all enveloping, thoroughly calming and very much a one man show. A Strangely Isolated Place was his second album, and could be defined as a twenty-first-century update of Tangerine Dream’s template that integrated club culture comedowns into the ambience. Though he picks up the pace on tracks like ‘On My Own’, such are the textures and sounds he uses throughout this symphonic electronica that it’s like being cocooned.

Nils Frahm: The Bells

Though born in Hamburg, Berlin is where Slow Travel Berlin favourite Nils Frahm now resides and where he’s set up his own Durton Studios. The pianist is part of a rapidly developing scene that has seen the world of classical brought to a new, pop music informed audience by the likes of Johann Johannsson (RIP), Olafur Arnalds and fellow Berliner (though actually an American) Peter Broderick.

Broderick co-produced this stunning collection of solo improvisations that, while owing a debt to the likes of Erik Satie and Arvo Pärt, remains entirely uncompromising and confirms that Berlin should be proud to call Frahm her own.

Richard Strauss: Vier Letzte Lieder

Only twenty-five minutes long, these final compositions of Richard Strauss, written so close to his 1948 death at eighty-four that he never heard them performed, are achingly beautiful, focusing on soprano vocal and prominent brass parts within the orchestra, mirroring his marriage to a singer and his father Franz’s favourite instrument, the horn.

In 1883, at the age of nineteen, he left Munich University to assist conductor Hans Von Bülow in Berlin, and later he became the conductor of the city’s Royal Court Opera, his influence so significant that a Grunewald street is named after him. While these four last songs may not be directly connected to his experiences in Berlin, they’re so startling for their measured expression of serene acceptance that they should be compulsory listening for anyone looking to find time for reflection.

David Bowie: Low

Though this is considered the first of Bowie’s ‘Berlin Trilogy’ (alongside Heroes and Lodger) it was actually only mixed in Berlin, at the legendary Hansa Studios. Its mood, however, makes it very much a part of that era in Bowie’s career.

Be warned that, if you’re trying to relax, it’s perhaps best to skip the first side: the cocaine paranoia of, for instance, ‘Always Crashing In The Same Car’ isn’t going to help anyone unwind. It’s the second side that confirms its right to a place on this list. Tracks like ‘Warszawa’ and ‘Subterraneans’ may be sometimes unsettling, but they’re also entirely absorbing, capable of transporting listeners to new worlds. And they always say that a change is as good as a rest.

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