Thomas Fehlmann and Gudrun Gut on the Birth of Berlin Techno and Life Beyond the Wall

The seasoned electronic veterans talk to us about four decades of flux in the German capital, and the project that's inspired their rare collaboration.

Berlin’s past speaks volumes. But the anti-establishment, ever-evolving city we all know and love is best understood through its dynamic musical history — from Krautrock and post-punk, through to the industrial techno that’s established the city as European’s clubbing capital. Understanding the music of Berlin is essential to understanding the constant churn of trends and scenes; and so “Symphony of Now” came to be. “Symphony of Now” is a documentary delving deep into the city’s out of hours scene. Scored by a string of Frank Wiedemann’s chosen collaborators, including Alex.Do, Modeselektor and Hans-Joachim Rodelius, the Audi Zeitgeist film traces the impact of four decades’ worth of musical influences on the city. It also sheds a light on the global fascination with Berlin as a musical utopia, where influential artists like Thomas Fehlmann and Gudrun Gut are regular fixtures.

The two artists are seasoned veterans of Berlin’s underground music industry. Fehlmann’s career spans three decades, in which he’s worked tirelessly as one half of The Orb and a third of the notorious 3MB (together with Moritz von Oswald and Juan Atkins), which solidified the pivotal Berlin-Detroit connection. Gudrun Gut is a seminal figure in Berlin’s alternative music scene and the self-crowned labelhead of two experimental imprints. The prolific Monika Enterprise is named after her late goldfish who committed suicide in her private aquarium, may she rest in peace.

On a typically grey Monday in Berlin, we caught up with Fehlmann and Gut to reflect and reminisce in the city’s one-of-a-kind musical identity and how it plays out in “Symphony of Now”.

So, how did you get involved with the project Symphony of Now?

Thomas Fehlmann: Well, it all happened at Sacred Ground Festival in Uckermark which Frank [Wiedemann] curated, and he invited me to play. The second I arrived, he proposed this project to us. From the beginning, he was keen on having both of us involved, because we very rarely work together. I felt this might be a good opportunity to make an exception.

Gudrun Gut: Yes, that was kind of interesting for me as well, because we used to work together on a radio show. But for years, we’ve both only done our solo projects or other projects — we actually never do things together. So this was an opportunity to do that.

So I guess that’s why the project appealed to you so much. What did Frank tell you about the film when he first asked you about it?

TF: That it was basically rooted on “Die Sinfonie der Großstadt” of the ’20s, and that it was going to be a reshooting of that. Obviously, this was going to be a tricky thing to do, because the original is such a masterpiece.

GG: The idea was re-conceived by filming during the night — because when they did the original, they didn’t have these high resolution cameras to film at night. And that’s where we came in as well, because we’re working in the night-time field of the city. So it really appealed to us. And for me especially, because I knew the movie from my teenage days and I really liked it.

What was your approach to soundtracking the film? Was everyone working together, or just both of you with Frank?

GG: Actually, the idea was that we write the music to the old movie. It’s a really original idea. The movie is divided into five acts…

TF: Yeah, we laid the soundtrack to act number three.

GG: We had a time of about 10 minutes, I think, and we worked the music to the old movie. So the new director wanted to cut the movie to the music — it’s music based.

TF: Normally it’s the other way around — you know, music made to the images. I think Frank’s idea was to choose five collaborative partners, very diverse in their rooting, and he would be the missing link that would bring us all together. He obviously saw a possible connection between all five of his collaborative partners. And I think that was the route he went down to get the whole production going.

It’s a really interesting premise. Have you ever done something like this before?

GG: We’ve never really had a project like this, so it’s really cool.

TF: I saw a couple of collaborations when old silent movies were newly interpreted with a live musical set-up. Especially in the ’90s actually, where the music was improvised live.

GG: Yeah, I think, especially for silent movies, they do this quite often. But on this project, the difference was that we actually composed the music before. You know, it’s kind of a real collaboration with the pictures.

That’s similar to what you’ll be doing at the premiere then — live scoring alongside the film. That sounds like it’s going to be quite special event.

TF: Oh, yeah.

“Symphony of Now” explores Berlin by night and the hidden gems of the city. What would you say are your favourite lesser-known spots in the city? Are there any hidden gems to be discovered still?

GG: Yeah (laughs), but I won’t tell you.

TF: I think the joy about Berlin is that everybody has their own very personal spots in the city. That’s what makes it all exciting and kind of sparkling, you know. To be honest, I don’t think it’s a good thing to highlight a certain area, or certain spot. Hopefully this is covered in the movie, and what makes it worthwhile.

GG: I think that the city changes so much, there’s always something to discover.

Of course. How long have you both been living in Berlin?

GG: Oh, I moved here in 1975!

Wow! So you’ve seen it changed a lot then.

GG: Oh, yeah, yeah.

TF: Yeah, I came to Berlin in ’84.

What would you say then are the main changes that you’ve witnessed?

GG: Well, the Wall coming down.

TF: Yeah, but you know, the Wall coming down — that’s the thing you mention as a moment. But what happened is the city suddenly doubled in size. It’s more like the social, philosophical thing about the city suddenly doubling in size, giving people access to areas which were always forbidden. For example, the two of us went and sat in the countryside which was previously in East Germany, and we never had the chance to go there before.

That’s crazy.

TF: It’s suddenly an explosion in your head. Even thinking back, this morning I was actually thinking that the very evening of the Wall coming down, there was a party at the UFO club, which was an early version of Tresor, it was also run by Dimitri. You know, it was planned to be a single evening, starting, you know, at 11, going until 4 or 5, but it actually went for three, four days non-stop. That was, you know, in disconnection with this very special event. But it was also the first mark of what we call these days “Berlin techno”.

That must have been amazing to be able to witness that, and be a part of that. In what ways would you say the music industry has changed the most?

TF: In those days, one thing you have to think about is that music from Germany, and music from Berlin, had no value internationally. There was no such thing as a big music scene. It started out as little flowers in the wall, you know. Just bit by bit, these production teams started to come up. It’s hard to imagine that European music wasn’t really valued as what it is today. That was really a development which was very much rooted in this Berlin techno scene. It got more levelled with records from England and America, and France, and Finland. Suddenly we had the same kind of value, and it wasn’t only kind of second-rate thing.

What else have you been working on alongside “Symphony of Now”? What have you got forthcoming in 2018?

GG: We’re actually both working on our new albums separately, so this is kind of strange. It’s the first time we have been working in parallel. So, he plays me stuff, I play him stuff sometimes. That’s what we’re doing now, actually.

TF: I did a collaboration with a DJ and musician from Detroit, and this will be my next release — the album we did together, which is coming out on Tresor in April.


GG: I have a record label Monika Enterprises, and Moabit Musik — two labels actually. We have album coming out there from Sonae, an ambient artist from Cologne, which is just getting pressed and will be out in April sometime.

“Symphony of Now”, an Audi Zeitgeist project, has its public previews on 15th and 16th February at a secret location in Berlin.

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