I chose to do an alternative Berlin tour because, well, I’m an alternative kind of person, and I was delighted to discover that our guide was a trapeze artist who had come to Berlin at 15 and joined the circus. She was a street art enthusiast and took us to hidden alleyways and quiet corners of the city to showcase the work of the artists and tell us stories of their style, method and the risk involved.
We hopped over from Mitte to Kreuzberg on the metro to roam the streets learning about the Turkish community, the impact of the wall here and the gentrification threatening the soul and people of the area. We learnt about protests and riots and the uncoolness of social media – many bars and clubs in Berlin ban photography and promotion is only through word-of-mouth.
We found a home built around a tree in a strip of land that was neither east nor west Germany when the Berlin wall was still standing. A local man claimed the land, fought the authorities and was eventually allowed to keep it. He’s now in his 90s and sits outside in the summer chatting to anyone who wants to know more.
The tour ended by the East Side Gallery where my friend Bekki and I had ended up the day before too.
Next to the gallery is an afro-caribbean beach bar with sand, deck chairs, reggae music, great food and all set up as a non-profit organisation to benefit the community. We were surprised to find loads of people relaxing there in the sun or sitting on the edge of the river dangling their legs over and drinking Berliner beer, despite it being early afternoon on a week day. There are many freelancers in Berlin so it feels less rushed and frantic than London – people simply enjoy the present moment here.
Three years ago I had a transformative experience in Rough Trade East record shop on Brick Lane. Placed on a listening post was a CD called Felt by a German pianist called Nils Frahm. I liked the album cover but it was the description that drew me closer. It described how he dampened the sound by layering thick felt in front of the strings so he could play in the dead of night without disturbing anybody, and how he placed microphones inside and could only hear what he was playing through headphones. It said the only way you should listen to this album is with headphones.
I put on the headphones, turned up the volume and was transported to Frahm’s attic in the silent night. Every sound from the birds outside at dawn to the creaking of the piano stool to Frahm’s deep relaxed breaths appear throughout the album, along with the ambient melodies captured from the heart of the piano. I wasn’t in the record shop anymore, I had been transported away.
When I removed the headphones a wall of noise and chatter hit me from the outside world and I felt as if I’d discovered a magical secret. The final track ‘More’ would stay with me for years to come.
Fast forward to the present day and the reason I find myself in Berlin; Nils Frahm live at the Berlin Philharmonic. Set up with two pianos, two keyboards and a collection of devices and dials that warp and loop sound, he starts with an electronic track creating vibrations that leap out of centre stage and into our bodies, making us feel connected to the song.
He plays a piano and keyboard simultaneously, each one having a purpose and sound of its own. The grand piano with its lid removed takes centre stage during ‘Toilet Brushes’, a masterpiece beginning with Frahm using toilet brushes as percussion instruments on the open strings of the grand. Around three quarters of the way through the long piece there’s a sudden but palpable build up to a sweeping break of notes so perfect it gives me chills. I know it’s coming, and the anticipation is as powerful as the break itself.
His set is varied – pure piano melodies, then electronic sounds, then a mix of both as he glides around the stage adding notes and loops, building up the layers of sound and balancing all the elements to make something really special. It feels like he’s a pioneer and a genius. To hear the melodies I know and love, and to be able to see how he experiments with sound right in front of me in a place designed to give everyone the best sound experience possible is something I’ll never forget.